A Family History Researcher Gets the Real Story of Downton Abbey’s Castle

Family history researchers often secretly hope to find a castle or a Rothschild in the ancestor search. Looking at the location of Downton Abbey’s Highclere Castle, there are interesting relatives to meet.

This family history researcher wants to take a genealogy vacation. Nope, I don’t want to do my own genealogy search in an exotic location.  I need a break from my family tree!  I want to revel in someone else’s genealogical search.  I know exactly where I want to go to enjoy someone else’s family history research: England. Why would I want to search in Great Britain when none of my Russian or Polish or American family members hail from there?

Here’s the truth: I want to go so I can pretend that my family had a big castle and that I am a Rothschild descendant. Doesn’t every family history researcher dream of finding a castle or two in his or her family history?

Now, can you guess where I want to go?

Let’s begin with the castle.  The location where the BBC has been filming Julian Fellowe’s captivating Downton Abbey series (2010- ) is called Highclere Castle and is located in Highclere Park, Newbury.  The home of the fictitious Grantham Family in Downton, Highclere in real life is owned by the 8th Lord and Countess of Carnarvon and has been in the Carnarvon family since 1679. Before that, Highclere was the home of the Bishops of Winchester from the 8th century. Downton Abbey creator Fellowes is reported to be friendly with the owners of the castle and to have based some of the show’s action and characters on Carnarvon family history.

Since the beginning of the BBC series, Highclere Castle has become a popular travel destination. It seems everyone wants to be a Downton Abbey family history researcher.  The fictitious Grantham family is so captivating.  There are now sold-out tours of the castle.  In June, there will be private tours given personally by the Lord and Countess of Carnovan.  In August, there is a program to commemorate of the centenary of the First World War. With the Memorial Day holiday coming up at the beginning of the summer season in the USA, American family history researchers interested in veterans and military information may have a new way to finish their summer season—at Downton Abbey, oops, I mean Highclere Castle.

So, for this family history researcher, it is easy.  Decision made. I’m booking my flight of fancy and going–virtually.

But before I become royal or a genealogist for hire in Britain, I absolutely must look for the family history research part of my virtual genealogy vacation: the personal search for a Rothschild.

Letting someone else be the family history researcher, my first glimpse linking the Carnarvon family of Highclere Castle to the British banking family, the Rothschilds, was in an article in the Forward newspaper.

Ready for this family history researcher’s trip back in time?  All set for takeoff?

Here we go:

The Lady of Highclere Castle was said to be related to one of England's most notable families.

The Lady of Highclere Castle was said to be related to one of England’s most notable families.

In June 1895, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon married 19-year old Almina Victoria Maria Alexandra Wombwell. She was the daughter of Marie Boyer Wombwell.  Marie Boyer was the daughter of a French financier from perhaps an old aristocratic family who had married Frederick Charles Wombwell, a “rakish” British military officer. Almina was known as the illegitimate daughter of the never-married Alfred de Rothschild, with whom her mother had a longstanding relationship.

Upon her marriage, Almina became Lady Carnarvon, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon. For Almina, whose name is said to have been an amalgam of Alfred Charles’ first name and her mother’s nickname, Mina, being illegitimate was not an advantage in the upper levels of British society. Marrying someone with a title was helpful to establish her social status. Alfred Charles Rothschild is reported to have set up the introduction to the Lord and to have championed the marriage.

Almina and Lord Carnarvon had two children:

  • Henry Herbert, 6th Earl of Carnarvon (1898-1987), who married Anne Catherine Tredick Wendell and had issue.
  • Lady Evelyn Leonora Almina Herbert (1901-1980), who married Sir Brograve Campbell Beauchamp, 2nd Bt. and had issue.

I can’t help but be a family history researcher, so I’ve located a mini-lineage of Almina’s alleged biological father, Alfred Charles de Rothschild (1842-1918).

In the 1600s, his family’s surname originally was Bauer before an ancestor adopted Rothschild, derived from the “red shield” which then marked the door of the family’s business in the German city of Frankfurt am Main. For our Alfred Charles, the addition of a “de” denotes his status as a British Baron.

Alfred Charles de Rothschild is:

  • Great Great Grandchild of Amschel Moses Rothschild (b. 1710?-1754?)
  • Great grandchild of Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1743-1812)
  • Grandchild of Mayer Amschel’s fourth son, Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) who settled in England to establish the family business there.
  • Fourth child, second son of Lionel Nathan Rothschild (1808-1879) who himself was Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s second born of seven children and the oldest of three sons.

On Rothschild family tree and lineage charts, Alfred Charles is depicted with no descendants.  Interesting, right?

When looking at the Rothschild family and their family tree, one notices both a recurring trait of high mathematic ability as well as the preponderance of the names Nathan, Nathaniel, Charlotte, Mayer, Moses, Amschel among others. The Rothschild family maintains a naming tradition that honors relatives from prior generations. (There is even a current young Nathaniel Rothschild who is a successful financier today.)

Now, back to Almina:

Almina’s biological father was neither proven nor publicly announced during her lifetime.  However, Almina’s mother had a close and long relationship with Alfred Charles Rothschild who financially supported both Marie and her daughter, Almina.  Rothschild was publicly called Almina’s “godfather”.  His reluctance to marry Marie Boyer Wombwell may have been because he was Jewish, maintained his affiliation with Jewish Institutions in Britain and was not socially able to have an acknowledged and formal relationship out of his faith–Marie was a Catholic. As Almina’s “godfather”,  Alfred provided Almina with a £500,000 dowry (valued at $50 million today) and left her an inheritance.

Upon marriage, Almina made her dowry funds available to her new husband, who had a title but little money.  She used these funds to maintain his family’s estate, our now-beloved Downton Abbey–Highclere Castle.

After marrying Lord Carnarvon, Almina became a successful social hostess and financed the upgrading of the castle.  In Downton Abbey, the characters are shown making upgrades to their home, adding modern amenities such as electricity, telephones and automobiles.  This accurately reflects the history of Highclere Castle. Almina also financially supported her husband’s interests, which included Egyptian archeological expeditions as well as his many experiments such as the making and testing of flying machines on the castle property.

It was Rothschild money, Almina’s inheritance from Alfred Charles, which financed Lord Carnarvon’s famous excavation of the tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1923.

After the excavation of King Tut, Lord Carnarvon died suddenly at age 56.  Some say he was cursed by the opening of Tut’s
tomb. Others say it was from poisoning from a mosquito bite. Either way, Almina nursed him on his deathbed and his demise left her a young widow. Almina’s talent for nursing was developed both as she cared for her sick husband as well as when she converted the castle into a hospital during World War I, much like scenes in Downton Abbey.

She and her heirs maintained ownership of the castle and other properties. She married again and lived a long scandal-filled life.  She died in 1969 at age 93.

Well, enough about Almina.  We’ve found our castle.  We’ve found our Rothschild.  And we didn’t even have to get on a plane.  We’re happy with our instant genealogical search vacation.  That’s what genealogical researchers do.  We vacation in other people’s family history research–and absolutely love it!

RecordClick genealogists for hire will look for your family’s castle, or house. We’ll search and locate your relatives all over the world.