Tuesday, July 30, 2013

When Home Really is a Castle: "Secrets of..." England's Manor Houses

In August 2013, Rhode Island PBS presents the five-part "Secrets of..." series, a look inside four of the most beautiful manor houses in the English countryside, as well as the occupants of these magnificent houses.

Secrets of Chatsworth - August 8 at 8 p.m. and August 22 at 9 p.m.

Over five centuries, Chatsworth Estate has been passed down through 16 generations of the Cavendish family and is presently the home of the current 12th Duke of Devonshire and his family. We discover the stories throughout its 500 years that have shaped the history of Chatsworth into the acclaimed and distinguished house it has become today. So rich are some of the tales, they have even caught the imagination of Hollywood: The Duchess was the story of Lady Georgiana Spencer and her ill-fated marriage to the the 5th Duke. Although their marriage was a great dynastic match, their personalities were entirely unsuited and they lived together with Lady Elizabeth Foster, Georgiana's close friend in a ménage à trois.

Chatsworth even links to American President John F. Kennedy, who came to visit his sister Kathleen Kennedy after she was tragically killed in a plane crash and buried on the grounds of Chatsworth. Kathleen was married to Billy Cavendish, son and heir to the 10th Duke of Devonshire.

So how does it really feel to live and work in such an opulent house with so much colorful history? Viewers take a look behind the doors of the house and stroll around the vast gardens and estate, talking to the Duke and Duchess to find out the real truth behind Chatsworth.

Secrets of Henry VIII's Palace
- August 15 at 8 p.m.

Hampton Court is the ultimate royal pleasure palace — embodying the indulgent and grandiose kingship built by Cardinal Wolsey and developed by Henry VIII. Through its rooms, chart King Henry VIII’s decline from fit young warrior to bloated womanizer and recall the vivid stories of the ladies who became his queens.

Learn how William and Mary demolished half of the Tudor palace to replace it with an exquisite baroque structure, making Hampton Court one of the most unusual palaces in the world. Go beneath the brick and stone of this true pleasure palace and now thriving tourist location to uncover an abundance of art and stories that bring Hampton Court alive.

Secrets of Althorp: The Spencers
 - August 22 at 8 p.m.
Althorp, childhood home and final resting place of Princess Diana, is currently the home of Diana’s brother, Charles, the 9th Earl Spencer. Nineteen generations of Spencers have presided over this grand estate for more than 500 years. The Spencer dynasty has produced politicians, military heroes, dukes and duchesses and will one day furnish Britain with a king: Diana’s son, Prince William. Noted for their generosity, the Spencers once came to the rescue of a distant cousin fallen on hard times: the great-great-great-grandfather of George Washington.

Althorp House has hosted some of the kingdom’s most distinguished guests, and its rooms have witnessed scenes of great celebration, the first earl’s secret wedding to his sweetheart and most recently, the marriage of the current earl, who takes viewers on a personal tour around the noble manor that’s first of all his family home.

Secrets of Highclere Castle
- August 29 at 8 p.m.

Famous as the location backdrop to the hugely-popular costume drama Downton Abbey, the castle also has its own extraordinary tales to tell.

For centuries it has been the real-life home of the aristocratic Carnarvon family, and has entertained Kings and Queens of England along with a host of nobilities and celebrities. An ancestor of the modern-day Lord and Lady Carnarvon bankrolled the expeditions that discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen, which explains one of this stately home’s astonishing secrets. Hidden within secret compartments in its wall are centuries-old Egyptian relics, while in the basement are replicas of the contents of the tomb itself: a slice of Egyptian history transported to the depths of the English countryside.

The show explores Highclere’s illustrious history and reveals that truth can often be stranger than fiction. Many of the events played-out in the fictional Downton Abbey are based-upon true tales from Highclere’s past. Just like its television counterpart, the castle was, for example, a military hospital that played a vital role in the First World War. The hospital, complete with operating theater, was set-up and run by the fabulously wealthy Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, who traded the trappings of her comfortable aristocratic life for the chance to nurse wounded officers brought home from the battlefront.

In the early years of the 20th Century,English aristocrats owned more than half of the land in the country, and the phrase ‘nothing exceeds like excess’ was coined to describe their lifestyles. It was a world of luxury and indolence for a wealthy few, supported by an army of servants toiling ceaselessly "below stairs" to make the privileged lives of their Lords and Ladies run as smoothly as possible.

And Highclere was no exception. It was deemed, the social epicenter of Edwardian England, and even hosted HRH The Prince of Wales, the future King of England, for the most extravagant shooting party in Highclere’s history. The bill came to a staggering thirty thousand dollars just to feed the guests.

Unsurprisingly, such highlife took its toll on the pockets of the aristocrats. Owners of British manor houses were “land rich,” but “cash poor,” and many sought out rich wives as a means of improving their financial fortunes. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon earned new money for the estate through his marriage to a teenage heiress named Almina Wombwell, the illegitimate daughter of banking giant Alfred De Rothschild. She gained a title and access to High Society: he gained access to her fabulous wealth.

Even so, the social and political changes that followed the end of the war in 1918 were to spell ruin for many British country estates. Huge increases in income tax and death duties meant that many families were forced to sell homes that had stood proud for centuries. For British aristocracy it was the end of life as they knew it. Great country estates fell into ruin and many were demolished. Life at Highclere changed forever – but the house withstood it all.

Today, the castle remains the family home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon. At around a million dollars a year in upkeep, the life of the English nobility is no longer one of extravagant parties and opulence. Secrets of Highclere Castle gives a privileged, behind-the-scenes taste of what it is like to be a modern-day Lord and Lady living in a home with 1,300 years of English history.

Secrets of the Manor House - August 29 at 9 p.m.
Exactly 100 years ago, the world of the British manor house was at its height. It was a life of luxury and indolence for a wealthy few supported by the labor of hundreds of servants toiling ceaselessly "below stairs" to make the lives of their lords and ladies run as smoothly as possible. It is a world that has provided a majestic backdrop to a range of movies and popular costume dramas to this day, including PBS' Downton Abbey.

But what was really going on behind these stately walls? Secrets of the Manor House looks beyond the fiction to the truth of what life was like in these British houses of yesteryear. They were communities where two separate worlds existed side by side: the poor worked as domestic servants, while the nation’s wealthiest families enjoyed a lifestyle of luxury, and aristocrats ruled over their servants as they had done for a thousand years.

The program talks to present-day British lords and ladies and to the descendants of those who lived and worked in manor houses across the country. A series of expert historians explain the true picture of how life was lived within the walls of these stately homes that had changed very little for centuries. It explains the hierarchy of the British establishment: led by the king with a supporting cast of dukes, earls and barons, each keenly aware of his or her place. It visits modern manor houses, where aristocratic families sometimes still rule over scores of servants, in homes with 100 and more bedrooms, and where the lord still enjoys a luxurious life of hunting, shooting and fishing among the beauty of rural Britain. And it details the true hardship of life as a "downstairs" servant: maids would carry 45 gallons of hot water along hidden servants’ passageways to fill one aristocratic lady’s bath, and a housemaid’s day would start before dawn and last for 17 hours as she scrubbed floors, cleaned grates and carried coal — all for a wage of $15 a year.

But, precisely a century ago, a perfect storm of financial hardship and political and social change was threatening to engulf this traditional British way of life. Some impoverished British aristocrats married wealthy American heiresses to prop up and sustain their fading manor houses; the working classes were finding a voice and demanding both political power and better jobs; and the terrible disaster of World War I was looming in the wings. When war came, nothing in the life of the British manor house was ever the same again.