February 18th 2013

Ever wished to be a fly on the wall at Downton Abbey? Be our guest, on our Downton Abbey, Castle Combe & Avebury Circle Walk, which includes an exclusive private tour of Highclere Castle and a talk by best-selling author Jennie Walters, an expert on English stately homes and their servants. Wonderful!   In the meantime, you could dip into the Countess of Carnarvon’s book ‘Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey’ which opens the doors at Highclere Castle at a glittering and turbulent period in its history. With illegitimacy, uncovering Egyptian tombs, a World War, below stairs drama and glittering parties, Highclere Castle provides inspiration galore for Downton Abbey screenwriter, Sir Julian Fellowes.   In her best-selling book, the current Countess of Carnarvon gives a fascinating insight into the life and times of the most famous Earl, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and his 19 year old, heiress wife Almina.  Almina Victoria Marie Alexandra Wombwell - a very pretty, strong-minded young lady of 19 married the Earl in 1895. She had lots going for her except respectability. Certainly, her family circumstances must have raised eyebrows in the boudoirs and billiard rooms of Edwardian England. Almina’s father, Alfred de Rothschild had never married her mother, his long-term mistress, Marie Wombwell. Being illegitimate was scandalous and although Almina and her mother had money, they could never mix in the best society. As if that wasn’t enough, Marie’s estranged husband, Fred was a notorious drunk.  Marrying the Earl of Carnarvon changed everything. In poker terms, it was the Royal Flush of marriages. The Carnarvon’s status in society and close ties to the British Royal Family gave Almina (and to a lesser extent her beloved mother), instant respectability. The marriage was secured by love - and hard cash. The Earl really liked Almina but he also needed an heiress’s fortune, to safeguard Highclere Castle’s future. Almina Wombwell was astonishingly wealthy. Alfred de Rothschild was a devoted father and lavished on her an annual dowry of £6.5 million in today’s money. More would come with children.  The Countess of Carnarvon comments somewhat wryly that Almina always thought generously and spent on a big scale – be it funding a party or a hospital. It was unthinkable that the money might ever run out. In one exchange Alfred writes: 'Darling, it was only last month I gave you £25,000, what on earth have you done with it?'   For eager Egyptologists, there’s plenty in the book about the Earl’s famous discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. It’s amusing to think how history would have turned out if the Earl had abandoned archaeology after his first disappointing dig. It lasted 6 weeks and unearthed just one item: a case for a mummified cat!  The Great War of 1914-1918 hit the estate very hard – above and below stairs and the book brings it home how it affected all strata of society. The War spurred Lady Almina into action. As shown in Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle was converted into a hospital for 20 soldiers. Lady Almina earned a reputation as a gifted nurse and hospital administrator.  Lady Almina and the Earl of Carnarvon had 2 children, a boy nicknamed Porchy and a girl, Evelyn. After the Earl’s early death in Egypt aged 57, Almina was a widow at just 47. In 1923, she remarried a Lieutenant Colonel Ian Dennistoun in 1923 and went to live in Scotland, leaving Porchy and his wife to run Highclere Castle. And so the story continues. 

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