A royal revenge?
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A royal revenge?

If, like me, you are a fan of the British costume drama series Downton Abbey, you were probably pleased to read in the newspapers recently that the show has generated enough money to pay the 11.75 million pounds so desperately needed for the repairs at Highclere Castle in Berkshire,

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Thu 14 Feb 2013 1:00 AM

If,
like me, you are a fan of the British costume drama series Downton Abbey, you were probably pleased to read in the newspapers
recently that the show has generated enough money to pay the 11.75 million
pounds so desperately needed for the repairs at Highclere Castle in Berkshire,
England, where the saga about the Earl of Grantham, his family and servants is
filmed. Now an important tourist attraction with more than 1,000 paying
visitors a day flocking to visit the stately home during the summer, it has
been the ancestral seat of the Carnarvon earldom since 1679. With this newly
found cash, its current owners, the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, have
been able restore the estate to its former glory. But this is not the only
great house that the earls of Carnarvon have owned. There was at least one
other-in Italy. Named Villa Altachiara, it was built in 1874 by the 4th Earl of
Carnarvon (1831-1890). Set in a magnificent park on the Italian Riviera, more
than a century later, the 40-room villa was the scene of an unsolved mystery, so
baffling that some believe the deadly vengeance of an ancient ruler was to
blame.

 

Affectionately
called ‘Twitters’ by his family because of his nervous twitches, the 4th Earl
of Carnarvon, Henry Howard Molyneux Herbert, was a prominent politician and leading
member of the UK Conservative Party. Serving twice as secretary of state for
the Colonies, he had very progressive ideas about the independence of Canada
and Australia, then British colonies. For a period, he was also lord lieutenant
of Ireland. Like other members of his family before him, he travelled widely,
but prompted by concern for the delicate health of his young son and heir,
George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, born in London on June 26, 1866, he
decided to build his family’s holiday retreat in Italy on a promontory
overlooking the picturesque seaside town of Portofino in Liguria.

 

When
his father died in 1890, George Herbert became the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, but
he was known simply as Lord Carnarvon. He inherited not only the title but also
Highclere Castle and Villa Altachiara. An inveterate traveller like his
forebear, this tall, gangly aristocrat was an accomplished sailor, a sport he
learnt boating in the waters off Portofino. He loved horses, and after
establishing the celebrated Highclere Stud, he became a steward at Newbury
racecourse when it was founded in 1905. 

 

In
1895, on his 29th birthday, Lord Carnarvon married Almina Victoria Maria
Alexandra Wombwell, the daughter of Marie Baye and, apparently, of her husband,
Frederick Charles Wombwell. It is, however, more than probable that she was the
illegitimate daughter of Alfred Rothchild (1842-1918) of the wealthy banking
dynasty, who throughout the couple’s married life generously supplemented their
income, often seconding their whims or paying off the earl’s debts.

 

In
1901, while indulging in his love of driving around Europe in his race car,
Lord Carnarvon had a near-fatal accident in Germany that left him with a
permanent limp and badly injured lungs. Acting on doctor’s advice to winter in
a dryer and warmer place than England, he chose Egypt as his destination. To
while away the time there-and because it was then fashionable-he decided to
take up Egyptology as a hobby. He oversaw the concession he had been granted in
the Valley of the Kings but soon realised he needed professional help with the
excavations. Through a friend, he was introduced to the English archaeologist
Howard Carter. The rest is history. With Lord Carnarvon’s financial backing,
incremented by Rothchild’s money, and Carter’s expertise, the two men
collaborated from 1906 until 1922. In what was to be their last season digging,
they discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, the richest burial site ever found.
Regrettably, Lord Carnarvon would never get to see the work completed. On April
5, 1923, he died at the Continental-Savoy Hotel in Cairo from an infected
mosquito bite. His sudden death so soon after the tomb had been opened kindled
the myth that he was cursed by the young pharaoh for disturbing his eternal
peace.

 

On
January 8, 2001, this myth resurfaced, when Countess Francesca Vacca Agusta,
the 58-year old former model and widow of the Italian helicopter magnate
Corrado Agusta, died tragically. Believed to have fallen from the terrace of
Villa Altachiara, where she lived, her body washed up on the French coast three
weeks later, some 370 kilometres from Portofino. Many aspects of the case
remain unexplained and, although the coroner ruled her death was accidental,
intrigue surrounds it, and there are those who still ask whether it was
something more, namely, suicide or murder, that led to her demise. According to
press reports, her brother believes it was a homicide.

Since
2009, all attempts to sell Villa Altachiara to pay off the unfortunate
countess’s unpaid taxes have failed. No one appears too willing to perturb King
Tut or make him angry again.

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