The biggest star in the Downton firmament is the house
itself. Highclere Castle is a huge country house located
at the crossroads between Winchester and Oxford,
London and Bristol. The estate at Highclere includes
an Iron Age hill fort, and has been inhabited for 1,300
years. It is the home of the Earls of Carnarvon.
The parkland and gardens were designed by the 18th
century landscape designer Capability Brown.
The castle was built for the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon by Sir
Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of
Parliament, beginning in 1842. It’s easy to see the
similarity between its gothic style and that of the seat of
British government, in contrast with the simpler
classicism of the 18th century.
As the current countess, Lady Fiona Carnarvon, writes
in her book Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey,
“The house was intended to impress visitors with the
status and good taste of its builders. It has a
particularly masculine feel about it, an aesthetic that
prizes solid style and soaring immensity over
A house like Highclere Castle is a responsibility as well
as a privilege. The noble family that lives there is
responsible to maintain and improve it.
The greatest improvements were made around the
time Downton Abbey was set, during the time of
George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert. The 5th
Earl (called Porchy by his friends) had married Almina
Victoria Marie Alexandra Wombwell in June of 1895.
Their story is as dramatic as any in the TV series—and
their story was real.
The 5th Earl had inherited one of the grandest titles and
estates in England. The only thing he lacked was
money. Almina supplied that.
She was just 19, the pampered though illegitimate
daughter of Alfred de Rothschild of the family of
European investment bankers who loaned money to
the British government. Despite her rather shady
background, the couple was in love.
Their marriage was a happy one. They traveled in
Europe, Egypt, America and the Far East. They
entertained the son of Queen Victoria. Their house was
always full of staff and guests, and with Almina’s money, they
were able to make it more comfortable by adding electricity
and bathrooms with running water. Almina worked hard to
supervise the huge staff of servants that kept the house
running and to learn the strict social rules of the upper class.
One of the major rules and reasons for marriage was to
produce an heir, and in 1898, Almina gave birth to a son,
Henry George Alfred Marius Victor Francis, called Porchy as
his father had been.
Young Henry was the heir to the Carnarvon houses and
lands, including Highclere Castle. His birth secured the
continuity of the family and its country house. Three years
later, Almina gave birth to a daughter, Evelyn Leonora Almina,
who was called Eve.
In 1901, the couple attended Queen Victoria’s funeral, which
brought the end of an era.
Almina, countess of Carnarvon, with her husband,
George, the 5th earl.