The hit show Downton Abbey is filmed at the real-life Highclere Castle, a little south and east of London in Hampshire. The castle is still occupied by the heirs of the prominent Herbert family, who acquired the estate in around 1769. Why not? If I inherited a castle, I would certainly live there. But it’s not as easy as it seems.
Traditionally, keeping up a large country home required the income from at least 1,000 acres. This meant intensive work by tenant farmers, with the heir to the property closely supervising, usually through an estate manager. It has become more and more difficult to turn a profit in agriculture, especially since many large estates have had to sell off acreage. One big reason is the dreaded Inheritance Tax, popularly known as the Death Tax. The tax in approximately its present form was begun in 1894. On the death of the landowner, the heir had to come up with staggering tax payments–often as much as the market value of the estate. This problem only got worse during and after the two World Wars, as Britain struggled to pay the enormous costs of war.
In the 1840s, the Third Earl of Carnavon went on a building spree and ran out of money. By the time the Fifth Earl inherited, his debts were crushing. At the time, many financially strapped aristocrats were marrying American heiresses like Cora Levinson, who became Countess of Grantham on the show Downton Abbey. The Fifth Earl found an heiress closer to home. He married Almina Wombwell, who in spite of her name was actually the beloved biological daughter of banker Alfred de Rothschild. Lady Almina’s inherited fortune saved the house in 1895.
The present 8th Countess of Carnavon has written a book titled Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey. (I haven’t read it yet!)
In recent years the present Earl was able to negotiate a delay in paying the “death tax” by working out an agreement with the English Heritage organization, whereby the building and grounds are open to public visits for part of the year. The cost of a day’s visit is about $27. On a typical summer day, about 1500 visitors pay this fee. (Due to the popularity of the show, reservations are booked up months in advance, but a few walk-up tickets are available). There is also a gift shop, of course. And the estate is rented out for weddings, about 20-25 per year, at rates starting at about $22,000. During filming of Downton Abbey, the film company pays somewhere around $5,000 per day.
All this seems like big money, but it costs $1.5 million to run the house for a year. And major repairs are needed. I’ve seen estimates as high as $18 million, and reports that the upper floors of the castle are uninhabitable. The present Countess is coming in for some criticism for cashing in on the show’s popularity, but I certainly can’t blame her. Like the family on the hit show, she wants to preserve a property and with it a little piece of a vanished way of life. She personally cannot even inherit, since the property will go to the son of her husband’s first marriage. The recent article is in The New York TImes at
In coming posts I will explore other ways the great country houses of England have been preserved, and revisit some of my favorites. Join me next time!