Downton Abbey castle once ‘a retreat and a haven’ for Queen Elizabeth IILady Fiona Carnarvon
Queen Elizabeth II was once a guest at the elegant Highclere Castle that served as the backdrop of the hit television series Downton Abbey.
“My father-in-law was one of her greatest friends from the age of 16, and my husband is her godson,” Lady Carnarvon told CTV News from the manicured grounds of Highclere Castle. “It was a retreat and a haven where nobody ever talked. It was a place where she could enjoy the countryside.”
A four-day Platinum Jubilee celebration begins Thursday to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne, the longest reign of any British monarch. Events are scheduled across the United Kingdom, Canada and beyond.
“I think World War Two, which was the time she grew up in, we were all in the trenches,” the countess added. “It didn’t matter whether you’re the King or the Queen, or you were a farm labourer or a teacher, it was a huge leveller, which is completely correct, as was the pandemic.”
Lady Carnarvon’s husband is the eighth Earl of Carnarvon, and Highclere Castle is his family seat. They oversee the grand estate, located 100 kiilometres west of London, which was the primary filming location for all six seasons of Downton Abbey, plus two movies based on the series. The latest film was released in Canada on May 20.
First built in 1679, the 300-room castle was renovated extensively in the 1840s. Lady Carnarvon’s family mostly lives in a smaller cottage on the sprawling grounds, which are open for visits, guided tours and even overnight stays. Past guests include Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes.
“He’s stayed here, he’s eaten here, he’s drunk here, he’s slept here, so it gives it that sense of reality,” Lady Carnarvon said.
Not all past visitors have had connections to the show or royalty. The castle was a hospital during the First World War and a home for evacuee children during the Second World War. Lady Carnarvon has written two books telling its story.
“Historically, it’s not particularly accurate,” she said of Downton Abbey. “But it wasn’t trying to be a historical documentary: Downton Abbey was supposed to be a costume drama and fun and interesting.”
The castle even has a Canadian connection. In her blog, Lady Carnarvon describes how the fourth Earl of Carnarvon hosted Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, and others at the property to work on the British North America Act, which led to the creation of the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867.
“It is the wealth of friendship, and the common grounds that we all have, and a reason to come together every so often,” Lady Carnarvon said of the 54-member Commonwealth, which are mostly former British colonies like Canada. “That’s sort of invaluable, actually. So, I truly hope that people do stay with it.”
Lady Carnarvon has introduced a ‘Friends of Highclere Castle’ program, which is a two-tiered membership for people who are passionate about the building. According to its website, membership includes private tours of new rooms, virtual 3D tours, as well as access to parts of the building used for filming Downton Abbey.