Last Updated on June 7, 2023
The “Downton Abbey” movie makes for a lovely trip to 1927 England to visit the Crawley family. The official trailer (below) has the tagline of “Welcome to a new era. We’ve been expecting you.” That got us thinking about how much things changed over the course of the series’ six seasons, and what might be ahead for everyone above, and below-stairs at Downton.
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“Downton Abbey” followed the Crawley family and their servants from 1912 through 1925. While the majority of the stories were fabricated, the period drama did touch on multiple real-life events and historical facts to help bring the characters to life. The upcoming movie will likely do the same.
We thought it would be fun (in a nerdy kind of way), to look at some of these real events from the series. Then we make some history-based guesses at what we may see in the plot of the “Downton Abbey” movie, followed by the official trailer for the film.
This walk through history should be a good refresher if you haven’t watched the series since the finale.
History and Season 1
You’ll likely recall that “Downton Abbey” begins with Lord Grantham receiving news of the sinking of the Titanic, and with it the deaths of his heir, James, and James’s son, Patrick. The episode ends with their memorial service three months later, sometime in July 1912. Their deaths bring into question the inheritance, as well as who eldest daughter, Mary, will wed. Solicitor, Matthew, is introduced as next in line and as a romantic foible for Mary.
The history? The Titanic, one of the largest ships in the world, was declared to be unsinkable. However, in the early hours of April 15, 1912, the ship struck an iceberg and within three hours had sunk in the north-Atlantic ocean. Of the 2,224 passengers and crew on board, over 1,500 died. Those who died included millionaire John Jacob Astor IV; co-owner of Macy’s Isidor Straus; Benjamin Guggenheim; and architect of the Titanic, Thomas Andrews.
Remember the character Kemal Pamuk? Here’s how he fits in to real world events. In 1912 the First Balkan War took place between the Balkan League (Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro) and the Ottoman Empire. The Balkan League beat the Ottomans in multiple fronts, and the Ottoman Empire lost nearly all of its territory across Europe. The armistice of the First Balkan War took place on December 3, 1912, with a peace conference in London culminating in a signed peace treaty on May 30, 1913. (A Second Balkan War took place in 1913, with another peace treaty being signed in August.)
The Downton connection? One of the characters in London for the peace conference is Kemal Pamuk. Pamuk visits Downton Abbey with Evelyn Napier, has a very brief fling with Lady Mary, and ultimately dies in her bed. Pamuk’s death has repercussions for Mary and her family, but also for Bates and other characters who learn about the scandal later on.
In episode six, Lady Sybil is becoming more political, becoming interested in equality for women and the poorer classes. At the beginning of the episode, Emily Davison is briefly mentioned. Davison was a real person, a suffragette who was working for women’s right to vote. At the 1913 Epsom Derby, she walked onto the race course and was hit by the horse of King George V; she died four days later.
Season one ends with the start of World War One, in August 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, part of Young Bosnia, a group trying to end Austro-Hungarian rule over Bosnia and Herzegovina. When he was arrested, Princip implicated the Black Hand, causing Austria-Hungary to offer an ultimatum to Serbia, eventually invading Serbia, setting off a chain of alliances, leading to the outbreak of the First World War. The episode ends with a Lord Grantham reading a telegram announcing the outbreak of war; Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914.
History and Season 2
In 1916, The Military Service Act had gone into effect which introduced conscription into the British military for the first time. The Act specified men aged 18 to 41 could be eligible – this affects William Mason, Molesley, and Tom Branson. Season two opens with a title card reading “The Somme, 1916.” The Somme, the largest battle on the Western Front during the First World War. On just the first day of the Somme, almost 20,000 British men were killed; over three million men fought in the battle and there were one million deaths and casualties.
In a later season we also hear about the 1916 Battle of Jutland, when we learn that Charles Blake and Anthony Foyle served together there.
In episode three of season two, Lavinia Swire, Matthew’s fiance, admits to starting the Marconi Scandal, having stolen papers from her uncle for Richard Carlisle. The Marconi Scandal occurred in the summer of 1912 and implicated members of Asquith’s government of insider trading of shares in Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company.
Also mentioned in this episode is the 1916 Easter Rising, an armed rebellion in Ireland, launched to end British rule and create an independent Irish Republic, taking advantage of England’s involvement in WWI. However, the British were able to suppress the uprising, with unconditional surrender occurring on April 29. Approximately 3,500 people were taken prisoner by the British, many who weren’t even involved, and 1,800 were sent to internment camps or prisons in England. The leaders of the Rising were executed and 485 people had been killed.
In episode five, a title card reads “Amiens, 1918.” Eventually the Battle of Amiens (August 8-12, 1918) would be known as the Hundred Days Offensive and is credited with leading to the end of the First World War. It was one of the first major battles to include tanks and ended the use of trench warfare, allowing the fighting to be mobile once again. Later in the episode, Branson mentions the killings of “the Tsar and all of his family” which had occurred on July 17, 1918. The Romanovs (Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei) and some of their friends and servants, were killed by Bolsheviks under the orders of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, following the February Revolution.
Episode six covers, roughly, September-November 11, 1918. During this time period the battle of Vittorio Veneto occurred, from October 24-November 3. It’s in this battle that we learn Major Charles Bryant, the father of Ethel’s son, was killed. At Vittorio Veneto, Italian forces won, marking the end of fighting in Italy. It’s also at this battle in which the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was secured. Some view Vittorio Veneto as the last piece in the movement for Italian unification, as well.
Within this episode we also meet the burn victim claiming to be cousin Patrick – the cousin that drowned on the Titanic at the beginning of the show. The episode ends with Armistice Day, the end of fighting in the war, on November 11, at 11:11 am.
The sixth episode also covers the period in which the Spanish Flu arrives in London. Between October 27 and November 2, 2,200 deaths occur in London alone, attributed to the Spanish Flu. The Flu does not hit Downton until the following April, episode eight, affecting Cora, Lavinia, Carson, Molseley, and other staff. In the UK, approximately 250,000 people die from the Spanish Flu.
History and Season 3
Remember when we find out that Robert had invested a large part of Cora’s money in the Grand Trunk Railway, causing huge financial repercussions? In March 1919, the Canadian Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad, owned by the Grand Trunk Railway, an English company, was nationalized after it had defaulted on its loan payments. Sorry Cora.
In episode four, Robert mentions Tennessee ratifying the 19th amendment, which occurred in August of 1920, allowing women the vote. It’s at this time that Edith mentions not having the vote. This is a reference to the Representation of the People Act from February 1918. This Act opened up parliamentary voting to men 21 and over regardless of property status, and women 30 and over who opened property or whose husbands did, and local government voting to men and women 21 and over.
It’s also in this episode that Branson goes on the run after a castle in Ireland is burned down. The reason? In the summer of 1920 there was an abundance of conflicts over Ireland’s Independence from Britain. There were 18 deaths in Derry, a British colonel was assassinated by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in Cork, loyalists forced over 7,000 workers from their jobs, riots broke out resulting in many more deaths, and a detective was killed by the IRA.
At the end of season three we are introduced to the Scottish home of Lady Rose MacClare and her parents, the Marquess and Marchioness of Flintshire (Shrimpie and Susan). Rose’s parents are off to India, which was trying to gain its independence from England. Mohandas Gandhi assumed leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921 and began advocating ways of achieving Indian self rule.
History and Season 4
Season four introduces us to Cora’s brother, Harold, and his scandalous ways. In episode seven, in July 1922, Robert travels to America to help out his brother-in-law, who is implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal. In April, US Senator John B. Kendrick had called for the investigation of a land deal in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, regarding petroleum reserves. There were accusations of bribery and land deals being made in private. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was convicted of accepting bribes from the oil companies and became the first cabinet member to go to prison, and the scandal severely damaged President Harding’s reputation.
Harold is mentioned in the next episode as well. While discussing Prohibition, which banned alcohol in the United States and went into effect in 1920, Robert comments that Harold has his uses, implying that Harold supplies bootleg alcohol.
Season four ends with Rose’s coming out ball. Intrigue surrounding the Prince of Wales and Freda Dudley Ward, (and a letter that has fallen into the wrong hands), runs throughout the episode. The reason for the intrigue? Freda Dudley Ward was the married mistress of the Prince at this time.
History and Season 5
Throughout the second half of season four, Michael Gregson, Lady Edith’s lover, had been in Germany, attempting to gain citizenship in order to divorce his wife and marry Edith. In the first episode of season five, Edith is distraught because she hasn’t heard from him in months.
Throughout the season are hints about what happened to Gregson. He went missing after a fight with some Brownshirts or Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary part of the Nazi Party that played a key role in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the 1920s and 30s, and died in the Beer-Hall Putsch, Hitler’s failed attempt to seize power in November 1923. On April 1, 1924, Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison for this attempt.
In episode two, upset over Miss Bunting being in the house, Robert compares her to Rosa Luxemburg. Rose asks who that is and Cora briefly says. Luxemburg was a Polish Marxist and Social Democrat who became a German citizen and was a Social Democrat and Communist there. She and Karl Liebknecht co-founded the Spartacus League. Luxemburg considered their January 1919 uprising to have been a bad move, but she was captured by a paramilitary group after the uprising, executed, and her body was thrown in a canal. She was considered a Communist martyr.
Also the second episode, Rose is trying to get Robert to purchase a radio. Robert finally decides to rent one when he learns King George V will be speaking on the wireless. This speech took place on April 23, 1924, to open the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in London. The speech was recorded by the BBC and played on the radio that evening. Around 10 million people heard the King’s message and events were suspended during its broadcast.
In episode five, Rose is reading the paper and mentions the Moonella Group, which was the first nudist colony in England. Naturalism was popular in mainland Europe, but didn’t catch on in England until after WWI. The Moonella Group was just the first of a handful of groups promoting “air bathing.”
In episode eight of season five, Isobel, Shrimpie, And Lord Sinderby (Atticus Aldridge’s father) discuss the 1919 Amritsar massacre, also known as the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre. British soldiers under the command of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer fired on a crowd of of Indians protesting the arrest and deportation of Dr. Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew, two national leaders. This protest is seen by some as the beginning of the Indian nationalist movement. The soldiers fired for ten minutes, killing 370 and wounding 1200.
History and Season 6
In season six, episode two, Edith mentions Adrienne Bolland. Bolland was a French aviatrix, who in April 1921 became the first woman to fly over the Andes mountains, from Argentina to Chile. She went on to set a women’s record for number of loops done in an hour and was given the Legion of Honor by the French government.
Also in this episode we find out that Spratt, Violet’s Butler, is a stamp collector and the first commemorative stamp is mentioned. This stamp is from 1924, commemorating the British Empire Exhibition – the event that prompted Robert to rent a radio in season five.
In episode seven Mary’s new beau, Henry Talbot, invites her to watch him race his car at Brooklands. Brooklands housed a track for car racing as well as an aerodrome. It opened in 1907 and was a major center for aircraft production during WWI. The track closed in 1939 and is now part of Brooklands museum.
History and The Downton Abbey Film
With the announcement of a Downton Abbey movie to be released in September 2019, here’s what we know and what we think we might see.
The story picks up in the fall of 1927 – over a year after the series ended – and has been said to span a few years. Knowing this, we can hope to see evidence of the ever changing world around the Crawleys.
Women’s suffrage was expanded in 1928 to include all women over age 21 with the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act. This meant that, while previously only women over 30, landowners, and wives of landowners could vote, now all women, from kitchen maids to the aristocracy, could vote on the same terms as each other and on the same terms as men.
Also in 1928, the first film with dialogue premiered in Britain. “The Jazz Singer” premiered in London that September and the first European sound film premiered in England the following January. Britain began to get into the talking pictures market in 1929, and the first real success they had was “Blackmail,” which premiered that June. The transition to sound in theaters was fairly quick in Britain compared to in other European countries, so it’s possible we will see this play out in the movie.
The stock market crashed in 1929, and led to the “Great Slump” in the United Kingdom as part of the global Great Depression. The UK was still recovering from World War I’s effect on their economy, so they weren’t hit as hard by the Depression as other countries were during the same period of time. While the north of England and Wales suffered heavily from poverty and unemployment during the 1930s, around London the suburbs and jobs grew. It’s hard to say quite how the Slump will effect Downton, but there’s sure to be some effect.
From 1930 to 1932, there were the three Round Table Conferences regarding constitutional reforms in India. Self-rule was an increasingly important topic in India and in 1930, Muhammed Ali Jinnah recommended these talks to Viceroy Lord Irwin. These talks took place in three phases over a few years, but little was accomplished. Given the importance of India to Britain at the time, it’s possible this event will be mentioned in the film.
Depending on how many years are covered, it’s possible we could see the death of King George V in 1936, and the ascension, and possible abdication, of Edward VIII. We know from the trailer below that King George V and his wife, Queen Mary, will visit Downton. The ascension of Edward VIII was a huge change in customs as he broke with many royal traditions, ending in his abdication in late 1936.
If the film does go into the late 1930s, the death of the King could be hugely important for the world the Crawleys live in. We’ll find out soon enough.
Watch the trailer for the movie, below:
Bronwyn Mróz Benson is hands-on type of historian. Her deep love of history led her to Michigan’s Greenfield Village and Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, where she drove the horse-drawn carriages and told guests about the Village and Henry Ford’s vision for what it could be.
When Bronwyn isn’t teaching knitting, or chasing around her toddler, you’ll find her watching her favorite period dramas, like “The Forsyte Saga” and “Downton Abbey.” Bronwyn lives in Ohio and has a BS in history and museum studies, and an MA in early 20th century US history.
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll want to wander over to The Period Films List. Also see our review of The Chaperone.