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In His Searing Memoir ‘A Very Private School’, Charles Spencer Recounts Harrowing Abuse

Read an excerpt from the book, where Diana’s 59-year-old brother, the 9th Earl Spencer, likens his boarding-school days to 'The Lord of the Flies' / BY Rosemary Counter / March 21st, 2024

Charles Spencer may be renowned as the little brother of Diana, Princess of Wales, but the Oxford history major has had a distinguished career as a journalist for NBC News, a History Channel host and the author of eight non-fiction history books.

The first told the story of Althorp, the palatial, 5,300-hectare estate he inherited in 1992, where Spencers have lived since 1508 and Diana is buried, while the second explored his aristocratic family’s roots, which is rife with monied barons, viscounts and earls. His father John Spencer was once equerry to both King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II, and the family lived at Park House on the Sandringham estate – where Diana was born in 1961 and their mother, Frances Shand Kidd, abandoned them in 1967 – before Charles and his sisters Diana, Sarah and Jane moved back to Althorp House in 1975 when John became the 8th Earl.  

Now the man known for lambasting the tabloid press in a scathing eulogy at Diana’s 1997 funeral is taking aim at Maidwell Hall, the elite private boarding school in Northampton he attended between eight and 13. In his memoir, A Very Private School, Spencer also questions the upper-crust tradition of sending vulnerable boys away from home in their formative years. “Innocence, trust, joy — all were trampled on and dismissed in that outdated, snobbish, vicious little world that English high society constructed, endorsed and then handed over to the care of people who could be very dangerous indeed.”


Charles Spencer
Charles, 8, and Diana, 11, seated on her brother’s trunk, with their nanny, Mary Clarke, on the day he left for Maidwell Hall. Photo: Courtesy of the author


Spencer was two when his mother left his father for another man, so being dropped off at Maidwell six years later felt like another abandonment. “I was a boy of eight, and I lacked the words or the maturity to express the shocked sense of betrayal that was chewing at me from within,” he writes. 

At 59, he still has “Maidwell nightmares” about bullying he endured from other students, corporal punishment from teachers and the headmaster, as well as sexual abuse from a female staff member. The school, he writes, “was meant to serve as a surrogate home. But it lacked the most important quality of a home: It was without love.”

A Very Private School is being compared to the last royal tell-all, Prince Harry’s Spare, with The Washington Post lumping both into a category they called “posh boy’s misery memoir,” even though Spencer writes that his experience “is not at all comparable with the terrible suffering of so many other children.” The Crown added visuals when the Netflix drama depicted 13-year-old Prince Charles at Gordonstoun in Scotland, which the real-life monarch ostensibly once likened to a prisoner-of-war camp when he famously dubbed it “Colditz in kilts.” 


Charles Spencer


Maidwell, meanwhile, is taking Spencer’s seriously. After he talked about “children being sexually, physically and emotionally abused on a daily basis” in his first interview about the book on NBC, the school vowed to work with authorities on an investigation: “We would encourage anyone with similar experiences to come forward and contact [those officials] or the police,” a spokesperson told NBC.

In his forties, after his second divorce, Spencer sought therapy to find out why he was “attracting partners unsuited to me, and me to them,” assuming “something fixable was wrong with me.” He learned that he had “no understanding of intimacy,” and his childhood trauma made him “highly reactive, so that any slights or threats of abandonment jolted me into ‘fight or flight’ survival mode.”

It wasn’t until one of Spencer’s schoolmates revealed his abuse at Maidwell, which he had kept secret for nearly 50 years, that the journalist felt compelled to speak out. “I set down my notebook, declaring that what he’d told me was too terrible to be committed to the page,” he writes.” I promised that I would never betray his confidences by naming him in this book, or by disclosing the breadth or detail of his suffering. At this he became animated for the first time and leaned forward. “But someone has to tell our story!” he pleaded.” 

Spencer interviewed two dozen former students about their experiences at Maidwell, and consulted his diaries, letters home and school records to inform an unapologetic takedown of Maidwell Hall and the all-boys boarding-school system.

In the following excerpt from Chapter 10, Spencer describes how the headmaster’s cruelty trickled down to students in an environment the author likens to William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies.

“Name-calling had become so normalized by the headmaster that it blossomed throughout the school. Boys who were slow in thought-processing would be mocked by teachers and pupils for being “schtum! ”– the German word for silent, adapted to denote an unfathomable depth of stupidity. The wielder of this insult would smack the side of his own face hard, indicating that the boy he was taunting required a slap to the head to put his brain into gear. 

Equally, when one Maidwell boy wanted to revel in the misfortune of another, he’d push his tongue down between his bottom front teeth and his lower lip, forming a frog-like bulge, while making a singsong sound of derision. This was how a pupil gloated at another for getting into trouble, or for suffering disappointment. It was schoolboy schadenfreude, with an added twist of Maidwell spite. 

Physical bullying also coursed through the school. No teachers ever ventured into the bogs, and a prefect oversaw good order there only during the twenty minutes after breakfast. The rest of the time there remained a free-for-all, and you had to keep your wits about you when in this grisly place of ablution. 


Spencer on ‘Sports Day’ at Maidwell Hall, which he said was devoid of love and full of terror. Photo: Courtesy of the author


Some boys snuck up behind you while you were peeing at the urinal, before shoving you with all their might. Caught off guard, you could easily stumble, with your neck snapping back at the force of the push, so you went feet-first into the sluice where urine sloshed and gurgled. 

You were similarly vulnerable when seated on the loo. Some boys liked to climb silently onto the loo seat in the adjacent booth, so they could reach across and pull your chain hard, when you were least expecting it. The water below you churned up, splattering your buttocks with whatever swilled in the bowl. 

The same bullies could also come crashing into your loo with a high kick, since the doors had no lock. They whooped as they pointed in derision at their mortified victim, seated with his trousers around his ankles. 

The meaner pupils also enjoyed baiting boys who had short tempers. Robert Tichborne, a senior when I joined Maidwell, remembers how he navigated his way through his five years by learning “to fight both the fear and the iciness every day.” But his very first day at the school offered a particular challenge, which set the tone for the rest of his time there. 

When Robert’s parents dropped him at Maidwell as a new boy, it was obvious that his father had physical disabilities. These stemmed from childhood polio. On spotting this, one of the more powerful and popular boys in the school teased Robert by imitating his father’s movements. Robert was so livid that he attacked with all the force that he—an eight-year-old—could muster. “It was homicidal fury,” he says, and it took three members of staff to pull him off. 

But this vivid display of temper caught the eyes of the crueler boys. They made a habit of picking on him, hoping to provoke another tantrum for their amusement: In Maidwell terminology, this provocation was “razzing up.” “My nightmare place,” says Robert, “was the Uppers [dormitory]. It was out of the way, so more could be done there with impunity. I was teased a lot. [The Uppers’ boys] were in large numbers, and they thought they could get away with it.” And they did, because Maidwell was a place where intimidation flourished, from the headmaster down. “Bullying was expected to happen,” Robert recalls. 

He received the nickname “Bertie,” said in a slow drawl that was meant to denote that Robert was stupid, and it was picked up and casually used by Maidwell’s teachers, too. Robert hated being mocked, and he loathed the school: “It was terrible. It was a very dark place.” He was so traumatized by the bullying he suffered there that, when he looks back on his Maidwell years now, he says he sees them only in black and white. Color was reserved for his memories of time at home. 

Gregory North was another with a hot temper, He was so famously explosive that his school nickname was “Sparky.” We younger boys would watch from afar, too scared of his aggressors to rescue him, as he was subjected to a twentieth-century equivalent of bearbaiting. 

Gregory would start by trying to ignore the taunting, before realizing that it wasn’t going to go away. A sad smile would play on his face, when he recognized what he was in for, and then he’d blink hard, as his emotional control ebbed away and tears welled up. 

When his tormentors ran at him or shoved him, Gregory would lash out at them with flat, flailing, hands: He kept his fingernails long and sharp, for use as defensive weapons. While he often succeeded in drawing blood, the bullies never stopped coming for him. His time at Maidwell must have been nightmarish, and I feel terrible now for not having done more to help him. 

With the bullies holding such sway, Maidwell echoed Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s novel about a group of boys alone on an island, without adults, where order disintegrates catastrophically. “The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away,” the author noted, as the more toxic boys fanned the anarchy. 

Given the everyday nastiness of [headmaster] Jack’s Maidwell, and the chaotic undertone that it lent the school, I suppose it was easy for Maleficent to slip in, unseen.” 

Copyright © 2024 by Charles Spencer. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information, address Gallery Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. First Gallery Books hardcover edition March 2024.



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