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TV Testimony: Downton Mania! Part One

September 28, 2011

One of the greatest imports we’ve seen from across the pond, Downton Abbey swept the Emmys and is taking America by storm.  Don’t resist the invasion;  you’ll get sucked into this show and be grateful that you did.   Downton tells the story of  the Crawley family’s battle to maintain their social status and their crumbling estate in the face of ignorance, prejudice and looming war.

The first series is currently available to stream at

Season 2 premieres on January 8th, 2012 on your local PBS station.

Until then, here are some Downton trivia tidbits to tide you over…

The Abbey (or I’m Not Really an Abbey, But I Play One on TV):

Highclere Castle

The Crawleys live at Downton Abbey, which in “real life” is known as Highclere (pronounced HIGH-CLEAR, for all the Yanks) Castle.   Although the series implies that Downton is in Yorkshire (Northeast England), the real Highclere Castle is in West Berkshire (BARK SHEER), which is Southwest of London, and a much balmier location.

Highclere Castle is the seat of the Earls of Carnarvon.  The building as it stands today isn’t really a castle, but a large Manor House.  It gets its name because it sits on the site of a former castle that housed the Bishops of Winchester in medieval times.

The current Earl of Carnarvon makes no bones about the fact that the family is unable to keep up Highclere in the manner to which it was once accustomed.  The current family actually lives in a small cottage on the estate!  Downton mania may help bring some much needed funds to restore this great old estate.  Right now, only a few rooms are functional and open to the public (the library being one of them, and it is often seen during the series).  Many of the show’s interior shots (especially the kitchen, servants’ areas) are actually filmed on a soundstage.

the library at Highclere

If you believe in curses, you might be interested to know that the current Earl’s ancestor was the partner of Egyptologist Howard Carter, and the two are best known for opening King Tutankhamen’s tomb.  There is an Egyptology exhibit on the estate at Highclere.  Many connected with this expedition suffered mysterious ends – including the 5th Earl himself, who died of a mosquito bite (probably malaria) before ever seeing the riches of King Tut’s tomb with his own eyes.


For more on Highclere:

WHAT War?! (or BOERing You About the Boers)

John Bates, the valet

In Downton Abbey’s first season, the Earl’s valet, John Bates, is indebited to the Earl for employing him despite his limp and inability to traverse the halls of Downton effectively.  The Earl’s loyalty stems from a common past.  Both men fought together and served in the same regiment, which is how John received his wound.

What war would this be?  It’s the Boer War, a conflict not well known here in the States.  There were actually TWO conflicts; John and the Earl probably fought in the Second War, which took place from 1899-1902.    The Boer Wars were fought between GBR and the Dutch settlers of the two Boer Republics (which are in modern day South Africa).  The Brits would win the conflict, incorporating the republics into the British Empire in the Union of South Africa.

Bates and Head Housemaid Anna

Of course, all this was due to the giant elephant in the room known as Imperialism; the natives were often poorly treated by the Brits.  Women and children of the native soldiers were often placed with their husbands in concentration-type camps.

John Bates and the Earl are tied together thanks to their experiences in this little-talked about war.

In Series Two (which takes place from 1916-1918),  the Earl, Matthew Crawley and former footman Thomas will all be fighting in The Great War (as it was called back then), which is known to us today as World War I.


Downton Mania Part 2 – Upstairs, Downstairs (Who’s Who in the Hierarchy of Downton)  and Entailment (or Why Mary Crawley can’t Inherit)

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