With the latest Anglophile craze underway in America thanks to the series Downton Abbey, it’s time we did a little historical tour of your favorite houses in English period drama history. Deep down in this hard urbanist soul of ours are writers that fell in love with Lizzy Bennett, Mr. Darcy, Emma and Anne Elliot, amongst countless others.
For Americans, the stories of plucky commoners making their way into the hallowed halls of British aristocracy is possibly the colonial origins of the American dream, and what’s more, they’re inklings of our once illustrious beginnings over the ocean. In New York, we lament the demolition and decline of the grand estates built by the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Morgans, but we know that this type of beauty, an architecture of such pure individual vision, could not have survived in a culture purportedly about the collective.
(Let us also not forget that the wealth of the American robber barrons was also built off of a good amount of corruption, counterbalanced later by a healthy dose of philanthropy.) And there was once a time when the upper crust of American society was married off to the British nobility–one of the inspirations behind the story of Cora Crawley’s marriage to Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey.
So as Americans, we not only identify, but we also obsess about an England that is no more and a United States that likely never was, and vicariously live it through the wonderful estates that thankfully still exist in England as featured in sumptuous period television productions.
Supplanting Pemberley Hall (below) as perhaps the most well-known house in television history, the real Downton Abbey is located in Newbury, west of London. Highclere Castle is currently occupied by the Earl and Countess of Carnavaron, the family that has lived there since 1679. The house was designed by Charles Barry, the architect who also designed the English Parliament. The interior was decorated over the course of centuries, with “spoils” brought back by the men of the house from their travels, including items like Napoleon’s desk and candelabras from the King of Sweden. The house is as central of a character in Downton Abbey as any of the people, and there could not have been a more illustrious setting than Highclere. The best part is you can easily visit or have your wedding there. There are also all sorts of great events for the public, like the upcoming Easter Egg Hunt, charity runs and county fairs held on the (1000 acre) property.
It’s hard to forget the moment when Pemberley comes into view in the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice by Andrew Davies, known by die-hard Austen fans as the only true adaptation. In the novel, it’s the turning point of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy’s romance, but for viewers it was nearly exactly as many had imagined it from the description in the book. The house was once the home of the Leghs of Lyme and later the Lords of Newton, and was built over the course of centuries from the 16th to the 19th. Today the estate is managed by the National Trust, which means you can visit this house in Disley, Cheshire in the Peaks District.
In both the original and the 2008 re-adaptation of Brideshead Revisted, Castle Howard in Yorkshire was the set of the namesake estate. For me the most haunting moment is when Charles Ryder returns from the war and looks up at the castle, now repurposed for military use. In real life, Castle Howard has been home to the Howard family for more than 300 years. It was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, who later designed Blenheim Palace. Like Highclere Castle, there is an extensive list of events that are open to the public and yes, you can have your wedding there too. It’s also still an operating rural estate specializing in traditional enterprises like farming and forestry.
Blenheim Palace, the house of the Duke of Marlborough, was used as the exterior of for the Danish castle of Elsinore in the 1996 BBC adaptation of Hamlet with Kenneth Branagh. But you’ve likely also seen it in films such as Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix, The Young Victoria and The Avengers. In a desperate attempt to save the estate and his dukedom, the 9th Duke of Marlborough married the young American Consuelo Vanderbilt against her wishes. Today, it remains one of the largest houses in England and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The epic moment in the 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s sweeping novel Atonement takes place here when Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) is arrested and taken from the house while Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) looks on in shock in her famous green dress. The house is located in Shropshire and was built in 1889 by a glove manufacturer named John Derby-Allcroft. It is still privately owned, but you can book tours, attend the seasonal garden opening, and host an event or wedding there.
With these houses set to re-open for the season, I’m hoping to finally take that tour of the grand English countryside. Stay tuned for the American version of the most famous estates, and let us know if we forgot some of your favorites in England.