Religion and Downton Abbey

As Season 3 of Downton Abbey unfolds on PBS, we asked Rev. Ian Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, to ponder religious and spiritual themes in the series, from the invisibility of God to the relationship between faith and a rapidly changing social order.


REV. IAN MARKHAM (Dean and President, Virginia Theological Seminary): Downton Abbey is a remarkable series. It’s both a costume drama and an imaginative soap opera. It’s got a superb script, the dialogue is riveting, and it captures the complexity of human life in all its richness. There are many shadow-sides to many of the characters that enables a viewer to empathize and be moved with the narrative and with the stories that develops and grows.

We see how organization of form of a society can be eroded or undermined by the complexity and predicaments that individuals get into, and the truth about being human is we’re all like that. There’s that lovely phrase Lord Grantham uses in talking to Carson, and he says there are chapters of all our lives we’d rather not be read by others. What’s interesting about that moment is it captures a sub-theme of the entire series, that what’s true of most lives is there are complexities in our past, there are ambiguities, there are moments of pain that we live with that affects the present, but we don’t want to share with everybody.

LADY MARY CRAWLEY: Papa? What’s the matter?

ROBERT, EARL OF GRANTHAM: Nothing’s the matter. What should be the matter?

REV. MARKHAM: Religion plays a very interesting role in the series. On one level, it’s relatively invisible. But you would expect religion to be more present in their lives. You do see the connection between religion and cosmic events in this respect: It’s a social commentary in many ways. It’s a social history. So you get the Titanic, you get World War I, you get the emancipation of Ireland, you get the vote of women, you have all these significant social events which actually reflects on a sort breaking down of the semi-feudal structure, aristocratic control and elitism being slowly undermined.


WILLIAM: Yes, my lady.

VIOLET: I thought you might be walking on stilts.

REV. MARKHAM: And there is a sort of interesting question about whether or not the sort of disequilibrium that makes up the present in Season 3 is a spiritual failing. There are practices, faith practices which come out repeatedly, so there’s quite a lot of praying that goes on. Lady Mary prays for Matthew when he’s injured in the war with real passion and sincerity. So prayer is actually an important sub-theme, and there is a sense in which it is a classic form of English Anglicanism, which in many ways is very supportive of traditional structures, and as those traditional structures break down the English Anglicanism is undermined and eroded as well.

One way in which the series is actually very illuminating is to think about faith and change, to think about social order and faith, to think about the ways in which we’ve got to adapt to a plural society. I mean, what’s very interesting about Season 3 is the whole issue of Catholicism. You’re talking English anti-Catholicism is deeply entrenched. How does an established form of religion adapt to an increasingly complex world with intrinsic pluralism of faith perspectives and a social order which doesn’t just enjoy the habit of Anglicanism?

VIOLET: I’m so looking forward to seeing your mother again. When I’m with her I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.

MATTHEW CRAWLEY: But isn’t she American?

VIOLET: Exactly.

REV. MARKHAM: Those one-liners from Maggie Smith are just sublime. Sometimes wicked, sometimes insightful, sometimes wrapped in prejudice, and she utters the lines we all wish we could utter. And there’s a deep biblical strand which celebrates and reflects on the power of conversation.

ROBERT (to Cora): Thank God she missed tonight’s drama, or we’d never hear the end of it.

CORA, COUNTESS OF GRANTHAM: Don’t worry. She’ll bring enough drama of her own.

ROBERT (to banker): Are you really telling me that all the money is gone?

BANKER: I’m afraid so.

REV. MARKHAM: This series, partly because of its powerful dialogue, captures that facet of human reality very nicely, indeed.

ROBERT: I won’t give in, Murray. I’ve sacrificed too much to Downton to give in now. I refuse to be the failure. The earl who dropped the torch and let the flame go out.

REV. MARKHAM: In many ways it’s a secular introduction to what the crisis of faith might look like. In other words, the crisis of faith is not explicitly grounded or framed in God-talk. There’s very little explicit reference to God in the television series. Grace does not take place at meals, even though there’s a lot of eating. They rarely go to church, except for a wedding, and even then you don’t see much of the wedding service. So faith is strangely non-explicit, and yet simultaneously faith is very present. And what I think the series is doing is inviting us to think of faith in a new and different way. Faith is interpreting how we relate to each other. Faith is coping with the complexity of our past. Faith is carrying the baggage that shapes us all into the present and doing so in ways that are ameliorated and less damaging. Faith is hope even when you are in a predicament of hopelessness. All these themes bubble through countlessly.

JOHN BATES: Do you never doubt? For just one minute? I wouldn’t blame you.

ANNIE: No. I don’t doubt that the sun will rise in the east either.

REV. MARKHAM: Annie’s faithfulness to her husband, Bates, who’s now in prison, is a lovely illustration of trust and hope and commitment—that somewhere and somehow and through all this there will be a different future for them both. So the series plays around with faith as the strategy and device that enables us to cope with the complexity of being human. It’s perfect material for people who want to reflect on faith and the connection of faith and life. It’s perfect because of the ways in which it lifts up the complexity of human lives and the narratives and stories that make us all who we are.

  • Dick Galusha

    I like the observation on faith.

  • Frank Soriano

    I am a religious watcher of Downton Abbey but, with all respect to the speaker, his interpretation is at best a stretch and probably wishful thinking. The series depicts people who attempt and succeed or fail to relate to, support, and love each other but their motivation is humanistic not religious. Except for Anna, when a crisis occurs, the character(s) have hope but not faith. But her faith is in Bates not God.

  • Janet

    The most important theological developments reflected in this series have to do with the devastating and faith-shattering impact of the Great War. Millions of men were killed, millions more maimed and permanently injured, by blast, gas, disease and psychological trauma. As with the horror of the holocaust in WWII, masses of people lost faith in a god who could allow such horror to occur. The malaise that happened between the wars was expressed many ways. The characters who were killed and injured in this and the earlier (Boer?) wars, in particular the “shell shocked”, were some of the more realistic aspects of this entertaining soap.

  • Margaret Sonnemann

    I’ve watched all the series more than once; I’m ahead of you all in the US, having already seen all 3 series plus the Series 3 Christmas Special (don’t worry, no spoilers, here).

    I feel that the series portrays well the time(s), place and classes depicted. Then, as now, people prayed more when things go wrong, Christian and non-Christian alike. Prayer is a regular occurrence in Downton Abbey, whether it’s Mary praying for Matthew (and we are as surprised as Edith to see her or anyone kneeling by their bed in prayer on TV) or the family being led in the Lord’s Prayer.

    It’s not meant to be a religious program, but I’m impressed that the writer and producers dare to depict prayer at all in our Post-Christian time of historical revisionism. Bravo. Much easier and more palatable to most to conveniently leave it out altogether.

  • David “Trigger” Steinbrenner

    I did enjoy Rev. Markham’s article and its analysis of religious/spiritual themes in Downton Abbey, but I will say that Frank Soriano’s comment above is a helpful addition for the Christian or Christian-interested reader wondering about the explicit role that Christian faith does or does not play in the show.

    If one is looking for explicit faith connections and reflections of an Anglican-flavored Christian worldview, then like Rev. Markham and Soriano have suggested, they are not there for the most part (Markham says religion is “relatively invisible” in the show). I think Soriano is correct in recognizing that the motivations of most of the characters is more humanistic. When religion does appear it seems like it is more a part of the “furniture” of the show rather than a determinative part of any of the characters’ lives. I do not know anything about the show’s creator and author, but this may simply reflect his own particular interests and perspectives related to religion.

    Near the end of Rev. Markham’s review when he describes many of the present themes of the show and characterizes them as being constitutive of faith, I think that is probably more of a “reader-response” move (i.e. It reflects more the connections Rev. Markham is making and constructing rather than what the show’s author likely intended). Reader-response is a perfectly legitimate way to “read a text,” but it is nonetheless one approach among others and may not relate to particular questions some readers may have about the show’s writer’s intent.

    Nonetheless, I would guess that such an absence of explicit Christian faith being practiced may not ultimately be that inaccurate for the time period or even now for that matter. While Britain may have been more culturally Christian back then, I would venture that, like now, all sorts of people are more cultural adherents of their faith groups operating under more secular perspectives and frameworks of thinking. In other words, they may want their children baptized, weddings in the church, and like to attend on Christmas and Easter, but in how they see the world, live, and make decisions, they may be more influenced by the Enlightenment/Post-Enlightenment thinking (i.e. Reason as engaged in by autonomous individuals as authoritative rather than the Church and its teachings embodying the narrative of Christianity). I am sure there were English aristocrats that were devout religiously and plenty who were not. That is perhaps not greatly different then today. The Granthams may be more of one kind than the other.

  • Paul G

    I appreciate what Dr. Markham says about faith…but I too feel most of what faith there is to be found in and around Downton Abby is more akin to social trust than religious faith. When I am driving I trust the other drivers to act competently. I trust their valuing their need to arrive safely to keep them from acting selfishly and dangerously. (Except in Boston where I trust them to drive aggressively and selfishly!) In Downton, people trust everyone to know their place and stay in their place and maintain the status quo. When there is an accident or people fail to do so there is a crisis but it is not a crisis of faith rather it is a crisis of maintaining or restoring the status quo. Indeed, that is where the series begins. The rightful heirs’ to Downton have died thus upsetting the status quo which would have been maintained by Mary’s marriage to the heir Patrick. Most of the soap opera quality of the series for the Upstairs revolve around this continuously imperiled status quo. If there is faith in evidence it is faith that acting competently will insure continuity and the material comfort that the Downton estate provides.

    Downstairs it is much the same. People evidence little faith in God or even one another. Each must have faith in their own ability to act competently when competition and personalities collide or other difficulties arise. There are friendships that do unfold but when one steps to far beyond place even Downstairs there is little respect, compassion or forgiveness. Ethel is pretty much universally thrown under the bus when she becomes pregnant and is rejected by the officer who is the child’s father. When Branson returns for the wedding he is given the cold shoulder both Downstairs and Up (except by Matthew) for marrying above his station.

    I feel that for the most part the characters of Downton might, at best, be construed as amoral. Most (I’ll grant not all) are the sole inhabitant at the center of their moral universe and others around them seem to be foils, obstacles or tools for each other. Not that there is a total absence of fairly self-emptying love. For instance Bates and Anna seem the most generously crafted characters in this respect while Isobel and Mrs. Patmore often seem genuinely interested in the happiness and well being of those around them.

    The mostly amoral nature of the characters is not surprising. While Julian Fellows (a peer) had his early education at Catholic schools, he has consistently offered amoral characters in his work that reflect nothing of an education at religious institutions. Look no further than Downton’s predecessor “Gosford Park” or his adaptation of “Vanity Fair.” Fellows’ is faithful to the class structure and aristocracy of England and faithfully reproduces both its banality and venality in his work. (Honesty is a virtue!)

    In the end I watch Downton not for an ethical, moral or religious lesson but because it is well written, well acted and often sly. But I also watch because so much blind self-absorption on display is a hoot especially with British rather than Southern accents!

  • Steve Short

    Great article, but I still contend that Ian Markham is Elaine Pagel’s waterboy.

  • Beth Goss

    I appreciate this discussion and I’m a great fan of the show. The comments so far seem to reflect the difference between between a depiction of faith and the response of a reader/watcher of a text, where the responder does have a fairly subtle way of interacting with the piece from the standpoint of Christian faith. Markham says so himself when he says that the plot lines offer “a secular introduction to what a crisis of faith might look like.” He’s not at all saying that Fellows himself intends or even knows what God will do with the piece of art that he has created. Those who do interact with the show from the standpoint of Christian faith can, and I contend should, faithfully interpret it within God’s universe, and offer the interpretation that points to God, as everything of art and beauty and goodness does.
    …and he does it so well with that British accent!

  • Bill Longman

    I am posting this commentary on a Fodors Forum which has been discussing Downton Abbey for several years. This continues with each episode regarding the plot and characters. As Paul G has put it (a chuckle here about driving from one who may be a fellow Bostonian) there is little visible evidence of faith in God in the DA series or as he adds in each other such as with forgiveness and compassion. I sense a brittleness and maybe self-pity in characters. So no one is meditating or reading the Bible or praying of course and yet some compassion is evidenced…alas along with rigid criticisms. In England and elsewhere religion is less a daily presence…and moving from Missouri to New England I do realize this.