We’re all familiar with the towering turrets, sprawling gardens, and plush interior spaces of “Downton Abbey,” but when the cameras stop rolling, the Crawley estate is actually Highclere Castle, a Victorian mansion near Newbury (about an hour west of central London), and home to the Earl of Carnarvon and his family.
Interestingly, “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes had Highclere Castle in mind while initially writing the series, which debuted in 2010. Luckily, Fellowes is a longtime friend of the Earl and Countess who call the estate home—George Herbert and Lady Fiona—and was able to secure the site for the show. “I love Highclere for Downton because of its personal statement,” Fellowes has said. “When you come down the drive it is a statement of aristocratic confidence.”
While most TV shows favor interiors specially designed on sound stages, excluding only the servants’ quarters and state bedrooms Highclere’s marble columns, saloon papered with 400-year-old Spanish leather, and ample portraits of family ancestors, make it the perfect exterior and interior for this period drama.
Highclere Castle has a rich history apart from its connection to “Downton Abbey.” The fifth Earl of Carnarvon, Lord Porchester, helped discover King Tut’s tomb. Thanks to him, there is now an Egyptian exhibition room in the castle’s (no-doubt luxurious) basement.
Lord Porchester’s wife, Lady Almina, the real-life Edith Crawley, turned the castle into a hospital for World War I soldiers. Fittingly, various episodes in “Downton Abbey’s” second season mirror this very incident.
Earls and Lords are not the only royalty to have walked the castle’s halls—Queen Elizabeth often stayed overnight, as she and the now deceased seventh Earl were close friends.
Today, the Earl, Countess, and their children live in a modest cottage on the estate during the summer when the castle is open to the public, and return to Highclere for the winter. The opulence of Highclere is all too apparent when watching “Downton Abbey,” but its wear and tear is concealed well—the castle is in need of serious repairs. Many of the rooms are uninhabitable with holes in the ceiling and mold growing on the walls. It has been estimated that a full repair of the grounds would cost $16 million.
Architecture and Décor
The 3rd Earl of Carnarvon commissioned Sir Charles Barry, who designed the Houses of Parliament, to transform Highclare into a Jacobethan castle from its previous Georgian style, and the mansion was completed in 1878. The castle’s style mixes elements from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, including the Tudor arches and parapets that make the castle so striking.
The exact number of room in the castle is unclear, and even the current occupant isn’t quite sure. Lady Carnarvon told the Daily Telegraph: “I suppose if you know how many rooms you’ve got, you haven’t got a very big house.”
According to Donal Woods, “Downton Abbey’s” production designer: “The great thing about Highclere’s rooms is that they are all different in style, even though overall the house is Gothic Revival with Jacobethan and Italianate influences.” Most of the decor elements visible while watching “Downton Abbey” are part of the actual Highclere estate. Set designers enhanced the rooms with some period furniture, but Highclere’s décor is not allowed to be moved without specific permission.
Notable furnishings in the home include a mahogany desk and chair that belonged to Napoleon (“They were bought by the third Earl of Carnarvon in 1821 after Napoleon’s death,” Lady Carnarvon says), a Van Dyke portrait of Charles hung in the dining room, and a Grand Oak staircase that is the centerpiece of the home.
To fund the repairs, the Carnarvons allow “Downton Abbey” fans to tour the castle for a $27 ticket price—and many of these fans spend even more money on souvenirs like guidebooks and shirts. The castle can even be used for weddings. The price of a Downton-themed nuptials? Around $22,000.
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