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Authors: The Countess of Carnarvon

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey (3 page)

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Welcome to Highclere

When Almina stepped from the carriage outside her new home on that early summer day, her arrival had been much anticipated for months. A web of rumour and gossip had circulated all sorts of information and speculation about the Earl’s young bride amongst the people living at Highclere.

The life of the great houses at the end of the nineteenth century was still marked by structures and patterns unchanged for centuries. Families served for generations. Highclere Castle was the family home of the Earls of Carnarvon, but the Castle was also the servants’ Castle, and the family their family. Highclere was a tight ship, captained by Streatfield, the house steward. The reality, as everyone knew, was that Countesses come and Countesses go. It wasn’t that Almina
was without influence or importance, but she did need to grasp, quickly, that she was only one part of a machine that would long survive her. Part of her initial task on arrival was to understand the history and community that she was becoming a part of.

Highclere Castle lies at a crossroads between Winchester and Oxford, London and Bristol, built on a chalk ridge of high land and guarded by an ancient route between Beacon Hill and Ladle Hill. Just to the south of Highclere is Siddown Hill, topped by an eighteenth-century folly, Heaven’s Gate. The views to the north extend beyond Newbury towards the spires of Oxford.

It is an area long praised for its natural beauty. In 1792, just over a hundred years before Almina arrived at Highclere, Archibald Robertson wrote in his topographical survey, ‘High Clere Park stands in Hampshire; and for extent, boldness of feature, softened by a mixture of easy swelling lawns, shelving into pleasant vallies, diversified by wood and water, claims the admiration of the traveller, and may be considered as one of the most elegant seats in the country.’

There has been a settlement at Highclere for thousands of years. There is an Iron Age hill fort at Beacon Hill and the land was owned by the bishops of Winchester for 800 years before passing into secular hands and eventually, in the late seventeenth century, to the Herbert family, Earls of Pembroke and ancestors of the Earls of Carnarvon.

The park is a harmonious mix of natural and landscaped features, designed for the 1st Earl of Carnarvon in the eighteenth century by Capability Brown. The different drives wind amongst the contours of the land to hide and reveal the first views of the Castle. Long and short views have
been created by skilful planting; everywhere you look there are exotic imported trees, gracious avenues and ornamental follies that direct your eye along some particularly glorious line. It is its own world and, even now, visitors are struck by the strong sense of place, the unity between the land, the Castle and the people who live and work there.

The house in its current incarnation was built for the 3rd Earl by Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament. It was a major undertaking. The old Elizabethan brick manor had been remodelled into a Georgian mansion in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but all that was to be transformed entirely. The first stone of the new house was laid in 1842. The work took twelve years to complete and, by the end, Highclere Castle, as it was now called, dominated its surroundings completely. It is a statement house, purposeful and confident; it doesn’t feel like a place that has grown up over time, been added to and tinkered with. It is much more the product of a single architect’s vision. Gothic turrets were absolutely the pinnacle of fashion as early Victorian architecture turned to medieval influences in a backlash against the classical designs of the eighteenth century. The house was intended to impress visitors with the status and good taste of its builders. It has a peculiarly masculine feel about it, an aesthetic that prizes solid style and soaring immensity over prettiness.

Almina and her mother had often visited Alfred de Rothschild’s country estate, Halton House in Buckinghamshire, which was completed in 1888. Halton was a different style again: all Baroque fantasy, and so over the top that it embodied what was called, slightly disparagingly, ‘
le style Rothschild
’. She must have been conscious when she looked
at Highclere that, although it was only fifty years older than Halton House, its lands and its setting, its gorgeous honey-coloured tower in Bath stone, represented an idea of English tradition that was totally different to anything she had previously known.

Back in October 1866, one particularly illustrious visitor was overcome with delight as he was driven through the park, crying out, ‘How scenical, how scenical,’ as he approached the Castle.

Benjamin Disraeli, who at the time of this visit was Chancellor of the Exchequer, but who went on to be Prime Minister twice, had caught a specially laid-on train from Paddington to Highclere. He was met and driven by carriage past London Lodge, its gateway arch upheld by classical pillars and surmounted by the Carnarvon coat of arms.

Through groves of rhododendrons and past spreading Lebanon cedars, now 150 years old, Disraeli, who was comfortably wrapped in carriage rugs against the autumn chill, could look around him, full of admiration. Every vista proved enchanting. As the road wound past the Temple of Diana, built over Dunsmere Lake, the highest tops of the Castle’s turrets, still more than a mile away, could be glimpsed above the trees. Disraeli noted the curving medieval embankment of the deer park before sweeping around towards the Castle drive. Capability Brown had taken tremendous trouble to construct the last approach. The Castle emerges obliquely in front of the visitor, thereby appearing even larger and more impressive than it actually is. The whole landscape so romantically lent itself to creative thought that the following day, Disraeli and his host, the 4th Earl of Carnarvon, took a very agreeable walk in
brilliant sunshine through the grounds, and talked affairs of state.

The 4th Earl, father of Almina’s husband, served in politics for some forty years. At the time of Disraeli’s visit he was Colonial Secretary, a position that satisfied his great love of travel and took him to Australia, South Africa, Canada, Egypt and New Guinea. Much of the time he travelled on his own yacht, but there were also numerous shorter missions on government business across Europe. He possessed considerable intellectual curiosity and was one of the foremost classical scholars of his generation, translating Homer and Aeschylus as well as Dante. In all, he served in three Conservative cabinets. He was appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies first by Lord Derby, then by Disraeli, and then made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland by Lord Salisbury. He was renowned for his hard work and thoroughness and for being a man of principle, who twice resigned his position, once over Disraeli’s handling of the Eastern Question, and later over the thorny issue of Home Rule for Ireland.

The 4th Earl and his Countess pioneered the practice, which soon became a fashionable trend, of giving weekend house parties at the great houses. These were not only social gatherings but also networking opportunities and, thanks to the Earl’s prominent part in public life, Highclere was a hub of power.

He was fortunate to have married a woman who turned out to be the perfect political wife. Lady Evelyn was the daughter of the Earl of Chesterfield and the couple married in Westminster Abbey in September 1861, the first time that honour had been extended to a non-royal partnership in many centuries. Sincere, kind, and possessed of quick wits
and an instinctive understanding, Lady Evelyn was an asset to her husband. Invitations to Highclere were freely given to men of politics, public officials, intellectuals and travellers. Expertise could be pooled and congenial solutions to difficult problems found more easily whilst strolling in the park or over some excellent brandy and cigars in the Smoking Room, than in the febrile atmosphere of Westminster.

The couple had four children: Winifred, who was born in 1864, George Edward, the son and heir who would go on to marry Almina, who had been born four months before Disraeli’s 1866 visit, and two more daughters. Margaret was born in 1870 and, on 30 December 1874, the baby who would be christened Victoria.

Lady Carnarvon never recovered from giving birth to her last child. She lingered for a few days, during which time Queen Victoria made constant enquiries about her health and that of the baby. Victoria had been living in almost total seclusion ever since the death of her beloved Prince Albert fourteen years previously, but she kept herself informed about her friends’ lives and, when she heard the news that Lady Carnarvon was unlikely to survive, she expressed a desire to be the child’s godmother.

Evelyn rallied briefly but died on 25 January 1875. Her husband was devastated, as was her mother, who had been at her bedside throughout her illness. The diaries of her sister-in-law, Lady Portsmouth, contain a grief-stricken account of the courage and calmness that Evelyn showed as she slipped away. ‘How sore my heart is,’ she wrote. Lady Carnarvon lay in state in the Library at Highclere and was buried at the family chapel in a beautiful corner of the park.

It was a cruel loss for the whole family. Childbirth was a perilous business, and no one was immune to risk, no matter if they had access to the best medical care available. Winifred was ten, George (who was always known as Porchy, a nickname derived from his courtesy title, Lord Porchester) was eight, Margaret four and little Victoria just three weeks old when their mother died. Although in aristocratic families the children were cared for primarily by a nanny, Lady Carnarvon had been much loved and her children were heartbroken. After her death they were passed between the households of two doting but elderly aunts, a slightly chaotic arrangement that fostered a particularly strong bond between the two eldest children. The loss of his mother at such a very young age may well have contributed to the 5th Earl’s sense of emotional self-containment, something that his own son later remarked upon.

For a while the weekend house parties were no more, and Highclere and the Carnarvons went into formal mourning. There was strict etiquette governing mourning in nineteenth-century England, especially in the wake of the Queen’s decision to withdraw from public life after Prince Albert’s death in December 1861. Special clothes had to be worn and the bereaved were expected to seclude themselves from social life. A widower would wear a black frock coat for up to a year and children wore black for at least six months to mark the death of a parent. Even servants wore black armbands. No lady or gentleman could attend – much less give – a ball for at least a year after the death of a close family member.

But, eventually, the 4th Earl decided that it was time to move on. In 1878 he visited relatives at Greystoke Castle
in the Lake District and found a house full of laughter and conversation. It must have felt like a return to life, and it led to a proposal of marriage to his cousin Elizabeth (Elsie) Howard who, at twenty-two, was twenty-five years his junior. They had two sons, Aubrey and Mervyn, during twelve years of very happy marriage. Lord Carnarvon’s friend Lady Phillimore wrote to her husband, ‘They are happy together, those two, and make sunshine around them.’

There’s no doubt that the children’s childhood and adolescence were made considerably easier by the arrival of their stepmother, to whom they were close for the rest of her life. Elsie was a motherly figure, and her presence at Highclere meant that Porchy, who had always been a sickly child, once again had somewhere stable to call home. The house could also resume its role as a social and political centre of power.

If Elsie could be indulgent, Porchy’s father was quite clear that discipline and diligence were highly desirable qualities in a young gentleman who was bound to inherit significant duties. The 4th Earl loved practical jokes, but he was also driven by a powerful sense of public service, both at Highclere and in office. He expected his son to apply himself. ‘A good education is the best heritage we can give our children,’ he declared.

But although Porchy discovered a love of books and reading, his ‘greatest solace’, he did not inherit his father’s academic diligence. He opted out of Eton early and briefly considered a career in the Army but, after failing the medical, he set off around the world on his travels. He was fortunate that his father was generous, broadminded and understood
his restless spirit perfectly, since he was himself an avid traveller. The 4th Earl was on occasion frustrated by his son’s reckless streak, but he appreciated his heir’s native intelligence and curious mind; in any case, Porchy continued to receive an education since a tutor travelled with him constantly. He was reasonably fluent in both French and German as well as the classical languages, and also studied mathematics, music and history.

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