The Elephant in Downton Abbey’s Drawing Room

The Elephant in Downton Abbey’s Drawing Room

[Note: I had written this post before I was aware of Kevin Cotter’s similar and excellent post over on the FOCUS blog.  He doesn’t address what I bring up, so I hope you’ll read on. To the readers sent here by the Catholic Herald in the UK: Welcome! Please know we Americans are just now nearing the end of the third series of Downton Abbey. No spoilers, please.]

I have a confession to make: I watch Downton Abbey.  With the exception of a handful of occasions at the beginning of the series that I felt it necessary to skip, the show has been a real pleasure for the history nerd in me.  As a period piece, it fits alongside Pride & Prejudice on the list of BBC programs I’m secretly glad my wife made me watch.  The collective memory is rapidly losing the last vestiges of the era surrounding WWI, not least because that conflict was overshadowed so strongly by its horrific sequel.  The first episode begins with news of the Titanic’s sinking.  It strikes a chord.  My mother’s parents were born a few years before that doomed maiden voyage and it was mentioned often in my house (my mother even has a piece of coal from the wreckage).  It’s familiar in other ways.  The second season sees the Irish, working-class chauffeur Tom Branson attempt to elope with the noble daughter of Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham.  My grandparents also eloped for class-related reasons; my grandmother was one of the servants, the live-in family nurse at my grandfather’s home.

Something else about the show caught my attention early on, but I tried to ignore it until the last episode.  Earlier in the series, Lord Grantham said of Catholics, “I don’t want thumbscrews or the rack, but there always seems to be something Johnny Foreigner about the Catholics.”  I had an inkling about the truth of the matter, but still I tried to ignore it.  Then came this week’s episode.  Branson, not only an Irishman, but a Catholic, wanted his daughter baptized Catholic.  Grantham, who had no real authority over the matter, was indignant at the prospect.  How dare this foreign left-footer try to have his child baptized according to his own papist faith.  Doesn’t he realize this is a noble house of England?  Grantham even invited the local vicar to dinner in an attempt to turn things his way.  The vicar went on and on with no success about the superiority of English worship over that of a whole host of Catholic countries.  (I wonder what blessed lesson today’s hindsight might teach him.)

I wanted to reach into the screen and smack Lord Grantham around a bit.  Doesn’t he realize that great noble house of his is a Catholic house?  Of course he does!  He even hints at it, “There hasn’t been a Catholic Crawley since the Reformation!”

Ah yes, the Reformation.  So glad to hear you mention it, Lord Grantham.  Let’s talk about that.

In 1534, King Henry VIII instituted the Act of Supremacy, declaring himself Supreme Head of the Church of England.  From 1536-1540, he stole – yes, stole, that is, took by force or coercion – a great many lands and properties of the Catholic Church.  This period is known to history as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  The monasteries were built before his time and did not belong to him.  If anything, as king he should have been a steward for their preservation, but instead he acted like a spoiled child and confiscated whatever pleased him to have for himself.  The properties were then sold and/or – I assume – gifted to wealthy nobles.  You may view the history and records here.

I don’t know what’s in store for the rest of this season and I sincerely wish no UK readers to post spoilers in our comments.  I have hopes that the Crawley family, especially Lord Grantham, continue to discover the importance of their history: everything Anglican worth keeping – indeed, everything Protestant worth keeping – is not Anglican or Protestant at all, but Catholic.  The Protestants naturally kept what they liked and what they considered biblical, and to that degree, they were really practicing Catholicism.  Thus, it is that a valid Baptism is always a Catholic Baptism, regardless of which Protestant denomination administered it.  Downton Abbey – I repeat, Downton Abbey – is Catholic.  There is nothing at all Johnny Foreigner about the Catholics.  They were in England first.  Never, nowhere, should Catholics be made to feel out of place among Christians.  In the Catholic Church is the fullness of Christianity.

Downton Abbey is starting to hint at this important historical point in the tension between Lord Grantham and Tom Branson.  To neglect it and dance around the issue is tantamount to ignoring the elephant in Downton Abbey’s Drawing Room.  I really do hope the producers won’t make that mistake.


  1. Sometimes when I read your posts, all I can think is, “Get out of my brain, Micah!” Totally agree with everything.

  2. Interesting article but why the bizarre non sequitur about Northern Ireland? The major Protestant community here is the Presbyterians, not the Anglicans. The Anglicans have not even been the official state religion here since 1870, but more to the point to jump from the Henrician Reformation (1530s) to the creation of Northern Ireland (1921) is a bit of a leap.

    NB The real brains behind Downton Abbey is Lord Fellowes, who is reputed to be a Catholic himself…

    • I’m more a theology teacher than a history teacher, so I’ll hope you’ll excuse me. For clarity, I’ve removed the section you referenced.

      We American descendants of the Irish like to call ourselves Irish Americans, but I’m afraid we’re really too often ignorant of Irish history for that. We’ve lost our heritage. Thank you for your correction.

  3. The writer of Downton Abbey, Julian (Lord) Fellowes, is a Catholic who was educated at Ampleforth, the Benedictine abbey in the north of England. Some of the names of the villages mentioned in ‘Downton Abbey’ are villages near Ampleforth.

  4. I am more surprised at how Julian Fellowes’ subtle digs at the Church of England have got very little press. One of the daughters (can’t remember which episode) makes a passing reference to their Church of England minister not being very doctrinaire about anything. And the Anglican minister who attends dinner doesn’t make a very convincing defender of the faith.

  5. The previous poster refers to Lady Sybil in episode 4. My dad and I had a laugh at dinner table scene with Rev. Travis as the Crawleys tossed out other countries including traditional Orthodox Chritian Russia, asking if they were any less better.

    In an interview, Fellowes mentioned the anti-Catholicism his family experienced and that’s where that element originated for the show.


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