Secrets of Highclere Castle, The Real-Life Downton Abbey

You know it as the home of Downton Abbey’s Crawley family, but Highclere Castle is actually one of the greatest country estates in England. Just like its fictional counterpart, Highclere has secrets and intrigue of its own, steeped in four centuries of history. Here’s a behind the scenes look at the real-life Downton Abbey castle.

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Highclere Castle - Lord and Lady Carnarvon
Photo: Highclere Castle

The real-life Downton Abbey castle is a family home

Highclere Castle serves as the home of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. While Highclere’s history dates back to AD 749, it didn’t become a castle until 1842, and remains one of the last aristocratic-owned farming estates in England. (The oats the late Queen’s horses munched on actually come from here.) When the Earl wants to get away from it all, he retires to the castle’s smoking room, where gentlemen of his grandfather’s era would play bridge and puff cigars amid the still-life paintings and other treasures acquired on his ancestors’ grand tours of Europe.

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Dowton Abbey castle - Highclere Castle dining Room
Photo: Highclere Castle

You’re invited for tea

Only a portion of Highclere Castle’s 250 rooms are used in the filming of Downton Abbey, but you can visit the ones that feature most prominently in the series. Each year, thousands of visitors wander through the castle’s opulent sitting rooms and climb the grand, limed oak staircase up to the bedrooms of Lady Mary and her sisters. Keep your eyes peeled for treasures including a desk of Napoleon Bonaparte’s and in the dining room, an original van Dyck portrait of Charles I. Highclere Castle tours, teas and champagne receptions take place during the summer months and select dates off-season.

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Downton Abbey castle library - North library at Highclere Castle
Photo: Highclere Castle

The Earl’s family uses the library just like the Crawleys

The design of Highclere Castle’s opulent North library was inspired by the Reform Club, an ultra-exclusive London establishment that later became the first to extend membership to women back in 1981. (If you’re headed to the capital, be sure to check out these must-see London attractions.) With its distinctive red-and-gold palette and wall-to-wall bookcases housing more than 6,000 titles, the North library is one of Highclere’s most instantly recognizable rooms from Downton Abbey. It’s here that the current Earl’s family meets for pre-dinner drinks in much the same way as Downton‘s cast of aristocrats.

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Highclere Castle - Egyptian Exhibit and Lady Carnarvon
Photo: Highclere Castle

The cellar is packed with treasures from Ancient Egypt

For decades, a secret cabinet situated between the castle’s drawing and smoking rooms hid historic treasures. In 1987, the butler revealed this was where the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (the famed Egyptologist who discovered of King Tut’s tomb) stashed a collection of Egyptian artifacts. Why did the butler keep mum? To avoid the tax man, of course! (Much of the 5th Earl’s collection was sold to The Met to pay off hefty inheritance taxes.) You can admire these hidden treasures on castle tours and suss out more treasures from Tut’s time at the Egyptian Exhibition in Highclere’s cellar.

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Highclere Castle secret door in library
Photo: Highclere Castle

There’s a secret passage in the library

As in so many grand old estates, there’s a secret door concealed among the bookcases of the Downton Abbey castle’s library. (Had Lady Mary’s early love interest, Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk lived, he likely would’ve been whisked through this secret passage from the library into the music room to avoid a scandal.) Though the music room has never featured in the filming of Downton Abbey (and curiously, no musical instrument has ever been played there), it’s a current favourite of the Carnarvon family for hosting small dinner parties.

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Downton Abbey castle - Highclere Castle
Photo: Highclere Castle

The Crown and Highclere Castle have someone in common

Fans of the TV series The Crown will no doubt recall the Queen’s great friend and racing manager, “Porchey.” Lord Porchester was none other than the 7th Earl of Carnarvon (the current Earl’s father). As he inherited the title quite late in his life, the 7th Earl opted not to live in the castle. If you look closely, however, you’ll spot photos of Lord Porchester with his family (and one with a young King Charles in his arms) throughout the castle. Incidentally, Queen Elizabeth II was the current Earl’s godmother.

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Downton Abbey kitchen set

You won’t find Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen in Highclere Castle

The Edwardian-era basement kitchen, where the plots thicken faster than Mrs. Patmore’s custard, is nowhere to be found in the real-life Downton Abbey castle. In fact, Highclere Castle’s kitchen is very much a product of the 21st century, down to the stainless steel appliances. All of the Downton Abbey scenes in the kitchen and servant’s quarters are authentic period sets, filmed at Ealing Studios in West London.

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Downton Abbey castle - Highclere Castle aerial shot
Photo: Highclere Castle

The Downton Abbey castle has a Canadian connection

While searching through the castle archives, Lady Carnarvon recently discovered nearly eight weeks of daily correspondence between the 4th Earl and Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister. Lord Carnarvon was Secretary of State for the Colonies and had invited Sir John to Highclere to draft the British North America Act in 1866, which he presented to the British Parliament the following year. If you have the chance to wander the castle grounds, keep an eye out for a maple tree planted in Macdonald’s honour.

Next, check out 50 Downton Abbey quotes to live by.

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