Star of Westminster Abbey falls shamefully to earth

 

What we have witnessed this week, as Charles Spencer, ninth Earl of the name, tries to engineer the divorce deal of the century, is less the revenge of the women than the revenge of the press.

The armour of the white knight who threw down the gauntlet in Westminster Abbey in the name of his dead sister, Diana, was always a little tarnished if you cared to look. But it's surprising what reflected brilliance can do, and with public emotions running high against them, the fourth estate had no option but to bite its collective lip. After the show-stopping performance at the pulpit, where the sharing, caring Spencer family values were offered as Princes William and Harry's only escape from the Windsor strait jacket, Spencer must have thought he was unassailable.

How wrong he was. But was his downfall achieved by flouting the laws of privacy, about which he has so long campaigned? By long lenses? By rooting through dustbins? No. Earl Spencer has got his come-uppance through his own greed and arrogance. The Greeks have a word for it: hubris. The word that best describes the press's emotion is German, schadenfreude - roughly translated as glee.

Had he pursued his divorce in England, the case would have been heard behind closed doors and the lurid details of the "serial adulterer" and "callous husband" would never have made it into newsprint. An English court, however, would have been unlikely to let him get away with the £300,000 he has on the table in South Africa, a sum which counsel for his wife has described as being barely sufficient to get "a house in a very unattractive, distant suburb with problems such as crime". She is asking for £3.75 million.

Yesterday Spencer's counsel offered a more humdrum explanation for the decision to opt for a South African court. It was important the judge trying the case should know the cost of a jar of Marmite in the Cape Town suburb where Countess Spencers now lives. The deal on offer was unprecedented for a wife in South Africa, "particularly where the marriage only lasted five years". Five years, four children and one heir.

The other numbers being bandied around concern his mistresses, said to total 12. The first was Sally Ann Lasson, a newspaper cartoonist, six months into the marriage while his wife was expecting their first child. The dumped Ms Lasson got her revenge on the old-Etonian aristo with a suitably sensational kiss-and-tell story. Spencer squawked foul, but got nowhere when he discovered that libel and the truth don't mix. Surprisingly perhaps, his wife took him back. Not surprisingly, however, the episode hadn't done her ego much good. Before their marriage Victoria Lockwood had been a model. Cocaine, she had been told, would keep her thin. She kept thin. She claims her drug days were over by the time she married, but Spencer's perfidy sent her ricocheting back to addiction. This time drink. Eating disorders set in.

These are now cited by Spencer as the reason the marriage broke down. Also the fact that she cannot be trusted to handle a large sum of money. However, he trusts her enough to have custody of the children.

Charles Spencer himself was the youngest of a family of four with three older sisters, a mirror image of his own family. This is less of a coincidence than might at first appear. In England only a son can inherit a title and what comes with it - in the Spencers' case, Althrop, the family's stately home in Northhamptonshire, its land and its contents. The whole shooting match would otherwise go to some far-flung male cousin. Charles Spencer's mother, nee Frances Roche, endured pregnancy after pregnancy (and humiliation after gynaecological humiliation) until the crucial son was born in 1964. After which she bolted with wallpaper heir Peter Shand Kydd.

It was a pyhrric victory, however, as her powerful husband with his powerful friends succeeded in wresting custody of the children from her - extremely unusual in those days - with disastrous emotional consequences for the two youngest, Diana and Charles.

The pattern was to be repeated more or less exactly by the current Earl and his bride. The waif-like former model went through three pregnancies in four years (the second resulted in girl twins) to give him the son he needed, although she was far from well. Her humiliations at his hands were less gynaecological than psychological. The court was told how the day she emerged from a five-month stay in a rehabilitation clinic he taunted her with tales of his lovers. Once at a party he regaled the assembled company with how his father had told him to stick with his wife through thick and thin. As Charles waggishly pointed out, anyone present who looked at her would agree that "she was thin, and certainly thick".

After son and heir Louis was born, Earl Spencer had no further need for his wife's services, informing her of his decision to end the marriage from the soapy security of his bath. Their move to South Africa in 1996, ostensibly to escape the press, was in reality to be near his then-inamorata, Chantal Colloppy, herself married with two children. Following this week's publication of a love letter from Spencer to Colloppy, those cynical few who doubted that the righteous Earl penned the Westminster Abbey tribute/diatribe himself will have to admit that he does have the gift of the gab. It's a classic: "I feel sorry for Don [Mr Colloppy] and for all six children involved. I never intended to put my children through the hell of a divorce, but I hope these divorces will be more civilised than that of my parents. If I can't learn from their mistakes by avoiding divorce, I can at least prevent the unpleasantness that accompanied it."

As well as describing his wife as "immature, incapable of dealing with a husband with a strong character except by going on hunger strike, an alcohol binge, or resorting to drugs", Charles Spencer has the grace to admit that he has been "a dreadful bully to Victoria. I've been callous and vicious, trying to force her out of my life". To be loved by Colloppy, he said "is the greatest gift I could ask for". She lasted 20 months.

Next week all three parties take the stand.