‘Downton Abbey’ Was Loosely Based on Creator Julian Fellowes’ Life

Real-life events inspired many moments in Downton Abbey. One of the biggest subplots in season 1 of the hit series was based on true events. Likewise, the Downton Abbey film took inspiration from real royal visits. But the show’s entire premise was based on the experiences of its creator, Julian Fellowes, who grew up in England’s upper class.

Julian Fellowes at the In Conversation event.
Julian Fellowes | Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Julian Fellowes used his life as inspiration for ‘Downton Abbey’

Fellowes grew up in the upper class. His father was an English diplomat, but his mother hadn’t been presented as a debutante, which caused drama in the family.

“My mother hadn’t been presented, she wasn’t a [debutante],” Fellowes explained to Closer (per E! Online). “My great aunts thought she had ‘caught’ [my father] and they never changed. They eventually tolerated her because she had been delivered of four healthy sons, so she had done her dynastic duty.”

Fellowes told the New York Times that as a young man, his father gave him some precious advice: ‘If you have the misfortune to be born into a generation which must earn its living, you might as well do something amusing.”

He graduated from Ampleforth and Cambridge and “ran with the upper classes,” even though he felt like an outsider, the “bottom of the top,” he said. “I wasn’t handsome, titled or rich. I was always the man who was asked because they were short of boys or because someone had dropped out, and I think that allows you to be a sort of fly on the wall, because nobody’s paying you any attention.”

Fellowes acted as a mid-level character actor for 30 years. He wrote 12 failed screenplays until he earned an Academy Award for his screenplay of Gosford Park in 2002. Then his success soared. When he wrote the first season of Downton Abbey, he used some of his own experiences as inspiration.

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Julian Fellowes is a Baron and lives in an impressive manor

Fellowes lives in a two-house (the first built in 1633, and the second in 1840) manor called Stafford House, located in Dorset, England. A tree on the property was featured in a scene in the 1999 Gwyneth Paltrow film Emma. His wife’s name is Emma too, and she’s a lady in waiting to Princess Michael of Kent. They have one son, Peregrine.

But his way of life sometimes has its disadvantages. When Downton premiered, the press called him a “toff” and said he banned guests from wearing blue jeans to lunch at his home, which was untrue. There was also the fact that Fellowes is a lifelong Tory. In Jan. 2011, he was appointed by David Cameron to the House of Lords, becoming Baron Fellowes of West Stafford. The press slammed him for that too.

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The press claims Julian Fellowes glamorizes the class system on ‘Downton Abbey’

According to the press, Fellowes has often glamorized the class system on Downton Abbey. Fellowes has always been a “fly on the wall” looking into the lives of the English aristocracy, so he knows a thing or two.

“I’m seen as a chronicler of the class system, which I don’t think is unfair,” Fellowes told the Times. “It is a whole side of the society here that I find quite intriguing, and happily the audience has come along with me. I think one of the things we got right with ‘Downton’ was that we treat the characters of the servants and the family exactly the same. Some of them are nice, some of them are not nice, some of them are funny, some of them are not, but there is no division between the servants and the family to mark that.”

“You could only represent it to their satisfaction if everyone downstairs was writhing in a state of permanent torment while everyone upstairs was vicious and violent, horrible and dishonest,” he continued. “The idea that both groups were just people trying to bash through their lives is alien to them.”

Bob Balaban, a producer of Gosford Park, knew that Fellowes understood class society too. In fact, Balaban said Fellowes has an “encyclopedic” knowledge on the subject.

Fellowes believes that he’s done a good job portraying all the characters on the show, even though it’s been challenging juggling over 15 different storylines. His next project is Downton Abbey: A New Era, which hits theaters on Mar. 18, 2022.