Great British Houses: Highclere Castle – Everything You Need to Know about the House Made Famous by Downton Abbey

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If you possess a passion for grand English houses, then Highclere Castle should surely be on your list of favorites. Located just south of Newbury, Berkshire in the county of Hampshire, is the settlement of Highclere Park which hosts the location for this Jacobethan-style house. Measured at 5,000 acres, the estate is also the country seat for the Earl of Carnarvon. Highclere is most well known now as the fictional home of Downton Abbey, where the hit British TV show is filmed.

Key Facts about Highclere Castle

  • An Anglo-Saxon charter proves that people have lived on the property for around 1300 years
  • It is the current filming location for the popular TV series ‘Downton Abbey’
  • The 7th Earl of Carnarvon remained in great friendship with Queen Elizabeth II until his death in 2001.

A Brief History of Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle is the second house to be built on the estate property. It was once a smaller estate that was built on the foundations of the medieval palace of the Bishops of Winchester, which dates back to the 8th century. The original site was actually recorded in the Domesday Book. However, it was in 1679 when the home was taken into the hands of the Carnarvon family.

During this time period, it was a square, classical style mansion. In 1692, the estate was gifted as a wedding present by Robert Sawyer to his daughter, Margaret, who married the 8th Earl of Pembroke. The second son of Margaret, Robert Sawyer Herbert, went on to inherit Highclere and made his own impact on the estate by creating the garden temple. His nephew and heir to the estate, Henry Herbert, later known as Baron Porchester, became the 1st Earl of Carnarvon by George III.

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It was in 1838 that the 3rd Earl hired the help of Sir Charles Barry, the person responsible for the re-building of the Houses of Parliament. During this time period, there was a Renaissance Revival movement, which Barry was greatly skilled at creating. However, at Highclere, he designed the estate with Jacobethan style influences. There are touches of details that do reflect the Renaissance-based characteristics, such as the towers in the castle which are slimmer than others built during the same time period. It is said that when Barry was creating a rough draft of the house design, he used all Italian Renaissance characteristics. However, it was rejected by the Earl.

The 3rd Earl died in 1849 and Sir Charles Barry died in 1860. At this time, the West Wing was still not completed. This was also where the servants’ quarters were designated. The 4th Earl hired the services of architect Thomas Allom, who had worked with Barry in previous years, to help supervise the finished construction of the castle. It was completed in 1878.

During the 20th Century, Highclere Castle was the meeting place for all sorts of important people. Visitor books recorded that the house parties hosted at the castle were visited by Egyptologists, aviators, soldiers, technological innovators, and politicians. The 5th Countess of Carnarvon, Almina, transformed the house into a hospital during WWI to help soldiers coming home from Flanders, in neighboring Belgium. Almina became a skilled nurse and healer which was obvious from the numerous letters found from patients and their families who thanked her for her generosity.

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In 1922, the castle returned back to a private home for the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and his family. After his death, his son returned to Highclere Castle where he resided until 1986. The current resident is the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. By 2009, the Castle was in dire need of repairs. The only floors that were able to be used were the ground and first floors. Water damage had caused stonework to deteriorate and ceilings to crumble. More than 50 rooms were uninhabitable. This forced the 8th Earl and his family to live in a house nearby on the estate grounds.

The estimated cost for the repairs was around £12 million (around $20 million). Thanks to the increase in visitors since 2012 due to the success of Downton Abbey, the Earl and Lady Carnarvon have been able to perform major repairs on the Castle. The family lives in Highclere Castle during the winter months, and then returns to their cottage during the summer when the castle is open to the public.

What Makes This House Famous

Highclere Castle is most famously known for its appearance in the successful TV series Downton Abbey. Created by Julian Fellowes, the television drama was first aired in the United Kingdom on 26th September, 2010 and in the United States on 9th January, 2011. The series is set in a fictional estate called Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle) located in Yorkshire, and portrays the life of the Crawley family, including that of their servants. Contrary to where the show is set, the house is actually in the Home Counties of Southeast England in Hampshire (but it’s post code address is in Berkshire as the closest town is Newbury in Berkshire – this leads to lots of confusion as to where the house actually is). The show is set in the post-Edwardian era, and depicts how the great events of history have lasting effects on people in aristocratic positions. The show was not expected to last past the first season, but it’s fifth series is about to air in the UK.

TV & Film

Other TV and film appearances that utilized the Castle include: The Secret Garden (1987); Eyes Wide Shut (1999); The Four Feathers (2002); John Legend’s music video for ‘Heaven Only Knows’ (2006). Highclere Castle also rents their facilities for small film units, and photography sessions, many of which are wedding events.

Further Research

33730The 5th Earl of Carnarvon discovered a Tomb which contained the Egyptian Boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, during an archaeological dig in 1922 with the help of his colleague, Howard Carter. They both spent 16 years working together through various excavation trips in Egypt. The Earl also helped Carter build a house in the desert close to the Valley of the Kings, which was properly nicknamed ‘Castle Carter’. Both men were convinced that there were more tombs located in the Valley of the Kings. To help prove their hypothesis, they created a grid system in order to document where they had already excavated.

In the autumn of 1922, they planned one last excursion, in which the Earl’s daughter, Lady Evelyn, also accompanied the men. Their trip was obviously a success due to the discovery of the Egyptian Boy Pharaoh. After the death of the 5th Earl, his widow sold his collection to the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, in order to pay for death duties. However, not all artifacts had been sold, and instead were tucked away in cupboards until they were re-discovered by the Carnarvon family in 1987.

To help celebrate the success of the 5th Earl’s accomplishment, the current Earl and Countess have opened an Egyptian Exhibition in the cellars of the Castle. This is also referred to as the ‘Discovery Gallery’, which highlights different events that occurred for the Carnarvon family during the Great War, unfortunate financial situations, and the overall discovery of the Egyptian artifacts.

Visiting Information

Highclere Castle is open on approximately 70 days each year. They are open for a period of two weeks during the Easter holiday, May Bank holidays, and for a duration of two months during the summer, Sunday through to Thursday. They also open for a few days in December to celebrate the Christmas holidays. There are guides in the rooms of the castle and in the cellar discovery area to provide unknown or behind the scenes information that is not typically broadcasted. They offer various discounted rates for large groups and school visits. Refer to their website for complete information about planning your visit: www.highclerecastle.co.uk. Tickets must be booked in advance and often sell out months ahead of time so planning ahead is critical.

Related YouTube Videos

Countrywise – The Real Downton Abbey (10 Minutes)

The Real Downton Abby Full Documentary HD (1 Hour)

Comments

  1. avatarSharon says

    Just as an FYI. Tickets do not need to be booked in advance. We went a couple of w eels ago and there was a very short line to get tickets. Take a picnic and some bubbly and enjoy relaxing in the grounds after visiting the house.

  2. avatarMichele says

    Are you sure about the filming of Darcy’s proposal at Highclere’s Temple of Diana for the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice? I understood it to be filmed at the Temple of Apollo at Stourhead. As I’m planning to visit Stourhead in three weeks solely to see that folly, and will also be visiting Highclere, I’d rather not waste my time going to Stourhead if it isn’t the correct filming site; we’re visiting from the States and our time is limited. Thanks so much!

  3. avatarJ says

    Easy to get to by Train w/a short Taxi ride if you are staying in London. We definitely needed to pre book for the May bank holidays as it was sold out Months in advance. They also serve a very nice tea and scones which are quite delightful and inexpensive.

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