With the first two episodes of Downton Abbey now broadcast on Masterpiece Theatre (and also already available on DVD for the impatient), most American viewers have sorted out the ever-expanding cast and learned who's who. But there's one character that, though without any spoken lines, has appeared in almost every scene: Highclere Castle, the sprawling country house that plays the part of Downton Abbey itself. (Only the scenes in the servants' quarters were filmed on a constructed set.)
The home of the Carnavon family since 1679, the present castle is at least the third house to take advantage of the stunning location, a 6,000 acre estate in rural Berkshire. In 1839, the third Earl of Carnavon hired architect Sir Charles Barry to create a massive new home in the very latest style, known variously as English Renaissance Revival, or High Elizabethan. Barry knew all about grandeur – his most famous project was the Palace of Westminster, aka the Houses of Parliament – and he freely blended elements from architectural history for maximum impact in his design. Neither the third earl nor Sir Charles lived to see the house completed, and it wasn't until 1878, after nearly forty years of construction, that the fourth earl was finally able to declare Highclere Castle finished.
Yet like every noble hero, the Castle has weathered its share of drama. The fifth Earl of Carnavon and archaeologist Howard Carter famously discovered Tutankhamun's Tomb in 1922, and when the earl returned home with a priceless collection of Egyptian treasures, it was whispered that he'd brought the curse of the pharaoh back to Highclere, too. The Castle served as a hospital during World War I, and a home for evacuee children during World War II. More recently, it's become a popular site for destination and celebrity weddings, and has appeared as a setting in other films besides Downton Abbey.
But the economy that could support a massive Victorian estate has long vanished. The Castle's current owners, the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnavon, are open about the challenges facing their home, and the decay is as heartbreaking as it is staggering. (See here for pictures.) This is no simple contractor's trip to Home Depot; estimates for essential repairs are nearly £12 million.
While the fictional Downton Abbey could be rescued through an infusion of money from an American robber-baron's daughter, a modern suitor is much less appealing. Composer Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber has made an unsolicited offer of £100 million to buy Highclere and convert it into a museum to house his art collection. The Earl and Countess swiftly and pointedly rebuffed him ("We are not selling up to some rich man.") Instead they have applied for permission to develop a small portion of the estate for houses, a request that simultaneously has natural preservationists up in arms, while others with equally decaying historic estates watch closely for a precedent. (More about the controversy here.)
All of which we romantic Americans should probably consider as we watch Downton Abbey and wish we lived in the Castle. Ahh, it's not easy being grand....
See here for Highclere Castle's official website, with more photos, history, and information – including, if you're truly fortunate, arranging a wedding.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.