Fans of the period drama Downton Abbey will surely recognize Highclere Castle as the primary setting of the show. Located in Hampshire, England, the manor’s fairy-tale Jacobethan architecture makes it a standout among castles. It also has an impressive historical list of residents.
Perhaps most notable was the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. He financed archaeologist Howard Carter’s excavations in Egypt that uncovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Highclere Castle has its own museum showcasing many artifacts from the trip, along with some reproductions.
During World War I, Highclere was used as a hospital for soldiers wounded in battle, just as portrayed in Downton Abbey. When World War II came around, the castle housed children evacuated from the horrendous bombings in London.
Today, the castle itself, its six follies (exterior structures or buildings), and its gardens all come together to make a stately manor rich in history. However, the amount of actual riches needed to upkeep the property is astounding. Therefore, the current owners, George Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon, and his wife Fiona, 8th Countess of Carnarvon, are thankful for the increase in paying visitors that Downton Abbey has brought to their home.
The Early History Of Highclere Castle
The first written record of the estate dates back to 749 C.E. An Anglo-Saxon king gifted the 5,000-acre parcel to the Bishops of Winchester, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Bishop William of Wykeham then erected a medieval residence and gardens on the land in the late 1300s.
During the Protestant Reformation in 1551, King Edward VI confiscated the land from the Catholic Church and gifted it to the Fitzwilliam family, who sold it to Sir Robert Sawyer in 1679. According to the official Highclere Castle website, Sawyer was a direct ancestor of the current Earl of Carnarvon.
The palace began passing down through Sawyer’s descendants, and in 1769, Henry Herbert inherited it. He was made the 1st Earl of Carnarvon in 1793, and he brought on famous landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown to beautify the grounds. Brown even moved the entire village of Highclere in order to accommodate the redesign.
In 1838, the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon commissioned architect Sir Charles Barry to transform the palace into the towering Jacobethan estate it is today. The renovation took decades, but by its completion, the palace had become famous for its opulence.
The famed 5th Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, inherited the castle in 1890, and he brought with him many debts. He wasn’t sure how he’d afford to run the property — until he married an illegitimate Rothschild heiress who arrived with a sizeable dowry.
His new wife, Almina Herbert, was wealthy but charitable. When World War I broke out in 1914, she converted Highclere Castle into a hospital for wounded soldiers, with down pillows and fine sheets on every bed, according to The Paris Review.
After transforming the home into a refuge for children fleeing London during World War II, the Earls of Carnarvon lived quietly for a couple of generations — until Downton Abbey brought Highclere Castle into the spotlight once more in 2010.
Inside The Picturesque “Downton Abbey” House
Visitors to Highclere Castle can tour rooms featured in the hit television series Downton Abbey. Highlights include the double library with over 5,500 books, some dating back to the 16th century. In 1999, the famous orgy scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was filmed inside.
The formal drawing room is dominated by a 356-piece chandelier from the 1890s made of crystal. It was a wedding gift to the 5th Earl and Almina from her father, Alfred de Rothschild. The pale green room also contains an 1895 Steinway grand piano.
Lastly, the bright music room has an ornate Baroque ceiling and simple oak floors. The walls are draped with 16th-century Italian embroidery. The centerpiece of the room, however, is Napoleon Bonaparte’s desk, which was purchased from his estate in 1827, according to the current Countess of Carnarvon’s blog.
For every beautifully furnished room, however, there is another that is in dire need of restoration.
How “Downton Abbey” Has Helped With The Staggering Cost Of Highclere Castle’s Upkeep
The current Earl and Countess of Carnarvon estimate that out of the 300 or so rooms in Highclere Castle, 50 of them are completely uninhabitable, according to Town and Country. Leaks, mold, and general aging have caused most of the damage, which will likely take $18 million to repair.
Meanwhile, it costs around $1.5 million annually just to maintain the palace and its expansive grounds. Previous inhabitants even sold off parts of the 5th Earl’s Egyptian art collection to pay for inheritance taxes and general upkeep.
Thankfully, the boom in Highclere Castle’s popularity that began when Downton Abbey first aired in 2010 has helped take some of the pressure off of the current Earl. While the producers paid for the estate’s use as a film set, the real money comes from the visitors who flock to the castle to see the setting of the beloved show in real life.
In 2019, The National reported that 90,000 people visit Highclere Castle annually. With tickets ranging in price from around $30 to $150 per person, the castle’s yearly maintenance could be paid with tour profit alone.
It may have taken a modern television show to bring this historic gem back into the public eye, but Highclere Castle now serves as a treasured relic of the past for future generations to enjoy.