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Authors: The Countess of Carnarvon

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey

BOOK: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey

Copyright © 2011 by 8
Countess of Carnarvon

All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Broadway Paperbacks, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Broadway Paperbacks and its logo, a letter B bisected on the diagonal, are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Originally published in hardcover in Great Britain by Hodder & Stoughton, a Hachette U.K. company, London, in 2011.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.

eISBN: 978-0-7704-3563-9

Cover design by Laura Klynstra
Cover photography: © Highclere Castle Archive
Author photograph: © Tobi Corney Photography


For my husband and son, who I adore,
and my beloved sisters


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 fiction, but places characters in historical settings, as identified 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

Pomp and Circumstance

On Wednesday 26 June 1895, Miss Almina Victoria Marie Alexandra Wombwell, a startlingly pretty nineteen-year-old of somewhat dubious social standing, married George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, at St Margaret’s, Westminster.

It was a lovely day, and the thousand-year-old white stone church was crowded with people and overflowing with gorgeous flowers. Some of the congregation on the groom’s side might perhaps have remarked that the decorations were a little ostentatious. The nave had been filled with tall potted palm trees whilst ferns spilled from the recesses. The chancel and sanctuary were adorned with white lilies, orchids, peonies and roses. There was a distinct touch of the exotic,
combined with the heady scents of English summer flowers. It was an unusual spectacle, but then everything about this wedding was unusual. Almina’s name, the circumstances of her birth and most of all her exceptional wealth, all contributed to the fact that this was no typical Society wedding.

The Earl was getting married on his twenty-ninth birthday. His family and title were distinguished and he was slim and charming, if somewhat reserved. He owned houses in London, Hampshire, Somerset, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. His estates were grand; the houses were filled with paintings by the Old Masters, objects brought back from trips to the East and beautiful French furniture. Naturally he was received in every drawing room in the country and invited to every party in London, especially where there was an eligible daughter or niece for him to meet. Though they would doubtless have been gracious on such a special occasion, there must have been some inwardly disappointed ladies in the congregation that day.

He arrived with his best man, Prince Victor Duleep Singh, a friend from Eton and then Cambridge. The Prince was the son of the ex-Maharaja of Punjab, who had owned the Koh-i-Noor diamond before it was confiscated by the British for inclusion in the Crown Jewels of Queen Victoria, Empress of India.

The sun poured through the new stained-glass windows, which depicted English heroes across the centuries. The ancient church, which stands next to Westminster Abbey, had recently been refurbished by Sir George Gilbert Scott, the pre-eminent Victorian architect. The church was, in fact, a quintessentially Victorian blend of the traditional and
the modern. It was the perfect setting for this marriage of people who came from such different sections of society, but who were each in possession of something the other needed.

As the organist, Mr Baines, struck up the opening chords of the hymn ‘The Voice That Breathed o’er Eden’, Almina, who had been waiting in the entrance porch, took her first steps. She walked slowly and with as much calm and dignity as she could muster with all those eyes upon her, her gloved hand resting lightly on that of her uncle, Sir George Wombwell. There must have been nerves, but she was excited, too. Her soon-to-be-husband’s brother-in-law, Lord Burghclere, had remarked that she was something of a ‘naïve damsel’, but also that she appeared to be ‘head over ears in love’ and could barely contain herself in the weeks and days leading up to her wedding day.

Perhaps she took some comfort from the knowledge that she looked exquisite. She was tiny, just over five foot tall, with blue eyes and a straight nose framed by glossy brown hair elegantly styled high on her head. Her future sister-in-law, Winifred Burghclere, described her as ‘very pretty, with an immaculate figure and tiny waist.’ In the language of the time, she was a veritable ‘Pocket Venus’.

She wore a small wreath of orange blossoms under a veil of fine silk tulle. Her dress was by the House of Worth, of Paris. Charles Worth was the most fashionable couturier of the age and was known for his use of lavish fabrics and trimmings. Almina’s dress was made of the richest
satin with a full court train and draped in a veil of lace caught up on one shoulder. The skirts were threaded with real orange flowers and Almina was wearing a gift from the
bridegroom: a piece of very old and extremely rare French lace that had been incorporated into the dress.

The whole ensemble announced Almina’s show-stopping arrival on the public stage. She had in fact been presented at Court by her aunt, Lady Julia Wombwell, in May 1893, so she had made her debut, but she had not been invited to the highly exclusive, carefully policed social occasions that followed. Almina’s paternity was the subject of a great deal of rumour, and no amount of fine clothes or immaculate manners could gain her access to the salons of the grand ladies who quietly ruled Society. So Almina had not attended all the crucial balls of her debut season, occasions that were designed to allow a young lady to attract the attentions of an eligible gentleman. Despite this, Almina had nonetheless secured a husband-to-be of the highest order, and she was dressed as befitted a woman who was making her ascent into the highest ranks of the aristocracy.

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