Highclere Castle is one of the most beautiful Victorian castles in England. It’s also the setting for Julian Fellowes’ award-winning drama Downton Abbey. While the PBS series follows the lives of the fictional Crawley family and their servants after WWI, the storyline actually has much in common with the factual history of the Carnarvon family and Highclere Castle.
Highclere Castle History
Since 1679, the Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere. For 800 years before them, the Bishops of Winchester had a medieval palace on the same site. In 1838, the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon began a massive expansion of the home which took 40 years to complete. By the end of the 19th century, Highclere became the center of the political life of the Victorian era.
Highclere was the site for gracious house parties that included technology innovators, politicians, soldiers, aviators, and Egyptologists until World War I changed the status quo for everyone. In 1914, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, Lady Almina, transformed the castle into a military hospital. After the war, Highclere Castle again became a private home. In 1922, the 5th Earl, along with Howard Carter, famously discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. For a short time during World War II, Highclere Castle became a home for children who were evacuated from London. When that was no longer necessary, the Carnarvon family resumed residence. Today, the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon live part-time in the grand Georgian mansion, surrounded by 1,000 acres of incredible parkland and gardens.
Highclere Castle Rooms
The State Rooms of Highclere Castle include the State Dining Room, the Drawing Room, and the Smoking Room. Fine art and family heirlooms decorate these rooms in lavish style. Cordoban leather wall coverings that date from 1631 richly adorn the central Saloon. The large library, with over 5,600 books, continues to be a popular gathering place for the family and guests. The Music Room displays a baroque ceiling painted in the early 18th century and 16th-century Italian embroidery wall hangings.
Beyond the rooms used to receive distinguished guests, Highclere Castle has no less than 50 bedrooms! 11 are on the first floor and several are used in the filming of Downton Abbey. The 8th Countess has been refurbishing bedrooms with historical accuracy for years, but 40-50 bedrooms on the upper floors remain out of use and are not open to visitors.
The three-story stone staircase often seen in the TV series leads to the upper floors and down to what was originally the servant’s dining rooms, sitting rooms, the cellar, and kitchens. In its heyday, Highclere Castle required 60-80 staff to operate, and they had to be fed as well. Today the number of staff employed is a fraction of that. The lower floors now house the 5th Earl’s Egyptian Exhibit. Two additional staircases, the great oak staircase and the red staircase, are magnificently carved works that the family and guests still regularly use to move about the castle.
Highclere Ground & Gardens
The expansive grounds of Highclere Castle offer many lovely nooks and crannies, woodlands, and parkland that will delight visitors. The decorative Monk’s Garden, dating to 1261, leads to the ornamental White Garden, which in turn has a gate to the captivating Secret Garden. A walnut walk and rose arbor are contemporary additions near sprawling meadows of jonquils and wildflowers.
Visit Highclere Castle
As you may imagine, it costs an inordinate amount just to keep up with the maintenance and operational expenses for a castle the size and age of Highclere, not to mention the cost of restoration efforts. To supplement funding, the 8th Lord and Lady Carnarvon have not only allowed filming of the Downton Abbey series at Highclere Castle but have also opened it to visitors on a limited schedule.
To include a visit to Highclere Castle on your England vacation, contact Covington Travel.