The Secret Jewish History of Downton Abbey

The Crawleys Have a Long History With the Rothschilds

Uptown Living: The Edwardian family that inhabits TV’s famous chateau is based on the Carnarvons.
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Uptown Living: The Edwardian family that inhabits TV’s famous chateau is based on the Carnarvons.

By Adam Fuerstenberg

Published January 19, 2014, issue of January 24, 2014.
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Millions of TV viewers across the world continue to be enthralled by “Downton Abbey.” The BBC series chronicles the lives of an Edwardian noble family — and their host of loyal servants — forced to adjust to modernity as it ends the Victorian era and ushers in the revolutionary changes brought on by World War I.

But few viewers probably know that there is a strong Jewish connection in the history that inspired the series.

The Crawleys, the aristocratic family depicted, and their chateau and surrounding grounds, Downton Abbey, are loosely based on the real aristocratic Carnarvon family, their hereditary seat, Highclere Castle, and the accomplishments of the fifth Countess of Carnarvon, who was in fact half Jewish. In fact, the series is partly filmed in and on the estate, which is still in the hands of the eighth Earl of Carnarvon.

So what’s the Jewish connection? Well, Highclere Castle and the fortunes of the Carnarvon family are inextricably linked to the legendary British Rothschilds. The Carnarvon family legacy might not have survived intact into the 21st century were it not for the heavy financial support provided by Alfred de Rothschild during the decades immediately preceding and following World War I.

By the last decades of the Victorian era, many ancient British aristocratic families, finding it impossible to maintain their castles and their opulent lifestyles, resorted to marrying off their male heirs to wealthy American and European heiresses.

Winston Churchill was the son of just such a union, when his father, Lord Randolph Spencer Churchill, not having inherited the estates nor the title of the Dukes of Marlborough, married Jennie Jerome in 1874, the beautiful young daughter of American multimillionaire financier, speculator and sportsman Leonard Jerome.

So it was also with George Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, scion of one of the noblest of British families, when on June 28, 1895 he married 19-year-old Almina Wombwell, the lovely and vivacious illegitimate daughter of the fabulously wealthy Alfred de Rothschild and his long-time French mistress, Marie Wombwell.


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