When Downton Abbey premiered on PBS in 2011, it started with the sinking of the Titanic and ended with the U.K.'s entry into the Great War. Over the show's six seasons, the Crawleys were buffered by history, whether it was Edith's lover killed by the Nazi Beer-Hall Putsch to Matthew's fiancée Lavinia dying from Spanish flu. It's enough that fans are wondering, is the Downton Abbey movie based on real events? Please Be Advised: Spoilers for the Downton Abbey movie follow.
The Downton Abbey movie starts with a letter from Buckingham Palace. The King and Queen are coming to stay the night as part of their tour of Yorkshire. The King is George V, born under the rule of his grandmother, Victoria, who gained the throne in 1910 when his father, Edward VII, died. He was 45 when he became King and 62 in 1927. He passed away in 1936.
The film suggests that George and Mary are doing a tour of Yorkshire as a way to spread peace after "the General Strike," which George asks the Dowager Countess about during the luncheon before the parade. But that's not how it happened.
George and Mary did take a tour of Yorkshire, but it wasn't in 1927. It happened in 1912, in the months just after George took the throne. It is customary for the newly-crowned King (or Queen) to tour the country after first settling in. Both PBS' Victoria and Netflix's The Crown show their monarchs doing as much not long after the coronation.
When George and Mary toured Yorkshire, they did stay in castles like Downton Abbey. This tradition dates back centuries. Earls and Dukes were, after all, given these castles by the King for being loyal subjects, making those lords unable to refuse if the King decided to visit. Hundreds of years on, this tradition still stood.
But George and Mary did not stay in Downton's real-life counterpart, Highclere Castle. (It's not in Yorkshire.) The visit was to Wentworth Woodhouse, which is located not far from where the fictional Downton Abbey is supposed to be.
Though George and Mary did not tour Yorkshire in 1927, the "General Strike" that is mentioned was a real event, taking place in May of 1926. It did take quite a while for peace to return, so it is believable the King and Queen might have plans this exact sort of "see and be seen" event a year later.
Moreover, the King and Queen's problems touched upon in the film are also real. Princess Mary, their third oldest of six, married Henry Lascelles, 6th Earl of Harewood, in 1922. The 15-year age difference (she was 24 he was 39) and her shyness meant their marriage struggled.
Also, don't sleep on the subplot where George V wants to send Bertie with the Prince of York to Africa as a "steadying influence," who will "show him the benefits of family." That "Prince of York" is none other than the future Edward VIII, who was still not settled and married by the time he succeeded his father. As he ultimately abdicated the throne for Wallis Simpson, it turns out George was right to be worried after all.
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