Downton Abbey combined the prestige of a Sunday night PBS period drama with the guilty pleasures of a soap opera, to critical and commercial success. That meant for every storyline about the economics of pig farming, there were also juicy secrets, scandalous affairs and tragic deaths. Here are the characters fans lost, from least to most heartbreaking.
Poor Lavinia Swire, delicate wallflower that she was, never really had a chance at a lasting relationship with Matthew Crawley or a long term role on Downton Abbey. She served as a plot device that kept Matthew and Lady Mary apart for a while, but her Season 2 storyline ultimately helped to bring the first couple of Downton together.
Lavinia Swire was the daughter of Reginald Swire, a self-made man and single father who elevated his daughter into London society. She falls hard for Matthew, but he calls off their engagement when he’s paralyzed from the waist down in combat during World War I. Lady Mary’s suitor at the time, the shifty Sir Richard Carlisle, has dirt on Lavinia’s family, and when Matthew begins to grow closer to Mary, he reunites the former fiancés to keep Matthew out of his way. In the end, Richard’s machinations are for naught. Lavinia overhears a miraculously recovered Matthew professing his love for Mary, then she promptly succumbs to the Spanish Flu, but not before telling her betrothed that it was “better this way” because he and Mary are clearly meant for each other.
Lord Grantham loves dogs, and yellow Labrador retrievers in particular. Though he has several during Downton Abbey’s run (the dog in the opening credits is actually named Pharaoh and he’s later gifted a pup named Teo), it’s Isis who the audience gets to know best, and it was her death that became the subject of its own episode and controversy.
Isis wasn’t just Lord Grantham’s loyal companion. She factored into several plotlines, including one of Thomas’s misguided schemes. Wanting to get into Lord Gratham’s good graces after previous transgressions, Thomas decides to kidnap Isis, lock her in the tool shed and then return her to her master, having — in appearance — saved the day. Isis is no worse for wear, but the same can’t be said in Season 5, when she falls victim to cancer. Rumors swirled at the time that she was being killed off because her name happened to match what had emerged as a terrorist organization. The real reason: 12 years had passed in Downton Abbey‘s timeline, and Hugh Bonneville, the actor who played the Earl, suggested his character’s dear pet probably wouldn’t have survived that long.
After several failed attempts at love, Lady Edith — the Crawleys’ Debby Downer of a middle child — found the real thing with publisher and editor, Michael Gregson. Their relationship starts out as a professional one when Michael offers to give her a column in his magazine after reading her editorials about women’s rights. But their mutual respect for each other soon leads to mutual attraction. Unfortunately, Michael is married, albeit to a woman confined to an asylum and suffering from dementia.
The law forbids Michael from divorcing someone deemed “insane.” He and Edith become romantically involved anyway and their courtship splits the family. Michael then learns that he may be able to file for divorce from his incapacitated wife in Germany, which is news he and Edith have been waiting for. He leaves for Munich, but isn’t seen or heard from again. In the meantime, Edith discovers she’s pregnant with his child, a girl she’ll name Marigold. A season later, it’s confirmed that Michael died in a fight with some Nazis his first night in Germany. The mystery is solved, but Edith is left alone again, and Michael never gets to meet his daughter.
Second footman and quintessential nice guy, William Mason was in love with Daisy, the plucky kitchen maid. For the better part of two seasons, he not only dutifully serves the Crawleys (and does most of Thomas’s work), he also courts Daisy like a true gentleman. Tragically, Daisy — who has a penchant for early twentieth century bad boys — just can’t return his affection. But when he leaves Downton to fight in WWI and asks Daisy to marry him, she doesn’t have the heart to refuse.
In Season 2, Episode 5, Matthew and William are seriously injured on the front lines in France. Though Matthew’s wounds appear more grave, it’s William who has sustained too much internal damage and won’t recover. He wants to wed Daisy then and there, but she feels conflicted about misrepresenting her true feelings. Her boss, Mrs. Patmore, convinces her the moral thing to do is to go through with it and a let a good man die happy. They exchange vows as he rests in bed, and William quietly passes away in his sleep. He was his father’s last remaining child, and as tragic as William’s death was, it allowed Mr. Mason to become a father figure to Daisy.
In Season 3, the deaths of two main characters rocked Downton Abbey fans to their core and changed the course of the show forever. The second of these was the extremely untimely demise of someone who was arguably the series’ protagonist, Matthew Crawley.
Matthew and Mary had — at long last — overcome their obstacles: bad first impressions, other suitors, scandals, a world war, the Spanish Flu and Mary’s infertility. In Season 3, they exchanged vows and welcomed a son, George. But just as the young family had finally achieved what appeared to be a lasting happiness, it was all taken away with the turn of a wheel. After meeting his son for the first time at the hospital, Matthew jumps in his car and speeds away to share the news. He fails to see an oncoming truck, and the open-topped vehicle flips over, killing him instantly. This death was upsetting, primarily because of the situation it left Lady Mary in, but also because Matthew was a fan favorite character. It wasn’t entirely unforeseen, however. Matthew was written off the show because actor Dan Stevens decided not to renew his contract to pursue other opportunities.
Lady Sybil’s death in Season 3 isn’t just Downton Abbey’s most deeply felt loss, it’s one of the most gut-wrenching death scenes in TV history. Mary and Matthew may have had the rightful claim to the estate, but Sybil and Tom laid claim to viewers’ hearts. The chauffer and the socialite fell for each other over their progressive ideals, and Sybil was willing to renounce her title and fortune just to be with Tom Branson.
It took time for the family to accept Tom, but Sybil’s pregnancy and the prospect of their first grandchild helped. When they return to Downton and Sybil goes into labor, the local doctor, Clarkson, is on hand to help, but Lord Grantham calls in a specialist, and the two disagree about Sybil’s care. The Earl’s specialist wins out, and Sybil gives birth to a healthy baby girl. Everyone is ecstatic, but in the middle of the night, the new mother starts experiencing seizures and Clarkson delivers the impossibly sad news that she has eclampsia and nothing can be done. Sybil dies horrifically in her husband’s arms.
This beloved character’s death also had to do with the actor’s contract. However, in this case, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and actor Jessica Brown-Findlay decided early on what Sybil’s fate would be, as she had planned from the beginning to leave after three years.