Back before Downton Abbey hit the TV screens, I had a chance to visit Highclere Castle–the real-life setting for the PBS television series.
History of Highclere Castle
Highclere Castle is in the English countryside of Berkshire near the town of Newbury. As strange as it may sound to fans of the TV series, Highclere Castle really is a family home and part of the same family for generations. The castle is home to the Carnarvon family and has been since the 17th century. Today, it is the official home of the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife, Lord and Lady Carnarvon.
The castle you see on television–and the one you can visit in the English countryside–stands on the site of a much older structure, a medieval castle that once belonged to the Bishops of Winchester. The house left the church’s possession in the 16th century and had various owners before it was bequeathed to the ancestors of today’s Earl of Carnarvon in the late 1600s. The home went through various transformations, but it was in 1838 under the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon, that architect Sir Charles Barry created the magnificent Georgian mansion that stands today and is as much the star of the hit TV series as any of the actors and actresses.
Over the years since its remodel, Highclere Castle has remained in the Carnarvon family but has been adapted a couple of times for other uses before it became a television set. During World War I, Highclere was a hospital for injured officers. During World War II, it housed homeless orphans. Despite these temporary changes, the castle remained the permanent residence of the Carnarvon family until 1986. The current (8th) Earl and Countess live next door to the castle, but continue to operate the historic mansion.
My tour of Highclere Castle
When I arrived at Highclere Castle, it was a blustery November day with a dark sky threatening snow. The castle wasn’t open to the public, but I had made arrangements for a private tour. Approaching the castle is breathtaking. I know I muttered a few “Wow’s” as we drove close. Even though there was no television series at the time (I visited in 2007), and I’d never heard of Highclere Castle, I felt a tingling of anticipation as we knocked at the massive wooden doors.
Once inside, I wasn’t disappointed. It was everything I expected and more. As I wandered the hallways and glimpsed the magnificent rooms, I kept trying to imagine what it must have been like growing up here. I grew up in Virginia and spent my childhood running around the big, rambling family home on our farm, but it is dwarfed alongside Highclere. I can just imagine the games of hide-and-seek you could play here.
The Gothic details in Highclere were unexpected. The best example of the Gothic architecture is in the entryway, reminiscent of European cathedrals with massive columns and intricate carvings on the vaulted ceilings. That same type of vaulted ceiling can be seen in the Saloon, which is the center of the castle. There, the 50-foot-tall ceiling features intricate carving and the red and blue crests of the Carnarvon family.
I think my favorite room at Highclere is the library. Perhaps not surprising for someone who loves books as much as I do, but it was more than the books. Throughout history, the Carnarvon family has been involved in British politics, especially during the Victorian era. My guide told me stories of heads of state who have been entertained in the library. I found myself speaking in reverent hushed tones as I wandered around the room. It’s masculine with dark wood walls and red velvet sofas, just as you would expect from a Victorian library.
During both wars, when the castle served as a refuge first for wounded officers and then for orphaned children, the library was used extensively. According to accounts from the time, the shelves were covered to protect the priceless books lining the walls. I discovered that there are more than 5,650 books on those walls, dating back to the 1500s.
I was intrigued by photographs throughout the house. Intermingled with family photos of smiling children were British monarchs and European heads of state. I wonder if these families ever stop and think about how much history is woven into their lives? From exploring the castle, I would suspect that they do. I believe they likely understand the role they have played in their country’s history and take that legacy seriously. As I wandered about gazing at the photos and asking about the history, I discovered that one countess was an American (grandmother of the current 8th Earl) and another was the illegitimate daughter of a famous London banker.
As I explored, I felt amazed at every turn by beautifully painted ceilings, leather- and silk-lined walls, pieces of furniture that had belonged to heads of state, even a desk that had once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte. With all the heavy woods and masculine touches in most of the public areas, I found the feminine touches to be quite unexpected. In particular, I enjoyed the Drawing Room and the story that went with the beautiful green silk-lined room. The 5th Countess of Carnarvon, Almina, was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, a renowned banker of the famous Rothschild family. Alfred de Rothschild gave his daughter green silk fabric from France for the walls of her new home. The original green silk remained until 1999 when they were finally replaced with a fabric that closely matches the original.
A set of magnificent oak stairs, which took a year to carve in the 1860s, lead up to the Italianate tower. A second staircase leads to the bedrooms and nurseries. There are 11 bedrooms in the home and it felt a little bit as if I was intruding on a private space. Most of the bedrooms were surprisingly cozy and I held back the urge to go stretch out on one of the massive beds where world leaders have rested their heads.
The Egypt Connection
Just off the Saloon, through a door covered in a bright green woolen material, is a set of stone stairs that may be familiar to fans of Downton Abbey. The rough stairs lead up three floors and down to what were once the staff dining rooms, utility areas, and cellar. A century ago, when the castle employed more than 60 staff at a time, these were the steps the help used. Today, the stairs lead down to the cellars and the most unexpected part of Highclere Castle–the Egyptian Exhibit.
George, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (who married Almina, the illegitimate daughter), began his travels to Egypt in 1898 when he was told to get out of the cold, wet London winters for health reasons. In 1907, he began working with Howard Carter who had just left his position as Chief Inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. In their first venture together, the pair made discoveries in the temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Some of those findings, and others over the next decade, yielded artifacts that the Earl took home to Highclere.
By 1915, Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter were granted permission to begin an archaeological dig in the Valley of the Kings. They uncovered beautiful artifacts over the next few years, but it was their find in 1922 that would set the world on fire. Carter, the Earl and his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, were all together when they finally knocked a hole through to the first chamber in that tomb. They had uncovered the burial site of King Tutankhamun. Unfortunately, the Earl never saw all the treasures locked inside. He left for Cairo shortly after the discovery to deal with the Egyptian officials. On the trip, he was bitten by a mosquito, the bite became infected and he soon died.
The story of the Egyptian Collection at Highclere Castle wouldn’t be nearly so amazing, though, had the artifacts not been “lost” for most of the 20th century. In July 1987, the 7th Earl unblocked a door between the Drawing Room and Smoking Room that had been sealed for many years. Tucked into little alcoves in the wall were the ancient Egyptian artifacts the Earl had excavated between 1907 and 1920.
As I wandered through the cellars under the castle, I learned more about the family, the 5th Earl, and the role of the castle during World War I. The old photography showed images of life at Highclere in the early 1900s. While some of the Egyptians items are actually artifacts, others are reproductions. It didn’t matter. I thoroughly enjoyed looking at everything, but I must admit I was a little jumpy walking through the dark cellars and thinking about the mysteries surrounding Tut.
Interestingly, since visiting Highclere Castle in 2007, I have had the opportunity to visit Egypt and not only see the treasures the Earl and Carter discovered, now housed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo but was able to walk into Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. It was a hot July day as I paused before entering the tomb. It was just months after the revolution, so I was the only person going into the tomb that day. It felt a bit surreal standing there, at the spot where Carter and the Earl had peered into the chamber for the first time. Even with triple digits in the desert, I felt a chill as I descended into the tomb.
I stood for a long time beside Tut’s embalmed body. The weight of history pressed against me. Here I was, a journalist from the US, standing before the tomb of a boy king of Egypt who lived 3500 years ago. I had walked in the home of the Earl of Carnarvon in England and followed his footsteps to Egypt. I could feel all those footsteps from thousands of years ago to the present. Those connections are why I love history and why I travel.
Visiting Highclere Castle
Highclere Castle is only open during specific times throughout the year. The castle sells tickets online and you need to purchase them online ahead of time.
Tickets usually sell out well in advance, although you may be able to get admission to some special events. For more information on traveling in England, see our articles by Wander writers.
Contact Information for Highclere Castle
RG20 9RN England