Debs Delight? (Part 2 – Lady Rose’s Court Presentation and a Right Royal Boo-Boo)

Towards the end of Downton Abbey’s series 3, a new character, Lady Rose MacClare, was introduced into the programme and much was made of her rebellious streak; from sneaking out into nightclubs and indulging in dalliances with highly unsuitable men. While her parents went to India on a government assignment, Rose was left with the Crawleys as her guardians and chaperones before she was formally launched into society.

Lady Rose was easily one of the most unpopular characters in the programme and it’s easy to see why. Critics and viewers branded her “pointless” and “shallow” and they are sentiments I share. There was no raison d’ etre to her character at all, her entrance was clumsy and heavy handed – like a sledgehammer to inform the viewers that Downton is now into the “Roaring Twenties”. In short, her introduction into the programme was akin to a bureaucrat ticking all the boxes to make sure that his department complies with legislation ensuring equality and diversity in the work place.

The so-called rebellious streak was Rose’s main story line in series 4 and more than one perceptive viewer noted that Rose was a replacement for Lady Sybil as the ingénue rebel in the narrative. The main difference was that Sybil’s “rebellion” had a purpose whereas Rose’s didn’t. While Rose did have her real life counterparts, her inclusion into the narrative felt forced and if anything simply pandered to clichés about the period rather than exploring a much more original angle.

Rose’s conduct especially with regular unchaperoned trips to London would not have gone unnoticed and there would have been tutting over her dalliances with unsuitable men, especially with someone of a different race. Despite being a daughter of a marquis there would also have been concerns about her lack of money (more acute especially as the number of penniless aristocrats were outnumbering those who were well off) and this together with her behaviour would have marked her out as not good marriage material: and been duly noted by mothers seeking suitable wives for those sons who had survived the war. Reputation was a valuable commodity for an unmarried woman, and someone whose was less than impeccable would find her prospects of a good marriage much diminished. There were indications in series 1 that society was aware of the rumours about Mary and Pamuk. Lady Grantham has shown that she is careless of both her daughter’s reputations and good names – the most precious possessions any unmarried woman had. The mother of a flighty girl who was already being described as fast would run a mile from Cora; countess or not the last person on earth to whom any sensible woman would entrust her daughter, let alone one whose behaviour was already raising eyebrows. Perhaps the Flintshires were desperate, or perhaps no-one else would take Rose on without a substantial payment towards the cost of her season.

Cora’s behaviour towards Rose once she becomes a guardian was also odd. As guardian in place of the absent mother, she had the duty of seeing to Rose’s welfare – especially and most importantly her morals. It was jarring to see Cora and the other Crawley women (especially the Dowager who is her great-aunt) ignoring Rose as if she didn’t exist. Whenever Rose asked permission to go to London or arrange a “surprise” for Lord Grantham’s birthday, all Cora gave was a glassy stare and a vague assent. In real life, she would have interrogated Rose on the planned “surprise”, would demand to be informed of all of her movements and insisted on accompanying her to London or if she was unable to would have asked Mary, Edith or even her maid Baxter to act as chaperone. Bizarre as it sounds to us, there were streets in London where young unmarried women could not walk and places they could not visit without serious damage to their reputations, and every mother and responsible chaperone was aware of the unspoken rules and made sure their charges were as well.

Cora’s principal task as guardian is to ensure that Rose made a suitable match. The fact that Rose had a slightly dodgy reputation meant that Cora should have been knocking herself out trying to find a suitable husband and have Rose engaged by the end of her first season. One didn’t just leave it to chance, let alone when the pool of eligible men was down by 9/10ths and when the young lady in question had no money and parents with a shaky marriage. There would have been dances, teas, being involved in charity work, fetes, balls and calling on other families so that Cora could introduce Rose to other young people her age and increase her chances of meeting appropriate young men. Even Mary and Edith would have been roped into here, inviting their friends and friend of friends to widen Rose’s social circle.

However, we see none of these and it leaves the impression that Cora thought that the men just magically appeared and she didn’t need to do the hard work which is clearly nonsense. As many mothers both in literature and history have said, marrying off daughters was hard work especially for the upper and upper middle classes. Cora’s laziness with Rose seems to be a pattern, she was the same with her daughters and given that she herself was engaged by the end of her first season, she must have believed that it would be the same with her daughters and Rose forgetting that the circumstances were not the same. Whatever it is, once the presentation is over Rose is pretty much on her own and Cora reverts to doing whatever it is that Cora does. Fortunately in series 5 Rose bumped into a young man who was not only smitten with her but oh so conveniently had one of those large fortunes that always magically appear to rescue the members of this family, so Cora didn’t actually have to do anything to get her charge safely married.


It was after presentation at Court that the hard work really began for debs and their mothers. According to Mabell Countess of Airlie “Unless a girl was quite exceptional – which I was not – her fate was decided by her first impact on society. Anyone who failed to secure a proposal within six months of coming out could only wait for her second season with diminishing chances. After the third there remained nothing but India as a last resort before the spectre of the Old Maid became a reality.”

In series 1 Mary has had four seasons and still hasn’t yet found a husband which demonstrates not just Cora’s slack attitude, it also is very telling about Mary’s personality. She’s an earl’s daughter, she’s personable and she has some money, but she has had no serious offers even from untitled but wealthy young men; which seems to indicate that there were more than enough men put off by Mary’s snobbishness, sense of entitlement and the impression that she’s doing them a favour – conveniently forgetting that courtship is a two way street and she could have easily been dumped if someone better came along.


The 2013 Christmas special had Rose’s coming out and presentation at Court as one of its set pieces and despite the hype, insistence on accuracy and having members of the British Royal Family as characters, the episode was judged to be boring, lacking content, filled with plot holes and riddled with many errors. The presentation sequence alone is an illustration of how the PR was very much divorced from what we saw on screen.

First there is the issue of Rose’s dress and feathers. The neckline of Rose’s dress was too low. There were strict regulations on the length of the dress itself; dressmakers and manufacturers of off the peg versions would be aware of this and never deviate from the guidelines issued by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. As a woman who made her debut in the 1930s pointed out the feathers on her head were also arranged in a different way to the regulation one; according to Loelia Ponsonby, they could be bought in shops already arranged in the correct way and all the debs had to do was pin them to their heads, so no excuse for that either.

Then at the presentation itself Rose’s name is called out and accompanied by Cora she approaches the King and Queen. She curtsies while Cora simply stands next to her. That wasn’t the case. Cora as the sponsor would make her curtsey separately before those who were being presented, then make her way to an anteroom to wait for the debutantes and other women to finally make their obeisance before the King and Queen. The Prince of Wales tells his father that Rose is the daughter of the Marquis of Flintshire and the King exchanges a few words with Rose which again isn’t the done thing. No words were ever exchanged during this ceremony; with so many women being presented the King and Queen simply wouldn’t have time to chat as the whole event had to run like clockwork (this Christmas Special also failed to show that after curtseying to the King, Rose had to do the same thing to the Queen).

The biggest error in the sequence however was towards the end where Rose and Cora finally done turn and walk out of the throne room. For goodness’s sake.  One NEVER turned their back on royalty. Not then not now not ever! During the actual ceremony, after the debutante was presented, she took three steps backward, curtseyed again and walked back out of the room where an usher was on hand to help her with her train so she wouldn’t trip. So much hype, so much insistence on complete accuracy and yet they got it horribly wrong; not just one detail but so many.

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Other mistakes included:

– the Levinsons and the Dowager Countess present at the Palace; with the number of women being presented and other important dignitaries already crammed in the Palace there were simply no places for hangers-on.

– the Prince of Wales wearing the insignia of the Order of the Garter to a night club and gate crashing Rose’s ball. Orders and decorations are only worn during State Occasions or with uniform and neither going to a night club nor a coming out ball comes under that heading.

– Female guests doing the full curtsey to the Prince. Only the Sovereign and his consort receive such a gesture while Princes and Princesses are only given a bob or half curtsey.

– Lord Grantham unilaterally deciding to stop the putative “scandal”. In real life, it would have been the courtiers’ responsibility to stop any potential or putative scandal and do it within the bounds of the law not some backwoods peer who resorts to breaking the law by using other people to break in and forge letters. Once Freda Dudley Ward found that the letters were missing she would have asked the Prince of Wales to talk to his Private Secretary who could have exerted more “influence” to sort out the problem than rely on the inept plotting of an obscure provincial peer and his family. Had Robert and his cohorts had been caught, it would have shown that the cure ended up being worse than the disease.

– And finally there’s the portrayal of Freda Dudley Ward and her affair with the Prince as a scandal. Contrary to what we were told in the Christmas Special, the affair was not emphatically a scandal; it was conducted with discretion and with the full connivance of Freda’s husband as well as with the approval of several members of the Royal Family. When their letters were published decades later there was nothing scandalous about their contents in fact majority of them read like letters that would be exchanged between close friends not lovers .

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This Christmas special is another prime example of Julian Fellowes’ inability to take plot devices to their logical conclusions with his flippant attitude of “oh let’s use this for the story and not bother about what it actually means.”  In the era in which Downton Abbey is set there were very limited options for upper class women that did not include marriage and Rose would have been husband hunting frantically – preferably to someone rich given her own straitened circumstances –  and would have been in competition with fellow debs and other women as there were so few marriageable men. Despite what we see with Rose and Lady Edith (especially in series 4), being a young unmarried woman wasn’t nearly as much fun as the programme makes it out to be. A young woman was focused like a laser on finding a husband and was deemed a failure if she failed to find one and a very public one at that with all the power being in the hands of the prospective husbands. Being a spinster daughter wasn’t enjoyable in spite of all the going to nightclubs, dining out with men and wearing “daring” clothes as depicted on Downton Abbey. The reality was much more prosaic especially as she grew older and the spectre of being a carer to parents in their old age or helping raise nieces and nephews beckoned.

It also illustrates what I call “delayed reaction”, the best time to have shown a presentation was with Sybil back in series 1 where there was not just the Season but also the servants and tenants back at the village being treated to a celebration. Sybil’s coming of age would have been seen as a perfect excuse for the community to come together to eat, dance and drink to the health of the local lord and his family.

Crucially, depicting Sybil’s presentation in the summer of 1914 would have provided an important link to series 2. There would have been an elegiac note to the end of series 1 with the growing awareness that the world they knew was heading towards Armageddon and would have endowed Sybil’s remark at the beginning of series 2 that all the men she had danced with are dead with a poignancy that would echo the upheavals the Great War had brought.

Another problem I had with this Christmas Special (and with the programme in general) is the insistence on accuracy from the historical adviser Alastair Bruce, who at every opportunity claims that everything is accurate down to the tiniest detail that viewers don’t get to see on screen such as how tea is laid out or the stationary edged in black to denote mourning. If his attention to detail is as obsessive as he claims it is baffling how he lets important mistakes such as the presentation or the Crawleys still owning a Gutenberg bible slip past his scrutiny. Perhaps his shrill insistence on being listened to and the accuracy of the historical detail is to cover up that with the number of linguistic and historical anachronisms being pointed out in the last two series by even casual viewers, Julian Fellowes and the production team have decided that Downton can trade on its reputation for historical correctness and simply aren’t bothering to listen to Alastair Bruce any more.

I wonder how many misconceptions, errors and misunderstandings about the morals, manners, attitudes and behaviour of that era Downton Abbey has fixed in peoples’ minds as the truth?

Debs’ Delight? What Being Presented and the Season Was Really Like

Disclaimer: While there are occasional references to the Season and presentations during the Victorian era, the focus of this post will centre more on what it was like after the First World War

One ritual that has passed into history is the presentation at court where women are presented to the reigning monarch (or his/her representative). For two centuries and over three courts a year (with additional ones held in Edinburgh), women ranging from debutantes to married women to ambassadresses and wives of government ministers, officers from the armed services, civil servants and other men of rank and status donned the regulation court uniform of three ostrich feathers, veil, train and a white or pale coloured gown then made the requisite obeisance and the acknowledgement from the Sovereign that marked the lady’s formal entry into society and the official start of the year’s Season.

The presentation has always been popularly associated with young eighteen year old ladies called “debutantes” or “debs” and the ceremony was seen as a rite of passage, where being presented to the monarch marked her “coming out” into Society and signified that she was no longer a child but an adult and therefore of marriageable age. Presentation at Court was always an important part of royal ceremonial and practiced for centuries but the idea of young ladies on the cusp of adulthood being presented at Court originated with King George III on the occasion of his wife Queen Charlotte’s birthday. While the birthday ball died out, the idea of a young lady being presented to the monarch at the start of their foray into Society remained and by the late nineteenth century the number of Court presentations increased and more so in the early twentieth century.

After the First World War, the ceremony and indeed the whole Season had more or less lost its main purpose which was to act as a social adjunct to political life. It simply became a marriage market to ensure that young aristocratic men and women could select their spouse from their own circle of society. This was made difficult by the lack of men of marriageable age and meant that many debs during the early 1920s either married much older men or remained spinsters. By the 1930s, the presentation itself had become merely an expensive parade out of touch with the economic mood of the time so in 1936, King Edward VIII, in an attempt to introduce a more informal and democratic tone in his court (as well as economise on expenditure), decided to do away with the evening presentations and instead introduce afternoon ones; much to the chagrin of the mothers of the debutantes presented that year. It wasn’t a success as it rained on the day of the first presentation which put an abrupt end to the proceedings and gave rise to a number of irate comments from mothers who thought their daughters had been cheated of an opportunity to experience the same ceremony as they did, or thought that the garden party court was a poor substitute for the traditional evening one.

There was much relief when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth reinstated the traditional evening courts in 1937 but they were suspended for the duration of the Second World War. When they were resumed after the war, it was deemed inappropriate to reintroduce the evening courts and so Edward VIII’s idea of a garden party presentation was revived and remained in place until they were finally abolished.

By the 1950s, the idea of debutantes having to curtsey to the Sovereign was becoming an embarrassing anachronism. There were criticisms most notably by the historian Lord Altrincham (John Grigg) that it was failing to reflect the growing social changes in Britain as a result of the war while others wondered what was the actual point of this pageant? Even several members of the Royal Family took a dim view of the ceremony with the Duke of Edinburgh pronouncing it “bloody daft” and Princess Margaret complained that “every tart in London was seeking to get in”. Finally it was announced that the Queen would no longer be holding presentation ceremonies and the last garden party courts were held in 1959 after which the idea of debutantes and presentations went the way of the dodo.

An Upper Class Girl’s upbringing:

Until at least outbreak of the Second World War, the goal of an upper class and upper middle class girl was geared solely towards marriage and motherhood. The idea of further education much less a career was unthinkable and this was reinforced by how girls were educated and viewed. What passed as education for girls was basic and rudimentary (mostly under governesses but by the twentieth century, girls’ boarding or day schools had sprang up to cater for those whose parents could not afford a governess), focusing more on the social graces such as dancing, drawing, singing and learning a foreign language. Before she was presented a young girl might be sent abroad to be “finished” with additional foreign language lessons and trips to museums and historic sites, a sort of mini-Grand Tour or gap year before she was formally launched into society.

As with boys, emphasis was placed on instilling “character” as well as the virtue of thrift, duty and discipline. Choice was a privilege only adults enjoyed while children and young people had to make do with what their parents and elders decided for them. The ability to be able to interact and communicate with other people was also seen as highly important, the art of conversation was instilled from an early age, along with how to initiate it and put others at ease. There was also an emphasis on good manners and to respect others especially those who were older; and unlike today where outward expressions of emotion are common and highly encouraged such behaviour then was frowned upon and kept at a distance. Upper class women would recall never seeing their parents being outwardly affectionate with each other or with them; nor would they remember any hugs, kisses or kind words.

Despite the emphasis on developing the art of conversation and polite behaviour, there was a wide gulf between upper class parents and their children and nowhere was this most apparent than in the general ignorance of young people of both genders when it came to sex and relationships. Girls were ignorant about the changes in their bodies as they hit puberty and their mothers never made much of an effort to talk to their daughters about these changes much less tell them about the birds and the bees. Some mothers did try but embarrassment always got in the way and was never really addressed even if the young woman in question was getting married. They would begin married life and their wedding night wholly ignorant of sex.

Anne de Courcy wrote that with their proximity to wild and domestic animals theoretically girls raised in the country would have some knowledge of sex and procreation but in reality, women admitted not making the connection between animal and human behaviour. However despite this ignorance, one fact of life that the girls were made aware of was the social stigma attached to becoming pregnant outside marriage. Misconceptions about pregnancy, such as a simple kiss leading to pregnancy were sometimes enough to put young girl off the idea of marriage, so that some married late while others never did.

While many girls either happily conformed or were resigned to this very basic and rudimentary upbringing, others particularly after the end of the Fist World War chafed under this restriction and resented constantly being told that they could not study certain subjects, go to university or even take on proper paid employment. Some girls managed to successfully convince their parents to allow them to go on to further education or even work (the daughter of a baron was allowed to study for a degree at the London School of Economics provided that the family housemaid accompanied her as a chaperone) while others frustrated at not being allowed to do what they wanted took to reading or studying in secret. Others rebelled by sneaking out to go to nightclubs, smoking and adapting daring fashions but they were mostly a minority as there were more than enough deterrents to make sure that the girls remained on the straight and narrow.

Coming Out and Expectations of a Debutante:

Once a girl had turned eighteen (seventeen year olds were allowed to “come out” only in special circumstances such as in 1939 when it was inevitable that war was imminent), there was the ritual of coming out which as mentioned earlier marked the end of her childhood and entrance into adulthood. This involved coming to London where a ball would be organised, as well as the mother issuing and accepting invitations to various teas and luncheons where her daughters could be introduced to other young women and crucially suitable young men. There were also events such as the Royal Academy Exhibition, Royal Ascot, Wimbledon and others which gave the opportunity to meet people.

Some families organised a “little season” in the form of hunt balls, dinners, tea parties and charity functions for their daughter prior to going to London for the presentation. This gave her a head start with the opportunity to meet other people especially those of her age and eligible men as well as knowing what to expect when she finally go to London for her Season proper.

The highlight of a girl’s coming out was the presentation at Court where once she had made her obeisance to the reigning Sovereign and his consort she was deemed to have officially “come out.” Despite the outward glamour of the evening courts with sights of beautiful gowns, jewels blazing, feathers, flowers and uniforms  they could be tedious and an ordeal for the young women and the sponsors involved. As Mabell Countess of Airlie recounted about her own presentation in 1884:

“Presentation in the eighteen-eighties was an endurance test. Queen Victoria held her Drawing Rooms at varying times in the afternoon but anyone attending them was expected to arrive at Buckingham Palace not later than one o’clock. No food was provided and debutantes, weighed down by their long satin trains and enormous plumes, wilted as the hours passed, but so great was the crush that they could hardly move forwards or backwards. The guests often numbered 3,000 and the majority spent their time trying to fight a way through the crowded rooms. Many of the girls waiting to be presented had their dresses torn in the struggle, others retired weeping because their ordeal had been in vain, and they had not succeeded in reaching the Queen, who always left long before the last debutantes had passed before her.”

By George VI’s reign not much had changed. Debutantes and their sponsors would bring food and books, knitting and embroidery frames to pass the time between arriving at the Palace in mid-afternoon and the presentation in the evening. Mishaps such as fainting, headdresses falling apart, wilted flowers, ruined dresses and difficulty to find somewhere to relieve oneself were common occurrences. When Nancy Mitford was presented in 1923 the only facilities were a chamber pot behind a screen.


Contrary to Jessica Fellowes’ claim that the presentation and the Season were “anticipated for many months with feverish excitement”, the reality was very different as many young women dreaded their presentation and the round of parties and events that would follow; and you can understand why. From being children in the schoolroom they were suddenly propelled into public under the eyes of their sovereigns and the cream of Society and expected to bear themselves with poise and dignity, while knowing that any gaffe such as an awkward curtsey would be remembered, their looks and deportment were being scrutinised, and that the whole thing would be avidly reported in the papers. Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott (later the Duchess of Gloucester) was one of those who admitted not enjoying her Season and wrote about her relief when it was all over, while others such as Fiona Colquohoun (later Lady Arran) and Susan Grosvenor (later Lady Tweedsmuir) found the social rounds tedious and tiresome. Lady Elizabeth Wellesley (later Lady Elizabeth Clyde) found her season “ghastly” and their tedium only relieved by going to nightclubs with fellow debs but only because of the lure and novelty of the forbidden. Lady Diana Manners (later Lady Diana Cooper) observed that apart from the horrors of being a wallflower or being left by a dance partner on the floor midway it was more the mothers who enjoyed their daughters’ Season. It was telling that it was they who reacted most violently to Edward VIII’s experiment with the less formal garden party presentations.

Once the young woman had been presented, the next three months would be a whirl of parties, balls, teas, events, dinners and dances; all carefully chaperoned of course. While some mothers or chaperones revelled in these gatherings (more than their daughters or charges), others found it an ordeal but gamely put up with the experience which was made all the more difficult if one had several daughters or relatives needing a sponsor for the season as Deborah Mitford (later Duchess of Devonshire) observed of her mother in the 1920s and 1930s:

“My dutiful mother suffered this extraordinary fate for six seasons, one for each daughter. At 10 pm on four or five nights a week in May, June and July she looked longingly at her turned-down bed, put on an evening dress and set off alone for the party.”

The ordeal of chaperoning and the Season can be seen as akin to Groundhog Day, the same thing over and over again with the same faces and the same events. Someone like Lady Grantham (from Downton Abbey) would have not only been presented as a young girl but also presented when she married, when her husband inherited a title and each time she presented a daughter or a relative – in Cora’s case she’d have been presented seven times. It must have seemed like a never ending parade and especially for a family with little money, it was imperative for the debutante to secure a proposal as soon as possible as doing the Season did not come cheap and for all the perceived glamour that lives on in the photographs, behind the scenes there was a lot of borrowing, making do and mending, recycling and buying off the peg.


The whole point of the Season was to find a husband and hopefully secure a proposal by at least August. The debutants might have already been considered adults but interactions between young men and women were still tightly controlled. It was considered unthinkable that a young woman would be seen with a young man without a chaperone as Loelia Ponsonby (later Duchess of Westminster) recalled when she came out in the early 1920s:

“Teenagers had not yet been invented. I doubt if my parents knew what an adolescent was. Flappers were definitely middle class. Till one came out, one was a child, the same as one stopped being a baby, speaking only when spoken to, dressed in any old clothes (it went without saying that well-dressed children had common mothers) and of course with no male friends. My mother would have considered me very depraved if she had caught me writing letters to a boy, let alone making an assignation and I had hardly spoken to one except perhaps at a neighbour’s tennis party.”

The debutante’s most precious commodity was not money or who her parents were but her reputation. Being chaperoned was to ensure that her morals and behaviour were impeccable and someone who was regularly seen out and about unchaperoned and going to places unsuitable for young women ended up developing a reputation for being “fast” or “loose” which would be held against her by mothers seeking wives for their sons. Archaic as it seems to us there were streets in London an unmarried girl could not walk along and places she might not visit without grave damage to her all-important reputation. As a late nineteenth century publication The Lady’s Newspaper, provides a glimpse of what was expected of debutantes, “a girl’s prospects of marriage, even her entire future, may well depend upon her conduct at this most important juncture of her Youth. Any false step may prove Disastrous.” Expectations of how a debutante should behave lingered even after the Great War in spite of the freedoms  to work and go about unchaperoned gained by women during that period.

Young and naïve as they might have been, many debutantes did have ideas of the man they wanted to marry. Just as young women were held to strict moral standards, so too were the men. Whilst they were given a certain amount of leeway not allowed to girls, young men were still expected to conform to certain moral standards, to be branded as NSIT (“not safe in taxis”) or MTF (“must touch flesh”) harmed their prospects of attracting potential wives.

If a debutante did not secure a proposal during her first Season then it would be a case of better luck next time and if there were still no proposals by the second then third then the chances of finding a husband receded further and further until she was resigned to a life of spinsterhood or to marry the first man who showed interest and proposed. It was not until after the Second World War that upper and upper middle class women could have careers, travel and marry or not marry as they chose and the iron grip of social convention and expectation was discarded, freeing them, at least in theory, to be equal with men and as free to live as they wished.


Photo 1 – Lord and Lady Harmsworth and their daughters, source:

Photto 2 – Eunice Kennedy (1939), source:

Further Reading:

Princess Alice Duchess of Gloucester. The Memoirs of Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester (London, 1983)

Princess Alice Duchess of Gloucester. Memories of Ninety Years (London, 1991)

Pamela Horn. Ladies of the Manor (London, 2012)

Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2014)

Anne de Courcy. Debs at War (London, 2005)

Anne de Courcy. 1939: The Last Season (London, 2003)

Deborah Devonshire. The Duchess of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Cookery Book (London, 2003)

Deborah Devonshire. Wait For Me!: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister (London, 2010)

Jessica Mitford. Hons and Rebels (London, 1960)

Mabell (Ogilvy) Countess of Airlie and Jennifer Ellis (ed.). Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie (London, 1962)

Lady Diana Cooper. The Rainbow Comes and Goes (London, 1958)

Loelia (Grosvenor) Duchess of Westminster. Grace and Favour: The Memoirs of Loelia Duchess of Westminster (London, 1961)

Angela Lambert. 1939: The Last Season of Peace (London, 1989)

Jessica Fellowes. A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey (London, 2014)

Jane Wellesley. Wellington: A Journey Through my Family (London, 2015)

Lord Grantham – too old to fight?

Disclaimer – I am not a historian of the Great War, and my research is by no means exhaustive. I write about the topics that arise from watching Downton Abbey and that interest me as an amateur student of history. I am always happy to be corrected by the better-informed if I have misunderstood,  misinterpreted or just plain missed things. That, after all, is how you learn. I apologise as well for any wild assumptions I have made about Lord Grantham’s military career and experience.

Julian Fellowes says in the series 2 scripts that Lord Grantham is 50, thus as the series starts in 1916 he was born in 1866. He also says that although Robert has been a career soldier he is too old to fight and the army won’t be interested in a middle aged landowner. For various reasons I disagree with such a definitive statement and intend to explain why.

As to Robert’s army career, again we can only make assumptions. Born in 1866 he would have entered Sandhurst around 1884/5. He wears the George V Coronation medal*, so he was in the army at least until 1911, and after leaving the army he went into the Reserves.  He wears the uniform of the Grenadier Guards (or the travesty that passes for a Grenadier tunic in the Downton costume department) so I have taken it that’s his regiment (and what other would be conceivable for an earl than one of the British army’s elite fighting regiments?). He married an heiress because his family was poor, so after graduating from Sandhurst a cavalry regiment, where he would need at least £ 500 a year (approx £25,000 today) to live up to the style of the regiment was probably out of the question.

tumblr_n1hpcmjyMS1tsofceo2_400Robert in dress uniform


When series 2 of Downton Abbey aired I was puzzled why Robert, apparently in his mid-forties and a former soldier who had fought in at least one major campaign, was given a job that he bitterly described as making him no better than a chocolate soldier. The puzzlement deepened when I received my copy of the series 2 scripts and saw Julian Fellowes’ confident pronouncement that Robert doesn’t go to war because “the truth is, he’s too old.”


I was not the only one baffled. Allan Mallinson, a military historian and former professional soldier, posed this very question. Mallinson certainly thought that Robert was young enough to go to the front and wondered if there was some dark secret about Robert that the War Office knew and decided to keep him away from the fighting, citing his age as an excuse.

The lack of any overarching theme in Downton Abbey and the inconsistent quality of the writing make it difficult to make out whether we are meant to see Robert’s desire to fight and his rejection by the army as a pointer to the increasing obsolescence of his class.  In any case, the most cursory of research shows that in saying Lord Grantham’s age makes him unfit for military duty, Fellowes is ignoring the historical reality.

I have a personal interest in this. My great grandfather Frederick Hildred was born in 1870, making him four years younger than Robert. He too fought in the Second Boer War. Family legend passed down from his daughter (my maternal grandmother) is that on the outbreak of war he went to the local recruiting office and was told he was too old and to give up his place to a younger man. The truth, as my brother found while compiling our family tree, is completely different.

Frederick Hildred was a roadmender for Brighton Corporation; he was used to digging, building, repairing and hard labour in all weathers. For two years 1915-1917 he served in France in a Pioneer battalion – digging trenches, laying barbed wire, picking up barbed wire, digging graves, collecting and burying bodies, laying and mending roads; and when called upon, fighting alongside the infantry repelling attacks. It occurred to me that if the army had found a use for Private Fred Hildred, volunteer, why was the Earl of Grantham, former professional soldier, cast on the scrapheap and is the charge of “too old” actually true?

Hugh Thomas has this to say about Sandhurst graduates who served during WW1 as officers:

“The morphology of the passage of these cadets through Sandhurst is curiously interesting. In the late 1870s and early 1880s most of the leading army commanders of the First World War were at the College. The following thirty years at Sandhurst marks a steady declension in the rank gained in that conflict. The men of the late 70s and early 80s were the strategists, army or corps commanders, who were to pass the First World War at general headquarters. The men of the late 80s and early 90s were field commanders. The men of the late 90s and early 1900s were generally captains at the start of the World War and emerged from it, if at all, as lieutenant-colonels.” 

Lord Grantham then would in 1914 have been a field commander. After the declaration of war when men rushed to enlist the army would have been mad to turn down the experience of even a mediocre soldier with battle experience; and being a mediocre or disastrous soldier was no bar to employment in 1914.

Ian Hamilton (1853-1947) was Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Force at Gallipoli, and Frederick Stopford (1854-1935) commander of the Suvla Bay landings in August 1915 (although admittedly their involvement in the Dardanelles campaign led to the end of their army careers). However, their dates of birth give the lie to Robert being too old to serve. Even in the last months of the war the extension of the Military Service Act 1916 made men up to the maximum age of 56 liable for call-up, so he might still have been hopeful of seeing some fighting.


Mobilisation and recruitment of men at the start of World War I was on a scale never seen before. On 7th August 1914 the Prime Minister asked Parliament for permission to sanction an increase in the army to 500,000 men. By the 5th September the PM announced that 250,000 to 300,000 men had enlisted and two days later that figure was amended to 439,000 men. Patriotic fires burned high, and by the end of 1914 1,186,337 men had enlisted; in the words of HG Wells, “No-one wants to be a non-combatant.”

In the city squares you saw them drilling – at first without uniforms, in their city clothes, the half the men in uniforms and half not. It made the heart ache…for these men had never thought of being soldiers, but they came gladly when their country needed them.

– A Home Front Diary 1914-1918

And these men – labourers, clerks, stockbrokers, solicitors – needed training; and it would take months, if not years to do so. Keen and efficient as the real life officer counterparts of Matthew Crawley undoubtedly were, they, like the men they commanded, were as inexperienced as their men in the ways and methods of the army and wholly unaware of the demands of military discipline; so, even if the army had some reason for not wanting him to fight at the Front, Lord Grantham could have been extremely useful running a training camp. Catterick garrison and camp is only 20 miles from Ripon, and as Robert goes to a mess dinner at Richmond in 1916 he’d be well aware the camp was under construction and no doubt wonder why he couldn’t be camp commander or in charge of training. (Let’s not ask why the army has left it two years to tell him he’s not wanted and insults him with the position they do give when his experience should have made him one of the first men to be called up).

When the army was raising pioneer battalions I referred to earlier it relied upon old soldiers, who returned to the Colours and often to their former regiments to instruct recruits in the rudiments of army life. Although these men had no knowledge of pioneering work, and often their words of command were obsolete, the provided the newly appointed officers with a wealth of experience and support – in other words, they had been out of the army for years but were still needed and had something to contribute; and “dugouts” – officers recalled from the retired list – offered their services and were eager to do their bit by taking over battalions and training men until new young officers were trained and could take command. If that was the case for pioneer battalions it must also have been the case for the rest of Kitchener’s army, struggling with the influx of new and raw recruits who had flocked to the colours in 1914. They had to be whipped into shape and fast and the army did not have the luxury of turning its nose up at a trained soldier because he was deemed to be too old.


Another baffling statement of Lord Fellowes is that Robert was not required because he is a landowner, and as non sequiturs go that’s a champion. Perhaps we should make allowances for him – not being an aristocrat by birth or descent but merely as a political appointment perhaps he is unaware of the concept of noblesse oblige. Robert is the sort of person who is expected and expects to step up and fight for his country – aristocratic birth was regarded as conveying natural leadership. The basis of land tenure for centuries was military service, for centuries the aristocratic classes raised and led armies, fought wars and died in them;  and despite the reforms following the Crimean War, a lot of officers were still from the upper classes.

Being a landowner did not stop Robert fighting in South Africa, and if being a landowner had been a disqualification the male members of the peerage would have been sitting at home twiddling their thumbs for four years from 1914.  After the Zeppelin raids on London in 1915 there were renewed calls for men to join up and fight. The Daily Express said “300,000 are wanted at once…unless you are making munitions, your duty is to join the army today.” No caveat there about how old you are or how many acres you own. On the contrary; according to Vanity Fair in March 1916, by the sixteenth month of operations eight hundred men of title had been killed in action or wounded, and over one thousand more were serving with land and sea forces; leading the author of the article to speculate on the doubtful future of the House of Lords when an entire generation of nobility had been wiped out. Noble families were undeterred by ever-growing casualty lists; one peeress looked back after the war on the “pride and exaltation of fond parents and wives, their willing offering of their sons and husbands, to fight in so great a cause.”

In 1930 The Complete Peerage compiled a list of all peers and peers’ sons who had played a part, large or small, in the Great War. It ran to 67 pages.


The overriding quality that distinguishes the character of Lord Grantham is duty; such a man would regard fighting and dying for his country as the rent to be paid for privileges enjoyed. When he says “this is where I belong” during that unfortunate mess dinner he is saying that the army and its’ values are an integral part of his identity. Fellowes’ complete lack of research in this area shows as well in the ludicrous comment when Robert says he “offered his services” the day after war broke out; when men had been mobilising for weeks and he was in the Reserve and a Lord Lieutenant. He’d be well aware of troop movements and be awaiting his call up telegram and instructions to report. Here are some of the huge flaws with Downton Abbey and Julian Fellowes writing and ones that irritates me intensely  – the bland assurances that it’s all historically accurate (which it certainly isn’t), the assumption that none of us are informed enough to know better and the failure to make a character act consistently or in the way a real life counterpart would have done.

While I understand the need for Robert to remain at the Abbey so that Fellowes can unfold the character’s story lines, the comment that Robert is not wanted because of his age is very far from being “the truth” and ought not to be presented as such; is, in fact inaccurate, misleading and downright wrong,. If Robert considered that he should have been serving at the front, there were plenty of men his age and older who he could have pointed to as examples.

Henry Rawlinson , 1st Baron Rawlinson          1864-1925

Alfred Rawlinson, 3rd Baron Rawlinson          1867-1934

William Robertson, 1st Baronet Robertson     1860-1933

Walter Norris Congreve                                       1862-1927

Frederick Lambart, 10th Earl of Cavan             1865-1946

Frederick Ponsonby, 1st Baron Sysonby           1867-1935

Julian Byng, 1st Viscount Byng of Vimy           1862-1935

Horace Smith-Dorrien                                         1858-1930

Vor Trower                                                      no dates but he was in South Africa in 1879, in 1914 raised the 5th battalion South Wales Borderers and remained in service into his sixties.

And there were no doubt many more.


*Given to military personnel and police who took part in the Coronation. Robert has the silver version with the military riband so he would have been in the Coronation parade. If he was merely attending then his medal would have had the civilian riband.

PS A Home Front Diary says that men too old to join the army or prevented in some way joined the National Guard instead. I haven’t been able to find anything about this, does anyone know what it was or if it existed?

Further Reading:

Vanity Fair March 1916 – The Aristocracy at War – the doubtful future of the House of Lords

Article 27 June 2014 by Lord Lexden on the peers killed in battle

Allan Mallinson. The Making of the British Army (London, 2009)

Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary 1914-1918 (London, 2014)

Hugh Thomas. The Story of Sandhurst (London, 1961)

KW Mitchinson. Pioneer Battalions of the Great War (London, 2014)

The Great War  (BBC series, 1964)