I’m a big fan of “Downton Abbey,” so naturally I have been anticipating this season’s series premiere for several months. Following the episode, there was a special on how the show accurately represents the customs and manners of 1900s Britain. If you’re not familiar with “Downton,” the show centers around the wealthy Crawley family, headed by the Earl of Grantham and his multi-millionaire American heiress wife Cora. As it turns out, the idea of an American woman becoming a titled aristocrat isn’t as sensationalized for television as you might think.
During the late 19th century, hundreds of rich bachelorettes crossed the pond in hopes of snagging a member of the British aristocracy. At the time, a depression in agriculture threatened the fortunes and estates of the noblemen. The money brought with these “Dollar Princesses,” as they came to be known, provided the much-needed cash to keep the estates and family fortunes afloat. Their dowries were built from the prosperity of Industrialism, where iron and steel manufacturing, oil production and shipbuilding meant big money. In exchange, the American heiresses received social status and a title.
They read pamphlets that identified the European royal bachelors and sought out self-help guides that offered instruction on etiquette of the aristocracy. A quarterly publication called “The Titled American” listed the successfully married ladies, as well as the names of eligible titled bachelors.
These Gilded Age heiresses married more than a third of the titles represented in the House of Lords, and announcements of these transatlantic marriages were pervasive in the newspapers of the day.
Notable names included Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Spencer Churchill and later gave birth to son Winston Churchill; Nancy Langhorne, who married William Waldorf Astor and later became the first woman to take a seat in the British parliament (her sister Irene married Charles Dana Gibson and became a prototype for the Gibson Girl); and Mary Leiter, whose husband Lord Curzon was appointed Viceroy of India, giving Mary the highest position an American woman has ever held in the British empire. (According to the Daily Mail, she was the inspiration for the character of Lady Cora in “Downton Abby.”)
An accompanying graphic to the article “She Has Landed Her Duke,” (The Herald, Los Angeles, Calif., Sept. 21, 1895) likens Dollar Princess Consuelo Vanderbilt as “merchandise” and she and her intended, the Duke of Marlborough, as commercial commodities to be traded.
One of Vanderbilt’s bridesmaids, May Goelet, was also much sought after. According to “The Duke of Roxburghe Gets His Heiress-Bride,” (The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Honolulu, Hawaii, Nov. 11, 1903), her suitors included the Duke of Roxburghe (whom she married), the Grand Duke Boris of Russia, Prince Francis of Teck, Prince Henri of Orleans, Prince Hugo of Hohenlohe, the Prince of Saga, the Duke of Abruzzi, the Duke of Manchester, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord Ingestre, Lord Dalmeny and Lord Crichton.
And, in a headline that you just can’t make up, “How the Heiress’s Horses Picked Her Husband,” (The Richmond-Dispatch, Richmond, Va., April 22, 1917) lumber heiress Loula Long measured the worth of her suitors by the reaction of her horses.
“I’m quite sure no man could ever pass muster with me unless he not only loves my dog and my horse, but was loved as well by them,” she said.
While she was courted by such nobility as Prince Ledochowski of Poland and Grand Duke Michael Michaelovitch of Russia, her horses literally lead her to the arms of her husband, Pryor R. Combs, the son of the minister of the Independence Boulevard Christian Church where her family attended services.
“Downton Abbey” is filmed at Highclere Castle in West Berkshire, a real estate that is the country seat of the Earl of Carnarvon. The history of the estate and its real-life inhabitants include the contributions of a dollar princess. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon married Almina Wombwell, illegitimate daughter of millionaire banker Alfred de Rothschild. Her dowry helped sustain the family estate. Most notably, her husband was a key figure in the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. You can read more about Highclere Castle and the Carnarvon family in the January-February 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.
Also searching for “Highclere Castle” or “Earl of Carnarvon” in Chronicling America will turn up several articles about the family.
Sources: Smithsonian Magazine; “To Marry an English Lord,” by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace