While Downton Abbey is a fictional story, the home where the Grantham’s live does exist. In reality Downton Abbey is Highclere Castle, one of the world’s most famous homes. Located in England, it’s not the Grantham’s whose stories the walls would tell, but the story of the Carnarvon family, an aristocratic family that has played host to Kings and Queens, nobilities and celebrities.
Lord and Lady Carnarvon’s ancestors have funded expeditions that have made world headlines like the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. In fact, centuries-old Egyptian relics are nestled inside secret compartments within the walls of Highclere. The basement of the castle is like a time machine, with replicas of the tomb.
Make no mistake, Downton Abbey is fiction, however, some of the story-line is woven with true tales of the once upon a time of Highclere. Perhaps Lady Sybil was a reflection of the abundantly wealthy Fifth Countess of Carnarvon, Lady Almina, who traded her wealthy and prestigious aristocratic life to serve the wounded officers from the battlefront in the military hospital, complete with operating theater, the was based in Highclere Castle during the First World War.
Anyone who has watched Downton Abbey knows that it is based during the Edwardian era. It was during this era that Highclere Castle was the social venue of the most elite. HRH The Prince of Wales, the future King of England, gathered his guests for a whopping thirty thousand dollar extravagance, for food alone, during the MOST extravagant shooting party in the castle’s history.
Sometimes, pockets ran dry living the life of such extravagance. It’s what happened to the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon. He sought a rich wife to improve his financial fortune. She was, like Lady Grantham, American, her name was Almina Wombell, banking giant, Alfred De Rothschild’s illegitamate daughter. The Earl padded his wallet with her outrageous wealth and the new Countess gained a title.
Long before home mortgage protection, the end of the war in 1918 launched political and social changes that ended in ruin for even the wealthiest Bristish estates. Income tax increased and forced families to sell homes that had been part of their heritage for hundreds of years. Demolition and ruin became a standard for many great estates. Highclere Castle would never be the same, but it survived.
Today the owners face new challenges.
Now, 1300 years rich in English history, Highclere Castle has a staggering million dollar upkeep annually. Lord and Lady Carnarvon aren’t the same nobility of their ancestors. Long past are the days of opulence and practicality governs the modern-day Lord and Lady. Much remains similar since the 17th century owners moved in–the 50 bedroom Victorian home, built for the third and fourth Earls sits on property larger than New York‘s Central Park, covering more than 1,000 acres. It’s architecture the best nobility could buy–that of Sir Charles Barry, the same architect who designed the Palace of Westminster. Highclere was completed in 1878. It boasts a Saloon, similar to a modern-day home theater, with a fifty foot ceiling. The vaulted ceiling offers high-quality performance acoustics.
Perhaps the pamphlet in the seat in front of you on the airplane for emergency evacuation are based on Highclere’s Fire Evacuation plan, requiring maids to slide through tunnels of iron hoops covered in canvas. Even then they knew this was risky, therefore requiring maids to put on a sweater before entering the canvas tunnel.
Like any home, sometimes the neighbors aren’t willing to accept the same interest. Andrew Lloyd-Webber, whom by the way was given the rank of Baron by Her Majesty, protests the current owners desire to develop the fringes of the estate creating quite the zoning issue.
I suppose it just goes to show that sometimes, living in a castle isn’t necessarily a fairy-tale.