Ever watched Downton Abbey? It’s a wonderfully intense drama rich with history, period costumes, and stunning settings. Many of the location scenes are shot in Berkshire, with Highclere Castle being the centrepiece. Why, even Tatler has nicknamed the current home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon ‘Downtonia’.
Highclere has been in the Carnarvon family for over 300 years, and it is a truly spectacular place. Set in over 5000 acres, with a 1000 acres of gardens, it’s become an icon of elegance across the world. But what is its history? How did it all begin?
The early years
Early records and analysis of the landscaping of the area show Highclere existed as a ‘thing’ as far back as the 8th century. An Anglo-Saxon charter suggests an Iron Age hill fort existed in 749AD. This had mutated into a medieval palace by the 12th century, which in turn was then replaced by a Tudor mansion built in red brick. However, it was in the 17th century that it was renovated by its then owner resident, Robert Dormer – the 1st Earl of Carnarvon.
A brush with the Victorians
Soon after Victoria had ascended the throne, the Carnarvon family decided to give Highclere a significant overhaul. They employed the services of the top architect in the country, Sir Charles Barry FRS RA. Barry had rebuilt the Palace of Westminster, and the Carnarvon’s felt only the best would do. Within just a few years, he transformed Highclere Castle into what we know now, with its stunning Georgian frontage set in magnificent surrounds.
The Carnarvon family, as aristocrats, have entertained kings, queens, nobility, and celebrities. They’ve experienced feast and famine financially, and could have let Highclere go many times when burdened by debt. But they’ve not given in, however, and lady luck has most certainly played her part in the survival of the link between the family and the castle.
During the Edwardian era, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, enjoyed a particularly lavish lifestyle. Then Highclere employed twenty five servants and the domestic budget was hefty. With entertaining and extravagant expenditure, Herbert landed the family in huge debt and nearly lost the family their home. However luck was on his side. The Rothschild’s came to his rescue.
Alfred de Rothschild had an illegitimate daughter, Almina. To the man’s credit, he was prepared to acknowledge her and offered her in marriage to Herbert, along with a dowry of £150,000. This sum cleared Herbert’s debts. But that was not all. Almina also came with an inheritance of half a million pounds; enough for her to buy into high society.
It was a match made in heaven for the two families. Herbert regained his financial stature, and German-based Rothschild had a foothold in highest tier of English society.
Branching into Egyptology
This fortunate change in circumstances afforded Herbert an opportunity to explore new found fascinations. He became obsessed with Egyptology and developed a strong friendship with Howard Carter, then a keen amateur archaeologist. The two sailed to Egypt in 1907, on a quest to discover Tutankhamun’s tomb. Sadly, Herbert’s obsession was to be the death of him, for he died of blood poisoning and pneumonia in Cairo in 1923; a story of the curse of Tutankhamun exists to this day.
However, with that said, Herbert’s interest and support for the subject has meant that many Egyptian artefacts have been exhibited at Highclere, and given the public a wonderful opportunity to too feel the magic of Egypt.
Stunning garden design
One of the features of Highclere Castle that draws the crowds is its glorious gardens. They were designed by Capability Brown, of course; the Carnarvon family would only employ the best. Brown was a great believer in blending the landscape with the surrounds of a house, such that the senses are stimulated by the wonders of nature. Today, Highclere’s gardens are as much a ‘must see’ as they will have been when they were designed. They are a feast to behold, with open parkland areas and secret gardens all generating a stunning vista from the property.
The current resident is the 8th Earl, George Herbert; he is the godson of the Queen. He and his family are just as determined as George’s ancestors were to keep Highclere ‘alive’ and thriving. Of course, the fame of Downton Abbey has brought fame and much needed funds for the estate’s upkeep. Apparently, the deal agreed for the drama series amounted to the hiring of Highclere for the sum of £1million per hour!
But putting an impressive hourly rate aside, Downton Abbey has been an exciting turn for Highclere. It’s become a globally recognised tourist attraction. And, not only do you have the delights of Downtonia to enjoy, but the Tutankhamun exhibition is still running in the castle’s cellar. So if you’re wondering how to fill some time, why not put Highclere on your list of weekend visits? Breathe in history and enjoy an elegant modern cup of tea at the same time.