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Downton Abbey: Fact Vs. Fiction. 3 Things You Probably Don't Know

Updated on August 17, 2014

The Mistresses of Downton Abbey

Lady Almina (left) was the Lady of the manor in the early 1900s, the same time frame as the Lady Grantham in the Downton Abbey series.
Lady Almina (left) was the Lady of the manor in the early 1900s, the same time frame as the Lady Grantham in the Downton Abbey series.

Fact 1

The house is the real deal. Like so many shows these days, sets are built to create the illusion of a town or home. This house is not only real, you can visit it! The estate is called HIghclere Castle. This 6000 acre estate is located just 90 minutes outside of London. The show’s writer, Julian Fellowes, is a long-time friend of the castle’s owners, the Carnavon family. The castle is open for visitors from Easter through Christmastime but book early (four months or more). Click here for ticket information.

The outside and upstairs scenes are shot inside the real castle. Downstairs scenes (servants quarters) are shot on a London set.

While there may be a lord and lady over the house, it is the house that "owns" the lord and lady. As Lady Almina found out soon after marrying the 5th Earl of Carnarvon in 1895. She quickly learned she was a steward of the vast estate. Under the close watch of the head butler who kept everything running ship shape, Almina had to learn what it meant to be a part of such a fine family.

The Trifecta

Money, fame, fashion--it's what makes this home and this family so fascinating. The best part is that it's partly true! While the fashion may not have been quite as glamorous in real life as it is on the show, the fame and the money were dead on! Who wouldn't want the Prince of Wales to lead you in your first dance at your coming out ball! Even Hollywood actors want to be a part of the show. Salma Hayek was reported as saying she "would kill for a role."

While the media may focus on the who's who of the show, those of us true followers want MORE! I want to know the ins and outs of life at the castle. Part of that insatiable appetite includes reading all I can about the cast as well as the true story of the Lord and Lady Carnarvon, the 5th Earl who dwelt in the castle in the early 1900s.

For those who are truly addicted, I highly recommend the Wiki site, which thoroughly discusses the characters. It's as if these characters are real people. What, they aren't real people? There is a disclaimer as the site is updated as episodes air in the UK. For those of you who don't know, the US waits several months before it airs here. Not fair!!

Fact 2

They married for money. Downton Abbey leading lady, Cora Crowley is not an Englishwoman, nor was she of noble birth. In her online bio “as part of their (Robert and Cora) marriage contract, Cora's fortune was tied to the family estate to prevent it from going bankrupt.”

For much the same reason, the 5th Earl of Carnavon, Porchy as he was called, married a woman of no rank who had considerable wealth in order to keep his estate from going bankrupt. Porchy was lord of the manor from the late 1800s to the late 1920s. He was a man who had a wanderlust, traveling to far off places such as South America and Africa. Travel and yachts are expensive and his reserves were quickly drained. He met a woman named Almina, a woman who was the illegitimate child of the wealthy banker, Alfred Rothschild. Almina and Porchy briefly met and spent a small amount of time together (never alone) and were married in a year.

Fashion of the early 1900s


The show's spin on fashion of the day

The show's producers liberalized the dress of the main characters, especially when contrasted to what the historical figures wore.
The show's producers liberalized the dress of the main characters, especially when contrasted to what the historical figures wore.

Fact 3

The castle was used as a hospital during World War I. While in the show, the castle is seen as more of a convalescent facility, in reality it was very much a working hospital with Almina at the helm as hospital administrator, nurse, and guest relations specialists. She saw her patients more like guests and went the extra mile to treat them as such. She would take great care in giving guests the best bedding and food and of course round the clock care. The hospital, which was funded by her father Alfred Rothschild, was a huge asset in taking care of wounded soldiers.

Lady Almina was a loyal letter writer, making sure to keep in touch with families whose loved ones were under her care. This extra measure of thoughtfulness is what has made her such a beloved person in the eyes of the soldiers and their families. Men who stayed at her hospital had a much greater chance of survival than those at traditional hospitals.

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Quick Facts

  • Lord and Lady Carnarvon were given 12,000 pounds a year by Lady Carnarvon's benefactor, Alfred de Rothschild, equivalent to 6.5 millions pounds in today's money. Footman in the early 1900s were paid a mere 22 pounds a year.
  • The house has a system of bells like in the TV show. The 66 bells are watched by a steward's room boy who, when a bell is rung, run and fetches the appropriate maid or footman.
  • The valet, head butler and housekeeper dined separately, unlike in the show. In the privacy of their own space, they were waited on by more junior servants.
  • The Carnarvon family really did brush shoulders with England's royalty. Not only were they frequent guests to the castle, the queen was god mother to the children.


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    • my_girl_sara profile image

      Cynthia Lyerly 3 years ago from Georgia

      So glad the new season has started!