With “Downton Abbey” coming to an end on Sunday after six extremely entertaining, occasionally absurd and frequently very moving seasons, we decided to take a look back at the many, many characters, both human and otherwise, who’ve gone gently into that good night since the series began with the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912. Cue the Sarah McLachlan, bust out the Kleenex and take a trip down memory lane with us.
Who: Lord Grantham’s paternal cousin, closest male relative and heir to Downton Abbey
When: April 15, 1912
How: The sinking of the Titanic
Tragedy factor: Low. So what if he drowned in the icy waters of the North Atlantic? It’s not like we knew the guy.
Who: James’ son, Mary’s fiance and the next in line to inherit the estate.
When: April 15, 1912
How: The sinking of the Titanic
Tragedy factor: Also low. If he’d lived, Matthew Crawley never would have inherited Downton, or fallen in love with Mary! Sorry Patrick! (And, unlike Lady Edith, we’re going to assume that guy who showed up in Season 2 with the scarred face claiming to be Patrick was an impostor because, come on.)
Who: A dashing Turkish diplomat and friend of Evelyn Napier
When: Spring 1913
How: A heart attack…while in bed with Lady Mary
Tragedy factor: Moderate. He and Mary shared some serious chemistry, and the fallout from his death would have a ripple effect on the plot for several seasons to come
Who: Lord Grantham’s first beloved Labrador retriever
When: Sometime between 1914 and 1916
Tragedy factor: Negligible. No one even noticed.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria
Who: Okay, so he wasn’t a character on the show, exactly, but he was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his death triggered World War I, and certainly affected everyone on Downton Abbey
When: June 28, 1914
How: Shot by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb
Tragedy factor: Vast. A whole lot of people died during the war. (See below.)
Archibald “Archie” Philpotts
Who: Mrs. Patmore’s nephew
When: Circa 1917
How: Shot for cowardice after deserting his post in the war
Tragedy factor: Minor. We never meet Archie and only learn about his fate many years after it’s happened. But Mrs. Patmore sure was upset about it.
Who: Sweet-natured second footman at Downton Abbey
When: July 26, 1918
How: Lung injuries sustained in France after throwing himself in front of Matthew
Tragedy factor: High. Knowing that he faced certain death, William proposed to Daisy, Downton’s scullery maid and the object of his long-unrequited affection, so that she could receive his pension. Daisy accepted even though she wasn’t in love, and the two exchanged vows a few hours before he passed away peacefully in his sleep. Sorry, gotta go, these onions I’m chopping are making me tear up!
Who: Matthew’s impossibly selfless but super-boring fiancé
When: April 1919
How: Spanish flu
Tragedy factor: Lower than it should be, given the dramatic circumstances: Days before her wedding, Lavinia walks in on Mary and Matthew mid-makeout. Awkward! She then comes down with the flu and quickly succumbs, but not before telling Matthew that he and Mary truly belong together. Would have been much sadder if the saintly Lavinia had been a fully-realized human rather than a plot device invented to keep Mary and Matthew apart.
Who: Evil first wife of Downton’s valet, John Bates
When: November 1918
How: In an elaborate plot to frame her estranged husband for murder, Vera committed suicide by consuming a homemade pie baked with rat poison (as you do).
Tragedy factor: Moderate. Vera was a genuinely terrible person and all, but her death triggered years of legal woes for the chronically unlucky Bates and his second wife, Anna -- and frustration for viewers.
Maj. Charles Bryant
Who: Posh soldier who convalesced at Downton Abbey and impregnated housemaid Ethel
When: Late 1918
How: Killed in battle shortly before the armistice
Tragedy factor: Moderate. Maj. Bryant was a cad, but after he died, Ethel turned to prostitution to support her son.
Who: A wealthy London solicitor and father of Lavinia, Matthew’s doomed fiancé
When: Late December 1919
How: Unspecified illness
Tragedy factor: So low as to be almost negative. In one of “Downton Abbey’s” most ludicrous subplots, Swire bequeathed his fortune to Matthew, the guy who broke his daughter’s heart while she was dying of the flu. But hey, his money saved the family from ruin! Win-win!
Sybil Branson, née Crawley
Who: Kind-hearted, politically active youngest daughter of Lord and Lady Grantham and wife of Thomas Branson, former chauffeur at Downton Abbey
When: Spring 1920
How: Complications from childbirth
Tragedy factor: Extreme. We’re talking “Steel Magnolias” levels of sad, so heartbreaking that it made the usually cold and cunning Thomas weep like a baby. The tragedy was compounded by the sense it might have been avoidable: Dr. Clarkson correctly diagnosed her preeclampsia but was ignored by Lord Grantham and the fancy London doctor he’d hired (though it’s later revealed nothing could have saved her).
Who: Lady Mary’s husband and the heir to Downton Abbey (duh!)
When: September 1921
How: Car accident
Tragedy factor: So off-the-charts heartbreaking, bordering on sadistic, that some of us still haven’t recovered. Matthew managed to survive the war and miraculously recover from a spinal cord injury only to be killed in a car accident on his way home from the hospital just hours after meeting his newborn son, George, for the first time. Did we mention that the episode aired on Christmas Day in the U.K.?
Who: Lord Gillingham’s valet
When: August 1922
How: Pushed into traffic in Piccadilly Circus -- but not by Anna
Tragedy factor: Low. The guy who brutally raped Anna got what was coming to him, even if -- sigh -- his death created yet another round of legal worries for the Bateses.
Who: Editor of the society magazine The Sketch and Lady Edith’s boyfriend/baby-daddy
When: November 1923
How: Killed by a gang of Nazi thugs during the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, where he’d gone to establish German citizenship so that he could divorce his insane wife and marry Edith (long story, OK?)
Tragedy factor: High. Gregson died before Edith could tell him she was pregnant. She gave birth in secret and gave her daughter, Marigold, up for adoption -- only to change her mind and bring her to Downton.
Who: Lord Grantham’s second beloved Labrador retriever
Tragedy factor: Medium-High. Grantham seriously loved that dog, despite the unfortunate modern connotations of her name.
Who: Henry Talbot’s racing buddy
When: July 1925
How: Car crash during race at Brooklands
Tragedy factor: Minimal. The only reason the character existed was to die and make Mary freak out about Henry. Mission accomplished.
Peter Pelham, the Sixth Marquess of Hexham
Who: Bertie’s “delicate,” “lyrical” cousin and the owner of Brancaster Castle
When: August 1925
How: Malaria, contracted while in Tangiers
Tragedy factor: Minimal. Bertie was sad, but with one mosquito bite, he’s gone from a modest estate agent to a super rich aristocrat! To quote Lord Grantham, “Golly gumdrops, what a turn-up!”
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