Here’s why fan-favorite character Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) was killed off in Downton Abbey season 3. The youngest daughter of Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Sybil’s death was one of Downton Abbey’s most shocking twists, coming in the middle of season 3. However, despite what some viewers might have theorized at the time or since, Lady Sybil’s exit from the series was planned from the inception of Downton Abbey.
Among the Crawley family and the servants of Downton Abbey, Lady Sybil was arguably the most beloved person in the great house. While Sybil was certainly born a great lady who had much wealth and status, she was at heart kind and a sort of rebel, who became interested in progressive politics, and the possibility of improving the lives of others. One of the prime examples of this comes from Downton Abbey season 1, during which Sybil personally helped one of the family’s maids, Gwen (Rose Leslie), leave the house in order to secure a job working as a secretary – completely unbeknownst to the rest of the family. She went on to fall in love with and marry the family chauffeur, Tom Branson (Allen Leech), which was against societal norms and resisted by the Crawley family. Tom and Sybil ran away together, but returned to Downton eventually, and the wider family came to accept her decision. The couple went on to have a daughter, who they named after Sybil (Sybbie for short), but it all came undone when Sybil sadly and tragically died from complications during childbirth in 1920.
Jessica Brown-Findlay was the first main cast member to leave Downton Abbey, but the actress made it clear from the start exactly how long she intended to remain with the series. As Downton Abbey’s creator Julian Fellowes told Vanity Fair in an interview in November 2015, “Jessica had said she was going to leave right from the beginning. She said, ‘I’m doing three years, then I’m leaving.’ So that was all worked out.” The actress herself has explained that she was wary of spending too long in the role and then not doing anything else. Brown-Findlay was only 20 when she was cast so it made sense she was afraid of being typecast as the aristocratic Lady Sybil of Downton Abbey and wanted to have a more diverse career. Thankfully, Brown-Findlay’s exit allowed for Lily James to join Downton Abbey as their cousin Lady Rose.
After her Downton Abbey exit, Jessica Brown-Findlay found the diverse range of roles she was hoping for. She starred in the Black Mirror season 1 episode “Fifteen Million Merits” and played the female lead in 2014’s Winter’s Tale, opposite Colin Farrell, and in 2015’s Victor Frankenstein, opposite James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe. Brown-Findlay also appeared in Netflix’s The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, which starred Lily James in the lead as well as another Downton Abbey alumna, Penelope Wilton. Brown-Findlay recently starred as Lenina Crowne in Peacock’s Brave New World, and also led the 2020 horror film The Banishing.
Since Lady Sybil had been dead for several years by the time of the setting of the Downton Abbey movie, which is set in 1927, she clearly was not going to be a part of that movie. Although the film could have utilized flashbacks to include Lady Sybil, with only two hours to tell the movie’s story, the producers opted to focus on the many characters who are still alive in Downton. Since her widower Tom Branson and her daughter Sybbie will be in the film, fans can take heart that Lady Sybil’s memory are alive and well in the Downton Abbey movie, and in the upcoming sequel, Downton Abbey: A New Era.