Houseguests are never easy—and if they’re royal it certainly doesn’t help. In the new Downton Abbey movie, a visit from the royal family upends the Crawley household. But how much of it is historically accurate? Author and royal expert Marlene Koenig tells T&C that there was a real-life visit in 1912 with King George V and Queen Mary that inspired the plot point, though the film added significant cinematic flair. For those pondering a visit from the monarchy in 2019, Alastair Bruce of Crionaich, who has served as an extra equerry (an officer of honor) to Prince Edward—and was a historical advisor to the creators of Downton Abbey—prepped T&C on modern guidelines.
Here's what really happens when the royal family visits:
The Invitation: How do you know if you’ve been selected?
In the movie: The Crawley family are surprised to be informed that they will be hosting the royal family, whom they have met but do not know well.
Historically: Such a surprise would be very unlikely. “The king and queen were more likely to visit people they knew, rather than ‘drop in,’” says Koenig.
Today: According to Bruce, if the royal family asks someone to host, it is likely because he or she is a Lord Lieutenant, which is someone who was appointed as the crown’s personal representative in the county, and the royal family will be attending events nearby. The host will be contacted a few months in advance.
The Visit: How long will they stay?
In the movie: King George V and Queen Mary stay at Downton Abbey for two nights.
Historically: In June 1912, the King and Queen visited Wentworth Woodhouse, a real-life equivalent of Downton Abbey for four nights. “According to King George V’s official biographer, Harold Nicolson, the king ‘always considered it essential that the Sovereign should travel through the country and should show himself to those subjects who could but rarely witness the great pageants of London,’” notes Koenig. After all this was a new century, one in which monarchs were no longer essential, as the French Revolution and impending Russian revolution made brutally apparent. Scheduling routine visits from the king and queen was a savvy PR move.
Today: Two nights is enough for modern mansions. “Lord Lieutenants are less aristocratic than they used to be,” Bruce says, “so they typically don’t have massive estates.” In most cases the royal family will stay one night, sometimes two, to avoid wearing out their welcome.
The Entourage: Who should you expect?
In the movie: The King and Queen's staff takes over Downton Abbey, bringing along a butler, a housekeepers, maids and valets—and a chef, much to Mrs. Patmore’s chagrin. The Queen also travels with a lady-in-waiting, an official appointment made to aristocrats.
Historically: Here, the movie is not exaggerating. When Queen Mary went to live with her niece, the Duchess of Beaufort, during World War II, she brought most of her 60-person staff from Marlborough House. According to Koenig, Queen Mary described her arrival in her diary as “quite a fleet.”
Today: Royals don’t typically travel alone; they are accompanied by an equerry and/or lady-in-waiting, a bodyguard, a secretary, and a security detail, at minimum. “Historically, royal household members were aristocrats, so they should be invited to dinner and stay at the house,” Bruce says. “Others, like the valet and the secretary, can eat with the house staff and stay offsite.” The queen does not travel much, but when she does, her retinue is larger and includes, of course, the official state Bentley.
The Schedule: What do you do with the royal family?
In the movie: It’s a jam-packed itinerary. Lady Mary brings Carson out of retirement to prepare for a royal luncheon, a parade, and an epic ball.
Historically: A little less glamorous, but equally busy. During King George and Queen Mary’s visit in Yorkshire, they toured local sights, visited a nearby mine, had lunch and tea with other local aristocrats and were given a private performance by ballerina Anna Pavlova.
Today: As the royals travel frequently and only stay two days in one area, they have a set routine down. During the day, they attend the events and likely won’t be with the host. In the evening, there is generally one public, more inclusive dinner, and one intimate dinner. In the morning, expect to hear helicopters arriving to take the family to their next appointment. But no need to rush—the equerry and personal protection officers will gather the luggage while everyone finishes breakfast.
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