I proudly admit it: I am a Downton Abbey fan. More important, I am a fan of English architecture and design, and what better example is there than Highclere Castle, the historic home of the eighth Earl of Carnarvon and the inspiration behind the hit series?
This rather large dwelling, the centerpiece of the 1,000-acre estate in Hampshire, is located atop an Iron Age hill in the English countryside. The current home stands on the site of an earlier structure that was built for the Bishops of Winchester. Since 1679, the Carnarvon family has lived on the estate. The third Earl of Carnarvon, at age 38, began the remodel and rebuilding of the castle, engaging the talents of Sir Charles Barry, who had built the Houses of Parliament. A combination of the Jacobethan and Italianate styles, this property has all the grandeur of a palace built for royalty! Construction of a home this size obviously takes several years; and as a result, several builders and architects were involved. Upon Barry’s death in 1860, an associate, Thomas Allom, was hired to supervise the work that was completed in 1878.
The famous landscape architect, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, designed the grounds. Often referred to as ‘England’s greatest gardener,’ Brown created a sort of garden-less landscape, with rolling meadows approaching the house. The gardens are full of architectural follies and mature trees—some of which were planted as seeds in the 18th century, while others were added by subsequent earls.
One interesting part of this home’s story begins in 1895, when the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, 31-year-old George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, married 19-year-old Almina Victoria Maria Alexandra Wombwell. She was the love child of her mother and banking tycoon Alfred de Rothschild. Times being what they were in polite society, Almina brought the Rothschild wealth into the marriage, safeguarding—for the time being—the future of Highclere, which had fallen on difficult times.
Because it was so important to her biological father that Almira be accepted in polite society, Sir Alfred pulled some strings to arrange for the Prince of Wales to visit Highclere shortly after she took up residence there. Money was spent like running water to ‘gild the lily’ and impress England’s future king. The young 19-year-old was lauded for her hostess skills, thus securing her place in society.
As for Almira’s husband, the wealth allowed him to support interesting hobbies. The fifth Earl was fascinated with Egyptology. In 1907, he began funding archeologists Howard Carter’s excavations in the various valleys of Egypt. They struck ‘gold,’ so to speak, when they opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings—the largest cache discovered intact of an Egyptian king. Some still say it was this discovery that began the curse of Tutankhamun. In March 1923, Carnarvon developed an infection due to a razor’s nick on a mosquito bite on his skin. Days later, on April 5, he passed away in Cairo. Lady Carnarvon ended up selling many of the items to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to pay taxes upon his death. The lower level of Highclere, which once housed the scullery and kitchen, is now home to what remained of the earl’s Egyptian collection of artifacts (many of which were not discovered until the 1980s), which can now be viewed by the public. The fifth Earl’s final resting place is on a hill at Highclere, overlooking the house and grounds.
Now, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon, George Reginald Oliver Molyneux Herbert, and his second wife, Fiona J. M. Aitken, run and live at Highclere. Taking on the project of this great house was very daunting. The home had been vacant for many years and had fallen (once again) in a sad state of repair. Fortunately, the couple’s friend, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, has helped save the day with the popularity of the show by drawing tourists from all over to world to visit.
For more information or to plan your visit, go to highclerecastle.co.uk. The Countess of Carnarvon also has chronicled Highclere's history in her book, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey.