Series One: Episode One
The episode begins in April 1912. Robert, Earl of Grantham, and his wife Cora are shocked to hear that the man who was in line to inherit the title of Earl of Grantham, his cousin James Crawley, has perished alongside his son Patrick in the sinking of the Titanic. The Earl and his wife only have daughters and so the new heir is a distant cousin named Matthew Crawley. The estate of Downton Abbey is entailed, which means it goes along with the title of Earl, so Matthew will get the title and the estate as well as the money Cora brought to the marriage. The Earl had thought the estate would stay in the family as his eldest daughter Mary was engaged to marry Patrick (who would have eventually inherited from his father). The Earl wants to stick with tradition, even though it means his family will suffer, and not challenge the entail. His mother Violet is determined to break the entail, against the advice of the Earl’s lawyer who thinks it impossible.
Meanwhile below stairs the Earl has hired his batman from the army, John Bates, as his valet. This is a very unpopular move with Carson, the butler, and the other servants (Bates has a limp and walks with a cane, and they fear he will make more work for them) – apart from Anna, a housemaid, who likes him. Thomas, a footman who wanted the valet’s job for himself, works with Miss O’Brien, Cora’s maid, to make it look as though Bates is incompetent, and Cora and Carson persuade the Earl to dismiss him.However, the Earl changes his mind about this near the end of the episode and Bates stays.
The Duke of Crowborough comes to visit, and the family are hopeful that he will show an interest in Mary. He shows little interest, however, which changes to no interest when informed that there is no prospect of the Earl trying to break the entail. He (Crowborough) behaves very oddly, snooping around the servant’s quarters. We learn that Crowborough had been in a relationship with Thomas, who had told him to try and get engaged to Mary, hoping that he would become Crowborough’s valet if the entail was broken and Mary inherited. As this is not going to happen Thomas tries to blackmail Crowborough, and we find out why Crowborough was snooping in the servants’ quarters: he was retrieving compromising letters he had written to Thomas, which he burns.
The episode ends with our first sight of Matthew Crawley as he finds out that he is now the heir to Downton Abbey.