Downton Abbey’s connection to Jane Austen is through Lord Carnarvon, whose descendents still own Highclere Castle, where the PBS Masterpiece Classic mini-series’ interior and exterior shots of the fictional country house were filmed. (Read about Andrew Lloyd Weber’s recent attempt to purchase the castle.) In Jane’s day, Lord Carnarvon was Henry, the 1st Earl. Jane wrote in a letter to Cassandra Austen, Saturday25 – Monday 27 th, October 1800 :
“This morning we called at the Harwood’s & in their dining room found Heathcote & Chute for ever – Mrs Wm Heathcote & Mrs Chute – the first of whom took a long ride in to Lord Carnarvons Park and fainted away in the evening…”
Lord Carnarvon’s park, which Jane writes of, is the grounds to Highclere Castle. The Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere since 1679, although the Castle as we see it today sits on the site of an earlier house. (Click here to view a short film about the Castle’s history.) A beautiful 6,000 acre park designed by Capability Brown between 1774-7 surrounds the Castle.
In 1842, the 3rd Earl commissioned architect Sir Charles Barry (also responsible for building the Houses of Parliament in Westminster) to redesign the Castle.
One of the most interesting fact about Highclere Castle is that the golden death mask of King Tutankhamun is featured in its gallery today.
Lord Carnarvon of Tutankhamun fame (George, the 5th Earl) was an Egyptologist who sponsored Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. It is said that when Canarvon and Carter broke into Tut’s tomb, they unleashed the mummy’s curse. But the story goes more like this:
This popular legend was born when Lord Carnarvon, the English Earl who funded the Tutankhamun expedition, died less than six months after the opening of the tomb. Despite the fact that Lord Carnarvon was a sickly individual, and that no such “hieroglyphic curse” was found inscribed on the tomb, this legend persists today. . . Lord Carnarvon had been in a car accident many years earlier and had never fully recovered. About a month after entering the tomb, he cut open a mosquito bite while shaving and infection set in. Blood poisoning and pneumonia quickly followed, and within a few weeks, he passed away. Newspapers reported that mysterious forces unleashed from the mummy and its trappings had caused his death. – King Tut
This image of Howard Carter’s grave was taken by Tony Grant, who lives near the cemetery in London. (Thank you, Tony, for the photo and for the quote from Jane Austen’s letter!)
Watch Downton Abbey at your local PBS station Sundays, January 9, 16, 23, and 30, 2011 at 9 PM. Read my other posts:
- Entertaining visitors in an English country house, such as Downton Abbey
- Downstairs in Downton Abbey: The Servants
- Upstairs in Downton Abbey: The Three Crawley Sisters
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