Unusable rooms, a lost village and Tutankhamun: the secrets of Downton Abbey’s Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle, the real-life Downton Abbey, has witnessed to a number of notable historical moments that rival anything involving the Crawleys. Here are seven things you might not know...

Highclere Castle

As the sight of Highclere Castle emerges from the mist, you’d be forgiven for imagining the piano notes that form the theme of hit TV drama (and now film) Downton Abbey. Highclere was used as the home of the fictional Earl of Grantham and his family. The real house, however, has a past every bit as dramatic as any scandal that could descend on the Crawley. Here’s a little more information about the house, followed by seven surprising facts…

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Where is Highclere Castle?

Highclere Castle is an imposing country house on the North Wessex Downs in southern England that stands as the setting for Downton Abbey.

Can you visit Highclere Castle?

Highclere castle is open for around 65 days each year in Easter and during the summer, as well as for special events. Find out more at highclerecastle.co.uk

How old is Highclere Castle?

Though there have been many buildings on the site of the current house, the castle as it is known today was finished in 1842, in the Jacobean style. Read more about the castle’s rich history below…


1

Even Mr Carson wouldn’t know all of Highclere’s secrets

Highclere Castle is the country seat of the Earls of Carnarvon. Set in 6,000 acres of land, it has so many rooms that even the current Lady Carnarvon isn’t sure of the number – it’s believed to be about 300, but some are unusable. At a glance it bears some resemblance to the Houses of Parliament, which can be attributed to the fact that both were designed by architect Charles Barry.

2

Highclere has Anglo-Saxon roots

There have been many buildings on the site of the current house: one of the Anglo-Saxon charters mentions a structure in AD 749; there was a medieval palace belonging to the Bishops of Winchester; and a much-admired, red-brick Tudor house.

The current house was finished in 1842 in the Jacobethan style, the Victorians being fans of reviving 16th- and 17th-century architecture. Architect Charles Barry, who was an admirer of the Italian Renaissance, added Italianate motifs throughout.

3

The first Earl moved an entire village

In 1793, Henry Herbert, a British Whig politician, was made the 1st Earl of Carnarvon by King George III. He had previously inherited Highclere, then a square mansion, from his uncle. Herbert had the grounds redesigned by famous landscape gardener Capability Brown, resulting in the nearby village (also called Highclere) being moved to make way.

4

Modern Canada was born at Highclere Castle

The 4th Earl of Carnarvon, Henry Herbert, was Secretary of State for the Colonies. It’s believed that he drafted the British North America Act here. This act, granted royal assent in March 1867, united the British colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into the self-governing Dominion of Canada.

5

Tut-mania was born here, too

The 5th Earl, George Herbert, was involved in one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century: Tutankhamun’s tomb.

He was an amateur Egyptologist who often spent his holidays in Egypt, collecting antiques. And it was he, in 1914, who employed archaeologist Howard Carter to dig at the Valley of the Kings. World War I and limited discoveries led the Earl to decide, in late 1922, to stop funding the project.

Then he received a telegram from Carter, which read: “At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; recovered same for your arrival; congratulations.”

Lord Carnarvon, along with his daughter Lady Evelyn, travelled to Egypt to witness the official tomb opening and, with Carter, became the first people in modern times to enter it.

That was on 16 February 1923. In March that year, Carnarvon suffered from a mosquito bite that became infected. His death on 5 April fuelled the myth of the ‘Mummy’s Curse’.

6

Highclere was both a hospital and a children’s home

In the second series of Downton Abbey, the house becomes a convalescent hospital for officers in World War I. It was a case of art imitating life.

In 1914, Almina, Countess of Carnarvon opened the house to wounded soldiers and even assisted as a nurse. Highclere would provide shelter again during World War II, as a home for evacuated children.

7

Highclere was once the setting for a very different period piece

It’s best known for Downton, but Highclere has also been a location for a decidedly sillier period piece: it was Totleigh Towers in nineties TV sitcom Jeeves and Wooster, adapted from PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories.

Emma Williams is BBC History Revealed‘s staff writer

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This content first appeared in the September 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed