Years after its final episode, Downton Abbey continues to captivate TV fans and history buffs alike for its panoramic depiction of early twentieth-century England. The period drama remains the most popular series in the history of British television, with more than 120 million viewers worldwide. The show spawned a movie in 2019, which grossed nearly $200 million, and a follow-up film is slated for release in US theaters in May of 2022.
Downton Abbey follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and the servants at their Yorkshire estate from 1912 to 1925. Although many of the show’s events are fabricated, the series often aims to depict a realistic portrayal of the dawning of the modern era. In doing so, it touches on some of the most famous moments in twentieth-century history.
7 The Sinking of the Titanic
The pilot episode of Downton Abbey begins with the delivery of a telegram and with it the news that the world’s largest ship, the RMS Titanic, has sunk. Both the upstairs and downstairs characters respond with shock and grief to the loss of more than 1,500 lives in one of the worst disasters in maritime history.
Since the luxury liner carried some of the wealthiest people in the world (a first-class ticket cost up to $2,560 — roughly $72,000 in 2022), the disaster greatly affected the British aristocracy, including the Crawley family. James Crawley, Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) cousin and heir to the entire Downton Abbey estate, was onboard the liner. The question of who will inherit Downton Abbey propels the show’s first season.
6 World War One
The first season of Downton Abbey starts with a telegram delivering history-shattering news, and it ends similarly. Rumors of a looming war in Europe begin to stir among the characters after Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated. Lord Grantham receives a hand-delivered telegram announcing that Great Britain has declared war on Germany at a garden party. The date is August 4, 1914.
Season 2 begins with a title card reading “The Somme, 1916.” The Somme was one of the most significant battles in WWI — on that day alone, more than one million troops were killed, including nearly 125,000 British men. Matthew Crawley is depicted fighting on the Western Front. Many British aristocrats served during the war, including future King Edward VIII. Back at the Abbey, altruistic Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) convinces Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) to turn the estate into a convalescent home. During WWI, many country houses did open their doors to wounded soldiers.
5 The Spanish Flu
The penultimate episode of Downton’s second season centers around the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic, which infected more than 500 million people (one-third of the world’s population at the time) and took more than 50 million lives. It’s no stretch, then, that several of the characters become gravely ill, including the Crawley matriarch Cora and Matthew’s fiance, Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle).
Cora is at death’s door, but Lavinia’s illness seems minor, and she is calm and coherent as she discusses her future with Matthew. In a matter of hours, Cora recovers, but Lavinia takes a turn for the worse and succumbs to the disease. The show accurately depicts the surprising speed with which the Spanish Flu claimed its victims. It also makes sense that Cora survived the virus while Lavinia didn’t. Mortality was highest in healthy young people, with the median age of death being in the mid-twenties.
4 Married Love by Marie Stopes
Marie Stopes and her bestselling book Married Love are mentioned several times throughout the series, but it is never made explicit who exactly Stopes is and why she matters to the women of Downton. Married Love is first mentioned in season 4, episode 4, when Mrs. Hughes (Elsie Carson) says that Edna Braithwaite (Myanna Burring) cannot be pregnant because she owns a copy of the book. It is brought up again in season 5, when Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) asks her maid Anna (Joanne Froggat), to use the book to help her prevent an “unwanted epilogue” from her affair with Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen).
It doesn’t take too many detective skills to determine that Married Love pertains to contraception. Marie Stopes (1880 – 1958) was a campaigner for women’s rights who founded the first birth control clinic in Britain. Married Love, which she published in 1918, was one of the first books to discuss family planning openly. Although Lady Mary gives Anna a copy of the book to Anna in order for her to procure birth control, this is anachronistic. It wasn’t until Stopes’ second book, Wise Parenthood (1922), she openly discussed contraception methods, including cervical caps — presumably the device that Anna buys for Lady Mary.
3 The Teapot Dome Scandal
Season 4, Episode 7 begins with news that Cora’s playboy brother, Harold (Paul Giamatti), has gotten himself in hot water and wants Robert to travel to America to help bail him out. Few details of the incident are given, apart from Cora saying it involves “a Senator Fall.”
The affair in question is the Teapot Dome Scandal, which took place from 1921 to 1923. The Secretary of the Interior, Albert Bacon Fall, was bribed into leasing Navy oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, to private oil companies. This led to Senate investigations, criminal convictions, and Fall’s eventual imprisonment. The Teapot Dome Scandal is considered one of the most sensational scandals in the history of American political scandals, so it’s no wonder why Downton Abbey would include it in the show.
2 The Beer Hall Putsch
The disappearance of Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) beau, Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), is one of the most heart-breaking plotlines of the series. After traveling to Germany as part of a plan to Marry Edith, Gregson vanishes into thin air. Eventually, Edith receives news via Robert that he was involved in an altercation with “a group of thugs … who wear brown shirts and go around bullying people.” In season 5, episode 6, a telegram arrives at the Abbey, revealing Gregson’s fate.
The “Brownshirts,” as they are known colloquially, are Sturmabteilung — the first Nazis. The event that killed Gregson is known as the Beer Hall Putsch. On November 8, 1923, Hitler and a group of Brownshirts forced their way into a political meeting at a beer hall in Munich, attempting to stage a coup. Although the coup failed, 16 people were killed, and Hitler, who was mostly unknown at the time, made front-page headlines. Hitler went to prison, but the press he received from the Beer Hall Putsch helped him gain power upon his release.
1 The King’s First Speech on the Radio
Throughout Downton Abbey, characters are mystified by the advent of technologies that we now take for granted — the telephone, refrigerator, and hairdryer, to name a few. But perhaps the most captivating invention of all comes in the form of the radio, which the curmudgeonly Robert refuses to buy: “That people should waste hours huddled around a wooden book while listening to someone talking at them, burbling inanities from somewhere else… It’s a fad. It won’t last!”
Ultimately, Robert’s love of the monarchy makes him cave when he learns that King George V will be making a broadcast. The whole family and staff gather around a rented radio to listen to the king’s speech. The king did make his first radio broadcast on April 23, 1924, to open the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. Around 10 million people tuned in to hear the king’s voice for the very first time.
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