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Book Review of 'Lady Almina and the real Downton Abbey': Highclere Castle and the Carnarvon family

Updated on February 11, 2013
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May spends her days reading, running, painting, starting various craft projects and fighting chronic writer's block.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey looks at the real-life inhabitants of Highclere Castle (otherwise known as Downton Abbey from the hit TV series), during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What many people don't know is that the real-life family who lived at Highclere, during the same time period that Downton Abbey is set were far more exciting, and played a much larger part on the world stage, than Lord and Lady Grantham of the TV show.

Whilst on the TV show, Lord Grantham is consumed by his love for Downton Abbey, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon's passion lay in Egypt, leading him to discover Tutankhamun's tomb with Howard Carter in 1923.

Whilst Lady Grantham rather reluctantly agrees to turn Downton into a hospital during World War I on the TV show, Lady Almina was passionate about using Highclere for a hospital, nursing many of the patients herself and funding the best possible care.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey is written by the current Countess of Carnavon. It is a fascinating account of history from the point of view of a family who attended coronations and entertained royalty. The book includes photographs and letters from family archives.

It provides an entertaining and intimate look at a family whose world was forever changed by World War I and the 5th Earl of Carnarvon's discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. Much like the TV series, the book shows the time before 1914 as a rather beautiful but naïve period for the aristocracy, the end of a golden era, when compared to the horrors that took place during the war and the changes that came after it.

Highclere during World War I when it was used as a hospital.  The blinds were installed especially for this purpose.
Highclere during World War I when it was used as a hospital. The blinds were installed especially for this purpose. | Source

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Highclere During World War I

Much of Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey looks at the impact on Highclere Castle during World War I.

Like Downton Abbey, Highclere was used as a hospital during World War I. However, unlike the reluctant Lady Grantham of the TV series, who was more or less talked into it by Isobel Crawley, Almina took it upon herself to set it up, before war had even actually been declared. Due to her privileged position Lady Carnarvon went straight to the top to obtain permission - she invited the famous military hero Field Marshal Earl Kitchener to lunch. He was a longstanding friend of the Carnarvons and her father, Alfred de Rothschild.

Alfred de Rothschild gave her the 25,000 pounds necessary for start up costs and constantly provided more as the war dragged on.

Lady Almina was able to pay well for the best nurses, choosing attractive nurses so as to be good for morale. Their uniforms were fine wool in a crushed strawberry pink.

Lady Almina was in charge of everything, hiring the staff and purchasing the best medical equipment possible. The meals were of a high quality and the atmosphere of being in a fine country house with the best of everything available was maintained. She made sure that she was intimately acquainted with the medical conditions of all the patients, and brought the Earl with her when possible to visit them. The patients' own families were also encouraged to visit on Saturdays.

As the horror of the injuries sustained by the soldiers became apparent, Almina recruited Robert Jones to Highclere to operate on men with broken bones. He was later knighted in recognition of his work. According to the book, two thirds of all casualties who survived long enough to reach a hospital had broken bones from shrapnel and gunshot wounds. Jones used a technique called the Thomas Splint (developed by his uncle Hugh Thomas), which significantly brought down the mortality rate.

By the end of 1915 Highclere had reached its limits, and they moved the hospital to London at the beginning of 1916. Almina obtained an X-ray machine which was invaluable in locating bullets, diagnosing fractures and gunshot wounds.

Lady Almina's hospital drew the attention and admiration of many, and in February 1917, she received King George and Queen Mary in her hospital uniform, whereas years before she had been to their coronation in her finest gown.

The hospital closed on 15th Feb, 1919 but life for Almina, like most people, could never return to the way it had been before the war.

Picture from, but also in "Lady Almina and The Real Downton Abbey"
Picture from, but also in "Lady Almina and The Real Downton Abbey"

Almina, Countess of Carnarvon (15 August 1876 – 8 May 1969)

Lady Almina was the mistress of Highclere Castle from 1895 when she married the 5th Earl of Carnavon, until his death in 1923. Although her wealth was initially a major attraction to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, their marriage was believed to have been a very happy one. Like Lord Grantham, the Earl needed to marry an heiress in order to refill the dwindling coffers of his estates.

Lady Almina was the illegitimate daughter of Sir Alfred de Rothschild. He was immensely wealthy and influential and lavished his fortune upon his daughter (although publicly only acknowledged as his god-daughter) and her mother, Marie Wombwell. He was a director of the bank of England for twenty years and could claim the Prince of Wales (Later King Edward VII) as his friend. Rothschild and Wombwell's relationship was well known. As a divorcee and as the mother of an illegitimate child, she was not welcomed much in society, although due to the delightful double standards of the time, it had little effect on Rothschild.

Lady Almina was just 19 when she was married. A short time later she found herself, as mistress of Highclere castle, having to arrange a shooting weekend for the Prince of Wales. She proved herself more than equal to the task, and indeed this was just the beginning.

She was no mere society lady, and during the war, took to nursing. She did not consider herself above changing bandages and attending to the needs of the soldiers in her care. She attended funerals for patients who passed away, and recruited the finest medical staff who saved many a limb from amputation.

After Lord Carnarvon's death, much like Maggie Smith's character in Downton Abbey, Almina had to leave Highclere as her son, Lord Porchestor and his wife became the new rightful inhabitants.

The 5th Earl of Carnavon
The 5th Earl of Carnavon | Source

Visiting Highclere Today

Highclere Castle is the home of the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and Lady Fiona Carnarvon (author of "Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey".)

Highclere Castle, located west of London near Newbury, is open for tours at certain times throughout the year. There is also an Egyptian Exhibition inside Highclere as a tribute to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon's contribution to Egyptian archaeology. Whilst most of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon's remarkable Egyptian Collection was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Lady Almina, what remains is apparently still worth seeing.

George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (26 June 1866 – 5 April 1923)

Prior to the outbreak of World War I, Carnarvon and Howard Carter had formed a partnership to excavate in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. Once the war was over, ignoring opinions that the valley was exhausted, they set back to work. In order to fund the project, Carnarvon sold land and furniture from his other estates. In 1922, due to financial concerns, he was ready to give up. Fortunately, Carter convinced him to fund one last season. On the 6th November,1922 Carter sent him the telegram he had been hoping for - he had discovered a magnificent tomb. He re-covered the entrance and waited until Carnarvon could arrive in Egypt to explore it with him. Almina unfortunately was not well enough to join him.

At the time, Carter and Carnarvon were not prepared for the enormity of public interest in this discovery. They became celebrities and the excavation's progress was hindered by the press. According to the book there has "never been a story that took more column inches than Carnarvon, Carter and Tutankhumun" in The Times.

In 1923, whilst in Egypt before completing the excavation, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito. Later, he cut the same area while he was shaving. He became very ill and died on the 5th April, raising speculation about the Curse of the Pharaohs.

Alfred de Rothschild, commonly acknowledged as the father of Lady Almina, Countess of Carnarvon.
Alfred de Rothschild, commonly acknowledged as the father of Lady Almina, Countess of Carnarvon. | Source

Alfred Charles de Rothschild (20 July 1842 - 31 January 1918)

Alfred de Rothschild was an immensely wealthy and influential man. He used his vast wealth for many philanthropic causes.

According to "Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey," as Rothschild sensed war approaching, he placed his network of contacts and money at the disposal of the British Government, acting as an unofficial intermediary between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany.

During the war, he lent one of his houses, Halton House, to the army to be used as a training centre. He also offered the beech trees from Halton House to the Timber Control Board to be used as props in the waterlogged trenches of northern France.

He gave generously to his daughter, Countess of Carnarvon, largely funding the hospital she ran for injured soldiers during the war.

He was the Treasurer of Queen Charlotte's Hospital for 31 years.

Aubrey Herbert
Aubrey Herbert | Source

Aubrey Nigel Henry Molyneux Herbert (1880 – 26 September 1923)

Aubrey was the younger half-brother of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. He was a diplomat, politician, and intelligence officer. He was well-travelled, and spoke many languages fluently.

Aubrey was so desperate to be part of World War I despite being half-blind, that after being rejected from the Army and the Territorials, he had a replica of a uniform made, and simply fell in with the Guards as they marched out of Wellingon Barracks on 12th August, 1914. He was not discovered until they arrived in France, so they took him on as an interpreter.

After being wounded in France, he went to Egypt where his expertise in Middle Eastern affairs and languages was needed. There he became great friends with T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).

Despite being nearly blind, Aubrey was constantly in the thick of the fighting, as he tried to do his duty, such as trying to reach the Turkish commanding officers to negotiate armistices to bury the dead. In Gallipoli he offered himself as a hostage while the Turkish Army collected 3,000 bodies from Kabe Tepe.

Twice during his life, once before the war and once after, he was offered the throne of Albania, which he declined. He was a passionate advocate for Albanian independence.

In 1916 he travelled to Mesoptamia with the Prince of Wales, where Aubrey's knowledge of language and local knowledge made him indispensable.

He and T.E. Lawrence attended the peace conference at the end of the war in Versailles and came away disillusioned by the outcome.

In 1923, almost totally blind, he took the odd advice of a doctor to have all his teeth removed in order to restore his sight. He contracted blood poisoning and died at just 43 years of age.

Elsie the Dowager Countess of Carnarvon

Aubrey's mother and the 5th Earl's stepmother, Elsie the Dowager Countess of Carnarvon (much the same role as played by Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey), sailed to Cairo to see her son, and deciding she could be useful, began the task of organising the logistics for the hospital ships. She was in her late fifties. Within four months there were dozens a day, ferrying survivors from Gallipoli to Britain. Unlike Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, she was no grand lady sitting around gossiping over tea. Aubrey's wife Mary, worked with Elsie. Elsie also started a canteen for the ANZAC forces.

After the war ended, she became vice-chairman of the Vocal Therapy Society. This organisation aimed to restore normal speech to soldiers who were struggling to cope with disabilities due to shell shock, amnesia and panic attacks.

After her son Aubrey died, she established hospitals, schools and anti-malaria clinics in Albania, as well as a village for refugees called Herbert, in honour of her son.


This book is no dry and boring historical account. It is easy and enjoyable to read. The book includes photos of family members and patients and nurses at the hospital during the war, as well as letters.

Lady Fiona Carnarvon has been very generous with her family's history, and after reading it, I felt privileged to have gained an insight into such a remarkable family. I found it encouraging, after watching so many period dramas where the aristocracy are consumed by their own petty affairs, to read about a family who could have done much less, yet saw it as their duty to do so much.


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