Viscount Spencer, nephew of Princess Diana, has become the reluctant poster boy for male primogeniture, Hannah Betts reports.
He has film-star good looks, has been hailed as Prince "Harry lite", and has hung out with Nicki Minaj.
Our hero is also a nephew of one of the most famous women in the world, and set to inherit a 5500ha estate that has been in his family for 19 generations. Despite this, no one — seasoned royal watchers included — appears to know much about Louis Spencer, Viscount Althorp. And that's just how this concertedly private man wants it.
So who is Diana, Princess of Wales' 27-year-old nephew, and how did he become the latest symbol of a system that many see as a sexist anachronism requiring change?
Louis Spencer was born on March 14, 1994, fourth child to Diana's brother, Charles, 9th Earl Spencer, and his first wife Victoria Lockwood (Prince Harry was a page boy at their wedding).
Young Louis was not brought up in Britain. Instead, a year after he was born, his parents moved Louis, oldest sister Kitty, and twins Eliza and Amelia to Cape Town, seeking privacy.
His mother remained there after the pair divorced, meaning that instead of being educated at Eton or Harrow, — until then traditional for Spencer heirs — Louis attended Diocesan College, known as "Bishops", one of Cape Town's most expensive private schools. It was founded in 1849 on British educational principles, and is celebrated for its string of sporting alumni. Only afterwards did Louis return to Britain as a student at Edinburgh University.
He and his Spencer siblings came to public attention at their cousin Prince William's wedding in April 2011 — Louis a shy-looking 17-year-old, somewhat dwarfed by his three beauteous sisters. His next public "appearance" was four years later, when a photo of him popped up on rapper Nicki Minaj's social media feed, of all places. Underneath a backstage snap from her concert, she joked: "Check out our wedding photo". Viscount Althorp looked as chiselled as a male model.
Social media hysteria ensued at Prince Harry's wedding in May 2018 when Louis, now 24 and bearded, was photographed strolling towards St George's Chapel arm-in-arm with his sister Eliza and mother, Victoria, with Kitty strutting her Dolce & Gabbana-ed stuff alongside. With the real McCoy off the market, Louis was declared "Harry Lite". A few months later, Tatler named him one of six of the world's most eligible bachelors, alongside Prince Nikolai of Denmark and Prince Constantine Alexios of Greece.
And now the publicity-shy heir is in the spotlight again, following an interview his sister, Lady Kitty Spencer, gave to Town & Country magazine, in which she talked about male primogeniture and how it means her family estate will automatically pass to him, despite his having three older sisters.
The four siblings appear to be close, with Kitty describing them as "best friends forever" on an Instagram 'throwback' photo last year. When his father was interviewed in 2019, the Earl said: "Louis lives in London. He's an actor at drama school and works incredibly hard and I want him to be able to fulfil his dreams in that direction. It is full on: he's doing 14-hour days."
Louis also seems by all accounts to be dedicated to acting, despite his fortune. Friends respect his privacy, although one is prepared to disclose: "He's super private and gets on quietly with his thing. He's a very talented actor and, I think, will be a brilliant one. He's very low-key and genuine, decent and kind — and tall."
Showbusiness insiders predict a glittering career for him, should he choose one. Jonathan Shalit, chairman of the InterTalent agency, says: "The Americans will love him in particular. He'll get some good roles from his name alone. And he's good looking."
How he'll manage the dual responsibilities of an acting career and managing an estate is anyone's guess, but his father said in 2019 that he was already starting to prepare for taking over, saying: "He has been to trustees' meetings when he can. I don't want to burden him ... It's a lot."
It certainly is. Althorp is a 90-room, 9290sq m Northamptonshire property, boasting not only a portrait gallery, but grounds containing an ornamental lake with the island on which Diana, Princess of Wales, is buried. There are other houses in Northamptonshire, Norfolk and Warwickshire, plus farming, forestry and field sports businesses, property in London and rents coming in at all angles. When the roof had to be fixed, a Christie's "attic sale" of art and furniture raised more than £21 million.
And it is Louis — and Louis alone — who will inherit all this, according to the male primogeniture system that makes him, not his sisters, heir to both estate and earldom. Lady Kitty, 30, states in Town & Country: "Louis will do an incredible job." She also observed: "[Male] primogeniture can be a tricky topic, because as times are changing, attitudes are as well."
Her comments are the latest contribution to the debate over Britain's female heirs — or rather the lack of them. In 2011, the rules of succession to the throne were changed to give equal rights to sons and daughters of any future British monarch. Had the first child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge been a girl, then, even if she had younger brothers, for the first time she would have gone on to become Queen.
And, yet, male primogeniture continues to have an impact on about 2000 peerages and 1200 baronetcies. Downing St is said to be drawing up plans to end what campaigners describe as "state-sponsored sexism".
In 2015, Earl Spencer — who himself inherited the estate at the age of 27 — noted: "I would be totally relaxed about Kitty inheriting it, but ... if I chose Kitty it would be against all the tradition that goes with Althorp."
Charlotte Carew Pole, founder of Daughters' Rights, which campaigns for the removal of sex bias, argues: "It's nonsense to suggest tradition justifies continued discrimination against daughters, an excuse used by people who know that male primogeniture is without intellectual or moral foundation."
Reforming legislation has broad cross-party support in both houses. It may come too late for Kitty Spencer and those like her, but change does appear to be in the offing. Pressure is mounting on the Government to commit to a timetable to bring male primogeniture to an end.
Meanwhile, as Charlotte Carew-Pole makes clear: "Because the Daughters' Rights Bill has an exemption clause for sons who are currently heirs, Viscount Louis will inherit Althorp one day regardless ... we hope he understands the absurdity of his sex making him more suitable for the role than his sister, and will support us in ending this practice, so future generations won't be affected by such archaic laws."
From the little we know about this winningly modern aristocrat, it sounds as if Louis Spencer may be just the man to say that men are not the only ones for the job.
Lady Kitty Spencer, 30
Model who has been ambassador for Bvlgari and walked for Dolce & Gabbana. Before that, she studied history of art and Italian at the University of Cape Town and in Florence.
She is engaged to Michael Lewis, the 62-year-old multimillionaire chair of the Foschini Group, which owns brands such as Whistles. She recalls learning to horse ride and rollerblade in Althorp's grounds.
Lady Eliza Spencer and Lady Amelia Spencer, 28
The middle twin daughters of Earl Spencer both studied in Cape Town. Lady Eliza has been with her partner, Channing Millerd, for four years, and Lady Amelia plans to marry fiance Greg Mallett this year. In their first interview for a Tatler cover, Eliza said she had "very little idea of how significant [her aunt Diana] was in the world until I was much older".
Louis Spencer's first cousin Emily, the eldest daughter of Lady Sarah McCorquodale, Diana's sister, was diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer when she was 19. She made a full recovery and is married to James Hutt, with two children. Her brother, George, is close to his cousins after holidaying with them at Sir Richard Branson's island, Necker.
On her wedding day, their sister Celia wore the Spencer tiara, which Diana wore when she married Prince Charles.
The children of Diana's elder sister, Lady Jane Fellowes, are Laura Pettman (nee Fellowes), Alexander and Eleanor. Laura is godmother to Princess Charlotte and writes fiction under the name Mave Fellowes. Alexander is an investment banker and has two children. Eleanor is thought to work as a probation officer. They are distantly related to the creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, through their father, Robert, who was private secretary to the Queen.