Warning: Spoilers ahead for the Downton Abbey movie.
Haven’t you heard? The king is in town.
Downton Abbey is, of course, a work of fiction. But much of this drama, including a shocking assassination attempt on the king himself, is inspired by some very real history.
King George’s high-profile arrival to Downton prompts the mysterious (and fictional) Captain Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore) to also make a much lower-key visit to the nearby village. Chetwode quickly seeks out Tom Branson (Allen Leech), who he sees as a fellow Irish Republican, a bit of a rebel, and — quite crucially — someone with access to the king.
Chetwode’s attempt on King George’s life is thwarted by Branson, who picks up on the shady captain’s true plan, tackles him mere seconds before he takes a fatal shot, and subsequently has him arrested.
In real life, there was no assassination attempt against George V. But the fictional plot is very much inspired by real events. The failed 1936 assassination attempt against King Edward VIII, for example, also involved an attempted shooting at a public event and interference by local police in the nick of time. But the most direct inspiration comes from the political tensions between Britain and the Irish, which festered for years before the events of Downton Abbey.
The events of the film are set in 1927, but the Irish began to demand independence from British rule a decade or two before. These tensions eventually came to a head in the Anglo-Irish War, which lasted from 1919 to 1921. The Irish Free State was formed shortly after in 1922, but the conflict was far from over. A nearly year-long civil war erupted: the agreement with Britain had its vocal dissenters, and the fate of Northern Ireland, which remained a part of the U.K., remained a highly contentious matter.
According to Liz Trubridge, a producer for Downton Abbey, Chetwode’s character was in part inspired by Robert Casement, who was involved in the Irish nationalist movement and was hanged for treason in 1916 — more than 10 years before the movie. Casement was knighted by George V in 1911 for exposing abuse at Belgium’s rubber plantations in the Congo, Time reports.
But although the Irish-British tensions were real, the film is set a bit too late for true historic accuracy. Historian Kevin Matthews told Time that by then, the Irish were largely preoccupied with the economic chaos ravaging the country.
“By 1927, most of Ireland had moved on to other problems,” Matthews said.
Besides, the fact that Chetwode decided to target the king also doesn’t entirely check out. George V was not especially involved in Irish affairs. It would have been somewhat more believable if the assassination plotline figured in a prominent British politician, such as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin or Winston Churchill — a proposition that gives us all kinds of alternate Downton Abbey universes to consider. After all, imagine what a movie that would be — Churchill wouldn’t stand a chance against Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess.