How Downton Abbey: A New Era Fits In the Show’s Timeline 

17 minute read

The fabulously wealthy family at the center of Downtown Abbey is back in a new installment of the long-running story. Downton Abbey: A New Era, out May 18, is set in 1928 and finds the Crawley family enjoying the last years of the Roaring Twenties in various gigantic homes before the Great Depression arrives. In A New Era, the family finds out they’ve inherited yet another gorgeous property: A villa in the South of France. Apparently one of Grandma Violet’s old paramours left it to her, which will no doubt stir up a scandal among the family members.

A New Era is the second Downton Abbey movie and follows six seasons of the TV series that covered the many societal and global changes between 1912 and 1928. Here’s where A New Era fits in the larger Downton Abbey timeline—and a refresher on all the Downton drama you may have forgotten.

Downton Abbey, season 1: 1912-1914

Jessica Brown Findlay, Michelle Dockery, and Laura Carmichael in Downton AbbeyPBS

Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) finds out that the heir to his estate has died on the Titanic. His new heir, a distant cousin named Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) arrives at Downton Abbey. Robert is a bit of a snob, so Matthew’s working class proclivities (he’s a lawyer) immediately cause friction between the two. Robert’s mother, the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), tries to find a legal loophole that would allow Robert to give the estate to his eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) instead, but fails. She spends the rest of the series doling out pointed barbs to whoever may cross her—usually Matthew’s mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton).

Mary gets caught up in a scandal when a young, handsome Turkish diplomat visits her bedroom to fool around and dies in her bed without explanation. Mary’s mother Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and her lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) help Mary move the diplomat’s body back to his room in an effort to save everyone’s reputation—if it gets out that Mary had a man in her bed, the whole family will be ruined.

Mary and Matthew fall into a love-hate relationship. Edith (Laura Carmichael), whom Mary often bullies, spreads a rumor about Mary and the diplomat as revenge for Mary’s cruelty. Mary finally admits to herself that she loves Matthew just as World War I breaks out and Matthew must head to the front.

Meanwhile, downstairs, two servants named Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) and Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) make everyone’s life hell. (It’s revealed that Thomas is a closeted gay man who feels isolated. O’Brien seems to be mean for absolutely no reason.) Anna falls in love with the valet Bates (Brendan Coyle).

Downton Abbey, season 2: 1916-1918

Iain Glen, Michelle Dockery, and Dan Stevens in Downton AbbeyPBS

Matthew, Thomas, and another servant named William (Thomas Howes) join the war. Meanwhile, Downton transforms into a home for wounded soldiers to convalesce, and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), the youngest and kindest of the Crawley sisters, trains to be a nurse at the local hospital. Isobel (who also trained as a nurse) and Violet (a know-it-all) clash over how the hospital should be run.

Matthew returns to Downton on leave and reveals he’s engaged to a woman named Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle). Bates’ crazy, criminal wife shows up at Downton and threatens to spread the secret about Lady Mary and the Turkish diplomat if Bates doesn’t come live with her. In order to prevent the news from getting out, Mary agrees to become engaged to a newspaper magnet Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen), who in return buys and then quashes the story. The Crawleys look down on Richard because he’s self-made, which is pretty snobbish. (In fairness to the Crawleys, he turns out to be a vile dude—after all, he is blackmailing his fiancée.)

Sybil falls in love with the chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech), a political firebrand who dreams of returning to Ireland to throw off the yoke of English rule. (We’ll call him Branson so as not to confuse him with the servant/soldier Thomas.) Sybil grows increasingly interested in concepts like equality and grows disillusioned with her life as landed gentry. Sybil and Branson make plans to run away together. Mary and Edith learn of the scheme and stop them. Robert tries to pay off Branson. Branson refuses, and finally Robert gives Sybil his blessing to travel to Ireland and marry.

Bates’ wife (conveniently) dies by alleged suicide, clearing the way for Bates and Anna to marry. Thomas purposefully gets shot in the hand so he can be sent home. William saves Matthew’s life but both return to Downton wounded. In an attempt to ingratiate himself with Robert, Thomas kidnaps and then “finds” Robert’s beloved dog, Isis. This involves Isis spending a very scary night in the woods. Luckily, when Isis “magically” reappears she looks bored by the whole situation. The cook’s assistant Daisy (Sophie McShera) agrees to marry William on his deathbed, and William’s farmer father (Paul Copley) essentially adopts Daisy as his daughter.

Matthew is crippled from the waist down and learns he’ll never be able to father children but then miraculously gains the ability to walk (and procreate) again. Lavinia (conveniently) passes away of the Spanish flu, but not before she sees Mary and Matthew kiss. Matthew is racked by guilt that he betrayed Lavinia before she died. Mary is racked by guilt that her tryst with the Turkish diplomat will make her unworthy of Matthew.

They both get over their guilt. Mary and Matthew find out that Lavinia (conveniently) gave her blessing for them to be together before she died. Mary reveals her Turkish diplomat sex secret to Matthew. Matthew is fine with it. Mary breaks up with Richard: He takes it poorly and calls Mary a bunch of nasty names. Matthew heroically punches Richard in the face. Matthew proposes to Mary in the snow. They kiss. Everyone rejoices that the dynastic situation has sorted itself out.

Downton Abbey, season 3: 1920-1921

Matthew & Mary, Downton Abbey.
Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey.Giles Keyte—Carnival Films

If you thought the war was depressing, season 3 is a true bloodbath. Branson gets caught up in a rebel plot to burn down a nobleman’s house in Ireland, and he and a pregnant Sybil must flee to England. Sybil dies in childbirth after Robert insists that a city doctor will be better suited to help her deliver than their usual country doctor, Dr. Clarkson (David Robb). He’s wrong. Cora stops speaking to Robert for several episodes because she blames him for Sybil’s death. Alone with his new daughter, Branson is essentially stranded at Downton with people he fundamentally disagrees with politically.

Edith thinks she’s finally found love and gets engaged only to be left at the altar. She picks herself up by becoming a columnist and writing about women’s issues. Bates gets arrested for his wife’s murder, but is eventually released. Thomas and Daisy both have a crush on the same new, handsome servant, and Thomas gets outed when he tries to make a move on the man. He’s allowed to stay on, but a lot of the servants are pretty terrible to him.

Cora gets pregnant. For some reason, O’Brien fears that Cora might fire her and so purposefully facilitates Cora’s miscarriage by leaving a bar of soap next to her bathtub. Cora loses her baby, and O’Brien realizes she’s finally gone too far.

Matthew takes his place as co-owner of Downton Abbey with Robert, and the two spar over how to modernize the estate. Matthew and Mary struggle to conceive and worry that Matthew’s injury may have made children impossible after all. But Mary eventually gives birth to a baby boy, the new heir to Downton. Matthew cradles the baby in his arm, gets in his car to deliver the news to the rest of the family, and dies in a car accident on his way back to Downton. Like I said, season 3 is a bummer. Oh, and Matthew’s death comes in the festive Christmas episode. Happy holidays!

Downton Abbey, Season 4: 1922-1923

Elizabeth McGoern and Lily James in Downton AbbeyNick Briggs—Carnival Films

Mary is extremely depressed, understandably so. She has no interest in her son, though that seems mostly fine because nobody on Downton Abbey ever interacts with their children except for once a day when the nanny brings them downstairs. Eventually, Mary begins to take on Matthew’s duties as the co-owner of Downton. She entertains two new suitors, one a handsome dummy named Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen) the other a smart guy named Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden). At first, Mary loses interest in Charles because she believes he is not landed gentry. In a twist, it turns out he is secretly landed gentry but Mary still rejects him.

Edith falls in love with her married editor, Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards). He goes to Germany to get a divorce and is killed by a group of soon-to-be Nazis in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. Unfortunately for Edith, she finds out she is pregnant and goes on a “vacation” to Switzerland for a year with her aunt to have the baby. Somehow nobody in the family ever suspects she’s pregnant. She gives her child, Marigold, to nearby farmers.

Branson debates whether to stay at Downton for the sake of his daughter or whether to leave to pursue his political ideals. A new maid shows up, gets Branson drunk, and seduces him. She’s roundly dismissed and generally thought to be a bad person because she tried to seduce someone above her station—even though Branson did basically the same thing a few years before with Sybil, though admittedly without the aid of alcohol.

A cousin named Rose (Lily James) comes to stay at Downton. She’s young and hip and does a bunch of scandalous things like briefly dating a Black musician. Mary intervenes to stop their relationship (which is not Mary’s best look). Cora’s mother and brother visit from America (played by Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti of all people).

Meanwhile, downstairs, a new servant names Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) falls for Matthew’s bumbling old valet Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle). Anna is raped by a visiting servant but hides the fact from Bates, afraid that he’ll try to avenge her. Anna’s rapist dies, leading everyone to suspect that Bates killed him.

We also get a lovely moment where the butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), and housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), hold hands on the beach.

Downton Abbey, Season 5: 1924

Michelle Dockery and Matthew Goode in Downton AbbeyPBS

Remember how Lady Mary had two suitors? Well Mary spends a weekend in a hotel with the dumb one and realizes her attraction to him was more sexual than intellectual. She dumps him because no one can live up to Matthew (which is accurate). Luckily yet another handsome man, playboy Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode), shows up. He races cars, and Mary’s husband died in a car crash. The dramatic irony is too delicious to pass up; the two are destined to be together.

Edith steals Marigold from the farmers who were looking after the baby, which is very distressing to them. Edith also runs the magazine she inherited from her dead lover. Branson dates a radical left schoolteacher for awhile, and nobody at Downton likes her because she’s too political. Branson decides to leave Downton for good and move to America.

Isobel Crawley has two suitors, the local doctor Dr. Clarkson and a man named Lord Merton (Douglas Reith). She clearly prefers Merton, but Merton’s sons are rude (one once drugged Branson because he was sweet on Sybil). So Isobel rejects Merton’s advances.

Rose meets and marries a Jewish man named Atticus (Matt Barber). The Crawley family isn’t particularly bothered by this because Cora is half-Jewish, a fact that was hinted at by her maiden name but never actually discussed until this point in the show. But Rose’s evil mother is revealed to be anti-Semitic and attempts to stop the marriage by sending a prostitute to try to solicit Atticus. The gambit fools no one: Atticus is truly the 1920s equivalent of a nice Jewish boy and rejects the prostitute, reveals what happened to Rose, and assures her of his undying devotion. They marry. He and Rose are cute together. It’s so nice when a Crawley gets married and no one dies!

Downstairs, both Anna and Bates are suspected of and then cleared of the rapist’s murder, but not before Anna spends some time locked up. The Crawleys seem unbothered by how much time this couple has spent in prison. Thomas makes himself extremely ill when he tries a mysterious medical regimen to try to “cure” himself of being gay. Baxter realizes what’s going on, takes him to a doctor, and helps him get off the meds.

The season can’t end without a death, and this time, the end comes for Isis the Labrador. The opening credits, which heavily feature Isis’ adorable butt and wagging tail, remain.

Downton Abbey, Season 6: 1925

Downton AbbeyPart Eight - Sunday, February 21, 2016 at 9pm ET on MASTERPIECE on PBS Two romances get complicated. Molesley and Spratt try out new jobs. Thomas takes a fateful step. Mrs. Patmore provokes a scandal. Isobel puts her foot down. Shown from left to right: Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith and Harry Hadden-Paton as Bertie Pelham(C) Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015 for MASTERPIECE This image may be used only in the direct promotion of MASTERPIECE CLASSIC. No other rights are granted. All rights are reserved. Editorial use only. USE ON THIRD PARTY SITES SUCH AS FACEBOOK AND TWITTER IS NOT ALLOWED.
Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith and Harry Hadden-Paton as Bertie Pelham on 'Downton Abbey'Nick Briggs—Carnival Films/PBS

Lady Mary gets into yet another potential blackmail situation. This time, a random woman claims she’s going to spread the rumor that Mary spent a weekend in a hotel with a man. Robert pays off the would-be blackmailer, and Mary takes up with Henry Talbot, though she’s hesitant to commit because of the whole race car driving thing. But after Henry’s friend dies in a fiery accident, he decides to give up racing, and he and Mary wed.

Lady Edith also (finally!) finds lasting love. She meets Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton), a nice chap who is very supportive of her journalism career. Their romance is almost derailed by a jealous Mary, who at this point is suffering over her on-again-off-again relationship with Henry. Mary reveals to Bertie that Edith has an illegitimate child, and Bertie breaks up with Edith. A guilty Mary later facilitates Edith and Bertie’s reconciliation. Bertie unexpectedly inherits a new title, and when the two marry, Edith becomes the wife of a marquess, a position that ranks above everyone else in the Crawley family, to Mary’s consternation.

Robert suffers from a stomach ulcer that ruptures in a scene far more graphic than anything they shot during the World War I season. Branson returns from America and opens a car shop with Henry. Cousin Isobel finally marries Lord Merton, which is too bad because she and Dr. Clarkson seemed like they’d be a great fit. Rose moves to New York. Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes tie the knot, and Thomas is promoted to butler. Daisy helps her father-in-law secure a lease on the Downton land to do some farming, and flirts with a footman named Andy (Michael C. Fox).

Downton Abbey, the Movie: 1927

Maggie Smith (left) stars as Violet Crawley and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in the 2019 movie Downton Abbey.Jaap Buitendijk—Focus Features

The Crawleys and their staff prepare for a visit from the King and Queen of England. The queen’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), turns out to be yet another distant cousin of the Crawleys. (It’s a fun Harry Potter reunion for Staunton and Smith!) The Dowager Countess wants Lady Bagshaw, who has no heirs, to leave her estate to Robert. But Lady Bagshaw plans to leave it to her servant, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). Over the course of the film, it’s revealed that Lucy is in fact Lady Bagshaw’s daughter.

Mary thinks Branson might be involved in a plot to assassinate the king, but it turns out Branson is just trying to stop an assassination attempt, all on his own without the help of the police for some reason. He succeeds in saving the king’s life. Branson, at this point, has pretty much given up on his political ideology because he thinks the Crawleys are nice, which is a little depressing. But Lucy and Branson bond over feeling caught between the worlds of upstairs and downstairs and share a kiss. Everyone gets on board with Lucy inheriting Lady Bagshaw’s land when it seems like she and Branson may marry and the Crawleys will get their hands on the land anyway through Branson.

Thomas discovers a gay bar while out with one of the king’s servants, which is fun, but then he is arrested during a police raid, which is not fun. The king’s servant gets Thomas released from prison and the two begin what will become a long distance relationship. Late in the movie, the Dowager Countess reveals to Mary that she is dying. Thankfully, she hangs on to star in another film.

Downton Abbey: A New Era: 1928-1929

(l-r) Harry Hadden-Paton, Laura Carmichael, Tuppence Middleton, and Allen Leech in Downton Abbey: A New EraBen Blackall—Focus Features

Though no character explicitly says the year, several signposts suggest that A New Era begins in 1928. The title of the film implies that the Crawleys are on the cusp of, well, a new era. No doubt, creator Julia Fellowes is alluding to the Great Depression, which began in 1929.

In the movie, Thomas and Lucy wed. The family then splits up to go on two different adventures. When Violet learns she’s inherited a villa in the South of France from an old friend, she bequeaths the house to Sibbie, the child of Branson and Sybil. Violet reasons that every other Crawley child will inherit some property except for Sibbie, and she would like to correct that. But it turns out that the man who left Violet the villa also had a wife, and she wants to fight for the villa in court for the house. Robert, Cora, Edith, Branson, and a few others travel to France to check out the house and settle the sticky legal situation.

Meanwhile, Mary and Violet stay at Downton to host a film crew that is paying the family to make a romance movie there starring an actor named Guy Dexter (Dominic West). Mary’s husband Henry is nowhere to be found. He is “traveling,” as he was for most of the previous film—Matthew Goode seems uninterested in reprising his role in these movies.

The director (Hugh Dancy) flirts with Mary and talks about how the success of The Jazz Singer, which was released in October of 1927, has prompted Hollywood producers to demand more talking films. A New Era is set in late summertime or early fall—the Crawleys talk endlessly about how it has become fashionable to visit the South of France in the “warmer months” rather than the winter—which means that the movie probably takes place almost a year after The Jazz Singer’s debut. At one point, Mary and the director drive by a theater that is showing The Terror, the first all-talking horror film, which was released in September of 1928.

The movie does briefly flash forward about a year, and given how happy everyone is in the scene, the Depression probably hasn’t hit yet. So it’s safe to say the movie ends around July or August 1929 and any future Downton film will likely see at least some of the characters face economic hardship. It’s unclear, though, whether Henry Talbot will be forced to curtail his travels and actually show up in a third Downton Abbey film or whether Downton creator Julian Fellowes will have to do the unthinkable and kill of yet another of Mary’s husbands so she’s free to flirt with other men.

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