15 Downton Abbey Secrets Revealed

In honor of Maggie Smith's 89th birthday Dec. 28, we're unearthing little known facts about the world of Downton Abbey's Crawley family and their servants.

By Tierney Bricker Dec 29, 2023 5:00 AMTags
Watch: What Michelle Dockery Will Miss About "Downton Abbey"

Six seasons and a movie.

That's what Downton Abbey fans were treated to when the period drama debuted on Jan. 9, 2011 in the U.S. on PBS. Yes, it's really been over 12 years since we were first introduced to the Crawley family and their servants in their stunning home in the English countryside. Then again, who can forget when Theo Jamescharacter died while deflowering Michelle Dockery's Lady Mary during its freshman run? 

Created by Julian Fellowes, the series went on to become a pop culture phenomenon, turning Dockery, Dan Stevens and more of the cast into major stars and introducing one of TV's most beloved characters in Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess, a.k.a. the woman born to become a meme, thanks to her quips and insults. 

After ending its initial run in 2015, viewers made a return trip to Downton Abbey when the first film hit theaters in September 2019 followed by Downton Abbey: A New Era in May 2022.

Downton Abbey Cast: Then and Now

Now, in honor of Smith's 89th birthday Dec. 28, we're spilling behind-the-scenes facts about the show, including the real reason behind the series' most shocking death and which star almost bailed on her audition.

We're not Laura Linney and this is 15 secrets about Downton Abbey being revealed...

1. The idea for the period drama loosely came from creator Julian Fellowes' own upbringing with a diplomat father. "My mother hadn't been presented, she wasn't a [debutante]," he explained to Closer of his own family drama. "My great aunts thought she had 'caught' [my father] and they never changed. They eventually tolerated her because she had been delivered of four healthy sons, so she had done her dynastic duty."

2. Oh, did we mention Fellowes is actually a Baron and a member of the House of Lords? 

3. "We pretty much got all our first choices for every part," casting director Jill Trevellick admitted to Backstage, confirming Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens were all "frontrunners" for their respective characters.

4. The hardest role to cast was valet John Bates, with Brendan Coyle ultimately landing the job after over 60 actors were considered because the studio was not convinced Coyle was the right fit for a very specific reason.

"We thought of Brendan very early on," Trevellick explained. "In fact, you could say that Julian wrote that part with Brendan in mind because he'd see him in North and South and he just felt that Brendan was the actor for the part. We saw Brendan very early on and then there were some qualms at the broadcast end, not because they didn't like Brendan, but because he'd been in a period genre piece that they feared was a bit close and might even be broadcast at the same time on an opposing channel...Ultimately, I think we just wore them down."

Six weeks later, they were able to offer Coyle the part.

5. Downton's first OMG moment came when Matthew Crawley, the series' dashing male lead, was killed in the season three finale. "There were a lot of very upset people demanding apologies," Stevens told Entertainment Weekly of his decision to exit the show at the end of his three-year contract. 

As for why he was ready to say goodbye to Downton, he explained, "Doing a long-running TV thing was amazing on all sorts of levels. But at the moment, it's about seeing how I can keep myself challenged and entertained."

6. In an interview with E! News, Fellowes stressed it was Steven's choice to leave (and not return for an appearance in season four) that lead to the character's sudden demise.

Noting that in America, contracts tend to be longer, "it seemed to them that the production team had just decided you know," he continued as he made a throat-slitting motion. "But in fact, he had just gotten to the end of his three-year contract and he wanted to go on and do different stuff...We just had to make it work. Some of the letters I got made your hair stand on ends!"

7. But Matthew's devastating death didn't detract viewers as the season four premiere shattered ratings records, attracting 10.2 million viewers.

8. If Stevens had notified Fellowes sooner of his intention to leave the series, he said he would've staged fan-favorite Lady Sybil's exit differently: "I probably would have killed them together in a car crash."

9. Highclere Castle was the location for Downton Abbey, with the 17th century estate becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations in the U.K. The countryside oasis even became available to rent on Airbnb, with two fans spending a night in the 100,000 square-foot castle ahead of the series' motion picture premiere in September 2019. 

10. But those renters may have had to deal with a ghost as the show's historical consultant detailed the popular paranormal rumor in an interview with Travel + Leisure

 "I remember my cousin [Jean Margaret Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon] being ashen white when I told her what the opening sequence of the show would be," Alastair Bruce explained. "Daisy gets up, gets the whole house going and they clean before the Earl of Grantham comes downstairs. Mrs. Hughes is going around and the camera focuses in on the chain around her waist carrying all the keys, and Jean—she's the Dowager Countess of Carnarvon—she went white because there is a ghost at the house who is a former housekeeper, and you know she's around because you can hear the keys jangling at the end of her chain."

11. Though Lady Edith Crawley became her breakout role, Laura Carmichael almost didn't attend her audition for the series.

Because she was starring in a touring production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Carmichael admitted to Tribune News Service, "I thought it was going to be a 'Yes, milord,' a half-day's filming, one line maybe. But it would be good to have on your CV that you'd done telly. And I thought, 'I'm going to have to turn down this dream Shakespeare for this TV job. What a disaster!'"

12. In 2012, Gillian Anderson revealed she turned down the part of Cora Crawley, with Elizabeth McGovern ultimately playing Downton's American heiress-turned-Countess of Grantham. 

13. Per Vanity Fair, Queen Elizabeth II was a huge fan of the show and would fact-check it for fun. "She loves to pick out the mistakes," At Home with the Queen author Brian Hoey claimed to People. Prince William also admitted to watching the series, according to star Allan Leech.

"I shook his hand and he actually said, 'I'm a big fan of the show, only now that my wife's had a baby,'" Leech recalled on Watch What Happens Live in 2013. "Obviously he's got a lot of down time, so [Kate Middleton]'s got him watching this. ‘You're going to watch it with me!'"

14. Smith, who played Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, admitted to never watching the series.

"I will look at it when it's all over, maybe, because it's frustrating," she told The Telegraph of her reasoning for not viewing her own work. "I always see things that I would like to do differently, and think 'why in the name of God did I do that?'" 

15. Because it was a period drama, the female stars often had to wear corsets under their costumes , leading to "real problems," according to chief ­costume des­igner ­Susannah ­Buxton.

"It's a nightmare for those poor things," she told The Mirror. "They were very, very uncomfortable. You have to learn to wear them, and of course the girls are not used to it. They were so tight cast ­members couldn't even eat in them."

(Originally published Jan. 9, 2021 at 3 a.m. PT)

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