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The Truth About The Downton Abbey Castle

Thought Leader: Fiona Carnarvon
February 14, 2022
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Fans of the “Downton Abbey” TV series and movies instantly recognize the iconic English countryside building that the Crawley family’s life centered around. But in real life, “Downton Abbey” is called Highclere Castle. Located in Newbury, England, the stunning castle was around hundreds of years before the show ever came into existence, and was built by the same architect who built London’s Houses of Parliament, as noted by the Daily Mirror. While “Downton Abbey” has the Earl and Countess of Grantham, Highclere is currently owned by the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife, Lady Fiona, who inherited the castle in 2001 from the earl’s father, per The Telegraph. The couple is friends with “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes and the rest, as they say, is history. “Our day-to-day lives in the castle now are much busier because of the success of the show,” she told the Daily Mirror.

You can visit Highclere Castle and its gardens yourself on a guided tour, as the house is open on select dates throughout the year (via Town & Country). Lucky guests can even tour the famous rooms used in “Downton Abbey” and stroll through the gardens and parkland familiar from the show.

Fans of “Downton Abbey” might think they know it all about the show, but we’re looking at the inside scoop behind the “Downton Abbey” castle itself.

If you’ve ever watched “Downton Abbey,” Highclere Castle’s elegant facade looks just like you would expect in person. What viewers might not know is that along with the exterior shots of the property, the TV show and movies were filmed inside, too. Whether it’s the famous staircase that Lady Mary walked down in her wedding gown, the elegant saloon, or the bedrooms where many heart-to-hearts were held, the rooms inside Highclere look exactly like they do on your screens. The lady of the house, Fiona Carnarvon, the 8th Countess of Carnarvon, told the Daily Mirror that all the furnishings and decor in the house are in the traditional style, so the crew didn’t need to change anything up (they don’t even have a TV downstairs!). However, the servants’ areas like Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen were filmed off-site at a studio as Highclere’s were deemed too modern, as Lady Carnarvon told the Daily Mirror.

Filming in a house where people actually live seems like it would be a bit difficult, but according to Lady Carnarvon, it all worked out smoothly. When asked by Wales’ Daily Post if she and the Earl of Carnarvon had to move out during filming, she said that it would have been “a disaster” letting the cast and crew run free in the house, adding, “We’ve always lived in there together — throughout the whole thing — which is completely fine.”

If you wouldn’t jump to connect ancient Egypt to a stately home in the middle of the English countryside, no one would fault you. But Highclere Castle actually has an extraordinary link to Egypt’s famous King Tutankhamen, according to Forbes. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, was a lover of all things Egyptian and traveled there frequently, per the magazine. He was so fascinated by the culture and particularly ancient Egypt that he used his fortune to fund the excavation of King Tut’s tomb in 1922, carried out by archaeologist Howard Carter.

The Earl had worked with Carter on some previous Egyptian excavations over the years, but due to World War I, they had to stop their exploration. In 1922, Carter finally found King Tut’s tomb and the Earl of Carnarvon traveled to Egypt to witness the historic opening. Unfortunately, he died on April 5, 1923 in Cairo due to an infected mosquito bite, per Forbes. Visitors to Highclere, however, can visit an exhibition of Egyptian treasures brought back by the 5th Earl and Countess as part of their tour of the castle — Lady Fiona Carnarvon has also written a book called “Egypt at Highclere,” which is available for purchase in their shop.

Fans of “Downton Abbey” will remember the second season when World War I broke out and the castle became a hospital for injured soldiers. It turns out that there’s a huge element of truth about the storyline: Highclere Castle actually was a real-life World War I hospital too (per the BBC). Highclere welcomed its first patients in 1914, as Lady Fiona Carnarvon said in a “World War One at Home” interview with the BBC. Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, was extremely dedicated to helping these soldiers and their families. “She rolled up her sleeves and she turned this castle into a proper hospital … and she had a tremendous gift for healing,” Lady Carnarvon said, adding that Almina gave the soldiers the absolute best of everything, on the level of a fancy hotel.

Discussing how Lady Almina was certainly not expected to work in that way considering her status and the time period, Lady Carnarvon said she was “so ahead of her time” and that “what gave her the freedom was that funny old thing called money.” The real-life “Downton Abbey” castle even had its own operating room, Lady Carnarvon shared, specializing in orthopedic surgery. In 2011, the surgery area was recreated for an event called Heroes at Highclere, per the Daily Mail. Featuring re-enactors and stars from “Downton Abbey,” the event highlighted the castle’s role as a World War I hospital and paid tribute to the brave soldiers who lived there.

The Earl and Countess of Grantham, Robert and Cora Crawley, are the stars of “Downton Abbey,” as they run the fictional estate, but today it is looked after by George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife, Fiona, the Countess of Carnarvon. Lady Fiona is the Earl’s second wife and was formerly an accountant before marrying her husband, per the Daily Mail. The couple have a son, Edward, and the Earl is also the father of two children from his first marriage, Lady Saoirse and Lord Porchester.

Lady Carnarvon hosts her own blog and podcast about life at Highclere and is the author of several nonfiction books about the property, including biographies about the countesses who have come before her. The Earl has run unsuccessfully for a seat in the House of Lords (via the Daily Express), and along with his wife, he carries out the day-to-day business of running a busy estate.

Although a modern-day home doesn’t need the level of staffing that “Downton Abbey” did, the earl and countess have a real-life version of Mr. Carson who works at Highclere Castle today (via Town & Country). “Our team of butlers still dress in tails when looking after the family and the food service remains the same — I think these are great traditions that we will always have at Highclere,” butler Luis Coelho said.

Highclere Castle is surrounded by beautiful parkland and gardens, and the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon Lady Carnarvon have used this to their advantage in creating their own brand of gin, as noted by Forbes. The couple launched Highclere Castle Gin in 2019 after finding some historical recipes on the property, per the publication. It quickly became an award-winning brand, taking in more than 40 international awards to date, including “Gin of the Year” in 2020. The gin contains botanicals such as juniper that have grown on the Highclere estate for centuries and, according to its website, has been served “Highclere Style” for more than 100 years. This “involves a cocktail made with gin, tonic, a fresh orange squeeze and peel, and finished with a rosemary sprig from the garden.”

Lady Fiona Carnarvon gave some sage advice to Forbes about how exactly one’s gin martini should be served. “Overall, I would follow the advice of Ian Fleming: the creator of James Bond, who was a friend of the 6th Earl of Carnarvon,” she said. “Martinis, should be shaken, not stirred.”

The families at Highclere Castle have enjoyed a longstanding friendship with the royal family that still carries on today — in fact, the current Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, is the queen’s godson, according to Hello! magazine. Fans of Netflix’s “The Crown” might remember Lord Porchester, or “Porchie,” who was the queen’s racing manager and dear friend. In real life, Porchie was the 7th Earl of Carnarvon and father of the current Earl.

“We’ve been very lucky to welcome different royals on different occasions,” Lady Carnarvon told Hello! magazine, with the publication adding that Edward VII and Edward VIII both have made visits to the castle over the years. Town & Country also noted that George V and Queen Mary also paid a visit to Highclere Castle in 1917.

But the most important question might be has the queen ever watched “Downton Abbey”? Lord Carnarvon told Hello! that he’s “sure she’s watched some of it.” Other notable “Downton” fans include the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, who visited the set in 2015 and shared her love for the show (via The Guardian), and Prince William, who congratulated the program ahead of its final episode.

A castle doesn’t come without a good ghost story, and Highclere Castle is no exception. In fact, the lady of the house, the Countess of Carnarvon, told the Daily Mirror that while filming “Downton Abbey,” some of the crew members were so scared they didn’t want to come back. Lady Fiona Carnarvon, who is the author of many books about Highclere, also told the newspaper that she planned to write about some of Highclere Castle’s ghost stories.

One of them, as detailed in a Radio Times interview with Lady Carnarvon, surrounds a footman who died by suicide at the castle many years ago. Recounting a time when she was taking photographs in the basement, Lady Carnarvon said her toddler was playing nearby when she “turned and saw a man coming towards us out of the gloom.” The countess said she took her son and rushed through the doors, with the figure pausing near them. She then called a monk to come bless the house, adding that she never saw the ghost again. However, Lady Carnarvon later did some research and discovered that a Highclere Castle footman had engaged in a love affair with the countess’ nursery maid back in the 19th century. Sadly, the countess’ baby died when the nurse was away from the room with her lover. Plagued by guilt, the footman reportedly ended his life very close to the place in the castle where Lady Fiona saw the strange figure in the basement.

The ultimate dream wedding looks different for everyone, but for a huge “Downton Abbey” fan, getting married at the very place where it was filmed is one dream that’s actually possible. Yes, you can get married at Highclere Castle, and just think of the wedding photo opportunities. As you might expect, COVID-19 put a damper on wedding plans, and the castle’s wedding website reports that weddings are temporarily on hold until at least 2024. But for those in the planning process (or just those dreaming for the future), it’s never too early to get some ideas. Brides can even walk down the grand staircase into the saloon, just like the Crawley girls did for their own special days on “Downton Abbey,” per the castle’s website.

Couples can choose an intimate and elegant wedding inside the famous “Downton Abbey” castle for 40 people or an outdoor summer reception complete with afternoon tea for up to 80 guests. All of this comes with a cost, of course, and People reported in 2013 that the base price for a Highclere Castle wedding was around $24,000. Times and prices change, of course, but interested couples can contact the castle via their wedding website to get all of the latest details to live out their period drama wedding fantasies.

It’s no surprise that running a vast English country house involves a huge amount of time and work. As custodians of Highclere Castle and its 6,000-acre estate, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon certainly have their hands full, but it’s also a huge labor of love for the couple, as the countess told the Daily Mirror. “I’m incredibly proud to live here and keep its legacy alive, not to mention how we can bring joy to so many people from all over the world who come to visit Downton Abbey,” she told the paper, adding that she’s in meetings all day long with various tradespeople or the gardening staff to keep the castle in good shape. The countess told the Daily Mirror that due to increased tourism, they’ve had to add more staff, but the atmosphere is very far away from “Downton Abbey” with the upstairs-downstairs separation.

The cost of running such a castle doesn’t come cheap, with the Countess of Carnarvon telling The Telegraph that it costs about £1 million (roughly $1.3 million) a year just to keep Highclere Castle running. Most of that, she said, goes to salaries, but simple repairs can cost an extraordinary amount due to the size and age of the building. In addition to the castle’s tourism and special events income, the estate’s land brings in money through its Highclere Castle Horse Feeds and Highclere Castle Gin brands.

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