Born at Highclere Castle in 1866 and educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (1866-1923), was the noted Egyptologist and financial backer of archaeologist Howard Carter who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. The treasures discovered in the boy king’s burial chambers dazzled the world and continue to do so. Tutankhamun’s burial chamber was the first Pharaoh’s tomb in centuries to be discovered intact though outer chambers had been pillaged by grave robbers.
The Earl’s early interest in archaeology manifested itself in amateur digs on the Highclere estate when he was a boy. In 1890, he acceded to the Earldom aged twenty-four and married heiress Almina Wombwell five years later. There were rumours that the Countess was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Alfred de Rothschild (a Henry Poole man) who named Almina his heiress bringing Highclere a dowry equal to £25 million today. The Earl lost little time in pursuing his interest in thoroughbred racehorses, automobiles that he took great delight in driving at high speed and collecting photographs of semi-naked ladies either commissioned or photographed clandestinely by himself.
The charismatic Prince Victor Duleep Singh, son of the last Maharaja of Lahore and godson of Queen Victoria, was the Earl’s partner-in-crime ever since their Eton days. Prince Victor was a friend of the Prince of Wales and, by all accounts, rather a corrupting influence on the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. It was he who allegedly organized a lady of the night to take the Earl’s virginity. It was later alleged by author William Cross that Prince Victor fathered Lady Almina’s eldest son Lord Porchester but this has been disputed by the present Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.
The 5th Earl first travelled to Egypt in 1903 to recover from a near-fatal car crash in Germany in 1901. While convalescing, the Earl began sponsoring archaeological digs. Lady Almina would accompany him on expeditions dressed for a Marlborough House garden party and dripping in jewels. The Earl met Howard Carter in 1907 and financed his excavations in the Valley of the Queens in Luxor and the Valley of the Nobles. The duo had some success excavating the lost temples of Ramses IV and Queen Hatshepsut but work was suspended for the duration of World War I and the Earl’s funds began to dwindle.
In 1922, the Earl called Carter to Highclere to tell him that the funds had dried-up for further excavations. But he agreed to a final dig in the Valley of the Kings because Carter put his case so passionately. On the 4th of November, Carter discovered a staircase beneath the sand and, on excavating further, the stele of ‘boy king’ Pharaoh Tutankhamun on the sealed doorway to the tomb. Carter telegraphed the Earl who travelled to Egypt immediately accompanied by his daughter Lady Evelyn. In their presence, Carter broke the seal to the mummy’s tomb together. When the Earl asked ‘can you see anything?’ Carter replied, ‘yes, wonderful things’.
The Earl of Carnarvon didn’t live to see Tutankhamun’s most precious treasures removed from the burial chamber such as the gold and lapis death mask that is perhaps the most famous of the Pharaoh’s treasures. He died in the Continental Savoy hotel, Cairo, in April 1923 from an infected mosquito bite that led to a fatal bout of pneumonia. The Countess and his heir Lord Porchester were at his deathbed. Tutankhamun’s treasures are now permanently displayed in the Cairo Museum and the Earl’s personal bounty was sold to the Metropolitan Museum in New York by the Countess for $145,000 against death duties.
The Earl of Carnarvon’s first order with Henry Poole & Co is recorded in 1899 giving his address as Highclere Castle, Newbury, and No 13 Berkeley Square in London. From 1902 the Earl orders colonial-weight campaign clothing such as khaki cotton trousers, cloth coats lined with nutria, dozens of white tunic shirts and yards of khaki for the Countess to have tailored for her visits to Egypt. It seems incredible that the Earl wore Poole’s tweed three-piece suits in the searing Egyptian sun but this is precisely what Carnarvon is photographed wearing in his most familiar portraits circa 1922.
The treasures of Tutankhamun are housed in Egypt’s Cairo Museum though select artifacts have toured the world since the 1960s. The most famous tour, between 1972 and 1981, saw important artifacts such as the boy king’s death mask, solid gold inner coffin, golden throne and chariot attract record-breaking crowds that even today have not been surpassed. The Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum (1972) was opened by HM The Queen and attracted 1.6 million people. The 5th Earl’s effects and the remnants of his Egyptian artifacts form a museum collection at Highclere Castle, most famous today as the location for TV drama Downton Abbey.