A Blog to Keep the Lizards Away. It's about posting and sharing the things I'm into. Hope you enjoy the show!

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Downton Abbey - The Real Story Is Much Stranger Than Fiction

Almina, Countess of Carnarvon and Chaterlaine of Highclere Castle

Like many millions of others around the world, I was recently swept up in the Downton Abbey television series, although I must admit I was more interested in the setting than the storyline. The real star of the series is surely the magnificent Highclere Castle and the wonderful protocol that was strictly followed by the resident family and their guests of that early 1900's era. Namely George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife Almina, the Countess of Carnarvon. And it is their true life story that is fascinatingly colourful, if not scandalous - much more so than the story portrayed in the television series on which these characters lives are based.

Highclere Castle in Hampshire, setting for the Downton Abbey TV Series

Even Almina's parentage is a source of controversy. When she was born in London in 1876, her French mother, Marie, was already separated from her husband, Fredrick Wombwell and Almina was thought to be the result of a liasion with Alfred de Rothschild - of the Rothschild banking dynasty and one of the world's richest men. Whatever was the truth, Alfred took a fatherly interest in Almina and thanks to his financial support, when Almina was presented at Court at age 17, it was not only her looks but also her wealth that made her an attractive proposition to aristocratic young men looking to prop up their family fortunes.

Lord Carnarvon, no doubt, had the upkeep of Highclere Castle in mind when he proposed to Almina, as well as his massive gambling debts.

George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon

Together with his Eton schoolfriend and Indian prince Victor Suleep Singh, a notorious playboy, George toured the fleshpots and gambling dens of Cairo, Hong Kong and Paris. By the time he met Almina at a Buckingham Palace state ball, George was suffering from the ravages of his exploits, looking very much the dissolute aristocrat.

Prince Victor Duleep Singh, Lord Carnarvon's Eton schoolfriend.

Alfred de Rothschild was keen for Almina to marry into peerage so he agreed to pay off the Earl's gambling debts, which amounted to an incredible 150,000 pounds, in return for her hand. Sensing a money stream, George also asked for a staggering 500,000 pound dowry, about 50 million dollars in today's money!

The unlikely pair were married in June 1895, the Earl towering above Almina who was only 5 feet tall. After an expensive honeymoon, Almina soon settled into Highclere Castle, spending millions on refurbishing the run-down state rooms and hosting lavish parties for up to 500 guests.

The Library at Highclere Castle

In 1895 alone the Countess spent $360,000, in today's currency, on chefs, wine and flowers to prove to her new husband she could "run the house."

Highclere Castle's Salon

Almina was nicknamed "the pocket rocket" such was the vigour and energy she displayed in playing the society hostess at Highclere, interspersed with her regular appearances in London wearing fabulous "royal" gowns, dripping with precious diamonds and pearls.

Countess Almina's diamond Carnarvon Tiara

Whilst Almina was entertaining, her husband, the Earl soon tired of this scene and took up reckless, high-speed motoring which ended in a spectacular crash whilst racing in Gemany. The Earl was trapped under his overturned car with a broken jaw and punctured lungs. Almina nursed him back to health at Highclere but the Earl was now a semi-invalid, relying on a stick to walk and suffering from debilitating migranes. They had two children together, a son and heir to Highclere, Henry, the 6th Earl of Carnarvon and a daughter Evelyn.

Countess Almina and Lord Carnarvon - A Day at the Ascot Races

The Earl developed another passion - aviation. So did Almina. Hurt and frustrated, in true Lady Chatterley style, she required the regular services of one of Highclere's gardeners. Fortunately the Earl's doctor recommended he spend the damp winter months in a drier climate, so he decided to exercise his interest in egyptology. Travelling to Luxor he soon sponsored local egyptologist Howard Carter's digging exploits, a famous partnership that resulted in the historic discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb.

Lord Carnarvon and his daughter Lady Evelyn are greeted by Howard Carter at Luxor Railway Station

During this time World War 1 had started and Britain's young men were coming home maimed and incapacitated. Almina converted Highclere Castle into a luxurious military hospital, recruiting teams of pretty nurses. The 200-room castle housed operating theatres, exquisite salons became casualty wards and the grounds saw teams of nurses pushing wheelchairs around. She established another hospital in London for the officers who needed to be near specialist doctors. During their long recuperations they were waited on by butlers and footmen.

Almina's generosity drained even her resources. On the edge of financial collapse and very conveniently, her benefactor Alfred de Rothschild died, his huge legacy saving her from bankruptcy. Temporarily.

The discovery of the boy pharaoh's tomb brought the Earl fame and recognition. He also died as a result. In 1923, whilst staying at the Winter Palace hotel in Luxor, the Earl was bitten by a mosquito. The bite became infected and he was rushed to Cairo. Almina hired a de Havilland biplane and flew to Cairo with one of Britain's best doctors but they could not save him. His death started the "curse of the pharaohs" cult.

Almina's mourning did not last long. That same year she married Colonel Ian Dennistoun, an army officer permanently wounded in the war. He died in 1938 and Almina took a lover 20 years her junior.
Her conduct was such that she was no longer welcome in high society and royal circles.

Her son Henry, the 6th Earl, inherited Highclere, but she ensured he did not receive any of the Rothschild money keeping it all to maintain her lifestyle. Henry was a renowned "womaniser" and with very little interest and income, the grand house soon succumbed to a lack of maintenance, with whole wings being closed and abandoned.

Almina continued to spend her fortune until in 1951 it was all but exhausted. Shunned from society she was forced to move to a modest terrace house in Bristol with only her housekeeper. After a full life of triumphs and scandals that makes the Downton Abbey scripts look very tame, she died in 1969, aged 93.

Its interesting to note that the famous composer/stage producer Andrew Lloyd Webber currently lives on an adjoining estate to Highclere Castle and he is reportedly upset about the increased traffic and fuss created by the Downton Abbey production. On the upside some of the funds generated as location fees will help to restore this magnificent castle for future generations.

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