The setting of ITV’s Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle in Hampshire is one of Britain’s most breathtaking castles.
Established on the site of a medieval palace built during the 12th/13th century, which was later succeeded by a red-brick Tudor house, the Highclere we recognise today was the work of the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon, who in 1838 hired famed architect Sir Charles Barry (best known for rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster) to transform his home into a resplendent mansion.
Faced in Bath stone and in the Jacobethan style (inspired by the English Renaissance, with elements of Elizabethan and Jacobean), the new Highclere Castle “dominated its surroundings in a most dramatic way”, says its website. A mahogany desk and chair that once belonged to Napoleon, purchased by the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon in 1821, were positioned in the music room, and Highclere’s saloon, the heart of the house, was designed in a gothic style with rich decoration including 17th-century Spanish gold-embossed leather wallpaper brought back by Carnarvon. The 3rd Earl did not live to see the completion of Highclere in 1878, however (he died in 1849). It is said Benjamin Disraeli's first words upon seeing the new Highclere were “How scenical! How scenical!”
Highclere was used as a hospital during the First World War by its owner, Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, with the first patients arriving from Flanders in September 1914. The end of the First World War saw Almina’s husband, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, return to Egypt, where in 1922 he funded Howard Carter’s search and excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Back at home Highclere was returned to a private home.
During the Second World War Highclere Castle briefly became a home for evacuee children from north London. Today it boasts more than 200 rooms (even the mistress of the house doesn’t know exactly how many) and opens to the public for between 60 and 70 days a year.
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