For fans of history and the recent TV series â€˜Downton Abbey\’, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle is a fascinatingly good read.
It is written with great authority by the present Lady Fiona, the 8th Countess of Carnarvon about Highclere Castle, a grand Victorian Gothic revival pile in Hampshire that was used in the TV series â€˜Downton Abbey\’. The family seat of the Carnarvons is backdrop to this tale of wealth and influence at a time when England still ruled the waves and half the world too.
In 1895, Almina Wormwell, the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. Illegitimacy should have precluded her from making such a match but, by the end of the 19th century, the cost of maintaining great estates was such that attitudes towards birth and family was pragmatic – if the money was right. And Almina was fabulously wealthy with a father who seemed incapable of denying her anything.
The dowry and money lavished on Almina during her father\’s lifetime are hard to compute in today\’s more austere times. Tiny, pretty and energetic, she wasted no time in spending it, throwing herself into renovating Highclere Castle and entertaining on a grand scale. Her new husband, Lord Carnarvon, now had money to indulge his passion for travel and archaeology.
In spite of its mercenary basis, the marriage seems to have been happy. Almina would accompany her husband at least once a year on his archaeological digs to Egypt and when they were at home at Highclere there were balls and banquets and house parties. With a huge staff and a seemingly unlimited supply of money, it was the Golden Age â€“ until the outbreak of WWI. Immediately, Almina converted Highclere into a hospital for badly wounded soldiers, funding nurses and working tirelessly alongside them. After the war, Highclere was returned to being a private house, but the mood to party had gone.
Almina stamped her personality on Highclere, but the most lasting legacy turned out to be Lord Carnarvon\’s. In 1923, the archaeological concessions taken out so many years earlier in the Valley of Kings finally came to fruition when Howard Carter, uncovered the entrance to Tutunkhamen\’s tomb, the only intact burial site of the pharaohs. As Carter and Carnarvon broke open the last barrier to the tomb it was a bittersweet end to more than a decade of searching â€“ but you will have to read the book to find out what happened.
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