Life & Culture

Downton Abbey's Jewish châtelaine


Highclere Castle, the ancestral home of the Earls of Carnarvon, is an impressive country estate, situated in Hampshire about five miles south of Newbury in Berkshire. This stately edifice and its upper-class family is the inspiration for television's most addictive pleasure, Downton Abbey.

However, the ch√Ętelaine of this stately home was not, in fact, the charming American Lady Cora Grantham, but the reputedly half-Jewish Almina, Fifth Countess of Carnarvon, daughter - as a result of a brief affair with her mother - of wealthy banker Alfred Rothschild.

It has happened many times that an impoverished but aristocratic family needed the funds that only an heiress could bring to safeguard the future of their dynasty and their way of life. In this particular case, it was a very unlikely heiress with a rather racy reputation who would rescue an ancient family from its financial problems.

The marriage of Almina Victoria Maria Alexandra Wombwell to George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, was celebrated on Wednesday, June 26, 1895 at St Margaret's Church, Westminster, in the presence of a large congregation. It was also the bridegroom's 30th birthday.

Among the congregation were the Portuguese and Brazilian ambassadors, the Duke of Marlborough, the Prince and Princess Edward of Saxe-Weimer and the Earl of Rosebery.

More surprising, perhaps, considering Almina's illegitimacy and the fact that her ''legal'' parents were in attendance, was the presence of her biological father Alfred, an eccentric man who also brought along his cousins, Alice de Rothschild and Baron Ferdinand.

It was not exactly a fairy-tale wedding. The Fifth Earl, who held the honorary title of Lord Porchester, and was known to his friends as Porchy, suffered from poor health. So far, he had shown little interest in anything but gambling, horse-racing and travelling abroad to unsavoury gaming clubs with his glamorous friend, Prince Victor Duleep Singh, son of the Maharajah of Lahore. The young couple barely knew each other. But Alfred Rothschild had brought them together, winning a title for his illegitimate young daughter with a stupendous dowry and the clearing of the bridegroom's debts.

The 19-year-old bride, just five feet tall, was - on paper at least - the only daughter of the aristocratic Frederick Charles Wombwell and of Marie Felicie Boyer, who was of mixed French and Spanish extraction. However, it was generally accepted by society that Almina was a Rothschild, and the only child of Alfred, who doted on her.

However, while her paternal Jewishness was accepted, Almina's mother was ostracised. While she would often attend grand parties with her father - held by Alfred's imposing sister-in-law, Emma, Lady Rothschild, the first lady of the Jewish community - her mother was rarely invited. Mrs Wombwell was merely tolerated by the family at the exotic soirees that Alfred indulged in.

The wedding breakfast, hosted by the mother of the bride, was held - much to the annoyance of the Rothschilds - at Lansdowne House, the palatial London home of the widowed Lord Rosebery, once the home of their beloved cousin, Hannah Rosebery. Alfred ensured that his daughter looked resplendent in magnificent jewellery that he had bought for the occasion. Needless to say, the gossip columns had a field day. Almina's marriage to Carnarvon gave both her and her mother the opportunity to revel in their new position in society. The marriage, however, was not a success. Her husband was a semi-invalid and the birth of a son, later the Sixth Earl, was marred by suggestions that he was the child of Prince Duleep Singh.

It was during the Great War that she came into her own. Her beautiful home was opened to wounded officers, a bedroom became an operating theatre, the library was turned into a day-room and another room became a dining area. The impressive grounds helped many a young man on his way to recovery. Almina developed a hands-on approach, even dressing wounds herself, and continued her social work by opening a new hospital in Bryanston Square. The grandson of Lord Tennyson, who was himself a patient, wrote in his autobiography how no attention was too much trouble, the nursing was wonderful and the food exquisite.

The Earl, meanwhile, preferred indulging himself than his wife. He was one of the earliest motoring enthusiasts, owning a car in France even before motorists were given the freedom of the road in England. But, after a serious motor accident in Germany, a decision was made that he would spend the winters in Egypt. He became a keen archaeologist and in 1908 began excavating at a site at Luxor, teaming up with the former inspector-in-chief of antiquities, a man called Howard Carter.

But it wasn't until they reached the Valley of The Kings in 1917 when things really took off. There, they received permission to look for the tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun.

On November 4, 1922, the persistent efforts of the two men paid off when a set of steps and a sealed doorway were discovered. A cable was immediately sent to the Earl's wife, who arrived in Luxor looking suitably ostentatious, with their glamorous daughter in tow.

Within a few days, they had found an entrance passage, blocked with rubble, which led to a second doorway bearing the seal of Tutankhamun. They then entered an anteroom filled with treasures and a sealed doorway leading to the burial chamber.

The discovery of the secret tomb was an international sensation, but the satirical magazine Punch called Lord Carnarvon "Sir Lazarus Schnorrers", Almina "Lady Schnorrer", and their daughter, Evelyn, the girl who put the Lux into Luxor. It was a sneering reminder to English society that it was ''foreign'' Rothschild money that had paid for this momentous discovery. The tomb was sealed but, in the midst of all the intense excitement, tragedy struck. While shaving, the Earl was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito and the bite turned septic.

He was transported to Cairo, but he died at the Continental Hotel on April 5, 1923. This event inevitably started theories that disturbing the contents of the tomb had enabled an ancient curse to come into force.

The marriage of the Carnarvons - aristocratic heir and illegitimate Jewish heiress - had not been a loving one and there had been many rumours regarding the couple's relationship.

It didn't surprise many that Almina, an attractive widow, married again within just a few months. She had known Lieutenant Colonel Ian Onslow Dennistoun for some time and nine months after the death of his first wife, Almina married again.

This one lasted for 15 years until Almina was widowed once more. Towards the end of this second marriage she appeared to be perpetually short of money, having spent most of the fortune that both Alfred de Rothschild and the Fifth Earl had left her, and was made bankrupt in 1951, pursued by creditors. Her only son, Henry, had little good to say about his mother and considered she had frittered away his inheritance.

Almina died in 1969 after choking on a chicken bone. Her greatest achievement was the contribution she made in nursing the sick. Her hospital at Highclere helped many back to health and she had continued this at Bryanston Square and at Portland Place up to the beginning of the Second World War.

Almina had managed to spend two fortunes and ended her days in an ordinary terraced house in Bristol after a tumultuous life. It is doubtful the family at Downton could ever have matched the original at Highclere.

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