Here's the history of that amazing building, Downton Abbey...which is actually Highclere Castle in England but we will call it by the name we all know and love: Downton Abbey!

Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle

Downton Abbey's land was granted to the Church in 749 and held by it for 800 years. A bishop's home (a palace, really) was built in the 1300s. The land was taken from the church in 1551 during the Protestant Reformation and it’s been owned by several families since.

The bishop’s palace was rebuilt in 1679 as a brick manor house (the drawing below). Some of the brick can still be seen at the building’s rear. In the 1700s, formal gardens and paths were built.

Drawing of a castle

Bishop's Palace

Follies were built at Downton Abbey in the 1700s. Follies are decorative, non-functional structures made to look like old buildings or ruins. Follies were a popular landscaping trend in England in the 1700s.



Downton Abbey’s thousand acres of grounds also include two hill forts and other structures from the Iron Age and Bronze Age.


Downton Abbey's grounds

In 1839 Sir Charles Barry was hired to rebuild Downton Abbey. At that time he was also rebuilding London's Houses of Parliament after an 1834 fire. Downton Abbey partly imitated the look of the parliament buildings.

The “new” Downton Abbey was made of limestone from Bath, 60 miles west, which was hauled to Downton by oxen. It’s softer stone and could be carved with great intricacy. This is the building we still see today.

new downton Abbey

The New Downton Abbey

The frame of the old Downton Abbey was retained to reduce renovation costs - the levels of the windows and floors weren't changed. The older brick building was just encased in the limestone and new parts like the tower were added.

new downton Abbey

The New Downton Abbey

Bath limestone formed 167 million years ago when the area was covered by a shallow sea. (Limestone is the shells and bones of marine organisms compressed over millions of years.) It's been used as building stone since Roman times. It has a distinctive and beautiful honey colour, easily seen in photos of Downton Abbey.

Some plots in Downton Abbey are based on the house’s real history. For example, it really was a hospital in WWI (below is a picture with blinds to darken rooms for the patients). The show also highlighted the challenge of maintaining such a large, old house.

WW2 hospital

WW2 Hospital

The current owners do ongoing renovations, partly funded by revenue from the TV show. The Bath stone used in repairs is darkened with a zinc oxide mixture to blend it in with the older parts of the house.

When Downton Abbey's owner gave a ball for a thousand guests in the 1950s, he wanted the house to be perfect. So the crenellations around the tower, which were falling apart, were reconstructed for the occasion in particle board, and then floodlighted!

Downton Abbey's owner in 1867 was Britain's Colonial Secretary, meaning he was involved in writing the British North America Act that established Canada. Some negotiations were held at Downton and his diary referenced Nova Scotia’s opposition to Confederation!

Fans of Downton Abbey and its Victorian elegance may be scandalized to learn that Highclere Castle was also a filming location for a particularly racy scene in Tom Cruise movie Eyes Wide Shut. (We can’t post any pictures from it!)

I'd better lie down on my fainting couch...