I began both the books, “Almina” and “Catherine” by thinking about two of my predecessors as they stood on the steps of St Margaret’s Church, Westminster with all the rose-tinted happiness and excitement that describes their feelings at the moment of their weddings. Of course, I wanted them to be love matches on both sides and in each book, I followed the journey of their marriages.
Where did they meet? How did they meet? Was it love at first sight? Our desire to love and be loved, to be admired and appreciated is endlessly repeated in legend and romances, poetry and song. One annual moment to pluck up the courage to propose, or to turn to the one you love and remember that you love them amidst the hurly-burly of everyday life is Valentine’s day. The story of St Valentine is that of a martyr who suffered and died for his faith on February 14th, so I am never quite sure how that led to the rose, chocolate and champagne strewn celebration enjoyed by today’s couples.
As well as Highclere’s real stories of love, Downton provided many fictional moments as well. For example, Mary and Matthew became engaged outside the Library, whilst in the recent film Branson and the new character Lucy stole a kiss in the gallery. It all led to at least four weddings for both the upstairs and downstairs characters.
Back in the late 19th century, Almina and the 5th Earl’s marriage began more prosaically with a contract and a very large dowry. Rather sweetly though I found a letter from one of 5th Earl’s sisters remarking on how madly in love Almina was with her future husband. Overall it seems to have been a successful relationship encompassing many shared journeys to Egypt and with enough confidence and independence in each of their characters to allow for each other’s’ different priorities. The 5th Earl often preferred a good book and a quieter evening and, whilst his wife Almina would throw a spontaneous party with dancing for several hundred friends, he tended to greet everyone and then retire. That said, there is an extraordinary and poignant photograph of a tiny, black clad figure seated alone by her husband’s grave on Beacon Hill taken in April 1923 by a press photographer. It was a moment of complete “aloneness” for Almina.
In contrast, the 6th Earl fell madly in love with a beautiful American girl Catherine whom he married in 1922. With no dowry or inheritance, it was simply a love match but just seven years later he was to be found exploring the delights of the London stage and assorted nightclubs with the Prince of Wales and Prince George. Other love affairs followed and unsurprisingly the marriage did not survive. Catherine later found love again with Geoffrey Grenfell in 1938, whilst a little later, the 6th Earl remarried the very beautiful actress Tilly Losch.
This marriage was even shorter so I am not sure “love” is the right word but at least he enjoyed himself. Three months later Tilly left for the USA, always decorative, pleased to have a title and happy with the divorce settlement which was finally completed some twelve years later. Meanwhile the 6th Earl continued to look for love in all the wrong places.
Over the last few years, we have organised a weekend of teas in the Castle to celebrate Valentine’s Day which I think all my predecessors would have enjoyed. I amuse myself by envisaging Almina organising it, with Catherine so elegant and kind acting as hostess, the 5th Earl slightly more remote and the 6th Earl sitting by the prettiest girl at every table telling colourful stories. I have put together a little memento for the day of my favourite poems and quotes from Christina Rosetti to Shakespeare, Robbie Burns to Zsa Zsa Gabor which I hope people might leaf through and enjoy, or even add their own poems.