Sir Robert Sawyer, the ancestor of the Earl of Carnarvon, purchased the Highclere estate in 1679. He was to become the Attorney General and his descendent, Henry Herbert who inherited the estate in 1769, not only became the 1st Earl of Carnarvon, he also was responsible for the start of the development of the house and grounds as we see them today.
Originally controlled by the Bishops of Winchester for over 800 years, the Highclere estate was confiscated by King Edward VI during the Protestant reformation and subsequently had a number of different owners. Building on the site of Highclere Castle dates back to a medieval palace in the twelfth century which was replaced by a red brick Tudor house, the design of which was the subject of much admiration.
The 1st Earl of Carnarvon gained his title in 1793 and employed the services of Launcelot “Capability” Brown to enhance the beautiful grounds, the result of which was the planting of large numbers of trees and the careful creation of the “unplanned” and natural landscape, the signature style of so much of Brown’s work.
At the time of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne Highclere, like much of the country, underwent a radical transformation, and the new grand mansion dominated the surrounding countryside. Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister, exclaimed “How scenical! How scenical!” when he first caught sight of the magnificent mansion.
Sir Charles Barry was commissioned by the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon to make the transformation in 1838. Barry had started to make his name as the architect of the Place of Westminster having won a competition in 1936 to replace the building destroyed by fire 2 years earlier. The result is the stunning Gothic structure that we see today.
Barry remodelled the mansion in true Elizabethan style which took decades to complete, the structural work on the interior of the Castle was finally completed in 1878. The castle became known for its opulence and became a hub for political and social activities in the Victorian era.
Notably, the Saloon now features 17th-century Spanish leather wall coverings collected by the 3rd earl, and the walls of the Music Room are hung with 16th-century Italian embroideries. Visitors will recognise many of the rooms, from the dark mahogany, gilded, library with over 5,650 books, to the dining room dominated by Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I.
In many ways Highclere Castle epitomised the confidence and glamour of the Edwardian period in the first few years of the twentieth century. Visitor books record the house parties full of politicians, technological innovators, Egyptologists, aviators and soldiers.
During the First World War, Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, transformed the Castle into a hospital, and patients began to arrive from Flanders in September 1914. She became an adept nurse and a skilled healer and hundreds of letters from patients and their families bear testament to her untiring work and spirit of generosity.
The Castle returned to a private home and before Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle was known primarily for its association with the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, patron of the Egyptological expedition that discovered and opened the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922. Egyptian antiquities from the 5th Earl’s collection were later put on display in the castle.
Following the death of the 5th Earl, his son, who then became the 6th Earl, returned to Highclere where he lived until 1986. During the Second World War, the Castle briefly became a home for evacuee children from north London.
The current (8th) Earl and Countess of Carnarvon live partly in the Castle and partly nearby but remain closely involved in the Castle's day to day life and future.