Highclere Castle’s first records date back to 749, when an Anglo-Saxon king granted the estate to the Bishop of Winchester, where a beautiful medieval palace was built in the grounds. In 1679, an ancestor of the Carnarvons, Sir Robert Sawyer, purchased the estate. Later, in 1842, Sir Charles Barry – who also designed the Houses of Parliament – redesigned the castle to be the familiar, gilt-encrusted building we know today.
During the late Victorian period the Castle became a haven for significant figures from the world of politics, including the first Prime Minister of Canada, who visited the Castle in 1866. Indeed, the 4th Earl of Carnarvon played an instrumental role in the creation of the independent nation of Canada, by presenting the British North America Act of 1867 to parliament.
The First World War brought an abrupt shift for English society, and for Highclere, in a transition that closely echoes the plot of the Downton series; having been a buzzing social hub throughout the Edwardian period, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon subsequently turned the Castle into a hospital, and even worked there as a nurse herself.
In the Second World War, the castle hosted evacuees. Under the guardianship of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon today the house acts partly as a private home, as well as being open to the public, playing host to events and functions and being used as a film and television location, including for The Secret Garden film, the Jeeves and Wooster television series, and – of course – Downton Abbey.