Lady Carnarvon’s Husband’s Family Has Owned Since The Late 17th Century
A publicity photo for “Downton Abbey” shows Highclere Castle as many television viewers in the United States imagine it to look.
Why the attraction? Lady Carnarvon’s home is the fictional setting for the TV series “Downton Abbey,” and she is determined to cash in. As she told a visitor while scrambling to find a place for lunch that wasn’t already occupied by tourists, the location fees paid for the use of Highclere “are not going to pay for the roof.”
Lady Carnarvon was known as Fiona Aitken before she married Geordie Herbert, the Eighth Earl of Carnarvon and Queen Elizabeth II’s godson, in 1999. She has become the face of Highclere as her husband devotes himself to the less-glamorous operational side of running this vast estate, and speaks with the proper accent of a countess and the numeric frankness of a chief financial officer. “If you win the lottery, you’re winning something called cash,” she said. “With ‘Downton,’ it’s how it can turn in to something like cash.”
The television show has brought worldwide fame to Highclere Castle (which Lady Carnarvon’s husband’s family has owned since the late 17th century), especially among what she calls “lots of lovely Americans.” But the house costs $1.5 million a year to run, and it has not received the windfall that viewers of the show would assume.
It certainly didn’t provide the fortune brought by Almina Wombwell, the Fifth Countess of Carnarvon and daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, who married into the family in 1895; that paid for the first electricity and plumbing. The current Lady Carnarvon recognizes that keeping a house like Highclere financially solvent and in the family is far more difficult today.
“It’s both my husband’s family home and my home, but it has to work in the modern world – it has to be a business,” she said as she finished lunch and asked her assistant to provide her something sweet. “Yes, my lady,” he said and promptly returned with a jelly doughnut.
Lady Carnarvon is such an advocate of prudent finances that she would seem to have more in common with Suze Orman than with her husband’s pedigreed relations. As she gazed out from the footmen’s rooms onto the tents on Highclere’s lawns, she talked about all her efforts to pay for Highclere Castle’s costly renovations, like running a working farm to produce horse feed and hosting events there like an Easter egg hunt that required relocating a field of lambs to make room for visitors.
In addition to bringing in more film and television companies to shoot in Highclere’s less recognizable chambers, she has rented out the home for weddings, including that of the model Katie Price, at rates starting at about $22,000.
A Richmond, Va.-based speaker’s bureau, Arnett & Associates, handles Lady Carnarvon’s speaking engagements, with fees starting at $20,000. Then there are her books. “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey,” which was published in 2011, made the New York Times best-seller list and sold a respectable 157,000 copies. (She is writing another book, about her husband’s ancestors, specifically Catherine Wendell, the American-born Sixth Countess of Carnarvon.)
Through all of this fund-raising, she still tries to make Highclere Castle feel like a real home, with magazines strewn on the night tables of bedrooms recognizable to “Downton Abbey” fans and family photographs featuring the royals strategically placed throughout common rooms. Her family spends much of its time exiled to a cottage 20 yards away, where the countess said she keeps the “dogs, rabbits, trampolines, Xbox.” That’s where on a recent afternoon, Lady Carnarvon’s son, Edward, played with her husband’s son from his first marriage, George.
“I never rest,” she said. “I am always looking for the next trick.”
Not everyone has been pleased with how she has tried to make money off Highclere. A former boyfriend, the baronet Sir Benjamin Slade (who successfully sued her in the late 1990s after their breakup over the custody of their dog, Jasper, prompting the tabloids to brand her “Feisty Fiona”), called the Carnarvons “grave robbers” for their discovery of the tombs of Tutankhamen.
The biggest affront took place in 2010, when their neighbor Andrew Lloyd Webber tried to buy Highclere Castle from the Carnarvons so that he would have more room for his paintings. It’s an offer that still angers the affable Lady Carnarvon.
“That cuts right to the heart, that an English person’s home is his castle,” she said. “In our view, it wasn’t particularly neighborly.”
The current residents of Highclere are not the first to have money worries. In the 1840s, the Third Earl of Carnarvon ran into financial trouble when he tried to expand the house and estate too quickly and ran out of money, according to David Brock, who has worked as an inspector for English Heritage on Highclere Castle. Lady Almina’s fortune saved the house in 1895 from the Fifth Earl’s debts.
Even now, these cash-flow problems have not ended for Lady Carnarvon and her husband. A 2009 article in The Daily Mail shows Lord Carnarvon posing in rooms covered in mold that required $18 million in repairs.
Lady Carnarvon, the oldest of six daughters, studied at St. Andrews and went on to start a clothing line called Azure. She met her husband at a dinner party in 1996, when she was still grieving the death of her father, and Lord Carnarvon was recovering from the end of his first marriage to another aristocrat. The couple first bonded over bleak World War I poetry.
She credits her father-in-law, the Seventh Earl of Carnarvon, with setting Highclere on a stronger financial course. He reached an agreement with English Heritage to open the house to the public for part of the year in exchange for delaying the payment of death taxes. He also allowed in film crews, and Stanley Kubrick used the castle’s library to film an orgy scene from his movie “Eyes Wide Shut.” Lady Carnarvon said that though she has never seen the movie, she is grateful to Mr. Kubrick for spending so much time there because proceeds from the film helped pay to restore the pale-green silk wallpaper in the house’s drawing room.
“Hollywood are gorgeous because they have much, much more money,” she said.
Highclere’s television break came when Lady Carnarvon met Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton Abbey,” through his wife, Emma, at a sports match for her stepson. He first wanted to film “Gosford Park” there. She said that Mr. Fellowes pays a daily rental in the midrange of what historic homes typically get. Harvey Edgington, a broadcast and media manager for the National Trust, said television dramas typically pay $4,500 to $5,300 a day.
Filming “Downton Abbey” has not been without its drawbacks. Highclere had to cut the number of weddings held there to 20 a year (down from 25 to 30) to accommodate filming. Then there is the cost of wear and tear. The countess is still working out with the show’s crew how much it will cost to repair a dining table that it ironed on. Lady Carnarvon expects it will take “blooming ages to fix.”
Perhaps the most surprising part of Lady Carnarvon’s efforts is that because of English laws of inheritance, the house she is working so hard to preserve will pass to her husband’s son from his first marriage when he dies.
But she seems at peace to someday move out of Highclere and is only grateful that “Downton Abbey” may have helped set the house on a stable financial course long after she is gone.
“We’ve been here for 1,300 years,” Lady Carnarvon said. “I tell ‘Downton’: ‘You’re delightful. But you’re only here for four or five years.’ “