“You Will Not Be Received at Court!” Royal References in Downton Abbey

Warning: This article contains plot spoilers from both Season 1 and Season 2

In the ITV/PBS series Downton Abbey, about the aristocratic Crawley family, their middle class relations, and their servants, royal personages have not yet made an appearance at the stately home in Seasons 1 (1912-1914) and 2 (1916-1920). It remains to be seen in the upcoming Season 3 (1920-1922) whether the Earl of Grantham’s daughters will be personally invited to any fashionable parties by the future King Edward VIII or entertain a mysterious foreign dinner guest who suddenly claims to be the lost Grand Duchess Anastasia. Although royalty remains off screen, the perceived values of King George V and Queen Mary have a profound influence on characters from all social backgrounds. When nobility and servants alike discuss European politics surrounding the First World War, the view the conflict through the activities of the continent’s royal families.

Downton Abbey is set in Highclere Castle, home of the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679. In the series, it is implied that the Earls of Grantham have held the estate even longer as the name “Downton Abbey” suggests that the lands belonged to the church before King Henry VIII  dissolved the monasteries and convents and granted their properties to the nobility in the sixteenth century. When the Earl describes himself as a custodian of the estate instead of his owner, he is alluding to five centuries of his ancestors building up the family patrimony.

Prior to the First World War, the Earl and Countess of Grantham schedule their year according to the timing of the London season, which includes the presentation of debutantes to the King and Queen. The couple’s youngest daughter, Lady Sybil is eligible to be presented during the 1914 season, a circumstance complicated by her political activism. When Sybil expresses an interest in canvassing for politicians who share her enthusiasm for women’s suffrage, her grandmother, the Dowager Countess, is quick to note that she will soon be presented at court.

Queen Mary’s well known disapproval of the more militant tactics employed by suffragists undoubtedly informs the Dowager Countess’s incisive obervation that one cannot be arrested in riot in May then presented in June. When Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, the Queen commisserated with the jockey, describing Davison’s death as a ““sad accident caused through the abominable conduct of a brutal lunatic woman.” Sybil’s political activism not only jeopardizes her safety but has the potential to invite royal disapproval.

The influence of the royal example on the Dowager Countess’s conceptions of appropriate behaviour are confirmed in the second season when Sybil expresses an interest in becoming a wartime nurse. The aristocratic Dowager Countess and the middle class Mrs. Crawley experience a rare moment of agreement when they support Sybil’s decision to join the war effort. While Mrs. Crawley’s support is inspired by broader ideals of public service, the Dowager Countess observes, “You cannot pretend it is not respectable. Every day we are treated to pictures of Queens and Princesses in Red Cross uniform.” The leadership roles played by royal women in the First World War created opportunities for women of the aristocracy to adopt new roles and the Dowager Countess’s support for Sybil’s nursing reflects this changing worldview.

As World War One draws to a close with the collapse of the Russian, German and Austrian monarchies, Downton Abbey, presents a broader range of opinion about the significance of royalty. The continued traditional outlook of the Earl of Grantham and his butler, Carson, is expressed through their unquestioning support for the influence of royalty. When Lady Sybil announces that she intends to marry Branson the Irish socialist chauffeur, her father attempts to dissuade her by reminding her that “you will not be received at court!” mirroring the concerns her grandmother expressed prior to the war.

In the servants’ quarters, Carson challenges Branson’s argument that monarchy has had its day in Europe, telling him that “monarchy is the lifeblood of Europe.” Branson’s acceptance of the 1918 murder of the Russian Imperial family as a necessary sacrifice for the greater revolution, despite his earlier belief that they would not harmed, demonstrates that he not only belongs to a difference social class than Sybil’s family but holds an entirely different set of political views than the Earl of Grantham.

Royal personages never call at Downton Abbey but their attitudes and activities offscreen profoundly influence the Crawley family and their servants. Although the presentation of debutantes at court continued until 1958, the Earl of Grantham’s attempt to influence Sybil’s choices by reminding her that she will not be received at court as the chauffeur’s wife sounds old fashioned in the context of the series by 1918 while Branson’s acceptance of the Romanov murders appears to foreshadow his direct involvement in militant Irish republicanism during the 1920s.

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