Like Upstairs, Downstairs for the Twitter generation, Downton Abbey brought a bit of British history into the homes of millions of viewers for six seasons, and reinvigorated interest in 20th-century propriety. Though the series ended its small-screen run in March 2016, it's still garnering a lot of buzz thanks to repeated viewings on PBS, its wide streaming availability on Netflix and Amazon Prime, a 2019 big-screen adaptation, and two big-screen adaptations.
Whether you're a Downton newcomer or aristocratic expert, here are 15 fascinating facts about the lords and ladies of Downton Abbey.
1. E.R. AND CHICAGO HOPE INSPIRED ITS STRUCTURE.
In developing the structure for Downton Abbey, creator Julian Fellowes found inspiration in some unexpected places. “Constructing Downton, I was consciously thinking in terms of those American structures,” Fellowes said in Rebecca Eaton’s book, Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Sherlock, Downton Abbey, Prime Suspect, Cranford, Upstairs Downstairs, and Other Great Shows. “I had liked E.R. There was something called Chicago Hope that I liked very much, and thirtysomething, with all these stories going at once.”
2. HUGH BONNEVILLE THINKS IT’S MORE LIKE BREAKING BAD.
When asked to sum up the series’ appeal at a party for Downton Abbey’s third season premiere, star Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley) joked that, “It’s Breaking Bad with tea instead of meth.”
3. GILLIAN ANDERSON COULD HAVE BEEN THE COUNTESS OF GRANTHAM.
While promoting her role in Masterpiece’s 2012 version of Great Expectations, The X-Files star Gillian Anderson expressed her hope that, “people will embrace [Great Expectations] with the same love that flowed toward Downton Abbey," then shared that she was offered the role of Cora Crawley.
4. ELIZABETH MCGOVERN AND HUGH BONNEVILLE HAVE BEEN MARRIED BEFORE.
On screen, that is. The actors played husband and wife on the 2008 BBC series Freezing.
5. CORA WASN’T CREATED FOR AMERICAN AUDIENCES.
Some critics of the show have questioned Fellowes’s motive in developing a British series around an American character, with some assuming it was a strategic creative move in order to attract American audiences. “We weren’t thinking in those terms about foreign sales,” Fellowes told the Independent. “The advantage for me of having the American wife was it gave me a central character who was not dyed in the wool of the upper middle class upbringing, so you could have one of the principal characters who didn’t take all that stuff for granted, and questioned it, as Cora did. She was not consciously written for America. The fact that we would have a central character for American sales was much more clever than we were really.”
6. DOWNTON ABBEY IS REALLY HIGHCLERE CASTLE.
Much of the series is filmed at Highclere Castle, an estate in Hampshire, England that is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. In addition to being open to the public, the home can be rented for weddings and parties and occasionally operates as a hotel. In addition to its iconic exterior, the library, dining room, drawing room, and grand hallway seen in Downton Abbey belong to the real-life Highclere Castle.
7. THE SERVANTS’ QUARTERS ARE IN LONDON.
Because the servants’ quarters at Highclere Castle have been modernized, the series' downstairs kitchen and attic living quarters were built at London’s Ealing Studios. Which means that the show’s producers needed to pay particularly close attention to continuity. “For example,” explained The World of Downton Abbey author (and niece of the show’s creator) Jessica Fellowes, “Thomas might be filmed leaving the kitchen with a plate of food for upstairs and would then appear two weeks later in the dining room!”
8. ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER TRIED TO PURCHASE HIGHCLERE CASTLE … FOR HIS ART COLLECTION.
In 2010, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (who lives in a neighboring estate) made an offer to purchase Highclere Castle, apparently as a home for his art collection. The Carnarvons kindly let Webber know that the property was not for sale. “I think it has more to do to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s desire to hang his art collection somewhere,” Lady Carnarvon told the Los Angeles Times. “Maybe it might help with his estate duties. He was not a friend and, therefore, might not be aware of our own art collection.” FYI: The estate is valued at approximately $240 million.
9. THE CASTLE REALLY DID OPERATE AS A HOSPITAL DURING WORLD WAR I.
During season two, Downton Abbey was turned into a convalescent home for soldiers. In real life, during World War I, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon did turn Highclere Castle into a recovery hospital for soldiers.
10. EACH EPISODE COSTS MORE THAN $1 MILLION TO PRODUCE.
Given the show’s strict attention to detail and authenticity, it’s probably unsurprising that it was an expensive series to shoot. According to The World of Downton Abbey, each episode costs about £1 million (or about $1.5 million) to produce.
11. THE COSTUMES COULD USE A CLEANING.
In keeping with the show’s dedication to authenticity, the producers maintained a “no-wash” policy with some of its costumes in order to keep within the period look. “We do stink, as they don’t wash our costumes,” Sophie McShera (who played kitchen maid-turned-assistant cook Daisy) told The Daily Mail. “They have these weird patches, which are sewn into the armpits and which they wash separately.”
12. IT’S THE MOST SUCCESSFUL SHOW IN MASTERPIECE’S MORE THAN 40-YEAR HISTORY.
“Nobody in their right mind could have predicted what happened, when it sort of went viral,” Julian Fellowes told The New York Times in 2013 of Downton Abbey's unprecedented popularity. It’s estimated that more than 120 million people around the world have watched the series at one point. The show was broadcast in 250 territories worldwide, and became a major hit in Russia, South Korea, and the Middle East.
13. ISIS WAS NOT KILLED OFF BECAUSE OF HER NAME.
One of the show’s most beloved stars was its faithful pooch, Isis, who passed away in season five. Though many thought the Labrador got the boot because of her name, star Hugh Bonneville set the record straight on that matter. “To clarify recent speculation, the Labrador that appeared in Series One (1912-14) was a dog called Pharaoh,” wrote Bonneville. “From Series Two (1916-1920) onwards, the Labrador has been a bitch named—in keeping with the Egyptian theme—Isis. Anyone who genuinely believes the Series 5 storyline (1924) involving the animal was a reaction to recent world news is a complete berk.”
The “Egyptian theme” that Bonneville refers to is a nod to George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who was one of the individuals who discovered King Tut’s tomb.
14. IT RECEIVED A RECORD NUMBER OF EMMY NOMINATIONS.
15. THE QUEEN LOVED IT, AND LIKED TO LOOK FOR ANACHRONISMS.
Among the show’s many famous fans are several members of the British royal family, including Queen Elizabeth, who “loves to pick out the mistakes,” said At Home with the Queen author Brian Hoey. “They do tend to get it right. However, the Queen did notice on one episode that there was a young so-called British officer wearing medals which had not been awarded when he was supposed to be alive. He was fighting in the First World War and the medals on his chest did not come in until the Second World War.”