Home to the Carnarvon family since 1679, Highclere Castle was the seat of the fifth earl of Carnarvon – a certain George Herbert, who notoriously died after opening Tutankhamun’s tomb. He was a man with a passion for fast cars and archaeology who had just one small problem: the ruinously expensive family pile was falling down and he was broke. Enter Almina Wombwell, illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild and heir to his banking fortune. They married in 1895.
But his passion for fast cars ended in a crash and he was sent to Egypt to recuperate. Now flush with Almina’s cash, he used it to fund Howard Carter’s excavations there. On November 26 1922 the adventurous earl and the archaeologist Carter peered through a crack into Tutankhamun’s tomb. “Can you see anything?” Lord Carnarvon is said to have asked as Carter. “Yes, wonderful things!” Carter replied. Broadcast around the globe, the discovery is often billed as the world’s first mass media event.
According to the current Lord Carnarvon, some items from the famous archeological adventure to Egypt remain at Highclere Castle. But that’s not the only archaeological connection. Recent investigations in the castle grounds have also revealed an array of Bronze and Iron Age features, including two hill forts, a number of tumuli and ancient trackways, all sitting right there on Herbert’s doorstep.
Well, obviously it looks familiar, its the backdrop to the drama of the wretched Grantham family who are about to return for a fifth series to grace the screens of millions. But there’s more to it than that. Although Highclere was built as a typical Georgian mansion, it was re-designed in 1838 by Charles Berry, just after he finished the Houses of Parliament. Suddenly, the familiarity of it’s gothic exterior starts to make a lot more sense.
Just like season two, in which Downton Abbey is plunged into the first world war, Almina elected to turn Highclere Castle into a hospital for convalescent soldiers. Of course, this was no ordinary hospital. Almina assembled a team of heart-stoppingly pretty nurses who, she insisted, were to wear full make up while on duty and each soldier was assigned his own red-lipped nightingale. Her good deeds did not stop there, and she opened another private hospital in London, eventually adding pregnancy terminations (illegal in Britain until 1967) to the menu of services in order to generate some much needed cash.
Highclere Castle is not just the backdrop to the drama of Downton Abbey, its the inspiration for many of Julian Fellowe’s plotlines too. If you really want to know more, you can read all about in a book by William Cross. Suffice it to say, its a caustic mix of affairs, questionable heirs, tax-fraud and money laundering, which all ends with Almina being declared bankrupt at the age of 75 having been shopped to the Inland Revenue by her own son who hated her so much he shut off her favourite room at Highclere, where it remained locked until after his own death). Almina moved to a small house in Bristol with no hot water, where in 1969 she died alone and in relative poverty after choking on a piece of chicken at the age of 93. Enough to make any episode of the Grantham’s family life seem pretty tame.
By 2009, Highclere Castle was again ravaged by damp and rot. Collapsing under the weight of its own upkeep, at least 50 rooms were uninhabitable and its stone turrets were falling into disrepair. But then it became one of Britain’s best-known stately homes. It now receives up to 1,200 paying visitors a day, which have funded around £12 million of repairs. Redundant buildings have been turned into tearooms, visitor numbers more than doubled – all just enough for Andrew Lloyd-Webber to have his offer to buy the ruinously expensive property to house his art collection turned down.
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