The Truth About 'Downton Abbey,' Highclere Castle

For fans of the TV show "Downton Abbey," the house itself is as much a personality of the show as the characters who inhabit it. And with the announcement that a second film has begun production for a December release, reports "Today," Highclere Castle, where "Downton" is filmed, is once again in the spotlight.

Julian Fellowes is the creator of "Downton Abbey." Lady Carnarvon — Highclere is her family estate — wrote in The Daily Mirror, "My husband and I have known the writer Julian Fellowes and his wife Emma for many years. They'd regularly come over for dinner, and he wrote 'Downtown' with Highclere in mind because he knew it so well, so we have been lucky."

While many of the iconic rooms in the fictitious Downton Abbey – bedrooms, drawing room, stairs, and gallery landing – are really rooms at Highclere (including the furniture), Lady Carnarvon notes that the kitchen at Highclere had been updated, so staff quarters on the lower floor are filmed on a studio set.

The income from "Downton" filming at Highclere, and the subsequent increased tourism, have made a significant impact on Lord and Lady Carnarvon's maintenance and repairs on the large castle — according to Architectural Digest, there are more than 300 rooms — as well as upkeep on the over 6,000 acres of grounds. Nevertheless, Lady Carnarvon writes on her blog that she's excited to see the filming start after a year of lockdown, comparing it to the excitement of beginning a new school year.

The best designers in England were brought in to create the castle and grounds

Highclere Castle is currently owned by the Eighth Earl of Carnarvon, and has been in his family since the 17th century, reports Time. In 1838, the third Earl commissioned Sir Charles Barry (via Britannica), the same architect who designed the British Houses of Parliament, to design Highclere. It is built in what is called the Jacobethan style, notes, an outgrowth of the Gothic Revival style (via Britannica). Both design aesthetics aimed to replicate the ornate style of English medieval architecture. It was popular in the early 1800s, inspired by gothic romance novels and poetry of the time, including the works of Sir Walter Scott.

The gardens at Highclere were designed in 1770 by the great landscape architect Capability Brown in the English Landscape Style, which aims at a more naturalistic, if idealized design, often featuring rolling hills, streams or ponds and, often, follies, of which Highclere has many (via Lady Carnarvon).

The Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, was an amateur Egyptologist, but upon attempting to do his own excavations in Thebes in 1906, he realized he was out of his depth and brought on archaeologist Howard Carter in 1907 (via Britannica). Carter had previously worked for the Egyptian government as an inspector general in their antiquities department, and had already discovered two tombs, those of the Thutmose IV and Hatshepsut, the second known female pharaoh.

The 5th Earl funded the search for King Tut's tomb

Their association would last the rest of George Herbert's life, culminating in the incredible find on November 4, 1922: the tomb of King Tutankhamen (above).

Sadly, the Fifth Earl died on April 5, 1923 in Cairo, weeks after the tomb had been opened, from blood poisoning, thought to have occurred from a mosquito bite on his cheek. The Lancet notes that, due to a devastating car accident in 1903, his system was significantly weakened and he was susceptible to infections. Newspapers at the time, notes History, suggested he was a victim of the "curse of the Pharoahs," leading to speculation that anyone entering King Tut's tomb was cursed. However, modern analysis in 2002 by the British Medical Journal showed no correlation between entering the tomb and premature death. A permanent exhibit is on display at Highclere celebrating this astonishing discovery, which includes a replica of King Tut's death mask, Lady Carnarvon writes.

In season two of Downton Abbey the castle was turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers from World War I, and this was based on what happened in real life at Highclere. Lady Almina, the wife of the Fifth Earl, turned her home into a hospital for wounded men coming back from the trenches in Europe, the castle's site notes.

The castle has adapted to the needs of a country in crisis

Lady Carnarvon explains to the BBC, "She rolled up her sleeves. She turned this castle into a proper hospital." The first patients were admitted in September 1914, cared for by approximately 30 doctors and surgeons. Many of the castle's own staff volunteered to go to war, "and possibly a third of them didn't come back," Lady Carnarvon states.

During the Second World War, HIghclere played host to a different kind of visitor: children evacuated from London for safety during the Blitz, ITV reports. Land Girls, as members of the Women's Land Army (WLA) were colloquially known (per the International War Museum), were brought in to help maintain the grounds. As the 2019 "Downton" film was set in 1927, Today notes, World War II is still quite a ways off in that storyline, although it's not yet clear what year the new film will be set in.

In addition to (or perhaps because of) the history, there are claims that the house is haunted. On "This Morning," Lady Carnarvon told of one otherwordly encounter. "One ghost followed me along a black corridor, it was sort of in the afternoon in November. He kept on walking behind me ... I was pushing my son in front and we got to a door and we crashed through ... luckily he stopped there.

Like any old house, rumors of ghosts abound

"But I didn't feel he was entirely happy," she continued, "so I asked someone to come and bless the house and wish him on his way." Upon research, she believes it's the ghost of a footman who committed suicide in the area of the house where the sighting occurred.

According to the Lady Carnavon, some of the film crew were afraid of the castle's ghosts. "I've heard stories of crew members running down the stairs and never wanting to come back!" she writes in The Mirror. There seem to be a few spirits to fear. She writes in her blog, "By reputation there are a number of ghosts or presences at Highclere. A few appear apparently in the park, there may be some restless souls by the bronze age tumuli ... one in a yew tree, one in the Tower ... a lady in black by the Gothic stairs ... one who sits on the foot of a bed every so often and one lady who used occasionally to follow me round the Gallery. Everyone here has their own story and the places they don't like to visit on a gloomy evening."

Not all Highclere ghost sightings are real, however. On her blog, Lady Carnarvon recounted one visit to a spooky upper floor that was plagued by "ghosts" created by some of the castle's prank-loving staff.

There are plenty of opportunities to have your own Downton Experience at Highclere

If you weren't lucky enough to be to the manor born, there are still plenty of opportunities at Highclere to experience the life of a country aristocrat. From garden tours with a champagne and afternoon tea picnic (per Highclere's website), to guided tours of the state rooms and "galleried bedrooms" (also detailed on the website), there are plenty of ways to take in the beauty and fascinating history of this amazing building and grounds.

In 2019 Highclere teamed with Airbnb to offer a one-time-only one-night stay for two guests to spend the night in the actual castle as a promotion for the first "Downton" movie, complete with cocktails, meals, a private tour of the grounds and, of course, your own butler, reports Food & Wine. However, two cottages, the London Lodge and the Grotto Lodge, are available for rent for two or three night stays, respectively, says the website. You can be your own Lord and Lord Crawley, or Lord and Lady Carnarvon, for the night.

But if you want to have a little bit of "Downton" at home, you can check out their extensive gift shop, with items ranging from Egyptiana and Downton memorabilia to classic British treats like jams, pickles and biscuits. Or you can to pick up a bottle of their award-winning Highclere Gin that debuted in 2019 and make a Downton Abbey cocktail at your own castle.