GREAT BRINGTON, England -- The wind plays in the long grass of St. Mary the Virgin Church. It whips the dying thistles against the headstones.
Inside repose the notable kinsmen of Diana, Princess of Wales, 20 generations of prideful knights and their ladies. A place has been prepared there for her.
On Saturday, Diana will be interred in the Spencer family chapel, a place separate from the public area of the church. It was added in 1616 by John Spencer, founder of the dynasty.
Diana will be placed next to her father, the eighth earl. Her brother, the present Earl Spencer, hopes to have a small private ceremony in the church after the princess is brought here Saturday, following her public funeral at Westminster Abbey.
But that hope may not be realized. The extraordinary outpouring of sentiment so evident in London is already reaching this village of about 200 souls. Each day more visitors arrive, bringing flowers, notes, cards, letters and their grief to the gates of the Spencer estate, to the church, and into the village generally.
And to encourage this trend, the royal family is considering publicizing the route of the cortege after it leaves Westminster Abbey for Great Brington on Saturday. The aim would be to relieve some of the pressure on London from a crowd of mourners expected to exceed 1 million.
They started lining up early yesterday to sign the visitors book inside St. Mary's, built by Saxons more than 800 years ago, about 300 years or more before the Spencers arrived in these parts.
They soon came to own all the lands, the houses and villages on them that one can see in every direction from the hill upon which the church stands, and miles beyond.
All this wealth, and the power and influence it represents, was centered on the ancestral home, Althorp House.
This estate, its gates today besieged by mourners, was where Diana first met Charles, the Prince of Wales, 20 years ago. She was 16.
The people of Great Brington are comfortable living on the margins of all this wealth, comfortable, too, with the awareness that a gentry still exists and influences their lives to some degree, as it has for centuries. There is no awe for the Spencers evident among the villagers, but there is respect and, especially BTC for the last one to die, affection.
"They opened our village fetes, you know," said Christine Whiley, the village postmistress. "They were accepted -- you know, as the gentry."
She remembers Diana as a young girl popping into her shop now and again.
"Chocolates," she said. "You know she was a chocolate fiend."
Again, out here as in London, the resentment at what people perceive as the mistreatment of Diana by the royal family is not far below the surface of conversations about the princess.
"She was manipulated," said Martin Whiley, Christine's husband.
In what way?
"She was manipulated by the royal family," interjected Pamir Bhandal, a chauffeur who had just walked into the post office, which is also a kiosk.
Bhandal is 34, considers himself of Diana's generation, and says he feels especially affected by her death for that reason.
"He [Charles] never loved her. She was used just to provide heirs for the royal family."
Back at St. Mary's, James Wise said, "I think she should be here with her own family."
He is 75 and has lived here all his life, and knows a thing or two about the Spencers. He suspects that they came over the channel with other Normans sometime after the 11th century. They were conquerors, else they would not have been able to acquire such immense territories, he said.
All the properties Wise lived in throughout his life were at one time owned by the Spencers. Most buildings in the village still are.
The large amount of land and property that was sold off was disposed of by Diana's father, who, it is said, had a profligate wife.
Wise has a countryman's face, the tone of some leather object left outside for long periods, and wispy hair the color of the cottony flower heads of the nearby thistles. He stands on the gravel path by the yellow church that is scabrous and corroded by time.
Above him, a gargoyle screams silently. A peach tree hangs a laden branch over the churchyard wall.
To Wise and his wife Joyce, standing at his side, Diana was the best of the Spencer lot. He is not surprised at the public grief.
"She was a human being. And in my book, as a human being she had all the frailties and all the strengths. She made mistakes, as human beings do. She could go to people and -- not like our queen -- they would be touched by her.
"She was a one off. I just came out of that church, where I prayed that her eldest son [William, in line for the throne of England behind his father, Charles] will turn out like his mother."
It is bright and mild and there are about 100 people in the church at 11: 30 in the morning. Quiet people, reluctant to speak above a whisper, shushing their babies.
Journalists and photographers move about with ostentatious caution and respectfulness, as if to advertise that they are not, in any way, kin to the hated paparazzi who are blamed for Diana's death Sunday morning after a Paris automobile crash.
The church is virtually a monument to the glory and antiquity of the Spencer family, among the oldest in the kingdom, older possibly than even the current royal family.
There is a copy on the back wall of the original seating arrangement in the church ordained by Sir Robert Spencer, a knight, in 1606. Behind the fence that separates the family chapel from the rest of Great Brington's humbler humanity are effigies and busts and coats of arms, and full images of reclining knights.
But St. Mary's also contains relics and references to events even greater perhaps than any that distinguish the Spencer family and its role in its country's history.
Buried beneath the floor of the chancel, and marked by a coat of arms engraved on the stone, lie the remains of Laurence Washington, the first American president's great-great-great-grandfather.
Nearby are the remains of his great-great-great-great-uncle, George.
They were employed by the Spencers.
Pub Date: 9/03/97