For the last six seasons fans have delighted in the joys and tribulations of the aristocratic Crawley family and their below-stairs staff in the hit television series, Downton Abbey. With the series coming to a close, fans can continue to enjoy this post-Edwardian era in history with a visit to Highclere Castle in England, where the popular period drama was filmed.
Although it is great fun to visit the place where interior and exterior scenes from Downton Abbey were filmed, Highclere Castle has enough intrigue and history of its own to warrant a visit to learn about England’s past.
The Castle and the Earldom
You can’t walk in Great Britain without tripping over ancient history and a visit to Highclere Castle is no different. Records from the estate show evidence of an Iron Age hill fort. Charter records detail the existence of buildings dating back to 749 A.D. and a medieval palace built during the 12th and 13th centuries.
The now-iconic mixed Georgian and Jacobean-style mansion was re-designed in the 1840’s by the architect, Sir Charles Barry, famous for designing the Houses of Parliament in London. The Castle’s proprietor, the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon, commissioned Barry but it wasn’t until the 4th Earl took over that the interior of the house was completed in 1878. As the 3rd Earl had hoped, the house became the center of political and cultural life during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and visitor books record house parties full of politicians, artists, technological innovators and Egyptologists.
The British peerage system of titles is, to put it mildly, complicated. The name that accompanies a title is not the surname of the individual but a geographic area. For instance, the first Earl of Carnarvon in this line of the family was Henry Herbert, who was then known as the 1st Baron Porchester. He was granted the title, “Earl of the Town and County of Carnarvon” by George III in 1793 and that title has been passed down to the oldest male heir until the present 8th Earl of Carnarvon, who still resides at Highclere Castle today.
Discovery of the Tomb of the Egyptian Boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun
The 5th Earl of Carnarvon was an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist. He first traveled to Egypt in 1898 and as his passion grew he eventually sought and acquired concessions to excavate near Luxor in the Valley of the Queen’s, the Valley of the Nobles, the Valley of the Kings, and in the Nile Delta near Alexandria, Eygpt. For 16 years he worked with archeologist Howard Carter and they often spent time plottingg their excavation season at Highclere Castle.
Lord Carnarvon financed years of costly excavations with the aid of his wealthy bride, Almina, but finally in June of 1922 he told Carter he could only afford one more season in Egypt. Not long after, Carter’s team discovered a promising set of stairs leading to a doorway in the Valley of the Kings. Convinced they’d discovered something big, Carter sent for the Earl. On November 26th, the Earl asked Carter if could see anything through a small opening they’d made in the doorway, to which Carter responded with the now infamous words, “yes, wonderful things!”
Over the course of his life, Lord Carnarvon amassed many important Egyptian artifacts. This collection was eventually sold by his widow to the Metropolitan Museum of New York in order to pay the enormous death duties but the Castle has a permanent exhibition detailing the discovery and other artifacts from his travels for visitors to enjoy. The exhibit is located belowstairs where the kitchens once were (those scenes in Downton Abbey are shot on sets at Ealing Studios).
Gardens and Grounds
For centuries the family has looked out onto the stunning 1,000 acres of sweeping parkland and gardens and now visitors too can leisurely stroll through the garden’s expansive green lawns, woods and wild meadows in the summer months when the house is open to the public.
A gate in the White Garden wall leads into an enchanting secret garden, a classic English garden with curving herbaceous borders, serpentine paths and bursts of colorful flowers in July and August.
Similarities and Differences to the Crawleys and Downton Abbey
The series starts out in a post-Edwardian England of 1912, which was considered the Belle Époque period of England. Similar to the fictional Downton Abbey, during the First World War, Highclere Castle was transformed into a hospital with the first patients arriving from Flanders in September 1914. In reality, it was Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, who was a proponent of the cause and she, not her daughter Lady Evelyn, became a skilled nurse.
Almina née Wombwell was the illegitimate daughter of the uber-wealthy Jewish banker, Alfred de Rothschild. No doubt, and similar to Lord and Lady Grantham’s marriage, wealth and title was initially what brought the couple together initially. If you watch closely in season five, the writers give a nod to that history when Lady Rose is about to enter into a mixed religion marriage.
The 6th earl went a step further in rebelling against British tradition when he married a wealthy American heiress, the lovely Catherine Wendell. Her portrait still hangs in what was once her sitting room at the Castle. It was Catherine’s generation who, like the younger Crawleys, had to deal with a dramatically changing society and the crippling effect that large death duties had on aristocratic families with large estates.
Downton Abbey marks the end of an era where 3 percent of the population owned 80 percent of the land. In the last season of the show, the producers hint at times to come in an episode where the family allows the public to tour the house for charity. At the end of the episode, the family marvels at how much money they’ve raised and wonder if this is one way to finance the costly estate going forward. Lord Grantham emphatically says no, but we all know the future.
What to Know Before You Go
- the castle is only open during the summer months (the Earl and Countess stay elsewhere during this time) and select days throughout the year
- with younger children visit the gardens first to let them run around because they must be behaved inside the Castle
- no photos are allowed inside the house
- tickets sell out online so get them early
- trains run frequently from London’s Paddington Station to nearby Newbury for about £23 adult and £11 child return for return off-peak times
- taxis wait at the station to take tourists to the Castle
- chat with people on the train and you will probably be able to find others to share a taxi with
- the Castle has a gift shop and a covered outdoor restaurant
- the town of Newbury is close to the railroad station and there are many shops and restaurants to browse.