Preservation and the Real Downton Abbey


Image via The Chicago Maroon

The third season of Downton Abbey currently has its American audience on the edge of its seat and reaching for a box of tissues.  The series that captured the hearts of millions of fans the world over revolves around the fictitious Crawley family as they struggle to hold onto their ancestral home in the early 20th century,  even as their way of life becomes a thing of the past.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the program. The soapy upstairs/downstairs plot! The opulent (and historically accurate) costumes! The dramatic setting! It’s really no wonder that nearly 8 million people tune in every week.

But here is something really interesting – the popularity of the series has helped real life grande country houses in the UK that have been struggling to maintain their buildings and grounds by renewing public interest in them.  And it  has especially helped Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed, whose history is maybe even more interesting than the scripted one now acted out in its halls.

The Decline of English Country Houses


Hamilton Palace, demolished 1921. Image via Wikimedia

The Crawley family struggle is one that played out at hundreds of real life grande country houses during the 20th century. Before World War I, the houses were the economic hub for the estates surrounding them, which provided income for their owners.  That income allowed them to maintain their often quite large homes and gardens and staff.  A dramatic acceleration of social and economic changes after World War I left many houses without incomes.  Without an income, owners were unable to maintain the houses, grounds, or staff necessary to run them.  As a result, hundreds of country houses were demolished after the war.  The “lost houses” were often dismantled and sold for parts. (Kentucky’s own Spindletop Hall boasts a mantel from Trentham Hall in its library-click here for photo).


“Two years before the beginning of World War I, on 4 May 1912, the British magazine Country Life carried a seemingly unremarkable advertisement: the roofing balustrade and urns from the roof of Trentham Hall could be purchased for £200.[4] One of Britain’s great ducal country houses, Trentham Hall was demolished with little public comment or interest.” Image via Wikimedia

Those that survived, did so by adapting.  On Downton Abbey, the head of the Crawley family,  Lord Grantham, married a wealthy American in order to bolster his already flagging fortunes before WWI. Other creative marriage proposals are later featured in the story line, as the  Crawleys hope to land upon a scheme that will keep the house in the family after the heir apparent dies aboard the Titanic. (You have to love the historically accurate plot twists!) In real life, creative marriages were one way houses survived. They also survived by being sold, probably a gut wrenching decision considering the houses, in some cases, belonged to a family for centuries.

These days, surviving grande English country houses are mostly maintained by hosting conferences, weddings, and opening the doors to the public for tours (usually during designated times of the year, month or week). Like many house museums, country estates have suffered in recent years from lack of interest.  Fewer and fewer tourists were buying tickets to see inside these ancestral homes – that is until  Downton Abbey premiered.   It has (to some extent) reversed that trend – people are interested again!

Can Downton Abbey Save Highclere Castle?


Image Via The Daily Mail

None have profited more than Highclere Castle, the estate at which the series is filmed.

Before the series, it earned  a steady income through leasing out the grand rooms in the house for weddings at a base price £10,000.  Since the series began, it has gained several more revenue streams.

It earns a fee from Downton Abbey’s production.  Lady Carnarvon, current mistress of the house, published a best seller on the subject of the Real Downton Abbey last year. A home good lines inspired by the castle is in the works. There might be a Hollywood movie in the pipeline. And it now boasts upwards of 1200 visitors per day!

highclere bedroom

A fireplace in one of the dilapidated bedrooms with mold growing on the walls. Image via The Daily Mail

Unfortunately, the house costs over one million dollars a year in upkeep and is in need of some very expensive repairs, both to the house proper and to the gardens.  The Carnarvons have considered selling  small parcels of land at the edges of the estate for development in order to make the estimated £11 million in repairs.

The Real Downton Abbey – Truth Is Better Than Fiction

The Estate:

highclere georgian

The present Highclere Castle was constructed around this Georgian mansion. Image via Nooks, Towers and Turrets

Highclere Castle is a house within a house within a house.   Lady Carnarvon explained, ” It actually was built over the top of a Georgian house, which was built on top of an Elizabethan house, which was built on top of some old bishop’s palaces. The first building record I have here is 749 AD.”  According to the Daily Mail, the grand fireplace in the saloon is in precisely the same spot that Bishop William of Wykeham used to sit in the 1300s!

The present castle was designed by the architect of the Houses of Parliament, Charles Barry!  The 4 Earl commissioned Barry shortly after the Parliament was completed.  Highclere’s beautiful gardens and landscape (5,000 acres) were beautifully designed by the master landscaper Capability Brown.  They feature several follies as well as Lebanon Cedars grown from seeds collected by famous 18th century seed collector, Bishop Stephan Pococke.

The 5th Earl:

Lord Carnarvon

Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon [right] at the opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt, 1922. Image via Philosophy of Science Portal

The castle is most associated with the 5th Earl and his wife, Almina, who lived contemporaneously with the fictional Lord and Lady Grantham.  Their story in some ways mirrors that of Downton Abbey (which may not be a surprise when you consider that series creator, Julian Fellowes, wrote Downton Abbey with Highclere Castle in mind).

Lord Carnarvon was land rich, but cash poor. Just as Lord Grantham admits to having married Cora, a wealthy American heiress, for her fortune in order to save Downton Abbey, Lord Carnarvon married the illegitimate heiress to the Rothschild fortune to support Highclere Castle. He also used her fortune to bankroll his hobby – Egyptology. He famously financed Howard Carter’s discovery of the spectacular Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.

The 5th Earl died as a result of illness following a mosquito bite near the Nile River not long after the discovery of Tutenkahmen’s tomb – a fact that help bolster the legendary Curse of the Pharoahs. The current Lord Carnarvon  has said that his great-grandfather’s dog Susie howled and died back at Highclere Castle in England the same time the 5th Earl died in Egypt.

While much of the 5th Earl’s collection of Egyptian artifacts was purchased by the MET, Lord Carnarvon said he discovered some items from the famous archeological adventure to Egypt remaining at Highclere Castle. Those pieces are now displayed in the old kitchens.

Lady Almina, the 5th Countess:


Lady Almina. Image via Yahoo

Only 19 when she married, Almina’s life changed in August 1914 when the First World War broke out.  She immediately rolled up her sleeves, turned Highclere Castle into a hospital and began to admit patients coming back from the trenches. Lady Carnarovan said of the events, “She employed 30 of the best and prettiest nurses, apparently, dressed in beautiful uniforms. Her idea was that when a soldier came back from war, he would be put into beautiful sheets with proper pillowcases, have an amazing view, and be made whole in body and soul. Naturally, her father was the source of all cash, and he gave her a lot of money to start it all up. The first patients started arriving back in September. It was a tremendous operation, and there were normally 20 to 30 patients in the bedrooms here in the castle. … [Although Highclere Castle was returned to a family home after the war] The rest of her life centered around nursing, healing and hospitals.”

In Downton Abbey, the estate also played a role in WWI efforts.  The fictional house was converted into a convalescent hospital. However, rather than champion the cause as Lady Almina had done, Lady Cora was a rather reluctant participant in the effort.

WWI was not the last time Highclere Castle would be pulled into war efforts. During the Second World War, the Castle briefly became a home for evacuee children from north London.
Highclere Castle has a fascinating history – from its beginnings as a bishop’s palace to its present role in TV’s prime time.   It physically represents layers and layers of history.  Through it can be traced the history of England – architecturally, politically, socially, culturally and economically, as well as the history of a family.  It is not hard to understand why Lord and Lady Carnarvon or Lord and Lady Grantham or any other family might fight so hard to keep their family’s country estate or work so hard to preserve its legacy. That Downtown Abbey’s tale of a fictional family’s struggle is helping to preserve the remaining country estates in England, including Highclere Castle, is a remarkable case of art imitating life imitating art.
For more stories and behind the scenes access to Highclere Castle, check out CBS Sunday Morning’s segment The Real Downton Abbey.  Downton Abbey airs on Sunday evenings on PBS (the first two seasons are available on Netflix and iTunes).  Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey is available from Amazon or your local book shop.


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