Lost Legacy

The Real Downton Abbey: Juiciest Bits From ‘The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle’

Séances, a Rothschild secret, the Curse of Tutankhamun. Inside the real setting for the British TV drama.

Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images

Highclere House is one of the great British stately homes, familiar to the wider Anglophile world as the location for the British TV drama Downton Abbey.

Now its current chatelaine, Lady Fiona, the Countess of Carnarvon, has penned an account of Almina Carnarvon, the enormously wealthy heiress and illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, who, in 1895, married the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, the explorer who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Despite the fact that Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle contains no references to Downton Abbey beyond its sales-friendly title, it is a fascinating insight into how the seriously rich once lived.

Almina was the illegitimate child of Alfred de Rothschild

Despite a lack of DNA evidence, the author concludes that Almina Victoria Marie Alexandra Wombwell, “a startlingly pretty 19-year-old” when she married Carnarvon, was the illegitimate daughter of banking giant Alfred de Rothschild. Her mother, Marie Wombwell, was the widow of the “heavy drinker and reckless gambler” Frederick Wombwell. Rothschild was usually described at the time as Almina’s godfather.

Carnarvon married Almina for her Rothschild millions

Although George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, owned thousands of acres and houses in London, Hampshire, Somerset, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire filled with Old Masters, he was a little strapped for cash. Rothschild had let it be known that whoever married his “goddaughter” would receive a very generous dowry—and Carnarvon rose to the challenge. He signed a legal agreement with Rothschild stipulating that he would pay £12,000 yearly to Lady Carnarvon, or Lord Carnarvon if she died before him, throughout his life. “A Highclere footman was paid £22 a year at that time, so the multiplier would put the value of this annual income at £6.5 million (about $10.1 million) in today’s terms.”

Canvas chutes were used as fire escapes

In the real Downton Abbey, female servants slept on high floors in the eaves of the castle, not in the basement. “Provisions for escape in event of a fire were pretty terrifying. Outside the bedrooms there are painted notices that announce, matter of factly, 'In case of fire, use chute.’ The heavy canvas tunnels were on iron hooks that could be wedged in the window frames. The far end was held firmly by a couple of men standing far below on the lawn. They must have worked, because later generations remember being made to practice a fire drill with them. The housemaids knew the main thing was to wear thick sweaters and hold their arms close to their bodies so they didn’t catch their elbows in the metal hoops of the tunnel."

Running water was not installed in Highclere until 1897

Prior to 1897, baths were taken in freestanding tubs in front of the fire in the bedrooms. “If there were 25 guests staying, plus family, that meant 30 fires and 30 baths to fill. There would have been a great deal of running up and down the back stairs, trying not to spill the water as the doormen lugged it up. Even once the plumbing was installed, some jugs of hot water were still taken up. Old habits die hard, and many guests preferred to use a jug and a bowl than the marble inlaid basins.”

Gasp! Staff were allowed to marry and even had days off!

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There are plenty of “office romances” on Downton Abbey, and the same was true of real life at Highclere Castle. Countess Carnarvon writes, “In some great houses, any female member of staff who had ‘a follower’, i.e. a boyfriend, would be instantly dismissed—a practice which seems barbaric today—although Highclere may have been more liberal in this respect as numerous marriages occurred between estate staff. The pay was not generous, but of course food and lodging were included, so wages could be saved and service in a household such as the Carnarvons’ was generally seen as a good job with possibilities for advancement. By the 1890s, changes to legislation meant that servants got a week’s paid holiday a year, as well as their half days on Sundays and, sometimes, an evening off in the week.” Lucky them!

Almina’s husband was a petrolhead

“The 5th Earl was known by the moniker Motor Carnarvon and had bought several of the first cars imported into Britain. In 1898 the choice of British cars was still very limited, and the best marque for experienced drivers was considered to be the French Panhard-Levassor. The car was left-hand drive, had four gears and could travel at the corresponding speeds of 4.5, 7, 10, and 13 miles per hour ... He was summoned to appear in court in Newbury for driving at more than 12 miles per hour (the legal limit at the time).”

In 1909, Geoffrey de Havilland used the Highclere estate for the world’s first test flights. “By the end of autumn 1910, he had kept the aircraft airborne for more than 50 feet, banking to the left over the road into Highclere, turning a full circle and then landing.” Lord Carnarvon, who witnessed this flight, was “elated at the success which attended the efforts of the flying men.”

Parental attention was in short supply

Every January, Almina and her husband would go to Egypt for a month or two without their children. The children were raised in a separate section of the house than that inhabited by their parents. Almina’s son, “Porchy,” later the 6th Earl of Carnarvon, recalled in his memoirs that his parents’ visits to the nursery, usually at tea-time on Sundays, could be excruciating occasions. “There is a rather heart-breaking description of a family too awkward with each other to know what to say, the Earl blustering out questions about how the schooling was coming along, just as his father had with him. Porchy heaved a sigh of relief when the adults turned on their heels and returned to their world.”

The Carnarvons didn’t dress like locals on their travels

In Egypt, photos show Carnarvon “wearing a three-piece tweed suit, a wide-brimmed hat with a white band, and stout English shoes.”

The Carnarvons were Spiritualists

The first national Spiritualist meeting in the U.K. was held in 1890, hoping to make contact with the spirit world and receive messages from the dead. At Highclere, séances were held in one of the upstairs guest bedrooms. “Once, Porchy and Eve witnessed a bowl of flowers levitating off the table. Eve got so nervous she reportedly had to go into a nursing home for a fortnight’s rest. At another, Howard Carter and a female guest were present, and the lady was placed in a trance in order to channel a spirit message. She began to speak in a strange voice and a language that at first no one could identify. Carter proclaimed, in a tone of amazement, ‘It’s Coptic!’”

Lady Almina converted Highclere into a state-of-the-art hospital during the war

As in Downton Abbey, Lady Almina converted Highclere into a hospital for injured officers at the outbreak of war. She brought in the most expert medical staff and provided the best of everything a soldier could possibly need to recover, from state-of-the-art equipment and pioneering operations to abundant fresh food and soft, clean sheets. The library was used as the men’s day room. None of the furniture was moved out but additional chairs were added, so that there was ample space for the men to sit and play cards or to read the books. “Almina asked Alfred to give her £25,000 for the set-up costs. He agreed unhesitatingly.”

Almina had a remarkable brother-in-law

“Aubrey Herbert was rejected from both the professional army and the Territorials on the grounds that he was more than half-blind. So he got a uniform made, a perfect copy of the one worn by the Irish Guards, in which regiment his brother-in-law was a colonel. When the Guards marched out of Wellington Barracks opposite Buckingham Palace early on the morning of 12 August 1914, he simply fell into step. His mother Elsie and wife Mary waved him off at Victoria Station and Aubrey sat with his friends in a train carriage bound for Southampton, to board the boat to the Continent. He wasn’t discovered until they all disembarked in France, and by that time it was too late for the army to send the stowaway back, so they took him on as an interpreter.” Aubrey found a role as a “galloper,” passing messages between commanders, riding a horse called Moonshine.

Almina wrote very long telegrams

“Almina’s telegrams caused some acerbic amusement amongst her Carnarvon relatives as they were never conspicuous for their brevity. She retorted that parsimony in communicating important information was a false economy.”

Almina’s husband nearly pulled out of the Egyptian excavations before King Tut’s tomb was found

“By 1922 the Earl had spent some £50,000 (£10 million in today’s money) over the course of 14 years on excavating in Egypt. It was a serious outlay, even for a man of means. He had sold three of the four estates he had inherited and was one of the last private excavators left.

“He told Carter of his decision at a Highclere house party during Newbury races. Carter was desperate and, having been unable to move Lord Carnarvon by persuasion, said simply that he would fund one last season himself. Carnarvon knew this would bankrupt his old friend. He considered. Touched by Carter’s willingness to risk everything he owned, the Earl agreed to pay for a last season. He was, after all, a gambling man.”

The gamble paid off. On Monday Nov. 6, Carter sent Lord Carnarvon a famous cable: “At last have made wonderful discovery in the Valley. A magnificent tomb with seals intact. Recovered same for your arrival. Congratulations.”

Carnarvon left his teeth on a train in Egypt

Lord Carnarvon arrived at the train station in Luxor on Jan. 25, 1923 to see King Tut’s tomb. “In his excitement, the Earl, who was always absentminded, had left his two false teeth in the railway carriage; they were returned to him on a crimson cushion.”

The mummy’s curse claimed Carnarvon

On Thursday, April 5, after opening King Tut’s tomb with Carter, Lord Carnarvon died of blood poisoning from an infected mosquito bite.