An Englishman's Home Is His Castle
Country Life UK|November 06, 2019
This great house has been made familiar by Downton Abbey. John Goodall looks at the real personalities and history behind a remarkable building
John Goodall

HIGHCLERE CASTLE is a building now familiar to more than 270 million people worldwide. The peculiar thing about its staggering celebrity, however, is that, for the vast majority of this global audience, it’s familiar by another name: Downton Abbey. Many people know it solely as the backdrop to the lives of the ITV drama and film sequel of the same name, but the real history of this imposing house is equally compelling.

From at least 1208, Highclere was a valued possession of the Bishops of Winchester, one of five distinct divisions of a larger estate called ‘Clere’ that was gifted to the cathedral church nearly 1,300 years ago in 749. The bishops created a substantial hunting park here with fish ponds, now lakes. Their manor house formed part of a small village or settlement and, in typical English fashion, stood close to the parish church that served it.

Nothing is securely known about the form of the manor house, but it was greatly expanded or rebuilt from 1387 by the celebrated architectural patron Bishop William of Wykeham, under the direction of the same master carpenter and mason—one Hugh Hurland and William Wynford—who were concurrently at work on Wykeham’s surviving educational foundations at Winchester College and New College, Oxford.

Following the Reformation, Highclere was appropriated from the see of Winchester and, in the late 17th century, was bought by the successful lawyer, Speaker of the House of Commons (1678) and attorney-general Sir Robert Sawyer. It’s very likely that he modernized the house and, according to the parish register, he ‘built a new complete church in the parish of Highclere, the old one being ruinous and unfit, which was begun to be plucked down August 18th, 1687, and the new church was finished… August 18th, 1689’. The footings of this building, which was demolished in the 1860s, survive immediately beside the house.

Sir Roger died in 1692, with a fortune rumored to be worth £100,000. He entailed his estate on the second son of his only daughter, Margaret, the first wife of Thomas Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. At her death in 1708, therefore, it passed to Robert Herbert, who turned his fortune to the modernization of the estate, laying out a parkland landscape with temples and planting some of the great cedars that dignify Highclere today (Figs 4 and 9).

Meanwhile, he also improved the house (COUNTRY LIFE, August 6 and 13, 1959). A visitor in 1743, Rev Jeremiah Milles, described it as ‘so much altered and improved by the present worthy possessor yet it is for its size one of the most beautiful and elegant homes in England. It has besides one good old Gothic front… [and] two other modern ones’. Many recycled fittings from it survive in the house and the park buildings.

Robert Herbert died without children in 1769 and the estate passed to his nephew, Henry. Rich, well-connected and politically active, he would later be created Baron Porchester in 1780 and Earl of Carnarvon in 1793. In 1770, he commissioned Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to survey the site. Soon afterward, possibly in response to Brown’s recommendations, the young man made further improvements to the park and its buildings and, at this time, the village was moved away from the house.

It may also have been on Brown’s advice that, in 1774–77, the house was remodeled and redecorated at a cost of about £5,000. The completed building is shown in drawings as a three-story box nine bays wide and five deep with a low, pitched roof. Clusters of pilasters articulated the corners of the main block and the central door was set beneath a modest, integral pediment. To one side extended the service buildings and stables.

Remarkably, this unimposing house survives substantially intact beneath a veneer of the 1840s detailing in an Elizabethan idiom. Internally, however, the 18th-century plan has been wholly stripped out, reconfigured and redecorated.

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