Down­ton’s Jewish châte­laine

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - HISTORY DOREEN BERGER

HIGH­CLERE CASTLE, the an­ces­tral home of the Earls of Carnar­von, is an im­pres­sive coun­try es­tate, si­t­u­ated in Hamp­shire about five miles south of New­bury in Berk­shire. This stately ed­i­fice and its up­per-class fam­ily is the in­spi­ra­tion for tele­vi­sion’s most ad­dic­tive plea­sure, Down­ton Abbey.

How­ever, the châte­laine of this stately home was not, in fact, the charm­ing Amer­i­can Lady Cora Gran­tham, but the re­put­edly half-Jewish Almina, Fifth Countess of Carnar­von, daugh­ter — as a re­sult of a brief af­fair with her mother — of wealthy banker Al­fred Roth­schild.

It has hap­pened many times that an im­pov­er­ished but aris­to­cratic fam­ily needed the funds that only an heiress could bring to safe­guard the fu­ture of their dy­nasty and their way of life. In this par­tic­u­lar case, it was a very un­likely heiress with a rather racy rep­u­ta­tion who would res­cue an an­cient fam­ily from its fi­nan­cial prob­lems.

The mar­riage of Almina Vic­to­ria Maria Alexan­dra Womb­well to Ge­orge Ed­ward Stan­hope Molyneux Herbert, the Fifth Earl of Carnar­von, was cel­e­brated on Wed­nes­day, June 26, 1895 at St Mar­garet’s Church, Westminster, in the pres­ence of a large con­gre­ga­tion. It was also the bride­groom’s 30th birth­day.

Among the con­gre­ga­tion were the Por­tuguese and Brazil­ian am­bas­sadors, the Duke of Marl­bor­ough, the Prince and Princess Ed­ward of Sax­eWeimer and the Earl of Rose­bery.

More sur­pris­ing, per­haps, con­sid­er­ing Almina’s il­le­git­i­macy and the fact that her ‘‘le­gal’’ par­ents were in at­ten­dance, was the pres­ence of her bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther Al­fred, an ec­cen­tric man who also brought along his cousins, Alice de Roth­schild and Baron Fer­di­nand.

It was not ex­actly a fairy-tale wed­ding. The Fifth Earl, who held the honorary ti­tle of Lord Porch­ester, and was known to his friends as Porchy, suf­fered from poor health. So far, he had shown lit­tle in­ter­est in any­thing but gam­bling, horse-rac­ing and trav­el­ling abroad to un­savoury gam­ing clubs with his glam­orous friend, Prince Vic­tor Duleep Singh, son of the Maharajah of La­hore. The young cou­ple barely knew each other. But Al­fred Roth­schild had brought them to­gether, win­ning a ti­tle for his il­le­git­i­mate young daugh­ter with a stu­pen­dous dowry and the clear­ing of the bride­groom’s debts.

The 19-year-old bride, just five feet tall, was — on pa­per at least — the only daugh­ter of the aris­to­cratic Fred­er­ick Charles Womb­well and of Marie Feli­cie Boyer, who was of mixed French and Span­ish ex­trac­tion. How­ever, it was gen­er­ally ac­cepted by so­ci­ety that Almina was a Roth­schild, and the only child of Al­fred, who doted on her.

How­ever, while her pa­ter­nal Jewish­ness was ac­cepted, Almina’s mother was os­tracised. While she would of­ten at­tend grand par­ties with her fa­ther — held by Al­fred’s im­pos­ing sis­ter-in­law, Emma, Lady Roth­schild, the first lady of the Jewish com­mu­nity — her mother was rarely in­vited. Mrs Womb­well was merely tol­er­ated by the fam­ily at the ex­otic soirees that Al­fred in­dulged in.

The wed­ding break­fast, hosted by the mother of the bride, was held — much to the an­noy­ance of the Roth­schilds — at Lans­downe House, the pala­tial Lon­don home of the wid­owed Lord Rose­bery, once the home of their beloved cousin, Han­nah Rose­bery. Al­fred en­sured that his daugh­ter looked re­splen­dent in mag­nif­i­cent jew­ellery that he had bought for the oc­ca­sion. Need­less to say, the gos­sip col­umns had a field day. Almina’s mar­riage to Carnar­von gave both her and her mother the op­por­tu­nity to revel in their new po­si­tion in so­ci­ety. The mar­riage, how­ever, was not a suc­cess. Her hus­band was a semi-in­valid and the birth of a son, later the Sixth Earl, was marred by sug­ges­tions that he was the child of Prince Duleep Singh.

It was dur­ing the Great War that she came into her own. Her beau­ti­ful home was opened to wounded of­fi­cers, a bed­room be­came an op­er­at­ing theatre, the li­brary was turned into a day-room and another room be­came a din­ing area. The im­pres­sive grounds helped many a young man on his way to re­cov­ery. Almina de­vel­oped a hands-on ap­proach, even dress­ing wounds her­self, and con­tin­ued her so­cial work by open­ing a new hos­pi­tal in Bryanston Square. The grand­son of Lord Ten­nyson, who was him­self a pa­tient, wrote in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy how no at­ten­tion was too much trou­ble, the nurs­ing was won­der­ful and the food ex­quis­ite.

The Earl, mean­while, pre­ferred indulging him­self than his wife. He was one of the ear­li­est mo­tor­ing en­thu­si­asts, own­ing a car in France even be­fore mo­torists were given the free­dom of the road in Eng­land. But, af­ter a se­ri­ous mo­tor ac­ci­dent in Ger­many, a de­ci­sion was made that he would spend the win­ters in Egypt. He be­came a keen ar­chae­ol­o­gist and in 1908 be­gan ex­ca­vat­ing at a site at Luxor, team­ing up with the for­mer in­spec­tor-in-chief of an­tiq­ui­ties, a man called Howard Carter.

But it wasn’t un­til they reached the Val­ley of The Kings in 1917 when things re­ally took off. There, they re­ceived per­mis­sion to look for the tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tu­tankhamun.

On Novem­ber 4, 1922, the per­sis­tent ef­forts of the two men paid off when a set of steps and a sealed door­way were dis­cov­ered. A ca­ble was im­me­di­ately sent to the Earl’s wife, who ar­rived in Luxor look­ing suit­ably os­ten­ta­tious, with their glam­orous daugh­ter in tow.

Within a few days, they had found an en­trance pas­sage, blocked with rub­ble, which led to a sec­ond door­way bear­ing the seal of Tu­tankhamun. They then en­tered an an­te­room filled with trea­sures and a sealed door­way lead­ing to the burial cham­ber.

The dis­cov­ery of the se­cret tomb was an in­ter­na­tional sen­sa­tion, but the satir­i­cal mag­a­zine Punch called Lord Carnar­von “Sir Lazarus Sch­nor­rers”, Almina “Lady Sch­nor­rer”, and their daugh­ter, Eve­lyn, the girl who put the Lux into Luxor. It was a sneer­ing re­minder to English so­ci­ety that it was ‘‘for­eign’’ Roth­schild money that had paid for this mo­men­tous dis­cov­ery. The tomb was sealed but, in the midst of all the in­tense ex­cite­ment, tragedy struck. While shav­ing, the Earl was bit­ten on the cheek by a mos­quito and the bite turned sep­tic.

He was trans­ported to Cairo, but he died at the Con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tel on April 5, 1923. This event in­evitably started the­o­ries that dis­turb­ing the con­tents of the tomb had en­abled an an­cient curse to come into force.

The mar­riage of the Carnar­vons — aris­to­cratic heir and il­le­git­i­mate Jewish heiress — had not been a lov­ing one and there had been many ru­mours re­gard­ing the cou­ple’s re­la­tion­ship.

It didn’t sur­prise many that Almina, an at­trac­tive widow, mar­ried again within just a few months. She had known Lieu­tenant Colonel Ian Onslow Den­nis­toun for some time and nine months af­ter the death of his first wife, Almina mar­ried again.

This one lasted for 15 years un­til Almina was wid­owed once more. To­wards the end of this sec­ond mar­riage she ap­peared to be per­pet­u­ally short of money, hav­ing spent most of the for­tune that both Al­fred de Roth­schild and the Fifth Earl had left her, and was made bank­rupt in 1951, pur­sued by cred­i­tors. Her only son, Henry, had lit­tle good to say about his mother and con­sid­ered she had frit­tered away his in­her­i­tance.

Almina died in 1969 af­ter chok­ing on a chicken bone. Her great­est achieve­ment was the con­tri­bu­tion she made in nurs­ing the sick. Her hos­pi­tal at High­clere helped many back to health and she had con­tin­ued this at Bryanston Square and at Port­land Place up to the be­gin­ning of the Sec­ond World War.

Almina had man­aged to spend two for­tunes and ended her days in an or­di­nary ter­raced house in Bristol af­ter a tu­mul­tuous life. It is doubt­ful the fam­ily at Down­ton could ever have matched the orig­i­nal at High­clere.

PHOTO: PA

Tur­moil: But the fic­tional Down­ton was no match for the real High­clere scan­dals

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