'Downton Abbey': King George V, Queen Mary and the Real-Life Royal Visit That Inspired the Film

King George V and Queen Mary
Getty Images

A look at King George and Queen Mary, and how their visit with the Crawleys was inspired by a real-life event.

Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ beloved British upstairs-downstairs drama, continues with an all-new film in theaters on Friday. 

Picking up in 1927, just over a year after the show’s sixth and final season, which ended on New Year’s Day in 1926, the newest chapter in the franchise sees the return of the Crawley family and their servants as the Yorkshire country estate prepares for a visit by King George V and Queen Mary. (Catch up on everything you need to know about the series here.)

While the Crawleys and their servants are all fictional characters, their storylines have often interacted with real-life events -- from the sinking of the Titanic to the British general election of 1923 -- over the course of the series. And the royal visit is no different.   

Here’s what to know about the royal family, their real-life tour of England in 1927 and their connection to Queen Elizabeth II, who visited Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton.

King George V and Queen Mary

King George V and Queen Mary - Getty Images

Born George Frederick Ernest Albert on June 3, 1865, George V became king in 1910, after his father, Edward VII, died. His reign lasted for 26 years, until his own death at the age of 70 in 1936. His wife was Mary of Teck, whom he married in 1893 and later became the queen consort.

According to King George V: A Personal Memoir, he was widely liked and admired by the people of Britain and historian David Cannadine writes in the History in Our Time that he and Queen Mary were a virtuous and “devoted couple,” who upheld the values of British royalty. 

During his reign, George V reignited “the custom of the traveling monarch,” which, according to the New York Times, was not something done in such earnest since Elizabeth I was queen. These visits not only took them around the world through England’s vast colonial empire at the time, but also around the country as they connected firsthand with their people.  

Now seen today as “royal charm offensives,” the trips “brought the British monarchy into direct touch with the great industrial population of Wales, the Midlands and the north,” James Pope-Hennessy writes in Queen Mary, the royal’s official biography. 

In the film, they are portrayed by Simon Jones and Geraldine James, respectively. At the time of the visit, George V was 62 years old and Mary was 60. James says that getting to play the queen and experience that grandeur of how people bow, scrape and be polite was fascinating. Working with historical advisor Alastair Bruce, she had to learn all the specific details of being a royal, from how to hold a knife and fork during dinner to the way they spoke to others.     

Mary, Princess Royal

Mary, Princess Royal - Getty Images

While King George V and Queen Mary had a total of six children, only their daughter, Mary, is seen in the film. 

Born on April 25, 1897, the young royal was largely out of the spotlight until the first World War, when she started visiting hospitals and other welfare organizations. Mary, who would eventually become a nurse in 1918, took an active role in several charities and launched the Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift Fund, which, according to the Harewood House foundation, distributed £100,000 worth of gifts to British servicemen in 1914.

In 1922, at the age of 24, Mary married Viscount Lascelles, the 39-year-old elder son of Earl of Harewood. They had two sons, George and Gerald.

In the film, Mary, who would have been 30 years old at the time, is portrayed by Kate Phillips, while Andrew Havill is briefly seen as her husband, Lord Lascelles. While speaking with Digital Spy, Phillips described Mary as "quite a shy and modest character; she draws on her inner-strength and personal struggles as a member of the royal family.”

The Royal Visit

Queen Mary and King George V surrounded by a crowd in Yorkshire during 1912 visit. - Getty Images

While the interactions with the Crawleys are fictional, the film is said to be inspired by two of the royal family’s visits to Yorkshire, the home of Downton. 

The first was in 1912, when the couple visited mining and industrial areas after coal miners went on a national strike. According to the Sun, their tour took them to Wentworth Woodhouse, where “they were treated to entertainment by Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova and dined on a 13-course dinner before enjoying an extravagant ball.” Like the film, when they arrive, they were met by thousands of onlookers and a parade as well as several public events. 

The trip, however, overlapped with the Cadeby Main pit disaster, a coal mining disaster that killed 91 men, which led George V and Mary to visit the colliery and shake “the dirty hands of miners who had been recovering bodies all day and night,” the Sun reports.

The second visit in 1927 would have aligned with the fact that Princess Mary was living at Goldsborough Hall in North Yorkshire at the time, before later moving into the Harewood House. Fellowes says that allowed them to bring the royals into Downton Abbey’s current timeline, following the finale set in 1926.

While there’s plenty of characters and storylines to get through, producer Liz Trubridge says the film’s key events that depict the royal visit are the preparations, the arrival, a lunch, a parade with the king inspecting the Yorkshire Hussars and a big royal dinner. The final act takes the royals and the Crawleys to Harewood for a huge ball only fit for the two aristocratic families.        

Connection to Queen Elizabeth II

Mary of Teck with her grandchildren, Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and Prince Edward. - Getty Images

George V’s successor was his and Mary’s eldest son, Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne less than a year into his reign to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American woman who was deemed morally unacceptable by the Church of England. His departure left George VI, his brother and father to Elizabeth and Margaret, to take over the throne. 

Meanwhile, the queen has visited Highclere Castle, the real-life stand-in for Downton as well as the former home of Henry George Reginald Molyneux Herbert, 7th Earl of Carnarvon. He was a close friend to Elizabeth, affectionately known as Porchie, and managed her racing horses before dying in 2001. According to Elite Daily, “when Porchie was alive, the queen was known to take secret visits to the estate” to check out the horses stabled there.

While not in Downton Abbey, parts of these real-life events and people are depicted on The Crown, which recounts Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.

Of course, there’s no forgetting the time that Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, visited the set of Downton Abbey in 2015. Eight-months pregnant at the time, Middleton was greeted by Fellowes, before taking a behind-the-scenes tour of the production and watching scenes being filmed in the servants’ quarters. 

Recalling her experience “the day the Princess came to set,” Michelle Dockery told Jimmy Fallon that it was nerve-wracking. “Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna, and I were rehearsing a scene. And at that moment, she came on set and she was, you know, our audience,” she said, adding: “It probably what it felt like for a court jester back in the day, performing for the Royals. So we were quite nervous. But she was just, you know, so charming and gracious and beautiful.”