Last week I wrote about Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is filmed. But what about the Earls of Carnarvon who have made Highclere Castle their “seat” since 1679? [Sidebar: This is interesting, since Carnarvon is actually in North Wales. Then again, few English lords choose to live in Wales.]
I began looking at the Earls of Carnarvon to see if anyone piqued my interest. The first four of the current family tree lived what might be called a typical earl’s life. They kept the estates in repair and producing. They had a house in London. They participated in politics and other upper class pursuits, such as shooting grouse. Frankly, they seemed a bit stodgy.
But then, I encountered the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon and his Countess, Almina. The fictional Crawley family is more than a little tame by comparison.
George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert was born in 1866. He attended Eton and Trinity College at Cambridge where his best friend was Prince Victor Duleep Singh whose father was the deposed Maharaja of Lahore. [Sidebar: The Maharaja once owned the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is now part of the British Crown Jewels.]
Herbert’s friends called him “Porchy,” a nickname derived from his title as Lord Porchester. Porchy lived well beyond his means, as did most of young men of his age and station. He sailed a 34-meter yacht to South America, indulged in motor racing, gambling, and racehorses. The fourth earl frequently paid his son’s debts.
Nevertheless, when his father died in 1890, the new earl was deeply in debt and acquiring more. Running Highclere Castle was a huge financial drain. In addition, the new earl had the expense of the family London house in Berkeley Square, as well as the other estates.
Meanwhile . . .
In a less exalted drawing room, Almina Victoria Alexandra Wombell lived on the fringes of London Society. In 1893 at the age of sixteen Almina was presented at court, but she wasn’t invited to the usual swirl of parties.
Almina’s mother Marie Wombell was the daughter of a Parisian banker and the widow of a man known for gambling and hard drinking. Marie wasn’t received in Society. But she had a very close friend, a friend so close he was rumored to be her daughter’s father. In this Almina was fortunate. Sir Alfred de Rothschild never married, nor did he publically acknowledge his daughter. But he let it be known that he would settle a fortune on his goddaughter Almina when she married. Sir Alfred had George Herbert’s attention.
The eventual marriage contract stipulated that Sir Alfred would pay the earl’s existing debts prior to the marriage, and that Almina would bring a dowry of £500,000 (more than $75 Million in today’s currency.) Some sources say that in addition, Sir Alfred would grant Almina an allowance of £12,000 year – an allowance that would continue until the earl’s death if she predeceased him. Immense wealth makes every woman attractive, but Almina was also considered a beauty as depicted in the drawing above. Standing about five feet tall with blue eyes and glossy brown hair, contemporaries referred to Almina as a “Pocket Venus.”
As soon as the engagement became public, the Earl chartered a steam yacht and left for South America with his friend Prince Victor.
The wedding took place on June 26, 1895 – the groom’s birthday. The bride wore a satin gown designed by the House of Worth, Paris. As a wedding gift, Sir Alfred gave Almina an emerald necklace and tiara suitable for her new station. In 1898, Almina presented the earl with an heir – or did she?
William Cross’s 2011 biography of Almina created a tabloid splash. The author asserted Almina’s son wasn’t the fathered by the Fifth Earl, but by his good friend Prince Victor. If true, this was the first of many scandals.
In 1907, the Earl sponsored the first of several archeological excavations in Egypt and became close friends with Howard Carter. The Earl and his Countess were frequently present during the excavation season, first at Dier el Bahri, and after 1914 in the Valley of the Kings.
In 1918 Sir Alfred de Rothschild died and left the bulk of his entire estate to Almina. These were the funds used to sponsor the most famous archeological discovery of the twentieth century – the opening of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb on February 16, 1923.
The Earl wasn’t present when Carter entered the final inner sanctum to find Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus. On March 19, 1923, the Earl was in his room at the Continental Savoy Hotel in Cairo. While shaving, the Earl cut himself and opened a mosquito bite. Three weeks later on April 5th, the man who had everything died of blood poisoning. Almina’s son became the sixth earl. [Unfortunately, his mother had all the money.]
Almina also had a replacement husband waiting in the wings and a new scandal to follow. In 1921, Lt. Col. Ian Dennistoun and his wife Dorothy divorced. At the time, Dorothy had a lover, General Sir John Cowans. Dorothy later testified that she became Cowan’s mistress at her husband’s insistence in order to further Dennistoun’s career.
Prior to her husband’s death, Almina and Ian became close friends. How close is unclear, but he did allow her to use his bank accounts as a repository for funds she acquired selling off items from the Rothschild estate. Yes, the respectable countess was engaged in money laundering.
The Fifth Earl died in April. Almina married Ian on December 19th, 1923. On the 23rd Dorothy wrote a letter. The ex-wife implied Almina and Ian committed adultery while the earl was living. Dorothy also claimed Ian had promised her a financial settlement as soon as he had the funds. Obviously, he had plenty of money after his marriage. Almina refused to pay.
Dorothy went to court in 1924 claiming £13,000, plus unpaid alimony. Almina fought the charges. The case of Dennistoun v. Dennistoun was a scandal in 1925. Dorothy charged her ex-husband forced her to sleep with Cowans. Dennistoun countered his ex-wife was an untrustworthy slut. Under oath, Almina admitted to money laundering and adultery. In the end, the jury awarded Dorothy £472. Almina was on the hook for an additional £400,000 pounds in legal fees. Ian lost his army commission. Society, eager to read about the scandal, severed social engagements with the scandalous couple.
Almina’s life continued it’s colorful, downwardly financial trajectory. In 1969, Almina choked on a piece of gristle hiding in a home made chicken stew. She was 93.
With so many real stories about the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon and his wife, I’m surprised Julian Fellowes had to make up the fictional Crawley family.
Featured Image: Highclere Castle. Photo by Martin John Bishop. Creative Commons Attribution. Wikimedia Commons.
Almina, Fifth Countess of Carnarvon – 1876-1969
George Herbert, Fifth Earl of Carnarvon – 1866-1923
Sir Alfred de Rothschild – 1842-1918
Prince Victor Duleep Singh – 1866-1918
Lt. Col. Ian Onslow Dennistoun – 1879-1938
Anon. “The Real Downton Abbey: sordid affairs, gambling debts and saucy photography.” Mirror. Sept 14, 2011. http://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-news/the-real-downton-abbey-sordid-affairs-153592
The Countess of Carnarvon. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. Broadway Paperbacks. 2011
William Cross. The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon. Published by William Cross. 2011
Iain Hollinghead. “The racy Earl of Downton Abbey.” The Telegraph. Oct 22, 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8078439/The-racy-Earl-of-Downton-Abbey.html
Elizabeth Kerri Mohon. “Scandalous Spotlight: Almina, Countess of Carnarvon. Blog. Dec 30, 2011. http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.com/2011/12/scandalous-spotlight-almina-countess-of.html
Christopher Wilson. “Dark past of the real Downton Abbey duchess.” The Telegraph. April 5, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/sex/8688994/Dark-past-of-the-real-Downton-Abbey-duchess.html
Christopher Wilson. “UK: Downton’s greatest secret.” Daily Mail. Oct 21, 2011
Philip J. Wray. “Almina Countess of Carnarvon and Ian Dennistoun.” A History of Preston In Hertfordshire. http://www.prestonherts.co.uk/page171.html
Sandra Wagner-Wright is the author of Two Coins: A Biographical Novel and Rama's Labyrinth. Both books are available in digital and print editions at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and Kobo. Rama’s Labyrinth and Two Coins are available as audiobooks.
Sandra blogs weekly about topics related to her travels, writing life, and the incongruities of life in general.