Setting The Table
Half asleep and listening to Radio Four, one Sunday morning, I heard the usual news stories until suddenly John Humphries said “Lady Carnarvon says Downton Abbey set the table incorrectly”. My husband leapt up expostulating, “What have you been saying now?” and I pulled the blankets over my head thinking I might be getting my own cup of tea this morning… I could not remember saying anything much at all but I probably say more than my husband.
I think I had commented to one of the crew about a year before that we set the wine glasses differently and was that of interest? I had tried to put it carefully. This small point of detail was now half a page in the Sunday Times and even mentioned on the August morning show of Radio Four.
Even without Downton, setting the table is an act in itself, a process conducted with care and precision and one handed down though practice and instruction.
Often in the TV series there are about 14 people sitting round the table, which is practical because they have to fit another 30 crew in the room filming the scene from perhaps three different angles. In fact, it is a good number when we dine for real as it is actually possible to converse and enjoy the dinner rather than feel as if conducting a parade.
Highclere’s dining room table is a marvellous piece of Victorian engineering. It can contract to be just enough room for four people or, with the numbered extensions, lengthen to allow 30 friends to sit around it.
Setting the table is an art and allowing enough time is important. Luis our head Butler and Jorge, who assists him with Matthew and Fred as needed, usually set the table in the afternoon for the evening dinner. A cupboard at the servery end of the Dining Room holds all the carefully marked leaves of the table, the sideboard next door the knives and forks whilst an adjacent door leads into the glass cupboard.
I enjoy cutting and arranging the flowers and will bring them up from the flower room ready for when needed.
The exact layout depends on the menu and number of courses that Paul the Chef and I have agreed, matched with wines chosen by my husband and Luis.
The white gloves are used, which keep the silver clean and finger prints off the glasses, I imagine little has changed about the process in the past 100 years. White embroidered linen table mats are placed over leather protective mats to mark each dinner guest’s place. The knives, forks and spoons are set from the outside in, beginning with the bread knife and working through each course to the cheese. A pat of butter is impressed with the intertwined C’s and coronet of our crest and placed in front of each guest.
Unlike in Downton Abbey, the wine glasses and water tumbler are arranged to the top right of each setting and the mnemonic to remember the order is white on the right, or as Luis likes to tell the staff, like “a Mickey Mouse head“, with the two smaller glasses as the ears. The pudding glass sits at the back as this is the last one guests drink from.
Downton prefer a different arrangement to the glasses but, hopefully, all the ancestors hanging in their gold frames in the Dining Room would simply wish everyone to enjoy the pleasure of a dinner and conversation.
Having met you, and having visited Highclere Castle last summer, I could not imagine you would publicly criticize the Downton Abbey production team. I love the “Mickey Mouse ears” visual. The most important thing is to use the “good” china. Life is too short to save it for special occasions.
I was not criticising Downton – it was a comment about glasses made about 3 years ago. We all agreed they would do it their way – as above, I hoped the ancestors would find it entertaining….I am delighted you liked Mickey Mouse – I only learnt about that myself last week and thought it was hilarious!
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
It was that article which led me to find out about your blog so I am grateful that it was published. It is wonderful knowing family traditions are being continued, along with proper etiquette. Seeing a beautifully set table is one of life’s more charming pleasures. Thank you for sharing your insights with us.
There is so often a good reason for tradition – it works! It is also good to take the time to listen and talk over lunch or dinner, I am glad you like it too!
Please would you take a photo of a completed setting, so we could see what it looks like if we were seated at your table.
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
Beautiful photos. I have a question: How many people work in a castle?
regards from Poland.
It is so interesting to read just how things should be done, from people that know, and have carried on a way of doing things that are tried and tested. It is such a pity that so many people think they know best, but the don’t. We forget the past at our peril, as history predicts the future.
I used to tell my staff that if I do not come in for a day you will not miss me, but if you do not, it is a disaster. I miss you far more than you miss me. People at the top should never forget that it is the staff that are so important to any organisation. A happy ship is a successful ship.
We should always listen and act to the people that know.
Could you please tell me, are those wine glasses Baccarat? Beautiful settings.
Hopefully this incident will inspire Your Ladyship to write an etiquette book in combination with a cookbook! I would buy it. You definitely would give Martha Stewart a run for her money.
I have just discovered your blog and am so pleased to have discovered this delightful opportunity to learn about Highclere Castle and the way of life there, then and now, and, most pleasantly, to also have the chance to contact you, Lady Carnarvon! Not only am I an ardent fan Of Downton Abbey (and life during the Edwardian era), but I have just finished reading your fascinating book (just, as in 23 minutes ago), Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey! What a marvelous piece of work! I learned so much about the history of Highclere (I was totally dumbfounded by the connection between Lord Carnarvon and the King Tut discovery) and the life of an amazing woman! Thank you so much for the effort, time, and talent you invested in this wonderful book! I am so happy to have this opportunity to thank you personally, rather than just sending a note to your publisher, an option for which I was afraid I would have to settle. I have always been intrigued by times gone by and, in particular, take pleasure in the intricacies of entertaining and dining during an era where the details were seen to with such care and perfection! I was not lucky enough to have linens, silver, and crystal gifted me when I was married so long ago. However, now they seem to be out of fashion and those very ladies are practically giving them away, often saying they never have use for them! Never have use? Is every day not special enough to celebrate by making one’s own personal meal elegant? I was only married (only for the 2nd time at 61, after being divorced at 24) this past November 29, 2013. However, I have indulged myself for over 20 years, with a collection of various serving pieces, fine china, glassware, and flatware, only recently discovering the pleasure of using silver! I love setting a beautiful place for myself, no matter how simple the meal, and don’t hesitate to use candles and play music in the back ground! Ironing freshly laundered linens or polishing a few pieces of silver are a pleasure for me! You will find no paper napkins being used for any meal in my home! To see these marvelous table settings of china,crystal, and silver in your photos is such fun for me! I feel as though I am actually part of a very special time in your family’s history! I so look forward to reading your blog in the future and will be certain to pass along the discovery to my friends and family! I wish you the best in your journey to keep wonderful places such as Highclere Castle a part of our future (although I am from Western New York State, USA, I consider the great estates of the world and the history that goes with them to be treasures for all of us). Most sincerely, Susan
Did you once work at the Sidney Farber Cancer Center, Boston, Mass? If yes, please contact me.
Cheryl (was Horwich)
Fascinating blog – very educational and entertaining !
As a paediatrician working with critically and terminally ill children, I was delighted to see that you support Starlight Children’s Foundation – as you noted in your blog, it really makes a world of difference to the children and their families.
We are preparing for a visit to England to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday – she is a huge fan of Downton Abbey and we are looking forward to visiting the castle and the beautiful grounds. I am hoping to see one of the lambs, or one of the doggies described in the blog!
Where are you from? We share last names and my sister’s name is Regina!
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
I am working on a project for my English class, and I decided I would liked to do an informative slide show on Highclere Castle. I have a few questions, one being the makers of the china, silver, and crystal, and second, what year your piano was made, Since I am a pianist and organist my self! I look kindly from hearing from you, and have a lovely day.
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
I came across your blog for table setting. Recently, at a function someone changed my table setting. The rudeness to do this was appalling but nevertheless I kept quiet! I am 7th generation Australian but with mass immigration we are seeing our culture undermined by people who seem to think they know better! In our family we set the table like you do! Thank you for comments on table setting. Cathy
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
This has been my favorite article of yours! I love the beautiful dining room, and table at Highclere all set with china and silver, crystal and flowers for a wonderful dinner! I noticed a comment of yours from another article on this site that you are collecting stories about dinners and etiquette at Highclere. I think that is a wonderful idea! It would be a feast for the eyes to see pictures of beautiful table settings, tea tables, menus and recipes used for the wonderful occasions Highclere must have had. I’m sure there have been many exciting guests for dinners at Highclere! An entertaining at Highclere book would be the ultimate for me! I enjoy your blog very much!
Dear Lady Carnarvon:
I am just reading this, although you posted several years-ago, but the glass settings at the Downton table have caught my eyes, often, having me question if my mother got it wrong, or perhaps we set s formal dinner setting differently in America.
When I was growing up, my mother always set a formal dining table in the dining room. I was taught by her to do the same, as with your family, we set with ancestors settings from over a century-ago and beyond. But I have constantly noticed the glasses and the fact they seem to be set in a way that would make it impossible to reach for the wine choices without knocking something over, or reaching a bit off kilter and lifting one over the other. I thought perhaps we do it differently in the States, but then, last week I thought, “I need to look up online, in traditional sites for table setting etiquette, to see if you do in fact set the table differently from the formal manner my mother taught me and her mother her. The “Mickey Mouse Ears” as you note, is what I see online in traditional settings. So Your Ladyship (and my mother, and now I) is correct and the Downton set directors are wrong.
I see nothing wrong in your pointing this out Your Ladyship, you do after all, know exactly how the house is run and how it was then and that would include table etiquette. I do wish the set directors would have been open to listening to you, because, if I noticed, how many others who follow the standard procedure for formal dinners noticed? I would have to say most American country clubs with a formal dining room that sets the table for formal affairs! I realize not all today were taught this by mothers and grandmothers, I wish it was still taught, and I am glad for it, because our guest love to see a beautiful table set gorgeous, and now, thanks to “Downton,” people notice more and they so appreciate a time when dinner was presented in a way where everything was enjoyable from taste to sight.
So no one should take what you said as an insult that you pointed out the mistake, it certainly was not rude by any means. It was intended to tell us how your home has been doing it, so to speak, for over a century and how the real family portrayed would have dined. And if people have watched “Secrets of Highclair Castle,” they will notice your butler does in fact set the table different from the “Downton” set and he explains how a formal table must be set, showing how your family’s ancestors did it and that is it continued, not changed. I enjoyed that special. Your home is lovely and it is loved and it is wonderful to see people carry on their family’s home with pride and love.
I will say that sadly too many movies portraying aristocracy or royalty of late are portraying dinner etiquette and table settings ala kitchen-style when you let your guard down.
I have signed up to your site, I am an avid fan of the show and hope you will continue your site even with the show now ended in England. Manners and etiquette need to come back in style, not remain something we only see and engage in at formal settings for weddings, but in our own homes when we dine out of the kitchen (and even there I think we could use more manners as my mother did not care if it was the kitchen or the formal dining room, good manners should behave the same and be part of one’s life) and in the dining room.
Thank you for sharing your home with us,
I just stumbled on your site preparing for a dinner party for the Easter Holiday and I was wondering if you could recommend several books on etiquette. My mother taught dinner manners and table settings to our family when the children were very young, but my grandchildren are sadly lacking in the use of cutlery, dishes, napkins and so forth, and what is proper and what is not. For the people who cannot afford to send send their children to finishing school, are there books you would recommend to help them not stumble in polite society? Thank you for your valuable time. It is much appreciated. Constance
Dear Lady Carnarvon:
January 22, 2017 at 3:25pm
I and I’m sure other fans would love to buy one of those measuring sticks with instructions
the Butler uses to set a formal table. Please offer them to us.
Dear Lady Carnarvon:
February 11, 2018
I recently attended an exhibit at the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida in which many of the costumes of Downtown Abbey were on display in many of the sets typical of Highclere.
In the dining room, the table was formally set. Among the goblets was a green one. I have searched the internet to learn the significance of the green goblet but to no avail. Could you provide some insight into the use of the green goblet?
Dear Lady Carnarvon:
I just adore your website and especially your dining features.
I am from the Midwest of the United States and it is always uplifting for me
to visit your websites each day. When I get down and a bit blue over the
things that happen around me, I find your websites very much uplifting and
gives me joy for the day.
Thank you so much for your gift and talent for bringing joy to my area of
I love the series & can’t wait for the movie! I love the clothes, the castle & the cast. Also have watched about about the real castle & people who lived there. Fascinating!
I love Downton Abbey…My sister and I were supposed to visit Highclere 3 years ago, but our tour was cancelled at the last minute. We were so disappointed. Hopefully I can make it in the future.
Were any special accommodations to the placement of wine glasses, water goblets for left-handed diners?
I don’t think so!
I believe that was one of the eras where left handed people were frowned on. Sometimes children were beaten and forced to use only their right hand. (I’m no expert, this is just what I think I’ve gathered from various readings)
Hello there. I’ve just finished binge-watching the entire 6 seasons and the movie. This wasn’t something I watched during its run but heard about a few weeks ago while reading about Dame Maggie Smith. I’m a big fan of hers and decided I should have seen this. I’m certainly glad I did, I’ve enjoyed it very much!
While I’m astounded at the talent of so many of the actors and actresses, I have to admit I’m equally attracted to your home. I’m one of those people who has always been interested in older buildings and their history. I would never be happy living in a newly built house.
I’ve started doing a little trekking around the web looking for details. Right now I’m interested in the table settings. Following is a link to the only picture I’ve found that (relatively) clearly shows the contents of the small ‘jars’ in front of each place setting.
Unfortunately, the size of the pic is too small to make much out. Enlarging it doesn’t help. It looks like the 2 ‘jars’ in front of whoever is sitting to Dame Maggie’s right contain something white, so perhaps sugar and salt? But then there’s an obvious shaker item behind it, which I would also assume was salt.
Anyway, might you happen to know what those two items are?
I’m also curious what’s written on the place cards we see at nearly every sitting. In one scene, Tom tells Edith he has to go, she says he can’t till everyone stands, he picks up his card and reads it. I wondered if it might be the menu so he was checking what course they were on…?
I’m sorry to bombard you like this. It’s partly excitement that I stumbled over your page, the rest is probably just my poor American manners 🙂 If I may take even more of your time, I must mention my awe at the beauty of your home. The rich history and the glorious building itself… I can only commend you for continuing and nurturing it.
The open silver dishes are salt and pepper and the silver shaker contains sugar. We always have place cards and these show people’s names so they know where to be seated. Mostly I will write these in English, but occasionally I write them in hieroglyphs which is great fun!
Please write an etiquette book! I would absolute love to read about how it is supposed to be done. Hope to visit Highlclere Castle later this year. I love all of the tradition. The crest on the napkins is lovely as well.
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
I absolutely adore Highclere. I am planning a trip to Europe this year (from Australia) and I will definitely be putting Highclere on my itinerary. Do you have any plans to write an etiquette book? I would love to learn how to do things the traditional way.