For those of you who have been sleeping for the past last year, Downton Abbey is a fabulous show from the UK that has swept America into its very proper embrace.
And for those of you who watch the show, then you already know that the true star of the show is Highclere Castle.
Highclere started as a humble manor house for the Bishops of Winchester, who resided there for over 800 years. Some of the present day gardens can be traced back to the Bishops ~ can you imagine if those fruit trees could talk? Oh, the stories they would tell.
Sometime in 1679, the Herbert family, the Earls of Pembroke and ancestors of the Carnarvon family acquired the property. After a few bequeathings, Henry Herbert was made the first Earl of Carnarvon in 1793 by King George III. Why is this important? Because the Carnarvon family still live in the home to this day.
In fact, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon discovered the Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, in 1922 with his archaeological colleague, Howard Carter.
Some say there is a ‘Mummy’s Curse’ on the earl. He died a year after the discovery from a mosquito bite and at the same time he died, the lights in Cairo went out. Kind of freaky, I know. But there’s more ~ back in England on the night of the earl’s death, his favorite dog Susie, howled and died.
Mummy’s curse or just strange coincidence? You decide.
In the basement of Highclere Castle you can visit the Egyptian exhibit that houses several of the earl’s discoveries. There isn’t really a mummy there, but who knows? The spirit of King Tut might be lingering there still.
You might be wondering, since there is an Egyptian exhibit in the basement, where are the kitchens and servants quarters that you see in Downton Abbey?
Those are all filmed at the Ealing Studios just a short drive from the castle.
Even with the kitchens filmed off-site, there are many rooms they DO use for the show. With over two hundred rooms in the castle, you’d think that wouldn’t be too difficult to manage. There are so many rooms, the current owners, the 8th Earl and Countess ~ Geordie and Fiona to their friends, don’t know the exact number, but estimate between 200 – 300 total. Of the 40 to 50 bedrooms, only 15 of them are in use with the others being used for storage. My antique loving heart would die for a chance to peruse all the treasures lurking within the walls of Highclere Castle!
Here’s a few fun facts about the castle that you might not have known:
- The large painting in the dining room is of King Charles I by Anthony van Dyck.
- The bells shown in the kitchen of Downton Abbey are replicas of ones in the kitchens of Highclere. Of the originals at Highclere, each one has a distinctive tone so the servants know which room is calling without having to look at the name.
- The library has 5,650 books! Can I please live there?
- The creator of the show named it ‘Abbey’ as a nod to the time before King Henry VIII took over all the ecclesiastical properties in England, when the manor was home to the Bishops.
- During WWII Highclere Castle became a home for evacuated children who had been shipped out of London due to the Blitz. Hmm, is anyone else thinking of Narnia?
- The mahogany desk in the living room belonged to Napoleon. It’s the desk Lord Grantham often sits at during the show.
- And finally… Lady Almina ~ the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, turned Highclere Castle into a hospital for WWI soldiers in 1914. There is a book chronicling her achievements, you can check it out on Amazon here.
It’s interesting how the show follows some of the castle’s history. I wonder if we’ll see children arriving in a few seasons when WWII starts. Or if they’ll ever introduce an Egyptian storyline? It’s all terribly fascinating, don’t you agree?
The following two videos give a glimpse of the magnificence of the castle and the Downton Abbey cast’s thoughts on working with such a grand set.
And the cast’s reaction to getting eleven Emmy nominations. Give the first ad a second, then you can skip it.
Are you a Downton fan? Have you ever visited Highclere Castle? Do you plan to now that the show is a huge hit? Where’s your favorite castle?