Maintaining a stately home in the 21st century is not an easy task. From afar these buildings always look impressive, but after hundreds of years their structures require an enormous amount of work just to keep them habitable (especially when they are listed buildings). Since feudalism ended, the people who manage these places, whether they are the original families, a trust, or an organisation, have to find all sorts of income streams to keep the houses running. When a production company decides to use their place as a location for a series or a film, it can sometimes create not one but two income opportunities. Firstly, you get the direct payment from the production company, but in some cases when the actual series or film is released, it may attract a new type of visitor. This was exactly what happened at Alnwick Castle, located near the border of Scotland when it was picked as the location of the “Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry” in the first two films of the Harry Potter franchise in 2001 and 2002 and the castle still attracts many Potter fans every year since. So when a production company approached the Earl of Carnarvon and asked to shoot a new periodic drama at his home, Highclere Castle, I am sure that he was very pleased
The hit drama Downton Abbey was produced for ITV between 2010 and 2015. It gained international success immediately and created a surge in demand for English butlers across the world, leading to an increase in income for some to £150,000 per annum. Following the third season, it became the most viewed series in England and most popular British drama of the 21st century. This great success was extremely helpful for the real Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, primarily since, unlike the fictional house, it is not located in the northern county of Yorkshire, but near the town of Newbury, an easy drive from London.
Unfortunately for me, I visited Highclere Castle before I became a fan of the show, so unlike the other visitors, I was focused on the actual experience this house offers. And as always I was trying to determine if it is an excellent place to visit or not (this is was our aim when we started our blog chasingcastles.com. Today, I can easily call myself a fan of ”Downton”, but during our visit I have to sadly say that this was one of the least enjoyable places we have been to recently. There are a few reasons that lead me to feel this way. Firstly, the castle did not offer any tours in the house so you were not really given the opportunity to appreciate and understand the (impressive) stories of Highclere and the family that lived in it. Certainly, there were guides in most of the rooms, but they kept their distance and were more preoccupied in making sure that no one touched anything rather than explaining to people about the rooms and their history. Since we have already visited a few places that have been used as locations of TV dramas or films, we have seen how the owners have managed to bring that experience to life. Highclere Castle offered almost nothing in this respect: you could download an app narrated by the actor who played Mr.Carson the butler, but it mainly included interviews with the owner of the house.
But all of this is irrelevant if you are a fan of the series. Highclere Castle IS Downton Abbey and visiting the various rooms and comparing them with what you see on the television the series can be a great pleasure (but do your own research because the guides will not assist you with this). So here are few more interesting details you should know about the actual castle and the particular link it has with the story of the series.
I should start by saying that this is not really a castle, but a Victorian stately home that was named a castle. It was not unusual for the Victorians to build themselves massive dwellings designed as historic castles. Penhryn, Bodelwyddan and Margam Castles in Wales are great examples of this type of Victorian obsession and none of them were actually a historical castle. The architect that designed Highclere was Charles Barry and he was a very busy man of the time as he was also working on another “little” project, the Palace of Westminster, which is today the home of the British parliament (and neighbour to Big Ben). I think it is clear that Barry used similar ideas in both projects.
Highclere Castle was built for Henry Herbert, the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon. During the middle of the 19th century, he was one of the richest men in the country and was very eager to show it. He forced his architect to change his plans three times before he was happy with the grandeur of the result. As part of the works, Barry used the existing Georgian mansion that was already built on the estate (the Herbert family had held the estate since the beginning of the 17th century). So today, when you visit the “Castle”, try to imagine that under the Victorian walls there is another house hidden.
Highclere Castle is still privately owned. This is a rare thing in modern England, but the reason for this is linked with the plot of the Downton series (don’t worry, this is not a spoiler). In the plot of the series, the 5th Earl of Grantham saved Downton Abbey by marrying a rich American heiress and her dowry managed to pay for the upkeep of the house. Bringing in “new” money was a popular way for aristocrats to save their historic mansions in the 19th and 20th century and the most famous example of this happened in 1895 when the future Duke of Marlborough (and the cousin of Winston Churchill) married the richest heiress of the time, Consuelo Vanderbilt. In today’s value, her dowry was more than $60M and with it, the Churchill family managed to maintain their beautiful Blenheim Palace. Unlike the “Grantham” match, this marriage was not a success and the couple divorced after Consuelo managed to produce an heir (and a spare).
Things were no different for the Herbert family and Highclere Castle maintenance costs managed to drain the family wealth. Funnily enough, this family also had a fruitful marriage in 1895, but unlike the Churchill family, the bride did not arrive from America but from the famous Rothschild family, during the days of…The 5th Earl (much like the plot of Downton Abbey). The bride was called Almina Victoria Maria Alexandra Wombwell. Officially, she was the daughter of a French officer named Fredrick Wombell, but unofficially she was the illegitimate (and only) daughter of Alfred Rothschild, the great-grandson of Mayer Rothschild, the founder of the Banking dynasty. Almina’s dowry (and later inheritance) was even more significant than Consuelo Vanderbilt’s and reached a staggering £60M in today’s value
The 5th Earl had an obsession for anything related to ancient Egypt and with his newly “acquired” wealth he could afford to fulfill his lifetime’s ambition to discover the tomb of King Tutankhamun. He was the one who funded the excavation in 1923 which discovered the tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Eygpt. The Earl and his daughter Evelyn arrived for the opening of the tomb and shortly afterwards he died in his hotel room in Cairo. The famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the “father” of the Sherlock Holmes novels) claimed that his death was the result of an ancient curse which is now known as the curse of Tutankhamun. This curse has inspired numerous books and films, including the 1999 film ,”The Mummy”, and one of the characters in the film was an aged English noblewoman named Evelyn.
During his many excavations, the 5th Earl managed to attain an impressive collection of Egyptian artefacts and whilst most of his collection is held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, he still kept many items for himself which are on display in the basements of Highclere Castle today. Because of this exhibition, the production of Downton Abbey had to find a different location for the shooting of all the “Downstairs” scenes.
Another interesting link between the reality and fiction in Downton Abbey occurred in 2013 when the British Parliament debated the need to change the inheritance laws of the nobility. Without giving away any spoilers, I would say that the question of the inheritance of the title of the 6th Earl was a primary plotline in the series. The British media named this attempt the ”Downton Abbey Law”. The idea was to allow female heiress to inherit their family titles. The attempt failed (don’t tell Mary Crawley).
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