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Highclere Castle: not just Downton Abbey

Highclere Castle, located in England’s southern county of Berkshire, is the seat of the Earl of Carnarvo,n and has been owned by the Herbert family since 1679. The history of the estate may be traced back some 1,300 years when 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. 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 into 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.

Bordered by 1,000 private acres of land. The gardens underwent a transformation in the 18th century when landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown designed the estate’s gardens.

During the next century, Highclere became a great symbol of status within society. Its many uses included a venue for political gatherings, a hospital during World War I and a residence for evacuee children during the Second World War.

Lady Almina, Countess of the house during 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.

The current Countess of Carnarvon released two books based on the lives of two of Highclere’s Countesses. One based on Lady Almina’s life recalling her experiences during the First World War and the setting up of the war hospital. The book, Lady Almina and The Real Downton Abbey, discuss the experiences of soldiers when recovering from their injuries within the grand castle grounds.

The second book, Lady Catherine and The Real Downton Abbey, 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 recollects 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.

Just a small section of Highclere's gardens.

Just a small section of Highclere’s gardens.

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. They were discovered 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 great house is notably recognised from the television series Downton Abbey. It acts as the fictional seat of the character the Earl of Grantham and his family. In the series, 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 chosen for the set of the hit television series, the house was in desperate need of repair, with an estimated £12 million for water damage, collapsed ceilings and crumbling stone. The family had 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 prosperity of the Carnarvon family turn around as thousands of visitors flock to the house each year. The revenue earned enables them to repair and restore the house to its former glory.

The impressive ceiling above the stairs at Highclere.

The impressive ceiling above the Saloon at Highclere.

The Saloon is effectively an atrium in the house and is the first room off of the entrance hall, with a very high ceiling. The rooms on the first floor all come off of the landing that overlooks this seating area from all angles. In television series, 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 seen nor used on the show. The Music Room had been utilised by the 7th Earl to display Egyptian artefacts when the castle first opened to the public. It contains the desk used by Napoleon, which is thought to have come from the Palace of Fontainebleau.

The Drawing Room is a large sitting room with green silken wallpaper and white panelling below. A large chandelier hangs from the high ceiling and a piano sits in the corner. This room may be commonly seen on Downton, as it is Cora’s sitting room, where she often is reading, sewing or taking tea.

The Dining Room of the castle also features on the programme, with many key dinner scenes being filmed in this room. Much of the furniture was created specifically for the dining room at Highclere 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 contains portraits of the Carnarvon family who played a part in The Civil War in the 17th century.

The Library at Highclere is magnificent and stretches along most of the side of the castle; it holds over 5,650 books. The 4th Earl was part of Disraeli’s cabinet during Queen Victoria’s reign and so the room has seen many political debates.

When watching Downton, one may notice this is where many family gatherings occur during the daytime. The north end of the room comes from 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 walk up 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 the third season.

The Red Bedroom, also called Stanhope, was where the death of a Turkish Ambassador occurred after a late-night tryst with Lady Mary, the Earl of Grantham’s eldest daughter, in the first season of the show. Most of the bedrooms are used by the Carnarvon family, although they are displayed 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. She has used prints and drawings from the archives of Highclere. These rooms are not open to the public. However, most of the eleven bedrooms on the first floor are available for the public to see.

Highclere Castle is open to the public for a part 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.

Photo credits: Downton Abbey 🙂, Highclere Gardens 4, IMG_9023_4_5_tonemapped via photopin (license)

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