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Characters of Downton Abbey

If you are not already eating, sleeping and breathing Downton Abbey, the Edwardian-era drama created by Julian Fellowes that has taken the UK and US television audience by storm, then you may feel overwhelmed by its large cast of characters. It is not quite like keeping the characters of a Dickens novel straight, but it may feel close, especially if all you’re catching are bits of Downton gossip on Facebook.  After all, an estate the size of Downton Abbey requires a sizeable staff to run it, both inside and out. And, of course, there is also the family, those of the aristocracy who call Downton Abbey their home. But in its way, Downton is home not just to the family upstairs, but to the servants downstairs as well. And within this grand home, Fellowes has assembled a veritable feast of characters, sumptuous, savory, sophisticated and sweet. So without giving too much away – oh rue the day when spoilers rob you of your Downton fun! – the following list provides a glimpse into the major players. 

Upstairs

Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, mother to Robert, is a formidable woman who is fiercely devoted to her family, its honor and to the traditions and manners of the aristocracy. She is also a woman who knows how to insult with a great deal of refined wit and, for the audience, a great deal of humor. Her barbs are a delicious delight. But she is not without her pathos as well, albeit kept in check by a stiff upper lip. 

Robert, the Earl of Grantham is the benevolent Patriarch, and in his own words, he is “a custodian, not an owner” of Downton Abbey.  He carries the weight of keeping Downton running and in good condition to pass along to the next generation. Unfortunately, at the top of the series, events conspire to complicate the issue of inheritance.  And furthermore his only children are girls, and therefore, unable to inherit. They are, however, able to marry….

Cora, the Countess of Grantham is an American heiress whose money previously saved Downton. She arrived in England as one of the wealthy
young ladies referred to as the Buccaneers, looking for a suitable marriage. She is a loving mother doing her best to bridge the culture gap and navigate different rules and manners than that which she has been accustomed.

Lady Mary is the eldest daughter of Robert and Cora, a great beauty, poised and accomplished, well into marriageable age, who fully intends to someday be mistress of Downton. She is practical and competitive in her pursuit of a good marriage that would secure Downton, and yet, hidden
underneath her game face, is a heart that desires a deep and abiding love. If only she could have both.

Lady Edith suffers from the complaints of a middle child. She is desperate for affirmation and finding an identity beyond comparisons with her sisters, but because she’s initially lost to it, she acts out with jealous scheming. And the drama thickens.

Lady Sybil, the youngest daughter, is an idealist and more fully part of the changing and charged time in which she lives. She is the most unconventional of the family, and though she is sweet-tempered, she is also willful, ambitious in her convictions, and brave.

Matthew Crawley, a young solicitor in the upper-middle classes, finds himself, as a distant relation to Lord Grantham, the new heir to Downton. But, as someone who supports the current direction of social change, he’s unsure he wants the job. And he most certainly does not want a valet,
thank you very much.

Isobel Crawley, Matthew’s mother, is an educated woman and do-gooder, supportive of her successful son, but also sees this turn of events as a stroke of good luck. She is eager, perhaps overeager, to make herself useful and to make her mark at Downton.

Downstairs

Charles Carson, as the butler, is the top of the downstairs hierarchy and has perhaps the closest relationship to those upstairs, sometimes a confidant to Lord Grantham and sometimes a second father to his favorite, Lady Mary. He has deep pride in his work and is a strict taskmaster to those under his authority. But he is also warm, loyal, even self-sacrificing as times. And he might just have the spiciest secret of all.

Elsie Hughes, the housekeeper, is head of all the housemaids. She is keeper of the keys. And though she has spent of successful career in service, she has doubts of the road she has taken. But enough of that; there is work to be done.

Beryl Patmore, as the cook, is the director of her own little stage, the kitchen. She is responsible for impressing the family and their important guests with succulent dishes that show off fresh fare from the estate farms. And she does it all with her very own form of sauciness. 

John Bates is Lord Grantham’s new valet. He arrives off the train, a cripple, revising his role of right-hand man to Lord Grantham from their days together during the Boer War. He is met with doubtful looks from some, outright hostility from others, and an encouraging welcome from a certain someone. And who could blame anyone for falling for those sensitive yet dignified teddy bear eyes?

Sarah O’Brien is Lady Grantham’s lady’s maid who knows just how to wield the power her position has given her. Her scheming, conniving and
manipulating are well-honed skills. Try not to cross her.

Thomas Barrow is sharp in his livery as the first footman, though his ambition, thwarted by the arrival of Bates, is to be a valet. He and O’Brien are partners in villainy, so long as it suits them both. But each has a skeleton that may come in handy in the event of betrayal.  

Anna Smith has been diligently doing her job as head housemaid, possibly on track to have the career of Mrs. Hughes, expecting little more, until the arrival of a certain someone with the eyes. She is kind-hearted, though in no way a fool to the scheming of Thomas and O’Brien.

Tom Branson, the well-read chauffer, is an Irish socialist and a Catholic, in ideology, the bane of the English aristocracy. In person, he’s a complication, but how and for whom?

Daisy Robinson is on the lowest rung of the hierarchy. She is the first to rise in the morning and most likely has the worst of all jobs, and yet she manages to retain a child-like joy of simple pleasures – for a while anyway. She is also highly impressionable and a bit superstitious. There’s probably more than one ghost that haunts those vast halls.

And last but not least, Downton Abbey itself feels a featured character. Much of the drama stems from the question of her fate. And she is, in great splendor, witness to all the joys and heartbreaks, deceptions and alliances formed within her walls. (The upstairs scenes are filmed at
Highclere Castle in which little of the set has been changed except for the addition of a few palms which were fashionable at the time).

Of course there are several other characters in the form of footmen and housemaids and various suitors and relatives who come and go throughout the first three seasons. And what’s more, there’s a fourth season to anticipate! So catch up and get ready to delight in the company of some of your favorite characters and perhaps meet a few more.