What happens when the master of country-house intrigue comes up against facts that are stranger than fiction? “I enjoy writing Downton Abbey and suppose I’ve made my living out of writing about fictional houses occupied by fictional characters,” says Julian Fellowes who, over the next two weeks, is visiting two real-life residences, Goodwood House and, this week, Burghley House – home of the descendants of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, for 500 years. “But Britain’s great houses are not just houses for posh people to live in. Their history belongs to all of us. So there’s a story for everyone in this kind of place.”
Take the story of Thomas Brinknell, an undercook at Burghley, and the 17-year-old Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere – then under the guardianship of Lord Burghley, later to become his son-in-law. It was 23 July 1567 and the unlucky undercook had the misfortune to enter the garden where De Vere was practising fencing. Somehow Brinknell was wounded by De Vere’s rapier in the thigh – and died.
Fellowes tracks down the coroner’s report of the time, which claims Thomas Brinknell, “drunk and deceived by the incitement of the devil rushed upon the point of the earl’s sword and pierced himself in the thigh and gave to himself a mortal wound”.
“We’re being asked to believe that Brinknell committed suicide,” says an astonished Fellowes, a verdict that means he couldn’t be buried in hallowed ground and forfeited all his property.
And he’s properly incensed by what records reveal of the subsequent treatment of the hapless undercook and his pregnant widow: “I can’t bear it for her: her husband is murdered; her son is born and dies [within a month of the birth], and she’s stripped of all her property. And this is all done to avoid besmirching the reputation of Lord Oxford. Dearie me, I’m not much of a revolutionary but now and then you do so see their point.
“Maybe it was an accident but why did they have to go on with this ludicrous story of him running on to Oxford’s sword? You think of that pregnant widow and they just took everything she had and blackened his name and ruined the lives of his family. It’s so savage!”
WHEN TO VISIT
Burghley House, Lincolnshire: Burghley opens for the season again from 16 March daily (except Fridays). burghley.co.uk
Goodwood House, West Sussex: Julian Fellowes unveils the house's secrets next week. You can visit most Sundays and Mondays from 17 March. goodwood.co.uk
Crom Castle, Fermanagh: The beautiful setting for BBC1's Blandings is not open to the public. However, the West Wing of the castle is available for hire. cromcastle.com
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire: Reopening on 9 February, it has an exhibition on its film and TV connections, including Young Victoria. blenheimpalace.com
Highclere Castle, Berkshire: The much-loved location for Downton Abbey reopens on 30 March and you can buy tickets in advance via their website. highclerecastle.co.uk
Great Houses with Julian Fellowes is on Tuesday at 9:00pm on ITV