We walk like
an Egyptian to play
‘Six Degrees of Downton’
“Downton Abbey” has returned to PBS’ “Masterpiece Classic.” And though we’re thinking of avoiding Season 4 altogether – in mourning for a certain character who really made the series for us – you know we just can’t resist the upstairs-downstairs drama of the tested Crawleys and their equally tried servants. They’ve proven to be golden for PBS, which recorded its highest viewership with Season 3 (24.1 million). What you may not know is that the Crawleys are related – in a “Six Degrees of ‘Downton’” kind of way – to another golden phenom, King Tut.
The dots connect thusly: “Downton” is filmed in part at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Lord Carnarvon’s great-grandfather was George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the fifth earl, who married Almina Victoria Maria Alexandra Wombwell, reportedly the out-of-wedlock daughter of millionaire banker Alfred de Rothschild. It’s here that you can see parallels between Highclere and “Downton,” for Lady Almina’s fortune was said to buck up Highclere, just as Downton is preserved by the fictional Earl of Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) marriage to the American heiress Cora (Elizabeth McGovern).
Lady Almina’s dowry – 500,000 pounds, about $30 million today – plus her annual income also shored up the spending habits of Lord Carnarvon, whose asthma would lead them to the warmer climes of Egypt. It was there that the earl became enamored of Egyptology and excavation, joining forces with the archaeologist Howard Carter. The first 10 years of their working relationship bore little fruit as the accident-prone Carnarvon and the testy Carter couldn’t immediately get the concession on the archaeologically rich Valley of the Kings, where Carter was convinced that the intact tomb of Tutankhamun could be found. Once the pair acquired the rights in 1917, the war had sapped some of Carnarvon’s resources.
He was about to throw in the shovel in the summer of 1922, when Carter proposed using his own funds to continue their work. Carnarvon made the decision to stake the archaeologist to another season.
The gamble was soon rewarded. On Nov. 4 of that year, Carter sent Carnarvon a telegram:
“At last have made wonderful discovery in the Valley, a magnificent tomb with seals intact; recovered same for your arrival; Congratulations!”
When Carnarvon and his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, arrived three weeks later, it was time to go to work on what we would call today the big reveal. As Carter later wrote in “The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen”:
“…presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. …when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.’”
There were alabaster vessels, faience figures and everywhere gilded masks, jewelry, statues, furnishings and shrines, all of which would be carefully removed and tagged.
Here’s where the story gets strange. Carnarvon, never the healthiest of men after a car accident, cut a mosquito bite on his face while shaving as he prepared to leave Cairo in March of 1923. The bite became infected, blood poisoning turned to pneumonia and Carnarvon died April 5, 1923.
His death in those early morning hours was the dawn of the so-called curse of King Tut. The press went wild. At the precise moment of his death, it was said, his dog howled back at Highclere and keeled over. Every odd happening was attributed to the curse.
Even the current countess, Lady Fiona Carnarvon, author of “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey,” told PBS she sees some “spooky” parallels between her husband’s ancestor and Tut.
“The golden mask of Tutankhamun is of such beauty and quality and made of such equal weight of gold throughout, apart from on the left cheek, which is exactly where Carnarvon was bitten by the mosquito, and it turns out as well that malaria in mosquitoes probably had a major part in the death of Tutankhamun, which was, again, one of the major part(s) of the death of Lord Carnarvon. There are points that link them,” she said.
Dan Stevens, who played Downton heir Matthew Crawley for three seasons, told Britain’s Daily Mail that all kinds of Carnarvonian accidents have happened to the cast. Michelle Dockery, who plays Matthew’s beloved Lady Mary, went to the hospital after she dropped a knife on her foot. Zoe Boyle, who played his fiancée Lavinia Swire, broke her wrist falling off a bus and Laura Carmichael, Lady Mary’s sister Lady Edith, broke hers at a wrap party.
But, you say, “Downton” doesn’t really have anything to do with Highclere and thus Carnarvon and Tut. It’s only partially filmed there.
Ah, but that’s because the servants’ quarters now house a permanent exhibit of Carnarvon’s Egyptian treasures.
Additional source: “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” (National Geographic) by Zahi Hawass.