• History

Downton Was Right About the Prankster in Neville Chamberlain’s Family

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Contains minor spoilers for the Downton Abbey, Season 6 Episode 5

Though Neville Chamberlain ended up playing a relatively minor role on Sunday night’s episode of Downton Abbey, the storytelling somersaults necessary to loop in a future Prime Minister were actually based on truth.

The fictional Chamberlain’s story–that the Dowager Countess threatened to spill the beans that he had participated in his brother-in-laws pranks–draws on the real story of Chamberlain’s wife’s brother, William Horace de Vere Cole. The inveterate prankster was so well known for his mischief that TIME singled out the pranks in his 1936 obituary:

Died. William Horace de Vere (“Old King Cole”) Cole, 53, Great Britain’s No. 1 practical joker, brother-in-law of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rt. Hon. Neville Chamberlain; in Honfleur, France. Most famous of his 95 pranks were the results of skillful impersonation: 1) when a student at Cambridge, he posed as the Sultan of Zanzibar, had dignitaries escort him through the University, give him a champagne dinner; 2) in 1908, as a well-known Indian potentate, he asked to see the Dreadnaught, newest of battleships, then surrounded in official secrecy. The naval officials put on full regalia, conducted him over every ship, gave him a 19-gun salute; 3) as Ramsay MacDonald, to whom he bore resemblance, he infuriated a group of Laborites by delivering an impassioned Tory oration.

And, though it wasn’t mentioned in his remembrance, the prank in which Downton claims Chamberlain participated was real too—though some accounts say that Cole and his friends didn’t dig their own trench across one of London’s busiest intersections, but rather directed a crew of workers to do so.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com