Heritage and Englishness as depicted in "Downton Abbey"

Essay, 2016

14 Pages, Grade: A-




Downton Abbey as a microcosm representing the Kingdom itself

Upstairs vs Downstairs

A Sense of Nostalgia and Englishness

Fashion is the girl´s best friend (regardless of the period)

A Life Long Forgotten




Downton Abbey has become, without a doubt, one of the most popular series in the history of British television. Brought to life under the wings of ITV, it became a method of preserving history and national identity of Great Britain. By watching Downton, people not only spend some quality time entertaining themselves, they also learn about history of their own country and compare the life of the main characters with their own.

Downton Abbey is one of the latest examples of a screen genre that flourished mainly in 1980s and 1990s in Britain during the ´Thatcher´ years. The on-screen representation of the past became favourite way how to preserve history and “Britishness”. Thatcher´s National Heritage Acts of 1980 and 1983 became some kind of a catalyst for producing heritage films and series. For cultural critics the heritage genre was a means for government to create a great ´heritage industry´ that would push Britain under the spotlight of international audiences and help develop interest in Britain´s tourism.

Nowadays, the heritage films and dramas are easily recognisable. It all started with Jane Austen television adaptations by BBC. They portrayed aristocratic mansions and middle-class homes and examined privileged lives of those living in them. Merchant Ivory, Howards End and many more followed, showing precisely the same things. A heritage consumer industry was formed, that ´sold´ the past to audiences not only as an experience, but also as a product that could be bought and enjoyed.

The main purpose of the paper is to discuss the way how the series portraits the remains of a way of life that is no longer lived; the historical setting and characters, the relationship between aristocracy and servants and the impact of historical details that shaped the period and brought significant changes.

Downton Abbey as a microcosm representing the Kingdom itself

“Downton must be self-supporting if it´s to have a chance of survival”

(Season 3, Episode 7)

These were the words that Matthew Crawley addressed to Lord Grantham; they may as well be applied to England itself. The sentence was probably incorporated into the script to point out the parallels between the series and the kingdom. Just like Downton Abbey had been a great and powerful estate for several centuries, England had always been a glorious Kingdom having power over majority of the World. In the period, when the story is set, both Downton Abbey and England feel mismanaged, running out of money and needs to rely on help of others. In the case of Downton, the help comes in the form of Lady Cora and her fortune; she was one of the American heiresses (called also Buccaneers) who arrived to England in 1880s and 1890s in order to increase their social status in Europe and put their money into rescuing great houses in distress. The process of accepting young American women in European families started long before Edwardian era – during the so called “gilded age” of the Victorian era.1 The match between Cora and Robert was operated by Old Lord Grantham and the purpose was exactly the same, to gain fortune and prevent Downton Abbey from the fall in exchange for Cora and her future descendants to have a place in English aristocracy. 2 Victorian era had not been as “gilded” as people thought it to be and the effort of keeping the great nickname alive was only to maintain glory, power and reputation. What is more, there was a strong belief to keep the tradition only for tradition´s sake, because a change was said to be bad and not beneficial for aristocracy and the kingdom itself. 3 Both Downton and England were met with conflicts of ideals and values, which often brought only tension. That is what brought Downton into a war with itself and England at war with the rest of the world.4 All that used to work is no longer sufficient, although changes without thinking things through often lead characters into hurried decisions. On the other hand, changes are sometimes inevitable and risks must be taken into consideration in order to benefit from them. A great example is Sybil´s determination in early feministic ideas; she wants to join women´s suffrage movement without thinking about what would her family say.

Edwardian issues are well incorporated into the story of Downton Abbey; its plot corresponds with events of the period and viewers can sense the changes that may happen not only to characters and their relationships, but also to England and its society. Moreover, the developed nature of Downton´s characters allow viewers to educate themselves and speculate about what it would be like to be in a role of either aristocrats or servants. They can compare different roles of servants, spot highlights of their professions or, on the other hand, question the downsides. As for education, several historical events have been pointed out during the story; in the very first episode we learn about the unfortunate sinking of Titanic, Lady Sybil introduces us into the world of suffrage movement and Branson tells the story about the Irish revolt.

Throughout the story of the series, the newest technology advancements of Edwardian era are introduced as they appear at the Abbey. Servants very often had 16-hour workdays as the workload began to increase, so any help that could shorten servant´s workday would be very welcome. The era saw the arrival of several advancements and gadgets, for example laundry machines, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, or central heating.5 Of course, there were some resisting and dedicated Edwardians who refused using such machines because they feared that they would become helpless if they suddenly stopped working. A good example from the series is Mrs. Patmore, an Abbey´s cook, who would have much harder time finding new job than her younger co-workers.

The mirror imagery use is quite impressive and supports the microcosm created in the series. Carson the butler and Mrs. Hughes may be seen to mirror actions of Lord and Lady Grantham, in some cases even complementing each other. Although Lord Grantham is the head of the Abbey, Carson takes care of running of the mansion. Similar can be applied for the Lady and the head maid; Cora provides the social life happening in the family, Mrs. Hughes, on the other hand, takes care of all the guests visiting Downton very often. This aspect can be viewed on a whole other level – Lord and Lady Grantham represent two sides of English aristocracy; Robert stands in a place of the more traditional moral nobleman whose views on change can be a bit careful and Cora symbolizes the modernity, novelty and future changes in society. The microcosm could not function without them, they are of equal importance despite the differences. One could argue that the relation between the aristocracy and their servants is not much of an importance, but both groups have a solid place in the social “food chain” of the Edwardian society and cannot function without each other.6

Upstairs vs Downstairs

JOE: “But what will happen when you retire?”

Mrs. HUGHES: “I should think I´ll stay here. They´ll look after me.”

(Series 1, Episode 4)

Movies and TV series such as Downton Abbey have increased the interest in lives of servants and their relation to employers. Domestic Service in Britain was the biggest employer during Victorian and Edwardian eras and the series show how life of servants looked like and how it evolved during a certain period of time.

In 1901 a vast majority of lower-class population was employed in Domestic Service. Several aristocrats owning huge estates could afford a large team of servants working for them day and night. Dr Lucy Delap, director of studies in history at St Catherine´s College, Cambridge explains, that there was a certain kind of hierarchy not only in the relation between servant and employer, but also between individual servants:

“The senior servants had a great deal of power, so the butler for example in some households would put down the knife and fork, and everyone else had to fit in whether you had finished or not. So servants had to learn to be fast eaters.” 7

It occurred in some households that at the mealtime, there would be an order to come and eat and even rules dictating where a certain servant should sit according to his/her rank. For instance, the cook and his/her helpers were able to eat in the kitchen, as seen on the example of Mrs. Patmore and kitchen maid Daisy.

Uniforms were another form of rank representation. While in 18th and 19th century, servants were able to dress more individually, 20th century brought uniforms which were used to disguise personal identities of servants. Often, the uniforms symbolized the task servants were intended to do; kitchen maids would wear head pieces to cover their hair and large aprons to protect their uniforms from staining while cooking and butlers were obliged to wear tuxedos or dinner jackets to represent the households because they were the ones coming into contact with not only the family, but also guests.

Generally, the life of servants was harsh and unbearable in many aspects; they were often met with disinterest from the side of their employers who saw them only as a means of keeping the household running. Their wages were minimalistic and what is more, they did not belong to the part of society granted with retirement income or saving schemes. It all changed when the newly elected Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George was elected. With the passing of the National Insurance Act in 1911 workers not only from the Domestic Service area, but also workhouses and factories were covered in cases of sickness, injury or invalidity. However, the money for insurance of workers was raised from taxes on land, tobacco or alcohol, which was the agenda of aristocracy and their business. Intense discussions on the question of worker´s insurance resulted in a great political divide between the working class represented by Lloyd George and aristocracy represented by lords in House of Lords.

The quarrel often resulted in aristocracy re-thinking their positions towards the servants, because they felt offended by the suspicion that they do not care properly about their staff. Gradually, servants who were about to retire were often given a pension to secure their further life off the estate, or some long-term servants were given cottage houses as a form of accommodation after the retirement. Some of them took the opportunity to make money even after their retirement and turn their cottage houses into “Bed and Breakfast” hotels which were more than often run by former butlers who married their housemaid colleagues.

Other employers offered some kind of saving system for their employers; part of their income would be saved safely in the hand of the employer to secure the interest of the servant.8

Several social reforms took place around the start of First World War, which destroyed the barriers that kept people from different classes separate from each other. It also blurred the differences between worlds “upstairs” and “downstairs”. In real life, the consequences started to be more and more visible; houses were rebuilt in order to break barriers between aristocrats and servants:

“For the better welfare of the children, there is no nursery, and, for the better welfare of the servants, there are no servants´ quarters.” 9

Suddenly, the family found themselves eating together with their staff in the kitchen, which at times felt awkward and this practice was gradually abandoned. The barriers might not have been ready to remove at once, but there was, for sure, willingness to do so. A great example of changing situation in the relationship between aristocrats and servants can be seen at the very last episode of Downton Abbey, where Ana, the maid of Lady Mary, is about to give birth to her baby; it all happens in Mary´s room and to Ana´s great surprise, Mary is willing to help her in labour and helps her to undress.


1 Downton Abbey and the Herritage Inndustry: https://overland.org.au/2013/04/downton-abbey-and-the-heritage-industry/ . Accessed 06 May 2016.

2 Aslet, Clive. The Edwardian Country House: A Social and Architectural History. Frances Lincoln, 2012. Print.

3 Hynes, Samuel Lynn. The Edwardian Turn of Mind. Random House United Kingdom, 1992. Print

4 Barber, Richard. “Downton at War! Britain´s Favourite Dram Is Back… and the Bloody Battles Aren´t Confined to the Trenches.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 05 Aug. 2011. Accessed 07 May 2016.

5 Aslet, Clive. The Edwardian Country House: A Social and Architectural History. Frances Lincoln, 2012. Print.

6 Ibid

7 “The Real Downton Abbey” Servants: The True Story Of Life Below Stairs 1/3 BBC Documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7h-sNcwUSHk . Accessed 11 May 2016.

8 Fellowes, Jessica. The World of Downton Abbey - The Rivalry and Romance revealed. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011. Print.

9 Aslet, Clive. The Edwardian Country House: A Social and Architectural History. Frances Lincoln, 2012. Print

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Heritage and Englishness as depicted in "Downton Abbey"
University of Leipzig  (Anglistik)
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Downton Abbey, Edwardian Era, Literature, Englishness, TV Series
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Bc. Lenka Šerešová (Author), 2016, Heritage and Englishness as depicted in "Downton Abbey", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/338677


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