How the real life Downton heir plotted to kill his father
Lord and master: The fifth earl and Highclere. His children did not enjoy the warmth and love of the family in TV”s Downton Abbey
The eight-year-old heir to the earldom knew what was coming and was terrified.
Summoned to his father’s study, he glanced out of a window and saw the head gardener tying together a bundle of birch twigs.
The high-born lad was in for a thrashing. What had he done this time
As young Henry George Alfred Marius Victor Francis Herbert, only son of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, was about to be painfully reminded, growing up in the first years of the 20th century at Highclere Castle — the magnificent country house in Berkshire which is both the set and the model for Downton Abbey — was no bed of roses.
The Downton that millions of viewers tuned in to on Christmas Day (and were left gasping for the next series to begin in September) is, for all the dramatic events unfolding there, a generally benign place. Voices are rarely raised, let alone fists.
The Earl of Grantham is a pussycat, his wife a sweetie and his daughters — the odd peccadillo and dead Turkish lover notwithstanding — well brought-up gels of refinement but with minds of their own.
For Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil, childhood was undoubtedly a cheerful, pampered and loving experience.
Highclere, by contrast, was a brutal place to grow up, and the real earl in residence at that time was a bully and a secret pornographer.
All he required of his two children was to be seen occasionally and heard never at all.
His son Henry — known as Porchey because of his title Lord Porchester — admitted to living in fear of his forbidding, dissolute and disapproving father.
Throughout their childhood, he and his sister Evelyn were confined to their quarters on the top floor of the three-storey, 200-room castle, with a nanny, governess and nursemaids in charge of them.
Visits from mother and father were rare and, as Porchey would later recount, awful and awkward.
Highclere, by contrast to Downton Abbey, was a brutal place to grow up, and the real earl in residence at that time was a bully and a secret pornographer
‘My sister and I would spring to our feet and stand to attention,’ he said.
‘I never knew what to say.’
The earl would splutter a few words — ‘How are you all, then’ — as if talking to his groom rather than his offspring, before retreating.
As the door closed behind him, the children breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The sixth earl’s memoirs, No Regrets, published in the 1970s, are an eye-opener for Downton fans.
They reveal how the Highclere butler, a mutton-chop whiskered fellow by the name of Streatfield, put on a posh voice but always got his aitches in a tangle, putting them in where they weren’t supposed to be and dropping them where they were.
‘Heverything is hall right in the ‘ouse, m’Lord,’ he would announce.
Carson, Downton’s eloquent and ever-correct maitre d’, would have had a fit of apoplexy at such an assault on the English language but Streatfield’s strangulated vowels and laboured syntax were probably more typical of the era’s social distinctions.
But it is in the true nature of aristocratic family life that the Carnarvon account differs drastically from Downton. Even the festive season was lacking in love and warmth.
There was no sign of Mum and Dad in the nursery on Christmas Eve. Porchey remembered presents being delivered by servants to be put in the children’s stockings.
‘They were obviously chosen with little care or regard for our personal tastes,’ he commented bitterly years later in his memoirs.
On Christmas Day, it would be after lunch before they were summoned downstairs in their best bibs and tuckers to be shown off to the earl’s guests, a ‘treat’ which ended after 15 minutes when they were dismissed by their already bored father and sent off for a walk in the grounds.
‘Perhaps we’ll see you tomorrow,’ was his parting shot before getting back to his card game, though the promise of that ‘perhaps’ was rarely fulfilled.
Brought up in such an emotional wasteland, it’s no wonder being sent off to boarding school at the age of eight was a relief for the boy. And it was on his return home at the end of his second term that the dreaded summons to his father’s presence came.
No maternal instinct: Lady Almina and child. She was an heiress, the daughter of a Rothschild, who was wooed into the family to save it from financial ruin
His report was terrible: ‘Writing slovenly, mathematics appalling, idles his time away.’
A home tutor had been employed but with no improvement, and now came the reckoning.
Young Porchey was ordered to undress and bend over. His hands were tied to a brass bedstead. His father had three birch rods, each tied with a blue ribbon, to choose from and swished them through the air before selecting the one he liked the most.
Then, after a sermon about how Porchey had damn-well better improve his ways and stop slacking, he set to.
The victim recalled: ‘Standing back, he performed a little on-the-spot jig, as if tautening his muscles, then suddenly brought down the birch as hard as he could on my bare bum. After six strokes, he threw down the birch and left the room.’
The immediate effect on the lad was physical — for the next few days he couldn’t sit and had to sleep face down. The psychological scars cut much deeper.
‘From that day onwards, I planned to kill my father,’ he said.
Armed with a small knife he stalked the earl in the Highclere grounds and, concealed in bushes and watching his father practising his golf shots alone, he came close to doing the deed.
In the end, his nerve failed, but the enmity he bore his father was a blight on his life.
Which was sad because there was much about the fifth earl for a red-blooded and blue-blooded son to admire. Fearless and adventurous, he travelled the world and was a first-class shot.
He sailed yachts and bred racehorses. He drove fast cars in the infancy of motoring, scaring ordinary folk with his Mr Toad antics and surviving countless crashes.
To cap all that, as an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist, he became world famous for financing and then joining the expedition that uncovered the fabulous tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun in Egypt.
On the other hand, there was a seamy side to him. His secret sideline was taking photographs of scantily clad girls, and his sexuality was always a matter of some mystery.
There have been suggestions the children were actually sired by his best friend, an Indian prince — which might explain his indifference to them.
However, his wife, the diminutive and highly-sexed Almina, was no better a mother than he was a father.
She was — like Cora in Downton — an heiress, the daughter of a Rothschild, who was wooed into the family to save it from financial ruin.
Downton, with its generally wholesome family relationships – so far anyway – seems tame by comparison with the real-life characters who inhabited the house
Ten years younger than her husband, she traded her colossal fortune for the title of Countess of Carnarvon. She paid off his vast gambling debts and spent a fortune on Highclere.
But, unlike the sweet and loving Cora, she seems to have been lacking in maternal instinct in what never progressed beyond a marriage of convenience.
She had her good points. During World War I, she turned Highclere into a hospital for wounded soldiers — just like Downton — running it at her own expense. On her orders, each wounded officer had the luxury of his own room, with down pillows and linen sheets. She made beds and dressed wounds.
She was generous in other ways too, with a free-and-easy — some would say promiscuous — attitude to the many men in her life, including, it was said, one of the Highclere gardeners.
But all that love and compassion seemed to desert her when it came to her son.
She didn’t care much for Porchey, and even less after his behaviour at a Buckingham Palace garden party, where the excited 10-year-old ran without looking across the lawn and into the rotund stomach of Edward VII, knocking the king to the ground.
His Majesty was kindness itself, as was his young granddaughter, Princess Mary, who offered the distraught Porchey a raspberry ice cream to calm him down.
The boy then watched in paralysed horror as, in his second royal faux pas in as many minutes, the ice cream slipped from the plate and slithered down the front of her white satin dress.
His social-climbing and self-important mother was incandescent.
Lord Porchester, who was a notorious womaniser, with Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson at Ascot in 1985. He lived to 89
‘She grasped my arm, nearly dislocating my shoulder, and dragged me to our carriage,’ he said.
‘I was thrust inside and throughout the journey to our London home she never for a second left off kicking me in the shins with her pointed shoes.
‘“You little beast” . . . kick . . . “you disgraceful boy” . . . kick . . . “you shamed me today” . . . kick.’
Back at home, she ordered him to be locked in the attic with nothing but bread and milk for 48 hours. Not even the intervention of the Palace on Porchey’s behalf could save him from his mother’s wrath.
The king, not at all upset by his tumble but concerned for the boy, sent round a present of a sack of toys but she confiscated the lot.
The rifts forged in childhood never healed. When the earl was dying in a Cairo hotel in 1923 — succumbing to blood poisoning after an insect bite, which popular imagination said was his punishment for disturbing King Tut’s resting place — the 25-year-old Porchey, now an Army officer, rushed from India, where he was stationed, to be at his side.
It was a poignant last moment.
‘I stood looking down at him, filled with sadness and remorse for all those wasted years when we had known so little of each other.
“I could count on one hand the number of occasions upon which we had enjoyed real affection and companionship, and now he was beyond my reach.’
Porchey inherited the title, becoming the sixth earl of Carnarvon. He also got Highclere, but his father’s personal wealth — which might have paid the death duties — went to Almina, who kept it for herself.
The high days of Highclere were over. Gainsboroughs were sold to meet the debts. Household and estate staff were cut from hundreds to just 23.
To raise money, the new earl turned the rearing of racehorses and gambling on them from an aristocratic pastime to a profession.
Relations with his mother went from bad to worse as she starved him of what he considered his rightful inheritance.
She re-married just eight months after her husband’s death, and he was appalled. She continued on her spendthrift and man-eating ways until she ran out of money.
He got his own back when, years later, he shopped her to the Inland Revenue and, unable to pay the tax she owed, she was declared bankrupt. She died in virtual penury, aged 93, in 1969.
Porchey, a notorious womaniser with a reputation for cuckolding half the men in Berkshire, lived to 89, rattling around in a draughty Highclere before dying in 1987. He was succeeded by the seventh earl, renowned as the Queen’s racing manager.
For all its dramatic invention, Downton, with its generally wholesome family relationships — so far anyway — seems tame by comparison with the real-life characters who inhabited the house.
The Granthams stick together — to a nation’s obvious relief, even Lady Mary and cousin Matthew managed to work things out on Christmas Day.
There were no such happy endings for the Carnarvons.
Not emotionally, nor financially — or the present generation, with huge bills to pay for its upkeep, would not have had to fling open the doors of the family’s historic home as the backdrop for the nation’s favourite toff soap.
It was reported that most urgently in need of repair at the 150-year-old Victorian gothic pile are the roof and the attic rooms where a little over a century ago Porchey and his sister lived and played — but where their uncaring aristocratic parents rarely took the trouble to venture.