Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle

by The Countess of Carnarvon

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The real-life inspiration and setting for the Emmy Award-winning Downton AbbeyLady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey tells the story behind Highclere Castle and the life of one of its most famous inhabitants, Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon.

Drawing on a rich store of materials from the archives of Highclere Castle, including diaries, letters, and photographs, the current Lady Carnarvon has written a transporting story of this fabled home on the brink of war. Much like her Masterpiece Classic counterpart, Lady Cora Crawley, Lady Almina was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, Alfred de Rothschild, who married his daughter off at a young age, her dowry serving as the crucial link in the effort to preserve the Earl of Carnarvon's ancestral home. Throwing open the doors of Highclere Castle to tend to the wounded of World War I, Lady Almina distinguished herself as a brave and remarkable woman.

This rich tale contrasts the splendor of Edwardian life in a great house against the backdrop of the First World War and offers an inspiring and revealing picture of the woman at the center of the history of Highclere Castle.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780770435639
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 12/27/2011
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 16,415
File size: 16 MB
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About the Author

FIONA, New York Times bestselling author and the 8th Countness of CARNARVON, married Geordie, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, in 1999, and aceded to Highclere ten years ago upon the death of Geordie's father. Highclere has become one of the most famous houses in England as the location for the PBS series Downton Abbey. She is also the author of the companion piece, Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey.

Read an Excerpt


This is a book about an extraordinary woman called Almina Carnarvon, the family into which she married, the Castle that became her home, the people who worked there, and the transformation of the Castle when it became a hospital for wounded soldiers during the First World War.

It is not a history, although it is set against the exuberance of the Edwardian period, the sombre gravity of the Great War and the early years of recovery after the conflict.

It is neither a biography nor a work of fi ction, but places characters in historical settings, as identifi ed from letters, diaries, visitor books and household accounts written at the time.

Almina Carnarvon was an enormously wealthy heiress, the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild. She was contracted in marriage to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, a key player in Edwardian society in Britain. His interests were many and eclectic. He loved books and travel and pursued every opportunity to explore the technologies that were transforming his age. Most famously he discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun with Howard Carter.

Almina was an unbelievably generous woman in spirit and with her money. She was a guest at some of the greatest royal pageants, until—as it did for so many people—the First World War transformed her life, involving her in running hospitals instead of great house parties and showing her to be an adept nurse and skilled healer.

Highclere Castle is still home to the Earls of Carnarvon. Via its television alter ego, Downton Abbey, it is known to millions of people as the setting for a drama that has thrilled viewers in more than a hundred countries around the world. 

Living here for the past twelve years, I have come to know the bones and stones of the Castle. My research has revealed some of the stories of the fascinating people who lived here, but there is so much more. My journey has just started.

The Countess of Carnarvon

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Gives the juicy back story behind last year's Emmy-winning Masterpiece Theater drama." —-The New York Times

Reading Group Guide

The real-life inspiration for the hit PBS show Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle has been in the family of the Earl of Carnarvon since the seventeenth century. Later transformed into a stately Georgian mansion with intricate Gothic turrets, the castle was a center of political life during the reign of Queen Victoria. When nineteen-year-old Almina Wombwell became the 5th Countess of Carnarvon in 1895, her marriage marked perhaps the most enticing chapter in the castle’s rich history—an era marked by lavish gatherings attended by England’s most powerful families as they savored the zenith of their way of life.

Transporting readers to a vanished time and place, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey tells the story of a spirited young woman who captured the hearts of English society despite her dubious status as the illegitimate daughter of phenomenally wealthy industrialist Alfred de Rothschild. Offering a solace from the ravages of the Great War, Lady Almina opened the doors of Highclere Castle to wounded military officers; their stories would be preserved in the castle’s rich archive of letters, photographs, and diaries. After the war, Lord Carnarvon’s enthusiasm for Egypt led to headline-making expeditions with Howard Carter, culminating in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun; many of these antiquities became part of Highclere’s collection.

By turns a mesmerizing biography and a unique portrait of history, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey will captivate your reading group. The questions that follow are designed to enrich your journey through Lady Almina’s world.

1. Lady Almina’s wealth contributed to her social success, but far more was required to achieve prestige in her husband’s circles. What special traits and wisdom did she possess?

2. How does Downton Abbey’s Lady Cora Crawley compare to Almina? Is Cora at a disadvantage because she is American, or did outsiders perhaps have the upper hand in Edwardian England?

3. When Lady Almina opened Highclere Castle to wounded military officers, she wanted to deliver more than first-rate medical treatment; she understood that a beautiful environment would enhance the healing process as well. What can twenty-first-century medicine learn from her?

4. The author describes heated Edwardian debates over taxing the wealthy, reforms to the House of Lords, immigration, and the National Insurance Bill—issues that remain controversial today. Lady Almina was a vocal conservative. If you had been a member of the landed gentry, would you have sided with the Liberals or the Tories? How did Aubrey balance his election as a conservative with his liberal beliefs?

5. What inspired Lord Carnarvon and Aubrey to immerse themselves in worlds far removed from the English countryside? What was at the root of Lord Carnarvon’s enthusiasm for Egyptian antiquities? What surprising details did the book provide about foreign affairs in the early twentieth century?

6. Were you enticed or dismayed by the role of aristocratic women from Almina’s generation? How did they gain power? How was their power limited by their husbands and by social custom? If you were the widow Almina, would you have remarried as she did?

7. As the author provided vivid descriptions of the wardrobes, interior decorations, and feasts that marked Highclere Castle, which aspects captured your imagination the most? Was Almina’s lavish spending a good investment?

8. How did you react to the parenting protocols of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras? Was it reasonable for children of the aristocracy, whose lives were woven with royalty, to be held to a higher standard of behavior? How were the expectations for raising Porchy different from those for raising Eve?

9. Discuss the solid marriage that Almina and Lord Carnarvon enjoyed. How were they able to make a good match despite the strict courtship methods they had to follow? What accounts for the way they balanced freedom and mutual support throughout their marriage?

10. Is nobility a burden or a blessing? How would you have fared at Highclere as a servant, or as an administrative aide such as Mary Weekes?

11. How do the woes of Downton Abbey’s Earl of Grantham compare to those of Lord Carnarvon? How does the history of Highclere enhance your appreciation for the show? What might Almina and Lord Carnarvon think of Downton Abbey?

12. The author notes that it was the economic fallout of the Second World War, combined with new tax structures, that made it impossible to maintain the opulence of previous generations at Highclere Castle. Why is it important to preserve the building and its history, if not the lifestyle, in contemporary times?

13. Discuss your own family legacies that are tied to this time period. How did status and class affect your ancestors? Did any of them serve in the Great War? Which of your family legacies—financial or otherwise—were formed a century ago?

Guide written by Amy Clements

Customer Reviews

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Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 111 reviews.
Marcie77 More than 1 year ago
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey is an interesting biography about the residents of Highclere Castle aka Downton Abbey. This book follows the life of Lady Almina, an extraordinary woman who lived a very full life. Lady Almina had a scandalous parentage that people in the Edwardian period frowned upon but her large dowry made them overlook it. She caught the eye of Earl of Carnarvon and married young. She made Highclere her home and entertained everyone from royalty to famous authors. During World War I she opened the doors to Highclere and made this luxurious house into a hospital. Lady Almina found her calling in nursing. She spent countless hours tending to the wounded, writing to their families and offering words of comfort to the soldiers. The Earl of Carnarvon is most famous for the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb along with Howard Carter. Although the discovery came late in his life, the Earl had a lifelong appreciation for history. Lady Almina supported him in his ventures and often accompanied him on various trips to Egypt. There are many similarities to the show Downton Abbey and the life at Highclere Castle. The contents of this book are taken from journals, letters, and visitor accounts. The Countess of Carnarvon has included many photographs that help put names to faces. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey is a great biography. It's really enjoyable to read. Fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy getting the scoop on the factual events behind the show. Fans of history will enjoy getting a inside look of what it was to live in a fine house during the Edwardian era.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is the opinion of one reader, Will-Cross, that this biography of Lady Almina has been cleansed of some of the more unpleasent facts about the lives of this women and her family. Biographies are almost always about the very rich, powerful, famous, or infamous men and women of history. To regular readers of biographies and autobiographies, it comes as no surprise that not all is revealed within pages of books about historical or notable persons. Few of us would be naive enough to belive in the total objectivity on the part of authors of this genre. However this does not diminish the value of biographies for most of us. Lady Almina did some good in this world, and this book recognizes her good works. The book is not an apology, nor is it meant to be an apology, about how different and inequitable were the lives of those who lived above and below stairs. It does, however, make the reader pause and ponder how those class differences play against the background of the world in which the reader lives.
LinNC More than 1 year ago
Excellent read! I learned so much about the England of WWI, medical procedures advanced during that war (Highclere was converted to a hospital for wounded soldiers just as its fictional version was in Downton Abbey), the discovery of King Tut's tomb...this book is a very pleasant surprise in terms of the depth of the content and stories of some truly interesting people in history!  I read a few of the reviews posted here - particularly the one that is highly critical of the book due to what the reviewer felt as a sanitized view of the Carnarvons. I did not select the book with the intention of discovering the family's secrets - I am sure there are other ways to find out more about those. I wanted to learn more about life in an estate like Highclere during that period. The book delivered exactly that and more.    
hillillyoh More than 1 year ago
An easy read,excellent background for those interested in the Downton Abbey BBC series. Lady Almina was a women ahead of her times. The writing is easy to follow and makes you want to read just one more chapter.
Aussie2010 More than 1 year ago
Awesome story. I am catching up on my reviews. A very good read and couldn't put it down once I started. Recommend,
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To read about the life of people in this period was very interesting. How selflessly they gave of resources and time to help their country both during war time and in discovering King Tut's tomb.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How facinating to learn the real background of the castle. Enriches the whole Downton Abbey experience
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly enjoyed this historical account of the people and events of Highclere Castle during the World War I era. So many things I did not remember (or perhaps never knew) regarding World War I, especially the family dynamics involving the heads of so many of the European countries who went to war against each other. Very, very readable book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Can't wait to visit Highclere next year. I feel as if I got to know the Earl and Lady Carnarvon through this book. Really wonderful glimpse into life at Highclere.
Becky-Books More than 1 year ago
What a woman! Note: This is not a fictional novel, but a true account of the life and times of Lady Almina and those who lived in Highclere Castle. There are a few pages here and there that are not exciting, but overall I'm so glad I read the book. This gives you another look at the affects of the war, and the patients who needed treatment. Also the life and times of someone in her position, and the finding of King Tut's tomb. A very interesting book!
SallyPinkReviews More than 1 year ago
The current Countess of Carnarvon pens an engrossing story about Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon set against the backdrop of the early 20th Century.   Almina married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon in 1895, a young 19-year-old. She was the daughter of Alfred de Rotheschild, a product of an affair. Alfred doted on his child.   Almina lived during a dynamic time when change and innovation happened rapidly. Candles were replaced with electricity. She was kind and caring, but what makes Almina such a charismatic character is her ability to change with the times. One of her greatest achievements is the establishment of hospitals and procedures of well care that enable soldiers to recover from World War I.   The cast of characters around Almina are also adaptable to chance and supportive of each other. Her husband shares the distinction of discovering King Tutankhamun's tomb with Howard Carter.   The author's writing style piques the reader's interest by telling personal stories of those involved in Highclere Castle. The Castle also doubles as the Castle seen in Downton Abbey. The current Countess of Carnarvon brings history alive with her tales of Almina, the 5th Earl, their children, the Earl's brother, Aubrey, and their servants.   If Downtown Abbey has drawn your interest, then the story of Lady Almina proves a nice, historical compliment to the series. "Lady Almina and the real Downton Abbey," is a heartwarming read, as vivid as Downton Abbey, the series inspired by Highclere.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really liked the book it became more interesting as it went along.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was an interesting look at the real people of Highclere, the setting for the show Downton Abbey.
Bunny13 More than 1 year ago
Excellent parallel of the fictional Downtown Abbey and the factual Highclere Castle. Very well written. Lady Almina was an amazing women. She and her husband contributed so much in their time. Fascinating read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not terribly well written, but the content is fascinating and it presents a fascinating view into the history of the time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great background on the real "Downton Abbey". There also seemed to be several similarites between the real family and the tv show eg Lord Carnevon's money worries
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just finished reading the Free Nook sample. I will purchase the book because I enjoyed the sample and am enchanted. Of course I am a fan of the fictional BBC drama Downton Abbey. The television show is wonderful and I want to know more about the real story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We all know Downton is a fictitious place but the real life story is just as fun!
NonieJU More than 1 year ago
I loved it. The book was almost has good as watching the show. That world was so fascinating. The two worlds. So different and yet so much the same
Peanut61 More than 1 year ago
A very interesting insider's view of the comings and goings of the real family at Highclere Castle during the Edwardian era - which thanks to Downton Abbey series is no longer the forgotten era between the Victorians and WW1
etxgardener on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was skeptical about this book when I saw that the author was the current Countess of Carnarvon, but to my happy surprise this book is very well written. Lady Almina was another intrepid young girl who was married for her monetary I. Order two bolster the lagging fortunes of the Carnarvon family. The illigitiment daughter of a upper-middle class French woman and Alfred de Rothschild, Slmina wasn't accepted in aristocratic British circles, but, of course people were more than willing to look the other way when it was learned that he would bring a fabulous dowry to the marriage. And despite its cynical start, the marriage proved to be. A happy one. Almina was a brilliant hostess, produced an heir right away, and poured her money into refurbishing the family estate.Almina's husband, the 5th Eatl of Carnarvon is, of course, famous for the discovery of King Tut's tomb. But Almina also gained fame for herself during World War I when she started a hospital for wounded officers and not content to be just it's patron, also thre herself into the physical act of nursing.This book gives a great inside look at a famous family and at its country house that is nor he setting for the BBC miniseries, "Downton Abey.". It's a fun read fora Anglophiles everywhere.
delphica on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a great, quick read. It's a biography-lite of Lady Almina, the Countess of Carnarvon at Highclere Castle, which is the actual manor house used in Downton Abbey. The main similarity between Highclere Castle and the events of the series is that it was used as a hospital during WWI. This was entirely inspired by Lady Carnarvon herself, who apparently had a great, hands-on, vocation for nursing.Overall, this seemed fascinating to me, although I think mainly this is most compelling to people who have a strong interest in this era anyway, even beyond being fans of the show. There are plenty of rich details about life at Highclere, with more about life upstairs but you get a sense of how downstairs was operating as well (although for the downstairs part, it helps to come into it with basic knowledge about the set up).Lady Almira was a force to be reckoned with, she definitely knew what she wanted in life and confidently set out to attain her goals (with tremendous financial backing, which I'm sure would assist us all in being bigger goal-attainers). Her husband, Lord Carnarvon, was the financial backer and amateur Egyptologist who supported Howard Carter and was on the scene for the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. The book claims, and I hope this is true because I found it such an intriguing fact, that the discovery was the single event that resulted in more press coverage (based on volume of articles) than any other.The author of this book is married to (if I kept track correctly) Lord and Lady Carnarvon's great-grandson, so it's a mostly positive portrayal, and there are a few breezy mentions of things that probably have more salacious stories behind them, like her second marriage to the ex-husband of a friend - a lawsuit is vaguely hinted at. One wonders!
DebbieLE on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you are looking for Downton Abbey in book form than this is not the book for you. I had a hard time with that at first. I was looking for the same feel of the Downton Abbey television series. I wanted the stories of both those living in the castle and those whose job it is to keep it running smoothly. There is obviously some of that in this book but as it is not a fictional story written for drama, it can not be the same.It's well written and a good history. There are lots of interesting pieces of information and connections. I found both Lady Almina and her husband, the 5th Count of Carnarvon, very compelling subjects. The Count in particular played a large part in a wonderful, historical find of that time period. This story is not solely about Lady Almina and Highclere castle which I felt actually added something to the book. However, I think I frequently got side tracked by the many names thrown out there not pertinent to the story. Names that were obviously important names in that time in English history, but since they were often not more than a mention it did as much, if not more, to distract from the book than it did to add to it. If you are interested in this time in English history I am sure you will enjoy this book.
arielfl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I picked up this little gem of a book expecting to read about Highclere Castle, the setting of Downton Abbey, and maybe learn a little bit more of the history of the people who lived there. I was surprised to learn that Highclere castle was the ancestral home of the 5th Lord of Carnarvon who was partner to Howard Carter who discovered King Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings. I knew that after financing the discovery, Lord Carnarvon died shortly the tomb was discovered from a mosquito bite which spawned the idea of a "mummy's curse". Despite a love Egyptology, especially Tut, I didn't really know anything about Lord Carnarvon. It was such a delight to learn more about his fascinating life. His equally intriguing wife, Lady Almina was a force to be reckoned with in her own right. During WWI she turned Highclere castle into a military hospital as was depicted in Downton Abbey. Almina gave selflessly to her family and country. She took over the daily running of Highclere when she was only 19 years old and besides being known for her incredible nursing skills she was also quite the high society hostess. She lived a long life and succesfully passed the reigns to the next Lord Carnarvon and family.The current Lady Carnnarvon who was is the author of this book did an excellent job of relating her predecessors history. It was obvious that she holds Lady Almina and her husband in high esteem. Fans of Downton Abbey will not want to miss this book. I for one will be looking for hints of the Egyptian antiquities that are no doubt still housed at Highclere when the new season of Downton starts.
gmcluckie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very entertaining true story, with a refreshing frankness about the Carnarvon family's foibles as well as their strengths. Fascinating to think real people really lived in this way. One small quibble: I wish the Countess of Carnarvon would have included a summary of Almina's life after the era described in this book.