Why Earl Spencer hired the ‘demon’ lawyer who helped the King divorce Diana

Baroness Shackleton
Shackleton has previously represented Madonna, David Walliams and Sir Paul McCartney - Leon Neal/Getty

When the elite decide to split, they often come to London, and they all call on the services of one woman – if they can get her, that is.

Earl Spencer, 60, is the latest high-profile figure to reportedly hire Baroness Fiona Shackleton, the ‘divorce solicitor supreme’, nicknamed “The Steel Magnolia” for the fierce and fiery core behind her charm and carefully-coiffed blonde hair.

“A courtroom is a barbaric venue in which to pick over the carcass of a failed marriage,” Shackleton once observed, and she should know.

Payne Hicks Beach, her law firm, describes Shackleton’s clients as “significant” and cites her “expert” handling of high-net and ultra-high-net-worth disputes. That’s certainly one way of putting it.

Shackleton, 68, is the choice of royals, A-listers and the super-rich alike. Some of her cases have been high profile –  who could forget a damp Shackleton emerging from the High Court in 2008 after a run-in with a jug of water and Heather Mills (who came away with ‘just’ £24.3m of Sir Paul McCartney’s £400m fortune)?

Others have been more discreet, playing out away from the spotlight. She’s rumoured to have recently negotiated Isla Fisher’s amicable divorce from Sacha Baron Cohen.

With fees of between £700 and £1200 per hour, Spear’s Magazine has described Shackleton as “Britain’s most feared and revered divorce lawyer”, and probably the most expensive. According to Legal 500, she is “a demon negotiator” and “immensely quick-thinking”.

She is also an interesting choice for Spencer, not least because she represented King Charles in his 1996 divorce battle with Spencer’s sister, which saw Princess Diana lose her HRH title. Hiring Shackleton can be a sign that a split is about to get both costly and messy.

Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer and his wife Karen Spencer
Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer and his wife Karen Spencer, pictured here at Prince Harry's wedding, are on the cusp of a potentially acrimonious legal split - Chris Jackson/Getty Images Europe

Spencer’s 13-year marriage to Karen Gordon, a Canadian philanthropist, is understood to have broken down amid the strain of writing A Very Private School, his harrowing memoir about the physical and sexual abuse he suffered at boarding school.

In the book’s acknowledgments, he thanks his wife and family for putting up with him when he was “tetchy and wrung out”.

Notably, he also thanks Dr Cat Jarman and the Rev Richard Coles, the co-hosts “and friends” from his history podcast, Rabbit Hole Detectives.

He said: “I love how we support each others’ many creative projects.”

It has subsequently been reported that Spencer has become close to Jarman. The Norwegian archaeologist and TV presenter is separated from her husband.

The Countess, 52, who was absent from many of Spencer’s book’s promotional activities, recently posted on Instagram that she has been on Vancouver Island, supporting her family after the death of her father.

Spencer is thought to be still living in the family’s Althorp Estate in Northamptonshire – where Diana is buried.

Staff there were informed of the split in April, by email. “It is immensely sad,” Spencer, 60, said of their divorce. ‘I just want to devote myself to all my children, and to my grandchildren, and I wish Karen every happiness in the future.”

Spencer is no stranger to the divorce courts – having split from his first wife Victoria Lockwood, a former model with whom he had four children, in 1997, the same year Diana died.

Earl Spencer with his wife Victoria
Earl Spencer with his first wife Victoria - Mike Forster/Daily Mail/Rex

He remarried in 2001 and went on to have two children with his second wife, Caroline Freud, the former wife of Matthew Freud, the publicist.

However, he filed for divorce when their youngest child was four months old. He reportedly has a strained relationship with some of his children.

The father of seven did not attend the wedding of his daughter Lady Kitty Spencer, nor that of Lady Amelia Spencer.

But however knotty his latest split gets, Shackleton has surely seen it all. Her client list covers star names from a variety of industries.

She represented Madonna in her divorce from Guy Ritchie, Liam Gallagher in his divorce from Nicole Appleton, and David Walliams when he split from model Lara Stone.

She’s gone into battle for Prince Andrew during his split from Sarah, Duchess of York, as well as Stephen Hawking, Norman Foster and Claire Merry, the former wife of French footballer Thierry Henry.

Baroness Fiona Shackleton
'Quick-thinking' Baroness Fiona Shackleton specialises in ultra-high-net-worth disputes - Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty

She fought for Princess Haya in her acrimonious custody battle with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum of the United Arab Emirates.

She also represented Tatiana Akhmedova, former wife of the Russian energy billionaire Farkhad Akhmedov, in the UK’s biggest divorce settlement in 2016. Akhmedova was awarded £453million in court.

In 2010, Queen Elizabeth II made Shackleton a life peer, giving her the title Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia. She sits as a Conservative in the House of Lords.  She was King Charles’ personal solicitor until 2005 and remains the personal solicitor for both Prince William and Harry. She was even a guest at Harry and Meghan’s wedding.

Shackleton’s background is as colourful as her signature courtroom style of bright suits, chunky earrings and belted coats, which she calls her “battle kit”.

She is the daughter of Bank of England adviser and Sheriff of the City of London, Jonathan Charkham, and her mother is related to the Salmon clan who founded the Lyons Corner House empire (which makes her Nigella Lawson’s cousin).

Shackleton
Shackleton dressed in her 'battle kit' with Princess Haya - Leon Neal

Educated at Benenden School, in Kent, Princess Anne’s alma mater, a young Shackleton was told she didn’t have the brains for medicine. She has dyslexia and says she was “hopeless” at exams because her brain is “different to other people’s”.

After receiving a third-class degree in law at Exeter she took a cordon bleu cooking course; and had a spell cooking for directors’ dining rooms.

Her big break came when she was taken on by the legal firm Farrer & Co after finishing her solicitor training, which happened to represent the royal family. “When I started my training in 1978 it was really unpopular to be a family lawyer if you were a woman, because you wanted to show you were equal,” she said.

“We weren’t paid very much, but it was fine. It was so rewarding, because you can really help people through the darkest times and get them out the other side.”

Earl Spencer had two children with his second wife, Caroline Freud
Earl Spencer had two children with his second wife, Caroline Freud - Ian Jones

Robert Seabrook, the QC she briefed to represent Charles for his divorce, calls her “a star”, adding: “She has an incredible facility for getting to the nub of a case and seeing the wider horizon.

“She has an extraordinary ability to give people straight answers, often ones they don’t want to hear, in such a way that they take it from her.”

Unlike most of her clients, she has been happily married for 38 years, to fellow Exeter alumnus Ian Shackleton (a former financial PR consultant who runs a data storage business and is descended from Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer). She has two daughters and two grandchildren and has funded research at Exeter University into educating children about relationships.

Although she says she has no plans to retire, in 2017, Shackleton backed a bill proposed by Baroness Deech to reform English divorce law, which would presumably put a lot of her kind out of business (or at the very least mean they earn a lot less).

Baroness Fiona Shackleton
Baroness Fiona Shackleton is lauded for her ability to 'get to the nub' of a case, and has criticised the limitations of the divorce process - Paul Grover

“It’s a disgrace,” she says. “The process is woefully out-of date and inadequate, with the worst, quite frankly, the least meritorious people – the lawyers – profiting at the expense of the system.”

According to Shackleton, untangling a marriage is either “quick torture or slow torture”.

With the ‘doyenne of divorce’ in his corner, Spencer will certainly be hoping it’s the former.