Downton Abbey fans know that the beloved series was filmed on location at a real castle. The name of the castle in the show is fictional of course, but the real castle is called Highclere Castle, home to the eighth Earl of Carnarvon and his family. The real castle and its on-screen counterpart have many similarities though, and it seems Highclere Castle has been through just as much as Downton.
Highclere, like many other grand estates and castles throughout the U.K., can be dated all the way back to the time of the Anglo-Saxon Kings. According to the history page on the castles site, the first written records regarding the estate that Highclere was built date back to 749, when the Anglo-Saxon King Aethelbald gave the land to the Bishops of Winchester. It was Bishop William Wykeham who built the first medieval palace and gardens on the site.
It wasn’t until much later in 1679, when the site was rebuilt and renamed Highclere Place House by its new owner Sir Robert Sawyer, the Attorney General to King Charles II and King James II. Through the years there were many alterations but by 1842, Sir Charles Barry, who was the architect for the Houses of Parliament, finished his reconstruction of the house for the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon. His finished work is what we see to this day in Highclere Castle.
But throughout this rich history, though, the castle worked in much the same way as the show depicts. During the early 1910s the Earl and Countess Carnarvon operated the same way Downton’s Earl and Countess Grantham did, amongst a bustling house of butlers, cooks, and maids.
The protocol and structure between Downton‘s upstairs and downstairs was very much based off of how Highclere and other large estates ran themselves back in the 1910s and 20s. Highclere had a hefty staff just like Downton, including some that bare a resemblance to their Downton counterparts.
On Highclere’s Instagram, Lady Carnarvon posted an old photo of one of the staff members who worked at the castle around the time Downton was set. The picture shows a very tall butler named Robert Taylor, who could have been the real life Mr. Carson.
The staff of Highclere also worked really hard to welcome royalty, just like Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson and the staff in the new Downton movie. Lady Carnarvon also shared a photo of the real staff from the 1910s.
The upstairs at Highclere were much the same as their Downton counterparts as well. The ladies of the house during the 10s and 20s were always dressed to the nines as were the men of the house. During that time the house was run by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife the Countess of Carnarvon. They, too, had the best cars money could buy at the time, and the Earl’s love of car racing would rival Henry Talbot’s.
The castle still has the 5th Countess of Carnarvon’s coronation dress in their archives. Lady Carnarvon said she was just as gracious a hostess as Lady Grantham as she was as good a nurse as Sybil. “Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon lived at Highclere during the same era as the fictional Lady Grantham (Cora),” the current countess wrote. “Dressed by Worth of Paris and with the most exquisite jewels, she was a brilliant hostess. However, she was also a woman who discovered her vocation: nursing and given her wealth could act upon it. She transformed Highclere into a hospital and spent her money saving lives. Incidentally her waist looks no more than 20”!”
The castle was turned into a hospital during the First World War, just as it did in the show. The 5th Countess of Carnarvon opened up her house and worked tirelessly to save the lives of the injured soldiers brought to the estate.
Later on 5th Earls son, the 6th Earl, married an American woman, Lady Catherine, who was someone like Cora, who is also American in the show. Catherine ran Highclere like a well-oiled machine at the age of just 19, and was in charge of the then eighty staff members as she threw many lavish parties and banquets.
The estate is also famous for its technological advancements and discoveries. Sir Geoffrey De Havilland made his first flight on the Highclere Estate at Seven Barrows in the 1910s and later on in 1922, the 5th Earl discovered Egyptian King Tutankhamen’s Tomb with Howard Carter. Although Downton never flew planes or discovered ancient tombs, they did welcome (to Mr. Carson’s dismay) technological advances, such as electricity, gramophones, telephones, radio and even hair curlers.
Today life at Highclere is very different from how it might have looked during Downton‘s time, but the house has stayed with the family that has run it for centuries and is surviving. They have opened their doors, as many estates all over the country have, to tours and events, just the same we suspect Downton would have in this age. The estate runs on a much smaller staff now but that doesn’t mean the house has lost its protocol. Mr. Carson would be proud.