Anticipating a surge of interest when “Downton Abbey: The Movie” is released in theaters in September, Collette (America’s oldest surviving tour company) is offering a tour of Highclere Castle — the aristocratic home in Hampshire, England, that is featured as the setting for Downton Abbey, both the cable TV series that aired from 2010 to 2015 and the theater release scheduled for September.
While the Downton Abbey series portrays an aristocratic home that is struggling to maintain itself after the Old World order of the aristocracy has fallen during World War I, the actual owners of Highclere Castle have been able to sustain their ancestral home through funding from film and tourism.
Highclere Castle is owned by the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, who have turned their historic family home into an international icon via its filmic immortalization as Downton Abbey. They have also turned the castle into a tourist attraction that is a magnet for countless fans of the TV series. The theater release of the new Downton Abbey movie will no doubt spread the castle’s fame even farther.
Collette is featuring a tour of the mansion in its “British Landscapes" tour of England, Scotland and Wales. The 10-day tour includes a series of deep immersions in British history, with visits to Stonehenge, Shakespeare’s Stratford, and Adam Smith’s Edinburgh. It also includes a romp in the Cotswolds mountains, an overnight in a Welsh castle, and a visit to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
The Carnarvons have gone to great lengths to bring to life the history and traditions of Highclere through the films, the tours and their website. The Countess does a great deal of research and writing dedicated to the preservation of the history and traditions of Highclere and the Carnarvon family.
But although today’s Earl of Carnarvon (the eighth) and his wife deserve credit for turning the ancestral home into a global icon, it’s not the first time the place has been famous. It has been somewhat of a media sensation throughout the ages, depending on what media were in use during each period. The castle has a deliciously colorful history.
Highclere dates back more than a millennium. An Anglo Saxon charter from the year 749 A.D. shows the existence of buildings on the property already at that time. Records from a later period show the existence of a medieval palace there during the 12th and 13th centuries. Hundreds of years later, a red brick Tudor house was built on the foundations of the palace.
The Carnarvon family has lived at Highclare Estates since 1679. The house that is standing today was built in the 19th century on the grounds of the earlier Tudor structure.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Carnarvon family did extensive work to rebuild the Tudor home as a Georgian mansion. The rebuilding project accelerated in 1838, during the excitement surrounding the crowning of the young Queen Victoria when the Third Earl of Carnarvon launched a rebuilding project to turn the home into a grand mansion.
The rebuilding carried on until 1878, 40 years to qualify the mansion as a highly prestigious center of political activity and high society in England during the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods.
The Countess, in doing her research, continues to discover more accolades for the Carnarvons. In 1867, the constitution of Canada was drawn up by two men, John A. McDonald, who became the first prime minister of Canada, and the Fourth Earl of Carnarvon.
‘The Mummy’s Curse’
After the turn of the 20th century, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon married Almina Victoria Maria Alexandra Wombwell, the illegitimate daughter of the millionaire banker Alfred de Rothschilds. He achieved his greatest fame as the person who funded Howard Carter’s archaeological dig that unearthed the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1922. It turned out to be the last thing the Earl ever did.
Arthur Weigall, Egyptologist and journalist, wrote that he had watched Lord Carnarvon laughing and joking as he walked into King Tut’s tomb and had said to a fellow journalist, “I give him six weeks to live.” The prediction came true when Lord Carnarvon actually did die six weeks later.
During the excitement bordering on hysteria surrounding the startling discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, there had been warnings and superstitions of “dire consequences” for people who raided Egyptian tombs. When the sponsor of the dig died only a few weeks after entering the tomb, it set off a riot of speculation and the rise of new cultural archetypes, such as “The Mummy’s Curse.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes series, claimed that ancient Egyptian texts said that the Egyptians left poisons in their tombs to kill anyone who may violate their sanctity.
It is believed that Lord Carnarvon actually had a mosquito bite that got infected by a razor cut, and the resulting infection led to pneumonia, which was the actual cause of death. It is anybody’s guess whether dying so innocuously from a mosquito bite is the result of a curse or something worse.
Highclere’s aviation footprint
Aviation history also has a root at Highclere. Geoffrey de Havilland, one of Britain’s premier pioneers of aviation, conducted the first flight test of his first airplane in 1910 at Seven Barrows on the Highclere property.
Visitors at Highclere today can tour the upstairs and downstairs, the state rooms, the smoking room, the drawing room, the saloon and the library. The gardens and woods can be explored when the castle is open to the public. There are also public grounds nearby for walks in the area whether the castle is open or not.
After achieving an unprecedented level of success for a house, the Carnarvon family is not resting on its laurels. This summer, Highclere launched its own brand of gin, which will no doubt give visitors to the property a new dimension of enjoyment and expand the Highclere franchise to a new realm.