The release date of the Downton Abbey Movie is almost upon us but, in the meantime, we have all been enjoying the trailers and photographs: Carson walking briskly along the drive in front of us, an excited yellow Labrador beside him, a motorcyclist delivering a letter, and then of course everyone lined up for the arrival of the King and Queen, although, as ever, that scene seems more to belong to the indomitable Dowager Countess…
The Real Downton Abbey – Highclere Castle – has yellow Labradors, (my husband may think a few too many) friendly postmen, butlers who sadly no long wear bowler hats and a similar long standing tradition of welcoming Royalty.
It is said that the Black Prince came and hunted here in the time of Bishop William of Wykeham around 1376. Our current saloon was at that time a medieval dining hall with a long chamber, rooms above and stables in the courtyard behind. Four hundred years later, Queen Caroline, the wife of George II, stayed here and the bedroom she slept in is still named for her, with her painting above the fireplace. Highly intellectual, she established an extensive library at St. James’s Palace, corresponded with a number of leading philosophers and scientists of the time and had much influence over her husband and British politics.
The State Dining Room in Highclere has some remarkable paintings. The one above the fireplace is set within a beautifully carved oak frame and is of the first Earl of Carnarvon. It shows him pointing happily to his letters patent through which he was granted the title by King George III. Apparently the portrait was begun by Gainsborough although it was completed by Gilbert Stuart. The latter was, and is still, regarded as the foremost US portrait painter but he spent eighteen years in Britain before returning to his homeland where he is most well known for his painting of George Washington.
Above all, however, the Dining Room is dominated by the portrait of King Charles I. Rigorously adhering to the philosophy of the “divine right” of kings, and unwilling to listen to parliament and abide by the law like everyone else in the land, he was executed by parliament in 1649. During Cromwell’s time, this painting was rolled up and used to prop up a barn door on the Highclere Estate before King Charles II returned to the throne of England whereupon it was installed once again to pay homage to the Royal Family. His portrait is flanked by others of my husband’s forebears who showed themselves adept in the role of courtier or politician.
During the nineteenth century the 4th Earl was respected by, but not close to, Queen Victoria. Nevertheless she stood as godmother to his youngest daughter, named therefore Victoria in her honour. Then, six months after her marriage to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon in 1895, Almina welcomed the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, to Highclere Castle. This is one of the stories I shared in ‘At Home at Highclere’: recalling the details of the extravagance, luxurious foods, lengthy menus, musicians, decorations and, above all, logistics needed to welcome His Royal Highness. Etiquette, social rules and dress were extremely important and it was an extraordinary planning exercise for a 19 year old to manage in order for it all to run smoothly. Nothing was too much trouble, although the downstairs team were clearly stressed and bolstered by extra chefs from the Savoy Hotel and with extra provisions for every occasion.
Our visitor book bears the signatures of both King George V and Queen Mary, who succeeded Edward VII in 1911. The 6th Earl of Carnarvon was friends with their sons – the Prince of Wales (who briefly became Edward VIII) who then abdicated to become the Duke of Windsor and Prince George who became the Duke of Kent and who was my father-in-law’s godfather. He often stayed at Highclere and was much liked by all the downstairs staff.
It is well known that there was a longstanding friendship between Her Majesty the Queen and my father-in-law, her racing manager who shared a love of the countryside, of horses, of shared travel through many years and the sense of duty, of service.
There are fascinating stories to tell and an inspiring sense of history, of the sense of place and role remaining much the same as the centuries roll by. We still have the honour of welcoming remarkable visitors and friends as has been done in the past, to rise to the occasion with precision and dignity but also warmth and hospitality. I certainly agree that it is still about planning and preparation before moments of panic…