When Matthew Crawley knelt in the snow before Mary Grantham in the season two finale of"Downton Abbey,"5.4 million people tuned in to see the cursed lovers finally gain some closure.
But the Grantham haunts came to three-dimensional life for 23 Christopher Newport University students after a summer course granted them an exclusive tour of Highclere Castle, where "Downton Abbey" is filmed.
"I was standing upstairs and looked over and saw the bedroom and the hallway of the scene where they carried the dead body of the Turkish diplomat," said CNU history major and aspiring teacher Kat Silva.
Everywhere students looked it seemed as if some relic of the PBS series, set in the early 19th century, appeared.
"When we arrived, we had tea and a meal in a nice pavilion in the back yard," said biology major Jessie Crumpler. "Then we toured the house and in each room, they had a character description, or an event description like this is the room that a character died in. I have been to Windsor Castle, but I have never seen anything like Highclere Castle."
Even Napolean Bonaparte has played a part in the show. The desk in the Grantham sitting room belonged to the famous French emperor.
"It [the show] does animate and bring to life what we read in history books," said retired CNU political science professor Stanley Hash, who accompanied students on the trip. "Even though it is partially fictional, it is partially true, and that is good enough."
An empty glass of wine next to a John Grisham book within what looked like Mary Grantham's room gave some students a present day shock, reminding them that "Downton Abbey" is not just the fictional home of the Granthams. Highclere Castle has housed the earls of Carnarvon for 300 years, but the 1,000-acre home was recently closed to public tours because of the show.
Egypt in London
The CNU class was allowed special admission not because they were studying "Downton Abbey" or even theater, but Egyptian history.
Beneath Highclere's decadent rooms and sweeping staircases, the castle's bowels hold ancient Egyptian artifacts collected by the fifth earl of Carnarvon, the co-discoverer of King Tutankhamen's tomb.
An exception to the tour rule was made after Dr. Anthony Santoro, the class professor, appealed to the Egyptian academic background of the Countess Lady Fiona Carnarvon's, wife of the eighth earl.
"The current earl spent half of million pounds sterling and had recreated in magnificent form King Tut's artifacts," Santoro said. "There are authentic original Egyptian antiquities and now you have reproductions but really beautifully made that trained Egyptologists can't tell the difference."
It was only after the eighth earl's butler informed the household that artifacts were hidden in the castle's passageways that Highclere's rich Egyptian history was discovered.
Yet throughout the visit, the castle continued to remind students that it straddled multiple time periods. A chance spotting of the Countess Carnarvon carrying a tray of tea to her employees gave the visitors another modern-day shock.
"I thought it was kind of strange at first, a countess carrying tea. But she is a modern countess," Hash said. "The British are a lot less stiff than they used to be. That image alone shows how things have changed and the students got to see that.
"From a political science viewpoint," Hash said, "you begin questioning the value of the monarchy."
Questioning the validity of the monarchy seemed the last thing on the minds of British citizens as Diamond Jubilee celebrations came under full swing during the class' 10-day visit.
Santoro, CNU's professor emeritus of history, has been traveling to London for more than 40 years. But in the midst of the Diamond Jubilee events, Santoro said he got a taste of a London he had never quite encountered before.
"I was amazed to see young people, different races and ethnic groups ... someone from New Zealand and another from Scotland, all calling themselves British ... they all came out and it wasn't just the old ones who remember World War II," Santoro said as he described a parade thrown in the Queen's honor.
"Only once have I seen London in such celebration before and that was for the Queen Mother's birthday in 2000," he said. "But it was even bigger this year. Any American president would love to have her popularity rankings, which are at 80 percent."
Even students who attended Jubilee events between museum visits and writing papers for the three- credit course took note of some cultural differences.
"A lot of the styles in England are very urban and individualistic. From where I'm from in suburban Virginia, it is very different ... we wear a lot more colors," CNU English major Hillary Lane said.
Queen Elizabeth II herself gave off an air of individualism during the festivities in her honor.
"The queen, if you notice, does a lot of things for herself. She an enduring, tough, old lady and that translates to the English population," Hash said. "The queen portrays what they [the British] think of themselves."
And as students start writing their final eight- to 10-page paper on Egypt due in August, Hash expects that the full experience has only begun to sink in.
"When I would take my students there, it wasn't until months later until they said 'wow,'" Hash said. "Students tend to absorb that stuff subconsciously and then realize it later."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun