With the success of ITV Drama Downton Abbey Highclere castle, the real ‘Downton Abbey’ in Berkshire has become one of England’s most recognisable historic buildings. This year’s Christmas special will feature a guest appearance by none other than George Clooney, but it is the architectural marvel of the castle that will remain for seasons to come!
Highclere Castle was commissioned by Henry Herbert, the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon, and built between 1838 and 1878. He enlisted the help of one of the finest architects of the day, Sir Charles Barry, to help him achieve his dream of an Elizabethan style castle, but the finished result was something quite unexpectedly different.
Sir Charles Barry’s masterwork is without a doubt the Palace of Westminster, better known today as the Houses of Parliament. He collaborated with Augustus Pugin on the architectural masterpiece, but rather than being in the Gothic style favoured by Pugin or Barry’s favoured style ‘Italianate’ – popular even with Queen Victoria at Osborne House – Highclere became something else entirely. An early Italianate design, the most prolific of styles at the time, was rejected by Lord Carnarvon in his pursuit of his Elizabethan inspired castle.
The end result became a fusion of English Renaissance, Italianate and Gothic styles as well as Lord Carnarvon’s originally intended Elizabethan style. The unique mix has given the building its soaring Mentmore Towers, but in a slimmer Italianate proportion and with a Gothic influence. The wings were built in an English Baroque style, resolutely square and Elizabethan. Inside, in an attempt to resemble a medieval English great hall, the Gothic influence is even more evident with pointed arches and a hammerbeam roof.
Its distinctive architectural style has also been defined as ‘Jacobethan’, although this was not coined until the 1930’s by Poet Laureate, and founding member of the Victorian Society, John Betjeman. The name reflects the blending of Jacobean and Elizabethan architectural styles which had evolved during the English Renaissance.
Lord Carnarvon didn’t live to see his Castle finished, as he sadly died in 1849, but Barry persevered and in doing so created a truly new, native English architecture of competing yet complementary styles.
Over the years, Highclere’s position in the beautiful grounds of Capability Brown’s design, has been the home to further generations of Lords Carnarvon. The most famous of these was the 5th Earl, the amateur Egyptologist, who assisted Howard Carter in discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.
More recently however the house had fallen into disrepair, until its ‘re-christening’ as Downton Abbey which helped rejuvenate the property. The current 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon still reside there today.
Highclere Castle is open for public visits on special days throughout the year and is also available to hire. For more information you can visit their website here.