Lord of the Manor… Highclere Castle

Perhaps one of the most recognisable stately homes in the UK is now Highclere Castle. Used as the setting for ITV’s successful period drama ‘Downton Abbey’, it has become a popular tourist attraction, yet Highclere’s history is little known, featuring Pharaohs, soldiers and The Queen…

highlere kevin oliver

Highclere Castle is a Jacobethan style country home in Hampshire, not far from Newbury, Berkshire. The estate is the seat of the Earls of Carnarvon, and has been since 1679. The current building is the work by Charles Barry (the same responsible for the Houses of Parliament) and was completed 1842. The castle is set in 5,000-acre (2,000 ha) of Capability Brown landscaped estate, which has changed little over the years.

The history of the site, however, extends back much further. The estate was recorded in the Domesday Book of William the Conqueror, though it belonged to the Bishops of Winchester from the 8th century, where a medieval palace, dating to the 12th or 13th century, once stood.

In 1320, it was recorded that Edward II stayed at ‘Bishop’s Clere’, aka Highclere, and by the 16th century, there was a red brick Tudor house on the site.

Henry Herbert was created Earl of Carnarvon by George III, and so Highclere became the seat of the Carnarvons. The house came to be in his possession as his uncle’s heir, through the Sawyer line. Robert Sawyer Herbert was the son of Margaret Sawyer and Thomas Herbert, 8th Earl of Pembroke, but he died childless, and so it passed to his nephew, Henry.

Major works were carried out in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, to replace the Tudor brick house. It was made into a classical Georgian mansion, with the park laid out according to a design by Capability Brown, who worked at Highclere in 1774 to 1777. The village was also moved, but the remains of the Baroque church of 1689 can still be seen in the south-west corner of the castle.

Charles Barry was brought in to alter this in 1839. The house is instantly recognisable with its Bath stone exterior, but was originally designed to be more in the Italian Renaissance style; this plan was rejected by the 4th Earl, in favour of the Jacobethan (Victorian revival of 16th century architecture) design, with more subtle Italian motifs, which Barry described as ‘Anglo-Italian’.

The strapwork designs on the outside walls are typical of Northern European Renaissance architecture, and the Italian Renaissance theme can clearly be seen in the almost medieval Saloon, with its mock hammerbeam roof and pointed – not rounded – arches.

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s first words on seeing Highclere were “How scenical! How scenical!”.

During his time working on the estate in 1860, Barry died, leaving most of the exterior of the house finished, but the interior and west wing, created for the servants – incomplete. This internal structural work and decor was finished in 1878, with the help of one of Barry’s assistants, Thomas Allom, who had been appointed by the 4th Earl, since his father, 3rd Earl, died 10 years into the remodel.

Before being chosen by Lord Fellows as the set of Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle was in desperate need of repair. The bill was an estimated £12 million, for working including repair of collapsed ceilings, water damage. Few rooms were in use, save the ground floor. The family were instead living in a cottage on the estate.

Highclere’s inhabitants:

George ‘Geordie’ Molyneux Herbert is the current Earl of Carnarvon, its 8th holder. He and his family live at Highclere today: his wife, Lady Fiona, and their son, Edward. The Earl has two children from his previous marriage, Lady Saoirse Herbert and George Kenneth Oliver Molyneux Herbert, Lord Porchester.

The Queen is the current Earl’s godmother, and is familiar with the Carnarvon family: the 7th Earl was her racing manager until his death in 2001, and she continues to stay at the house as a guest, most recently before her 90th birthday celebrations in June.

Other notable inhabitants of the castle include the 5th Earl. Another George Herbert, the Earl had an interest in Egyptology, and sponsored an expedition in 1907 to excavate a number of tombs in Thebes (Deir el-Bahri). Howard Carter was proposed as an assistant to George, and in 1914, were allowed to dig in the Valley of the Kings. It was in November 1922 that the Earl and Carter opened the tomb of Tutankhamun, the Boy King, revealing a number of priceless treasures in the tomb.

Part of the Egyptian Exhibit, detailing the story of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter at Highclere Castle. Andrew Bateman

It is often rumoured that George succumbed to the Curse of the Tutankhamun, as he died in Cairo in April 1923 – but it was from an infected mosquito bite. Today there is an Egypt display in the basement of the house to further explore this history, including some of the artefacts discovered.

His wife, Lady Almina, also had an interesting role. During the First World War, she established a hospital in the house for soldiers: a bedroom became a surgeon’s theatre, the larger open spaces became wards, and various other rooms were used for physiotherapy and other treatments. The Countess thus became a skilled nurse. This was reflected in ‘Downton Abbey’ when Cora did the same, opening her home’s doors to those in need, and the current Countess, Fiona, wrote a book about her husband’s great-grandmother.

During the Second World War, the castle briefly became a home for evacuee children from north London, whilst the 6th Earl lived there.

The rooms:

To orientate you a little, the front door of Highclere sits on the north wing of the building, with the winding path to the north-east.

The entrance hall features impressive stone pillars leading you to the Saloon. There is a door to the left of this image which also takes you into the Library.

The Saloon is effectively an atrium at the heart of the house, and is the first room you enter after the hall. It is in a gothic style, with arches and stone carving, and coats of arms adorning the balustrades, but the use of light from the hammerbeam ceiling lifts it.

Most bedrooms on the first floor come off the rectangular landing, which overlooks the Saloon, though there are a few rooms, mostly lesser, smaller rooms, on the west side, which do not.

The wall coverings in this room are 16th century leather, brought back from Spain, but were only installed at Highclere in the 1860s.

One of the most often seen rooms on the TV was the Library. This sits to the left of the Saloon, with doors either side of the fireplace, and runs almost the entire length of the east wing. It holds over 5,650 books, and was the height of fashion as a ‘double’ room – one end is separated off slightly, with pillars.

As seen in Downton Abbey, it was used as a withdrawing room more than a study.

The door at the south end of the room leads to the Music Room, which sits in the south-east corner.

The Music Room has an ornately decorated ceiling and wall panels, and features a desk used by Napoleon, thought to have come from the Palace of Fontainebleau. The baroque ceiling was painted by Francis Hayman in the 1730’s whilst the walls are hung with Italian 16th century Italian embroideries.

Used in the show as Cora’s domain, the Drawing Room is a large sitting room with green silken wallpaper and white panelling, quite a contrast to the earthy tones of the Saloon and Library. A large chandelier hangs from the high ceiling and a piano sits in the corner.

Highclere’s Drawing Room with distinct green wallpaper (Highclere Castle)

Next to that sits the Morning Room, another area not used on the show. It is small and plain in comparison – see a photo here.

The Dining Room of the castle also features heavily in the programme; it is where the family learn about the sinking of the Titanic at the beginning of series one, and has seen many an argument and witty comment shot across the table. Most of the furniture was created specifically for Highclere’s dining room. The portraits on the wall feature figures of the Carnarvon family who played a part in the Civil War for the Royalists. One of three copies of Van Dyck’s famous portrait of Charles I on horseback dominates the east side of the room.

The Smoking Room is another not seen on TV. It lies to the right of the Morning Room, in the south-west corner. It is certainly more masculine in decor, and would have been used as the title suggests. A clearer picture without people can be seen here.

To access the first floor, visitors take the Oak Staircase off the Saloon. This is one of two used by the family, though the other, the Red Staircase is not seen on the TV show. Thomas Allom created the oak stairs; they fill the tall Italianate tower at the centre of the house built. It took almost a year for Messrs Cox and Son of London to carve and install the staircase from 1861.

The Red Staircase takes you up to the second floor and nurseries.

The red staircase at Highclere

12 bedrooms are open to view from the doorway, including Stanhope, Herbert and Arundel. The former was where the Turkish Ambassador stayed at Downton when he died in the series, and the latter was the operating theatre during WWI.

Most bedrooms were not changed for filming, and are as the family use them, complete with en-suites, though I believe they used to be dressing rooms before the plumbing was fitted. Others are currently being renovated to be as they were in their heyday; Lady Carnarvon is using prints and drawings from the house’s archives to do this.

The Mercia bedroom, with its four-poster bed and 18th-century silk bed hangings, plays Lord and Lady Grantham’s bedroom, though they appear to have altered/added a headboard.

The cellars and kitchens – very similar to how they are shown in the TV series – are now occupied by the Egyptian exhibition, but a staircase leads from the Saloon to the undercroft.

You may buy tickets to visit Highclere Castle during its limited opening here – Easter, the summer, and a festive opening in December. The Carnarvons vacate the castle during the summer, staying in an estate cottage, and live in during the winter.

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