The story behind the real Downton Abbey

England's Highclere Castle, the real-life Downton Abbey, has a past that’s every bit as colourful and riveting as the hit series filmed within its walls.

Besides serving as the main set for the hit series that recently premiered its third season, this imposing landmark and the land it occupies have been home to generations of the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679.

‘‘It’s an amazing place to wake up in. I’ve never lost my sense of wonder for it,’’ says Lady Fiona, the current Countess of Carnarvon, who lives at Highclere with her husband, the Eighth Earl of Carnarvon.

She has written a book about the castle, which occupies a lofty hilltop in southern England and welcomes a limited number of visitors each year.

At the forefront of British high society for much of its history, the castle has sheltered some of Britain’s most privileged celebrities (including a future king) and has its own hints of intrigue, a World War I period of public service and a stunning link with ancient Egypt.

At times, threads of it have even been woven into Downton Abbey.

Watching all three seasons of Downton will surely stoke fans’ desire to visit the castle. 

Happily, they can tour the grounds where Robert, Lord Grantham, walks his Labrador retriever; enjoy the gardens where Violet, the Dowager Countess, sometimes takes tea; and see the castle’s main rooms, where the lives of the Crawley family and their servants unfold.

But the castle opens only for 70 days a year, and its tour tickets are as hot as the series.

In case you can’t visit, or to develop an appreciation for the castle’s own history before you go, read Lady Fiona’s book, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. 

Lady Almina, wife of the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, is believed to have been the illegitimate daughter of wealthy banker Sir Alfred de Rothschild and his French mistress.

Like Lord Grantham’s wife, Cora, her fortune not only kept a roof over the family’s heads but also fueled a legendary lifestyle.

Her dowry paid off her future husband’s already-substantial debts. It also included a guaranteed annual income for Lady Almina of more than $US10.5 million ($10.22 million) a year, in today’s dollars.

Lady Almina used her money to update the castle (it was among the first to have extensive indoor plumbing and electric lights) and to entertain guests, including the future King Edward VII.

For the royal weekend visit, she spent more than $US500,000 ($486,689) for food, staffing and redecorating. Even the castle’s pool table was re-covered for his visit, according to Lady Fiona’s research.

Lady Almina also used her money to turn Highclere into a World War I hospital for returning soldiers. 

She personally recruited the best nurses and doctors and paid for everything, including the latest medical equipment and medicines.

She treated wounded men as guests and gave each a private bedroom in the castle (unlike the Downton Abbey scenes where convalescing soldiers slept on military cots lining a large room). When it outgrew Highclere, she paid to move it to a larger London facility.

‘‘I am amazed and humbled by the work Almina did,’’ Lady Fiona says. 

‘‘Although Highclere always has done its best to make people feel welcome, Almina also made people feel better.’’

Lady Almina’s money also funded her husband’s many years of winter excavations for artefacts in Egypt and earned the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon his place in history as co-discoverer of Tutankhamen’s intact tomb in 1922.

Still considered Egypt’s most important archaeological find, the discovery took its toll on the earl, who died shortly afterward. On the night he died in Egypt, the lights went out all over Cairo. His beloved terrier, at Highclere, let out a single howl and also died the same night.

Today, three galleries in the castle’s cellars cover the Fifth Earl’s interests (which also included ‘‘fast’’ cars of the day and aircraft), his many years of excavations in Egypt and his amazing finds.

Lady Fiona explains why threads of Highclere’s story can be found in Downton Abbey.

‘‘Julian Fellowes is a close friend of ours. He already knew the castle’s history when he began writing Downton,’’ she says. 

At times, she notes, the answers she and her husband give to Fellowes’ casual questions sometimes find their way into the episodes’ scripts.

‘‘Thanks to Downton Abbey, our home has an amazingly high profile and has become one of the best-known stately homes in the world,’’ Lady Fiona says.

The challenge for the current earl and his wife is harnessing Downton’s popularity to support the massive house, which was built by the same architect who constructed Westminster Abbey. Income from Lady Fiona’s book has helped.

When Downton isn’t filming (about six months a year), the castle staff also books weddings, corporate events and private dinners.

Lady Fiona is writing a second book about the castle’s history, 1923-1945.  


The Count and Countess of Carnarvon outside their home Highclere Castle in Newbury, England.

The Count and Countess of Carnarvon outside their home Highclere Castle in Newbury, England.

Dame Maggie Smith in a scene from Downton Abbey.

Dame Maggie Smith in a scene from Downton Abbey.


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