Sunday, April 14, 2013


            At the time of the Norman invasion of AD 1066, England was not so much one country as a collection of duchies and earldoms fostered and defended by one monarch or another, often with shifting loyalties, held together as much by common language, geography and religion as by any national allegiance. Repeatedly subject to invasions by Vikings and Norwegians, pre-Norman England was more closely connected to Denmark than to the Europe which lay almost in sight across the Channel. English medieval history is a complicated affair, an observation underlined by the fact that at any particular moment in time, there could be three or four cousins speaking as many different languages claiming to be “heirs” to the throne. In fact one woman – Emma of Normandy – would become Queen of England twice, once as a result of a marriage of diplomatic convenience to King Æthelred, and again as wife of King Cnut.

            To say that 1066 changed England is sheer understatement. The Norman invasion and successful conquest of that Island Kingdom was one of the world-changing events of history, and so far as the English language and its voraciously-hungry vocabulary are concerned, of earth-shaking consequence, right down to the present day. (More about this in future columns.)

            In a landscape on which architecture had long followed a pattern of imposing church abbeys around which villages of yeoman farmers who owed their patronage to a landed elite would gather continued to mark the verdant countryside. Over centuries of politics and internecine warfare, debts incurred by political winners to those who had supported them led to a system of “royal paybacks” conveying property and peerage to a rising upper class whose wealth found its way into residences built in a grand style on large tracts of land whose income derived from the thriving vassal farms and shops over which they presided.

            The size and grandiosity of these castle-like mansions, and the wealth which made them possible probably reached a zenith in the Edwardian era, as did the rigid nature of England’s class divisions; all of which would see a stark decline beginning with the arrival of World War I.

            For the purposes of this foray into that opulent, and not so distant past, I have chosen a grand estate in modern-day England’s Hampshire hills as a subject: a stately home known as “Highclere Castle”. Built in its present form in the mid-1800s, it occupies a piece of ground whose first building dates back to the 8th century, on an estate which has been the family seat of the Herbert family since 1679.

Its most famous resident was George Edward Stanhope Malyneux Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (1866-1923). He is remembered most for his love of Egyptology, and for his patronage of a dig by Howard Carter which uncovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1923 (leading to the Earl’s mysterious death). Like many of the landed rich of his era, Herbert was going broke, and solved his problem by marrying Almina, the illegitimate daughter of banking magnate Alfred de Rothschild for an annual dowry of  approximately 12,000 pounds sterling.

            In its heyday “Highclere” might house 20-30 guests on three floors, where a wait staff of 30 maids, valets, cooks, drivers and footmen, supervised by a Butler, lived in a separate part of the mansion (females, who reported to the housekeeper, in the attic). As late as 1897, there was still no running water, and staff had to carry gallons of water and waste up and down miles of stairways each day. Children lived in a separate section of the house where they were visited by parents only on a weekly (and reportedly very uncomfortable) basis. The Lord and Lady of the house lived in their own kind of privacy, protected by a century of protocols and social “fire walls”, but the distances between members of the wait staff were no less rigid, and among them, the Butler reigned supreme.

            If the accompanying photo looks familiar, it should: “Highclere Castle” is the filming location for the popular MASTERPIECE THEATER drama, DOWNTON ABBEY, and while the film story, written by Julian Fellowes is not the real-life story of “Highclere”, there are some notable parallels. My personal favorite actor in the series, now in its 3rd season, is Jim Carter, as is the Butler “Carson”, whose character he plays. By the way, the popular television series is having a worldwide impact: English butlers are back in popularity, and there is a scramble to train thousands for newly-advertised, high-paying positions in a dozen countries.

Familiar to television viewers everywhere, Highclere Castle, venue for most of the filming of the  popular MASTERPIECE THEATER production Downton Abbey has a dramatic family history of  it's own. As in the film, it too was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers during both World War

A long list of the U.K.’s Stately Homes are open to visitors. One of the most popular is Castle Howard built in North Yorkshire for the 3rd Earl of Carlisle in 1699. With its thousands of groomed acres and 145 rooms, it even once had its own R.R. station.


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