The Earl and the Pharaoh: From the real Downton Abbey … To the discovery of Tutankhamun


With all the Tutankhamun books published for the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the tomb, it is reasonable to wonder if there is really anything new to say. The Earl and the Pharaoh answers with a resounding ‘Yes’. The Countess had access to family archives and journals that provide a wealth of details. She paints a remarkably vivid picture of the times. Add to this that the Countess writes well and you have the makings of a very good read.

Much of the early part of the book deals with the future 5th Earl’s schooling. A sickly boy, ‘Porchey’ didn’t take to studies easily, and as he grew into a teenager he was more likely to be found at the racetrack with his privileged friends than in the library. The book offers a very rich portrait of the lifestyle of English nobility, who seem to be constantly running off to their estates for shooting or riding. The author also provides elaborate descriptions of the extravagant gowns worn by the young women at the endless balls of the social season. All these details provide the backdrop for who Carnarvon was and why he acted as he did.

Using Highclere’s guestbook, the author treats us to a list of which Egyptologists stayed at the castle, and it is far longer than one might expect. Carnarvon was always looking for advice about where the best spot to dig might be. There are some expected names – Winlock, Garstang, Newberry, Gardiner – but I never knew Budge was such a frequent guest, nor Leonard Woolley. There is a rich account of Carnarvon’s years excavating before permission to excavate in the Valley was obtained, and then, just as Carter and Carnarvon secure the permission, World War I breaks out. Although not of direct archaeological interest, the chapters on Carnarvon during the war years are both fascinating and poignant. Carnarvon was bothered by the fact that his weak lungs barred him from active service, but he found other ways to help the war effort. Lady Carnarvon was extremely intelligent and well organised, and quickly sprang into action establishing Highclere as a hospital for the wounded.

The book ends with the discovery of the tomb and the untimely death of Lord Carnarvon. The story is well known, but like the rest of the book, it is a tale well told, providing enough new detail to please even the most ardent Tutankhamun aficionados. There are a few slips that are a very small price to pay for such a good read. When discussing the poor condition of tomb KV55, the author says it caused the gold to disintegrate. Gold doesn’t disintegrate; the wood behind it does. The Giza Pyramids are said to be of the ‘4th century’ – a typo for Fourth Dynasty. The caption of the first illustration has the wrong year. Don’t let these quibbles deter you from reading this engrossing book.

The Earl and the Pharaoh: From the real Downton Abbey ... To the discovery of Tutankhamun 
The Countess of Carnarvon
Harper Collins, 2022 ISBN 987-0-06-326422-9 
Hardback £20; paperback £10.99