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Downton Abbey’s Amazing Canadian Connection

Downton Abbey's Amazing Canadian Connection - Highclere Castle and Sir John A's Crusade and Seward's Magnificent Folly

by Richard Rohmer

Amazing coincidences rarely happen for authors of historical fiction but the interlock of the incredibly popular British television series Downton Abbey and my novel Sir John A.’s Crusade and Seward’s Magnificent Folly is just that – amazing!

The book factually tracks two lines. The first is the story of the Canadian Fathers of Confederation led by John A. Macdonald (later to be Canada’s first Prime Minister) in England in 1866/67 negotiating with the British government for legislation that finally gives autonomy to the colony of Canada. This is an exciting, dramatic adventure that lasts from November of 1866 when John A. finally arrives in London through the passage of the British North America Act in March of 1867 and the official day of Canada’s beginning as declared by Queen Victoria as 1 July 1867.

The second line — half fact, half fiction — tracked by Sir John A.’s Crusade covers the negotiations with the Tsar of Russia and his representatives by the American Secretary of State, William Seward (and also secretly by Sir John A. for Canada) for the purchase of Alaska. The machinations between the bidders are intense. As we all know, it was Seward who was successful in acquiring one of the most strategic (militarily) and resource-wealthy sectors of the planet for peanuts —$7 million dollars—leaving John A. to wonder what happened.

If you want to meet William Seward, you’ll find him at the centre of Steven Spielberg’s superb movie Lincoln, in which Seward is that great President’s Secretary of State. He is to continue under the hapless President Andrew Johnson. Copies of this book are en route to Spielberg and the excellent actor who played the part of Seward so convincingly well (even looks like him), David Strathairn.

Downton Abbey's Highclere Castle - ExteriorDownton Abbey's Highclere Castle - Interior

But what about the amazing Downton Abbey coincidence? It starts in Chapter 3 of my book, written long before Downton Abbey was created. Sir John A. Macdonald, Georges Étienne Cartier and Alexander Galt are the guests of the Colonial Secretary in the British cabinet, Lord Carnarvon, at his home near Newbury, England. They are opening with Carnarvon the discussion and negotiating points that they want in the proposed legislation that will bring all the provinces in Canada together in a federation. This is the most important meeting in the negotiations for Canada’s autonomy.

And where is it held? In Lord Carnarvon’s ancestral home, the massive, beautiful Highclere Castle! Coincidentally that Castle is none other than the stunning Downton Abbey, resplendent outside and in, within every hour of the wonderful television series.

This strong and basic connection of Highclere Castle/Downton Abbey was certainly a pleasant surprise for the author of the book and promises to be the same for the renowned novelist and screenwriter of the Downton Abbey series, Lord Julian Fellowes.


Editor’s Note: Today, January 11, is Sir John A. Macdonald Day. Prime Minister Stephen Harper released a statement saying, in part, “‘A great nation—great in thought, great in action, great in hope, and great in position,’ was how he described Canada’s future. Canadians give thanks today that his dream has largely been accomplished.”


Relive or discover all the drama, suspense, intrigue and romance of Downton Abbey Wednesdays at 9pm ET/6pm PT. Series 1 airs until Feb. 13. Series 2 airs from Feb. 20 to April 3 and our Canadian premiere of Series 3 begins on April 10.

Sir John A.'s Crusade and Seward's Magnificent Folly by Richard Rohmer, published by DundurnAbout the author: Major-General Richard Rohmer is Canada’s most decorated citizen. A commander of the Order of Military Merit and an Officer of the Order of Canada, his career began in World War II, in which he earned the reputation as one of Canada’s top Mustang reconnaissance pilots. For his service, which includes flying over the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. A lawyer, litigator, journalist, and best-selling author of 28 fiction and non-fiction books, Rohmer has met with such public figures as Queen Elizabeth, General George Patton, “Intrepid” Sir William Stephenson, Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton, and has flown with John F. Kennedy. He lives with his wife in Collingwood, Ontario, and practises law in Toronto.

Major-General Rohmer’s newest book, Sir John A.’s Crusade and Seward’s Magnificent Folly, a “rousing tale of historical speculation set on the eve of the birth of a nation”, published by Dundurn, is available now.

– all photos of Highclere Castle (c) NBC Universal/ITV. All rights reserved.

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