Canada’s Confederation history bound up in the real life Downton Abbey

Lord and Lady Carnarvon in front of their world famous home, Highclere Castle.

The work of statesmen and women often gets done on the sidelines during a round of golf or at a good meal on a country estate.

In the case of Canada, the home of Henry Herbert, the 4th Earl of Carnarvon was such a place.

Highclere Castle sits on 2,000 hectares in Hampshire, England. In the late fall of 1866, a delegation Canadians landed in Britain to shepherd Confederation and the British North America Act through the British Parliament.

Lord Carnarvon and John A. Macdonald maintained a steady correspondence over eight weeks as the BNA Act was being drafted. Carnarvon presented the finished act to the Parliament in February 1867.

Highclere’s lush surroundings has become hallowed ground for Canadians. But most of the world probably knows it better as the setting for one of the most popular television dramas to ever come out of Britain, Downton Abbey.

Christopher McCreery

For Canadian author and historian Christopher McCreery, Highclere Castle was the backdrop “for dinner parties that provided the social lubricant of Confederation.”

Most of the nuts and bolts negotiating of Confederation had been settled at the Quebec Conference, but there was one last step to take in Britain and, as Colonial Secretary, Carnarvon was a key player, McCreery said.

The Canadian delegation included Macdonald, Sir George Etienne Cartier and Alexander Tilloch Galt. From the Maritimes there was Charles Tupper and Leonard Tilley.

But the extent of the close relationship between Macdonald and Lord Carnarvon was discovered by the spouse of the current earl. Lady Fiona Carnarvon is a historian and has written a couple of books about the family. She maintains a blog about the history of the Castle and her family. In her research she came across extensive correspondence between the two men and has become quite interested in Highclere’s Canadian connection.

“As a Canadian historian, I don’t find many people outside of our country who get terribly interested in us all that often,” McCreery said. “It’s interesting the love she has developed for Canada for Confederation period and who we have become.”

The 4th Earl of Carnarvon was midwife to Confederation.

McCreery and the countess will sit down for a chat at the Canadian Museum of History on April 27, followed by what looks like a pretty posh tea with finger sandwiches, homemade Lady Carnarvon scones with whipped butter, clotted cream and assorted jams and assorted Petits Fours.

McCreery has a connection to the museum which includes six years on the board of directors during which he helped with the History Hall among other things.

He understands the importance of the personal relationships between leaders.

These days these interactions might take place on the golf course as opposed to hunting parties and billiard rooms.

The closeness is reflected in the letters between Macdonald and the 4th Earl. Cartier was even moved to write a little poem in the Highclere guest book as an indication of how important this all was. That role was recognized in 2018 when Janice Charette, the Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, planted a maple tree on the lawn at Highclere.

While the British parliament was not consumed with a desire to create Canada, the BNA Act and what was in it mattered deeply to the Canadians. What did matter to the British was that their North American colonies would be united in a federation governing much of their own affairs.

Carnarvon was also moving forward on the same kind of track with Australia and with South Africa.

“In the wake of the U.S. Civil War when one might think that a federation might not be the way to go, these men were thinking about how to make one work in a different context,” McCreery said.

“Carnarvon was pushing the idea” and the Canadians were making the point that linking everyone together would make the larger whole more defensible, he said.

Carnarvon was the champion of Confederation in the British cabinet.

The federal state that has evolved in Canada is much more flexible than most other federal states save for Australia which is the closest other example, McCreery said.

That flexibility has served us well.

“With Australia and Canada, Confederation seen as a natural evolution and proof that the Empire was working.”

The new country would be called a dominion, something that existed until Louis St. Laurent removed it.

McCreery said Tilley is the one who suggested that the new Canada be called a dominion. He grabbed the idea from the Bible. Apparently some had suggested the Kingdom of Canada but that sparked a worry about upsetting the Americans, so that was dropped.

McCreery says that Carnarvon was fond of country walks, refined dinner parties and discussing affairs of state.

“He was very measured and he had an old Tory view of the world.”

When the Canadians arrived at Highclere Castle they entered a building which is about 120,000 square feet. The new Parliament building in Ottawa was 110,000 square feet.

“It must have a been a bit overwhelming,” he said and Carnarvon certainly seemed to put them at their ease.

Running a large estate is something McCreery knows a bit about. His day job is as private secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia.

“I am responsible for running the 218 year old Government House. We get about 14,000 people through the house every year and we hold some 200 events each year.” Highclere gets more visitors, especially after Downton Abbey. It takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain Government House a year, he said. Highclere is 4 1/2 times bigger on a huge property.

These days the tourist trade at Highclere, flowing from Downton Abbey, has allowed the family to undertake major renovations on the castle which is an Italianate building built in the 1840s.

McCreery says he’ll be asking Lady Carnarvon about all of that and more: about her impressions of Carnarvon’s relationship with Macdonald et al; about the entertainment done in Highclere in that period.

Disraeli talks about the banquets at this time in his diaries. He said the dinners were prodigious. In one of her articles, McCreery notes, Lady Carnarvon says staff were warned to put the alcohol away when Sir John A. was around.

The federalism that Carnarvon helped create still functions today in Canada. There are stresses and strains but the country soldiers on. Meanwhile, McCreery notes, the British are having to evolve their own version of federalism. What goes around comes around.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.