Lady Catherine and the real Downton Abbey

Newbury Branch meeting 9th November 2016

Speaker: the Rt Hon the Countess of Carnarvon


The global marketing phenomenon of Downton Abbey has made Highclere Castle one of the most famous houses in the world. Archaeology has found evidence of settlement on nearby Beacon Hill in 4000BC, and there is documentary evidence of Highclere from 749AD.

         The first Earl of Carnarvon died in the first battle of Newbury 1643. A generation later the title died out, but was re-created in 1709 for the builder of a Georgian residence in Highclere. Capability Brown designed the park. In 1856 this house was remodelled by Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, into the present-day stately home of 200 to 300 rooms, surrounded by nearly 5,000 acres of park, farms and woodland. There are several follies, which are an important feature of the landscape.

         Today 140 people’s working lives are centred on Highclere Castle, including 40 to 50 guides. (Before WWI the staff numbered 60.) The oldest full-timer today is 90, the youngest being the teenagers in the tearooms.

         Open days are normally linked to a charity, such as the Air Ambulance, or others linked to the military, refugees and hospitals. The Egyptian rooms, featuring the 5th earl’s collection, attract between 10 and 15,000 scholars a year on non-public days.

         WWI saw Highclere Castle turned into a military hospital equipped with operating theatre, anaesthetic facilities, doctors and 30 pretty nurses in raspberry-coloured uniforms.

Unlike most wartime hospitals, Highclere’s patients had proper beds rather than military cots. Almina, Lady Carnarvon, was head matron.

         Almina was an illegitimate child of the Rothschilds, but she came to Highclere with a substantial dowry. Her husband the 5th earl was the famed Egyptologist (who was not accurately represented in the recent television series). Almina is the subject of Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey (Hodder, 2012). Her daughter-in-law is the subject of Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey (Hodder 2014). Catherine, an Amercian descended from Robert E Lee but not an heiress, married the sixth earl in 1922. Their wedding (for 750 guests) was preceded by a party for 1,000. Income tax at 6d in the pound scarcely troubled the aristocracy at this time, but inheritance tax was a burden; a substantial picture sale was necessary to cover the fifth earl’s death duties.

         This marriage ended in the mid-1930s, and Catherine re-started her life in London. The sixth earl wanted to remarry a Hollywood-scriptwriting member of the Guinness family, but when WWII started she chose to return to the US. Instead, the sixth earl married a Jewish ballet dancer named Tlly Losch in 1939. Highclere once again became a military hospital, and a temporary home for children and their teachers evacuated from north London. Following the bombing of Newbury in 1943 their cots were moved into the library. There were plane crashes in the park and on nearby Siddown Hill

         There were troops camped in the park, and a Home Guard unit based on the castle.

The sixth earl joined the Royal Navy and took part in the battle of Norway. His son, the speaker’s father-in-law, joined the Household Cavalry and took part in Operation Torch in Italy. The marriage to Tilly Losch ended in 1947, but the earl found a girlfriend in the theatre.

         The speaker’s next book about Highclere Castle will be At Home at Highclere  and will describe the heyday of house-parties.

Additional information