Who are the privileged owners of Downton Abbey, the English country estate at the heart of the famous TV drama? In the minds of the tens of millions of fans of the series, which was first broadcast in 2010 and set around 100 years earlier, Downton will always belong to Robert and Cora Crawley, 7th Earl and Countess of Grantham.
The Earl, also called Lord Grantham, is a traditionalist who’s immensely proud of his heritage. The Countess, Lady Grantham, is a forward-looking American heiress, one of the so-called ‘dollar princesses’ whose dowries bolstered British aristocrats’ fortunes during the late 19th century and beyond. Together the Earl and Countess steer their estate through the turbulent years of the early 20th century.
Lord and Lady Carnarvon of Highclere Castle
Each episode of Downton Abbey, in addition to the 2019 film, is so beautifully made that it’s easy to forget the Earl, Countess and other characters are fictional. They were created by screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who possesses a noble title of his own: Lord Fellowes of West Stafford (a village that’s a couple of hours’ drive from glorious Dartmouth, where Elite Titles is based).
Fellowes is friends with the real owners of the estate, George and Fiona Herbert, 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Downton Abbey is in fact Highclere Castle in Hampshire, a Grade I listed stately home surrounded by 5,000 acres of countryside. Highclere has been the seat of the Earls of Carnarvon for more than 300 years and brings great authenticity to Fellowes’ drama.
Like their fictional counterparts, the real Earl and Countess tend to use their alternative titles, Lord and Lady Carnarvon, except on formal occasions. For example, Highclere’s employees call them Lord and Lady. (This is a traditional form of address for the nobility, with the exception of Dukes and Duchesses.)
TV Stars in Their Own Right
Born in 1956, the affable Lord Carnarvon is godson to the Queen. He inherited the earldom – and Highclere – in 2001, shortly after his marriage. As Lord Carnarvon explained in Secrets of the Manor House, he and his wife are ‘long-term stewards of the estate’. They have the daunting task of preserving it for future generations.
Lady Carnarvon is an established author. She publishes books about her husband’s ancestors and Highclere’s notable guests, who include the Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and Edward VII.
Welcoming the Public to Highclere
While Lady Carnarvon ‘lives the real lady of the manor life’, in the words of British Heritage Travel magazine, she certainly isn’t idle. She and her husband have a hands-on approach to looking after Highclere Castle and paying the maintenance and renovation costs (which run into hundreds of thousands of pounds annually).
Their work is an excellent example of how to keep a stately home afloat – and thriving – in the 21st century. As Lady Carnarvon remarked in The New York Times, Highclere ‘has to work in the modern world – it has to be a business’.
The Carnarvons, being as pragmatic as they are aristocratic, open their doors to thousands of Downton fans each year. Highclere hosts grand weddings and luxurious lunches. There are talks, tours and concerts. Aristocratic afternoon teas are served in the grounds.
Downton Raises Highclere’s Profile Again
The aristocratic couple have been working hard at Highclere for 20 years now, but the past 12 months have arguably been the hardest yet. Lord Carnarvon spoke frankly to the makers of Christmas at Highclere about the ‘big hit’ the business has taken financially following lockdown closures and restrictions.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Quite possibly, yes. Downton Abbey, which paved the way for other aristocratic dramas, such as Netflix’s recent success, Bridgerton, still has stories to tell. As high-society magazine Tatler reported, a sequel to the Downton movie is due to be filmed in June. That’ll surely boost Highclere’s profile – and bank balance – once more.
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