TV & Movies

Real royal visit that inspired Downton Abbey movie – and it was just as dramatic

As a full orchestra plays in the background, King George V and Queen Mary step on to the ornate dancefloor at a ball hosted by the Earl and Countess of Grantham to welcome the royal party to Yorkshire.

Earlier, the Downton butler, cook and housekeeper had set frantic servants scurrying with last-minute orders for the grand house party, which included Mary Princess Royal and husband Henry.

In more than 40 bedrooms, ladies’ maids had unpacked the gowns and tiaras their mistresses would wear in a series of sumptuous dinners.

Downton Abbey fans will pack into cinemas this weekend to see the fictional Crawleys host the King and Queen in the long-awaited movie, set in 1927. But, we have uncovered fascinating pictures showing how the movie plot was inspired by a real royal visit to an aristocrat’s home, Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, in July, 1912.


George and Mary’s stay with Earl and Countess Fitzwilliam was as colourful and dramatic as any Julian Fellowes script. For amid the splendour, the royals were caught up in a shocking colliery tragedy that claimed the lives of 91 men and left 62 women widowed and 132 children fatherless.

Downton stars learned the heartrending story when they visited Wentworth to film the glittering ball scene, with 150 extras, in the Marble Saloon.

There, in 1912, the real royal party were entertained by Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, following a 13-course dinner served by more than 20 footmen.

Wentworth archivist David Allott says: “It must have been an incredible sight, the house full of roses and chrysanthemums grown in its famous greenhouses.

“The 7th Earl and Countess Fitzwilliam, Billy and Maud, had just a month’s notice to prepare for a four-day visit by 34 guests and their maids, valets and chauffeurs. They had to find bedroom space for 75 people in their modernised home with its new-fangled electric lights and central heating.

“But they pulled out all the stops and it was a glittering affair which, I’m sure, the Downton film will reflect.”

In the film plot, the Earl and Countess of Grantham host dinner at Downton Abbey, with the staff we have grown to know and love decked out in their finest livery.

The fictional ball is held at a neighbour’s stately home, with a full orchestra playing as the King, played by Simon Jones, Queen (Geraldine James) and Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) and Henry (Andrew Havill) lead tiara-wearing ladies and tail-coated gents on to the dance floor.

David says: “It certainly reflects the glamour and grandeur of the occasion.

“But Downton viewers may be unaware that the real purpose of the 1912 visit was for the King to show his common touch – to be seen meeting his people to understand the lot of the working man.”

In March 1912, one million miners had joined the first ever national coal strike to secure a minimum wage.

The Archbishop of York, Cosmo Gordon Lang, urged King George to visit the North to connect with his people. The cleric later wrote: “I urged the importance of his coming into contact with the masses.” And Billy Fitzwilliam seemed the perfect host as his estate employed 115,000 miners in scores of collieries.

Plans were made for the King to go down a pit and the Queen to get a tour on a trolley car pushed by four miners.

But, David explains: “Even as they set off on the royal train from King’s Cross they were unsure what sort of reception they would get.” But they were delighted when the route from the station to Wentworth was decked with bunting and lined with tens of thousands of cheering locals, a scene also depicted in the Downton movie.

At Wentworth, staff unloaded trunks from horse-drawn carriages, but as the film is set 15 years later, the royal luggage is transported in cars.

The royals inspected a march-past by army reservists from the terrace at Wentworth, as Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) does in the film, alongside the Queen and Princess Mary.


After dining on caviar, duck, filet of beef and a strawberry dessert covered in spun sugar, the royals retired early at Wentworth after their long journey.

As they slept, disaster struck at nearby Cadeby Colliery. At 4am, an explosion underground killed 35 men and fatally injured three others. When rescuers went to retrieve the bodies, a second explosion killed 53 men.

News of the disaster was broken to the King and Queen at breakfast.

David says: “That evening, the King and Queen went to Cadeby in their own time.” Thousands had gathered on the hill above the pit and as the royals drove past the women curtsied.

Reports from the time – including in the Daily Mirror – expressed amazement that the royals shook the dirty hands of miners who had been recovering the bodies and that the Queen left the pit office in tears.


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