Highclere Castle - History and Facts | History Hit

Highclere Castle

Newbury, England, United Kingdom

Highclere Castle is a picturesque Jacobean style country house in Hampshire, which in more modern times has become well known as the location of the television series Downton Abbey.

Antara Bate

24 Nov 2020
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle is a picturesque Jacobean style country house in Hampshire, which in more modern times has become well known as the location of the television series Downton Abbey. The main house that is seen today was built in the mid 19th century though the site itself has a history dating back several centuries and an entry for the location was recorded in the Domesday Book. The architect, Sir Charles Barry, is also known for having designed the Houses of Parliament.

Highclere Castle history

The first written records of the estate date back to 749 when an Anglo-Saxon King granted the estate to the Bishops of Winchester. Bishop William of Wykeham built a beautiful medieval palace and gardens in the park. The castle was under the control of the bishops of Winchester for around 800 years.

In the late 14th century, Bishop William of Wykeham was involved in the construction of a palace on the grounds. In 1551, during the Protestant Reformation, King Edward VI confiscated the property from the church. Originally granted by the king to the Fitzwilliam family, Highclere had several owners during the next century and a quarter. A manor house was built in the early 17th century.

In 1679 the property was purchased by the politician and future attorney general Sir Robert Sawyer. In the early 18th century, Sawyer’s heirs laid out drives and walkways and planted formal gardens.

One of Sawyer’s descendants, Henry Herbert, inherited Highclere Castle in 1769. Herbert became 1st earl of Carnarvon in 1793. He brought in the noted landscape architect Lancelot Brown, who planted large numbers of trees and made other changes that gave the grounds a more natural, unplanned appearance.
The most conspicuous changes to Highclere were made by the 3rd earl, who in 1838 commissioned the architect Sir Charles Barry, best known for the Houses of Parliament in London, to remodel the manor house completely in the Elizabethan (or “Jacobethan”) style.

The exterior and interior work took decades to complete, and the castle became known for its opulence. Notably, the Saloon now features 17th-century Spanish leather wall coverings collected by the 3rd earl, and the walls of the Music Room are hung with 16th-century Italian embroideries.

The Castle’s history also includes a fascinating connection with ancient Egypt, as the 5th Earl, with Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. The Castle now houses an exhibition around this theme including some rare antiquities from the 5th Earl’s earlier Egyptian excavations.

During the First World War, Highclere Castle was converted into a hospital for wounded soldiers run by the 5th Countess of Carnarvon. Throughout the Second World War, Highclere Castle was home to children evacuated from London.

Highclere Castle today

In more recent history, Highclere Castle has become the location of Downton Abbey. Visitors can view the castle, the Egyptian Exhibition and the surrounding Grounds and Gardens.

Records show the gardens were first developed there during the 13th century. Visitors can explore the original Monks’ Garden, the White Border, the Wood of Goodwill, the Rose Arbour, the Wild Flower Meadow and, nearer the house, the Healing Herb Garden.

Recent archaeological and landscape investigations have shown that there is an Iron Age fort and a number of tumuli, ancient trackways, lynchets and field systems within the estate.

Getting to Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle lies to the west of London, not far from the M4 and Newbury. Oxford and Birmingham are to the north, Winchester and Southampton to the south. The nearest train stations are Newbury and Andover.

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