What You May Not Know About the Real Downton Abbey

(Last Updated On: March 4, 2022)

Downton Abbey. It pulls us in and stirs our emotions from the very first moment with its poignant and melodic opening sequence. Whether upstairs or belowstairs, a visit to Downton Abbey is like taking a step back in time – Post-Edwardian soap style. Downton Abbey: where love and envy, vices and virtues, loyalties and duplicities – which constitute human nature – are pitted against one another amongst class divides and changing times. Add to this superb storytelling, top-notch acting, a stately and picturesque setting – not to mention the elegant attire – and it’s easy to understand why so many people have found themselves swept into the world of Downton and yearning for a repeat visit.

Downton Abbey spans six seasons, and to the delight of its fans, has made a comeback with two movies so far; the second movie, The New Era, premieres on May 20th. Downton Abbey holds the record as the most nominated international TV series at the Primetime Emmy Awards, with 69 nominations and 15 wins. In 2011, Downton Abbey was awarded the Guinness World Record for ‘highest critical review ratings for a TV show’.

A Bit of History

Highclere Castle, which has been in the Carnarvon family since its rebuilding in 1679, is home to George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, and Lady Fiona Carnarvon. It was designed by architect Charles Barry, who also rebuilt the Palace of Westminster (also known as the Houses of Parliament). Highclere Castle’s estate covers 5000 acres of land, with an additional 1000 acres of gardens designed by renowned 18th-century landscaper, Capability Brown. The castle itself is 100,000 square feet – but even Lady Carnarvon isn’t sure how many rooms there are. She was told by an archivist that there were between 250 and 300 rooms and 50 to 80 bedrooms. The cost to run Highclere Castle is approximately $1.5 million per year, not including repairs!

Fact: Queen Elizabeth II was a frequent overnight guest when the 7th Earl, Lord Porchester, was in residence at Highclere. Lord Porchester, who shared the Queen’s passion for horses, was appointed as her racing manager. The Queen is godmother to the 8th Earl of Carnarvon.

Highclere Castle employs between 60 and 150 people between the ages of 16 and nearly 90, with much of the staff having worked at Highclere for 25 to 30 years. One staff member has been with the Carnarvon family for over 50 years. The butler, Colin Edwards, has served 3 generations of Earls at Highclere Castle and was trained by the butler to the Queen. 

Fact: The bells in the kitchen of Downton Abbey are replicas of the kitchen bells at Highclere Castle. Each bell has a distinctive pitch so the staff knows which room they are being summoned to.

Highclere Castle was turned into a military hospital by Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, for soldiers to recuperate in during World War I, just as it was in Season Two of Downton Abbey; the difference being that Lady Almina wasn’t visited by a lost heir who was reported missing on the Titanic, but survived, then went to war where he was burned beyond recognition – and finally, reappeared to convince Lady Edith that he was the Crawleys’ cousin Patrick and had a legitimate claim to the estate. Phew! (Yeah, we thought that was a bit far-fetched too.) 

Fact: Highclere also became a home for evacuated children during World War II. Their names are etched into the roof lead.

Downton Abbey’s dogs, Pharaoh and Isis, were named in honor of George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. The Earl was an amateur Egyptologist who, along with his assistant, Howard Carter, discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922, bringing them worldwide fame. Lord Carnarvon, his daughter Lady Evelyn, and Howard Carter were the first to enter the tomb during the official opening on February 16th, 1923. Not long after, the Earl died of blood poisoning after accidentally shaving an infected mosquito bite. The Earl’s death set the myth of the “Curse of the Pharaohs” into motion, as is reported in this newspaper article, dated April 5th, 1923, the date of the Earl’s death. 

Odd but True: According to Lady Carnarvon, The Earl’s dog, Susie, gave out a howl and died on the very same day as her master. The lights also went out in Cairo when the Earl died.

The 5th Earl stored his collection of Egyptian artifacts in a secret cabinet which was situated between the drawing and smoking rooms. The Earl sold off some of his treasures to The Met to pay inheritance taxes, but the Egyptian Exhibit, located in Highclere Castle’s cellar, still contains some of his discoveries from King Tut’s tomb. There is a secret door among the bookcases in the library, a mahogany desk and chair that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte in the music room, and an original van Dyck portrait of Charles the I that hangs in the dining room. 

Fact: The grand staircase, which is over 150 years old, is made of solid oak and took a year to carve by hand.

Filming Downton Abbey

The Carnarvons hired out Highclere Castle for the filming of Downton Abbey at the rate of 1 million pounds per hour. The funds went a long way towards needed repairs and upkeep that ran in the millions. It certainly didn’t hurt either that Highclere Castle’s visits doubled due to its Downton fame! 

Because the servants’ quarters at Highclere are modernized, the scenes below stairs were filmed at Ealing Studios in London. Scenes from Julian Fellowes,’ From Time to Time, also starring Hugh Bonneville and Maggie Smith, were shot at Ealing as well. 

The same redecorated set was used for Cora, Lady Mary, and Lady Edith’s bedroom. If you look closely, you will see that the view out the window of their boudoir is the same. 

Many of the costumes dated back to the early 20th century, and as a result, they were very fragile and couldn’t always be laundered. According to Sophie McShera, who played Daisy, the kitchen staffs’ costumes were not washed in order to preserve authenticity. Instead, patches were sewn into their costumes at the armpits to be removed and washed separately. 

Fact: It takes approximately 5 weeks to shoot an episode of Downton Abbey and approximately 26 weeks to shoot an entire season.

Truth and Fiction Collide

It was not uncommon in the late 19th and early 20th century for wealthy foreign women – referred to as “buccaneers” and “dollar princesses” – to marry British aristocrats. Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, (who was French) was the illegitimate daughter of banking heir Alfred de Rothschild. She was never publicly acknowledged by her father but he did leave her with a sizable fortune, which allowed her – like Lady Cora – to marry an Earl, thus procuring a title for herself while rescuing the estate.

The Downton Abbey Movie is inspired by a trip that King George and Queen Mary made in 1912 in which they spent four days with Earl and Lady Fitzwilliam at Wentworth Woodhouse. The entourage they brought with them was so large that they requested the use of 76 bedrooms. Wentworth, which is believed to be the largest private house (twice that of Buckingham Palace) in the United Kingdom has been used as a setting for various period dramas, including Victoria. It’s been suggested that Jane Austen may have had the Fitzwilliams and Wentworth Woodhouse in mind when she wrote Pride and Prejudice and brought Darcy Fitzwilliam and Pemberley into being. However, Lyme Park, where the 1995 version of Pride & Prejudice was filmed, is likewise believed to have been the inspiration for Pemberley. 

Odd but True: Remember the Turkish diplomat who died in Lady Mary’s bed after their tete-a-tete turned amorous? According to Julian Fellowes, the great Aunt of one of his friends chronicled in her diary the story of a diplomat who secretly entered the boudoir of a single lady, passed away in the lady’s bed, and was then carried back to his room to be discovered the following morning.

Captivating Cast Members

Elizabeth McGovern – aka Lady Crawley – is also a singer and songwriter in her own band, Sadie and the Hotheads. You can even catch Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) singing backup vocals on McGovern’s album How Not to Lose Things.

Laura Carmichael was working as a secretary for a doctor’s surgery when she got the call offering her the part of Lady Edith. Laura and Michael Fox – who plays the part of Andrew the footman – met on set and have been together since 2016.

Jim Carter, who plays Downton’s butler, Carson, met his wife Imelda Staunton during the National Theater production of Guys and Dolls in 1982. They wed a year later and have remained happily married for 39 years. The couple have acted in several films together, including the Downton Abbey Movie, which introduces Imelda Staunton as Lady Bagshaw. Their daughter, Bessie Carter, appears in Howards End, Cranford, and Doc Martin.

Would you believe Maggie Smith has never watched Downton Abbey? Her own harshest critic, she felt that if she watched herself on camera she would start picking apart her performance and questioning why she did this or that or what she could have done differently. In her words, “the best way to avoid becoming self-critical is simply not to watch!” I think we’d have to disagree with Dame Maggie. To observe her in some of her finest moments is to realize what a gifted actress she truly is. Who else could pull off the role of the Dowager Countess of Grantham with so much wit and finesse? 

Fact: Maggie Smith has won 58 competitive awards from 157 nominations throughout her career, including but not limited to: Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and a Tony. 

If you’re longing for more compelling viewing by Fellowes, be sure to check out Titanic, Doctor Thorne, Belgravia, The English Game, and his newest masterpiece, The Gilded Age. Fellowes has also written several novels: Belgravia, Snobs, and Past Imperfect.

Still looking to immerse yourself in the world of Downton Abbey? Then don’t forget to check out our Downton Abbey quizzes, where we will be testing your knowledge on all things Downton – both below stairs and above!