ME & MY MONEY: ‘Downton Abbey’s’ real Lady Mary, Fiona Carnarvon

Fiona Carnarvon, the eighth Countess of Carnarvon, lives in Highclere Castle, Hampshire, the setting for the hit ITV drama series Downton Abbey. 

The former accountant married George Herbert, the Earl of Carnarvon, in 1999, and together turned Highclere Castle into one of the most famous stately homes in England. 

They have one son, Edward, aged 23. 

The earliest records of the castle date back to 749AD and it is now worth £137 million. 

Lady Carnarvon tells Donna Ferguson it costs millions of pounds a year to run.

Home truths: Lady Carnarvon says she spends too much money on plants

What did your parents teach you about money?

I’m one of six sisters so for us, it was all about sharing, being careful and thinking of others. Even now, when we buy a birthday present, my siblings and I club together. 

My father was a chartered accountant and he worked as a sort of company ‘doctor’. He tried to turn companies around, save jobs and businesses. My mother tried to bring up six girls. We were lucky. 

I came from quite a privileged background but there wasn’t lots of spare cash and money wasn’t at the centre of our lives. And during the 1970s when there were strikes and the lights went off, it was hard for everybody living in this country.

Have you ever struggled to make ends meet?

I studied English and German at St Andrews and like lots of university students I had a tough time. I was always trying to make ends meet and earn money to pay off whatever I shouldn’t have spent being a student. All through the holidays I worked to pay my way doing tedious temping jobs.

Have you ever been paid silly money?

That’s not something that has ever happened to me. I simply work every day and enjoy doing so. In my opinion, there is no secret pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s what you do with what’s in front of you that matters – how you make it work and how hard you work.

How much were you paid for allowing Highclere Castle to be used as the set for Downton Abbey?

It’s a confidential contract – but if we had been paid lots of money, I might not have to work as hard as I do. Downton Abbey didn’t change the cash fortunes of the castle.

To start with, the fee was pretty small. As the years went on, there was always a careful balance to be struck on the fee, otherwise they would find somewhere else. The production company’s argument to us is that we are lucky, because it is good promotion for the castle – which, of course, it is.

Were you surprised by the success of Downton Abbey?

We were all rather amazed. The first series was filmed in 2009, went on screen in 2010 and the following year I was commissioned to write my book, Lady Almina And The Real Downton Abbey.

That was a great success for the castle but also for me, because I managed to write a book. It was up to us to make the best of the publicity and figure out where there might be an opportunity to do something.

Does the castle pay for its upkeep?

We are bringing money in, but this is about capital, and Highclere has had a capital deficit for 100 years. I’m afraid you can’t make that up straight away.

What is the most expensive thing you bought for fun?

A labrador puppy for my son Eddie when he was two. The puppy, Percy, cost £400 in around 2001 or 2002. I now have Percy’s daughter, his grandchildren and great grandchildren: seven dogs in total. So he proved quite an expensive purchase, especially when you consider the vets’ fees.

What is your biggest money mistake?

I don’t dwell on my mistakes. I look at them, try to take lessons from the experience and move on. I see making mistakes as part of life. My money weakness though is buying shrubs and plants.

Biggest money decision you have made recently?

I’ve put quite a lot of my savings into Highclere Castle Gin. We started it in 2019 – just before Covid, which was terrible timing. But I hope it will prove my best money decision. So far, the gin has won 100 gold and platinum awards. It took us four years to develop. It’s inspired by what we grow at Highclere, the botanicals, the lemons in the greenhouses, the lavender and juniper on the hills.

Do you save into a pension and invest in the stock market?

I started my pension in my 30s, which was far too late. I have encouraged my son to start in his 20s. Although I save into mine, I am more focused on my stocks and shares Isas. 

Geordie started his pension younger and we pick our investments together to ensure that as a couple we have a balanced risk profile. I like to invest in companies in different parts of the world, because our own island is certainly struggling. 

I’m also interested in life sciences and pharmaceuticals, because they have been such an extraordinary help to us.

Do you own any property?

We are custodians – but is that not what we should all be in this world today? The castle is in different trusts. My husband and I are just stewards. Houses deemed of sufficient national interest can be put in family trusts in partnership with Revenue & Customs and Historic England.

And inheritance tax is held over and the castle can be passed to future generations, provided that it’s held together as an entity, that nothing’s sold and it’s shared and open to the public. Sometimes we have up to 1,000 visitors through the house daily.

We have to invest in Highclere and repair all the assets. The castle costs millions of pounds a year to run. It has 300 rooms and 5,000 acres with a fantastic collection of wildlife and rare birds.

Do you ever identify with Lady Mary, the heiress of Downtown Abbey?

There’s no comparison as I’m a farmer and a farmer’s wife. My uppermost thought when we took over Highclere was how can we make people care about our home and want to come here?

If you were Chancellor, what is the first thing you would do?

I would make a plan for growth. At the moment, we can’t grow because we’re cut off from our major customers, being mainland Europe, and there’s a lack of encouragement to invest here.

What is your number one financial priority?

To have a bit more money coming in than going out.

  • Highclere is open Sunday to Thursday, from July 9 to September 4, 2023, for pre-booked tickets only. A 70cl bottle of Highclere Castle Gin is available from Waitrose for £39.99.