As series 4 of Downton Abbey is launched in Britain, Jane Bingham takes a look at the history of Highclere Castle in Berkshire – the stunning stately home that inspired Julian Fellowes to create his fictional country seat.
You don’t have to turn on your TV to find high drama amongst the English aristocracy. Highclere Castle may look peaceful now, but during the early years of the 20th century it witnessed sudden death, love and betrayal, struggles with debt, and even the consequences of an ancient curse. No wonder it inspired Julian Fellowes, friend of Highclere’s owners. Because there are times when history can be even stranger than fiction....
Highclere has been the country seat of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon since Georgian times, but the current house was completed in 1842, in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Designed by Sir James Barry – the architect of the Houses of Parliament – the house is a surprisingly successful cross between a miniature castle and a grand country home.
Lady Almina (and Lady Cora)
Inside, the Castle is mainly Edwardian in style – thanks to the tireless efforts of Almina, 5th Countess of Carnarvon. As the illegitimate daughter of an American multi-millionaire, she used her personal fortune to transform the house, and then applied her talents to turning part of the Castle into a hospital for victims of the First World War. And if she reminds you of a certain TV character, you are absolutely right. Julian Fellowes has acknowledged that Almina was the model for Downton’s Lady Cora.
The curse of Tutankhamun
Almina’s husband, by contrast, was a very different character from the fictional Lord Grantham. ‘Motor Carnarvon’, as he was generally known, had a passion for fast cars and planes, séances and Egyptology. He funded Howard Carter’s famous excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and bravely defied the mummy’s curse by entering the burial chamber to gaze at the great boy-king.
Apparently the ancient curse had not lost all its power, because Lord Carnarvon died just three weeks later. Highclere passed to his playboy son, nicknamed ‘Porchy’, who had to pay off enormous debts and struggled to maintain the house and estate. During the Roaring Twenties, Porchy joined the fast set in London while his wife stayed at home, drinking heavily. Eventually, the marriage ended in divorce and Porchy married Tilly Losch, an actress and dancer, who must have brought a whiff of glamour to the Castle. (The inspiration, perhaps, for a promised plot line in Downton’s Series 4?) Julian Fellowes has confirmed there will be a 5th series but beyond that no one knows. The 4th series comes out in the States in January.
In the midst of all this drama, daily life in the stately home continued. Servants cooked and cleaned, grand partiers were held, and the villagers looked on from a respectful distance. In the TV series, Bampton in Oxfordshire provides the backdrop for the village scenes, and visitors to Bampton will be able to recognize the church, the hospital, and Mrs Crawley’s house . But for anyone in search of the full Downton experience, a visit Highclere Castle is a must. As Benjamin Disraeli said, when he first drove through its gates, “How scenical! How scenical!” – and millions of Downton viewers would agree.
You can visit Highclere Castle as part of our guided walking tours: Scenic Cotswolds, July 20 and Sept 7 2014 (Click for more information.)
YouTube Videos About Downton Abbey
The Real Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle
Countrywise - The Real Downton Abbey
Article by Jane Bingham. Jane Bingham is the author of The Cotswolds: A Cultural History (Signal Books and Oxford University Press, 2009 - purchase on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or purchase from Cotswold Walks). A prolific writer of history books for young people, she also writes on English heritage in the national and local press. Jane gives tours and talks on the Cotswolds and has served twice as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Oxford Brookes University.
Photos copyright Highclere Enterprises LLP 2013