Highclere Castle is located in England’s southern county of Berkshire. The castle is the seat of the Earl of Carnarvon and has been owned by the Herbert family since 1679. The history of the estate may be traced back some 1,300 years when it was owned by the Bishops of Winchester.
George Reginald Oliver Molyneux Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, is the current owner of Highclere and lives with his wife, Lady Fiona. The Earl has two children from his first marriage, Lady Saoirse Herbert and George Kenneth Oliver Molyneux Herbert, Lord Porchester, and a son from his current marriage, The Honourable Edward Herbert; Her Majesty The Queen is the current Earl’s godmother.
The great house has undertaken various architectural renovations since the 17th century. It has seen itself redecorated in the Elizabethan style, and then transformed to a classical Georgian home. The changes continued in the 19th century when Charles Barry, a Renaissance revival architect known for his design of The Houses of Parliament, added the elevated tower and exterior bath stones that are present today.
Highclere is bordered by 1,000 private acres of land. The gardens also underwent a transformation in the 18th century, when landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown designed the estates gardens, which included some small decorative buildings, like The Temple of Diana, which can be seen below.
During the next century, Highclere became a great symbol of status within society. It was used for political gatherings and, for a short time, it became a hospital during World War I and a residence for evacuee children during the Second World War. Lady Almina, who was the Countess of the house at the time of the First World War, ran the recuperation and rehabilitation centre in many rooms of the house; one bedroom even became the surgeon’s theatre! Almina became an able and skilled nurse during the war years and her work did not go unnoticed. Hundreds of letters survive from patients and their family members who gave their eternal thanks for her generosity and dedicated hard work.
By the beginning of the 21st century, Highclere was in desperate need of restoration, costing thousands and thousands to complete.
The current Countess of Carnarvon has recently released two books based on the lives of two of Highclere’s Countesses. One of which is based on Lady Almina’s life and recalls her experiences during the First World War and the setting up of the war hospital. The book, titled Lady Almina and The Real Downton Abbey, also discusses soldiers experiences when recovering from their injuries within the grand castle grounds.
The second book that the Countess has released is called Lady Catherine and The Real Downton Abbey. This edition focuses on Lady Catherine, who married the 5th Earl’s son, Lord Porchester. At just the age of 19, Catherine was put in charge of around 80 staff and led the planning of lavish parties and banquets in the castle. Alongside this, she was faced with the threat of selling Highclere because of the scale of the death duties after the passing of the 5th Earl. The book also recalls the experiences of the staff both above and below the stairs, and how the castle became an important symbol for the war effort during the Second World War.
As the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, another George Herbert, helped discover the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922 with his partner Howard Carter, today there is an Egyptian exhibition in the cellars of Highclere to celebrate this achievement. The exhibition includes some of the artefacts the Earl discovered or purchased during his time in Egypt, which were found in storage in the house in 1987. The British museum has lent back some of the items originally from the Herbert and Carter’s explorations. Carter stayed at Highclere occasionally, and the Earl worked with him for 16 years before his death in 1923.
The 7th Earl, Henry Herbert, became racing manager for Her Majesty The Queen in 1969 and was well acquainted with the Monarch; The Queen was a frequent visitor to Highclere up until his death in 2001.
The magnificent house is most notably recognised from the television series Downton Abbey, which is the seat of the fictional Earl of Grantham and his family. In the programme, Downton is based in Yorkshire, near the town of Rippon. However, it is in fact in Berkshire, near the parish of Highclere, around halfway between London and Bath.
Before the castle was chosen for the set of the hit television series, the house was in desperate need of repair with an estimated at £12 million for water damage, collapsed ceilings and crumbling stone. The family were having to live in a cottage on the estate as up to 50 rooms were uninhabitable, with only the ground floor and a few on the first floor being usable. The popularity of Downton Abbey has seen the fortunes of the Carnarvons turned around, drawing more and more visitors to the house each year, enabling them to repair and restore the house to its former glory, as can be seen in some of the images below.
‘The Saloon’ and is effectively an atrium in the house, the first room off the entrance hall, with a very high ceiling. The rooms on the first floor all come off of the landing which overlooks this seating area from all angles. In Downton, it has been used for parties with guests milling around and dancing. Note the carved arches to the right and the coats of arms on the balustrades of the landing. The wall coverings in this room are leather, brought back from Spain in the 16th century and installed at Highclere in the 1860s.
The Library is accessible from the doors either side of the fireplace. The open door seen above leads to the Drawing Room, which sits between the Music Room and the Morning Room which are not used on the show. The Music Room has been used by the 7th Earl to display Egyptian artefacts when the castle was first opened to the public and contains the desk used by Napoleon, which is thought to have come from the Palace of Fontainbleau.
The Drawing Room is a large sitting room with green silken wallpaper and white panelling beneath. A large chandelier hangs from the high ceiling and a piano sits in the corner. This is another room frequently seen on Downton, as it is used as Cora’s sitting room, where she is often seen reading, sewing or taking tea.
The dining room of the castle also features on Downton Abbey, with many key dinner scenes being filmed in this room. Much of the furniture was created for the dining room at Highclere specifically, and it holds one of Van Dyck’s famous portraits of Charles I on horseback, which dominates the whole of the room. The rest of the room is filled with portraits of the Canarvon family who played a part in The Civil War in the seventeenth century.
If you visit Highclere, the room is not set out in the way that is shown in the image above. Some pieces of furniture are moved around in order to create a greater space in the centre of the room in order for visitors to inspect the room fully.
The Library at Highclere is magnificent and stretches along most of the side of the castle; it holds over 5,650 books. The room has a feel of a gentleman’s club to it, with Barry also designing such a club in London. The 4th Earl was part of Disraeli’s cabinet during Queen Victoria’s reign and so the room has seen many a political debate. In Downton, this is where many family gatherings occur during the daytime. The north-end of the room comes off the entrance hall and has access to The Saloon and the Music Room at the southerly end.
To get to the upper floors, one must first ascend the stairs. The stairs feature heavily in the television series, with one iconic scene for fans being the moment when Lady Mary appeared at the top of the staircase in her wedding dress in series three. Images, such as the one below, show how the natural stone of the building is visible throughout the house and is not covered by tapestries or draping material as seen in some heritage sites.
The Red Bedroom, also called Stanhope, seen below, was where the death of a Turkish Ambassador occurred after a late-night rendezvous with Lady Mary, the Earl of Grantham’s eldest daughter, in the first series of Downton. Note the red silken wallpaper, recalling its decoration from The Prince of Wales’s visit in 1895. Most of the bedrooms are used by the Canarvon family, although they are not always displayed in the same way on-screen.
The 8th Countess, who currently resides at Highclere, has been renovating the some 40-50 rooms on the second floor, using prints and drawings from the archives recording some of the visitors to Highclere; these are not open to the public. However, most of the eleven bedrooms on the first floor are available for the public to see.
Most bedrooms have a dressing room attached to them and some even have en-suites. Most bedrooms are named, such as The Red Bedroom and the Mercia Bedroom. The picture below is of the room used as Lady Edith’s room in Downton Abbey.
Highclere Castle is open to the public for some of the year, including Easter, a few months in the Summer, and for a short while in December. The Carnarvon family reside at the castle during the winter and vacate to a cottage within the estate during the summer. It costs £13 per adult for admission to the castle and gardens or £20 to see the Egyptian exhibition as well. Tickets can be booked online in advance.
Photo credit: with thanks to anon, © Highclere Castle 2014 and Kristin Brenemen via photopin cc
Fantastic piece. Made me feel like I was actually there!
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