Dan Stevens left Downton Abbey at the height of the show’s success, which resulted in his character being killed off, but why did he leave? Stevens portrayed Matthew Crawley, the heir to the title of Earl of Grantham and the Downton Abbey estate. Matthew also became the husband of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and was one of Downton Abbey’s lead characters. However, Stevens shocked and angered fans when he chose to leave the series – Matthew was abruptly killed off in the Downton Abbey season 3 finale in 2012.
Matthew was a distant cousin of Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), who suddenly became next in line to inherit Downton Abbey when the previous heir died aboard the HMS Titanic in 1912. Matthew and his mother Lady Isobel (Penelope Wilton) moved to the Downton estate, but they repeatedly clashed with the Crawley family in the first season; as a lawyer, Matthew found the way the estate was being run wasteful and he attempted to modernize Downton Abbey. Furthermore, Matthew and Lady Mary began a tumultuous romance that was interrupted in Downton Abbey season 2 when Matthew left to fight in World War I. Eventually, Matthew became a beloved member of the Crawleys and the co-owner of Downton Abbey. After two marriage proposals, Matthew and Mary were finally married but, in a shocking twist, Matthew dies in a car crash on the night their son George was born in 1921.
Dan Stevens’ exit and Matthew suddenly being killed off from the series – during the Downton Abbey season 3 Christmas Special, no less – ignited a firestorm of angry fans in the UK (because Downtown Abbey aired months later on PBS Masterpiece in the US, many American fans had already learned the disappointing news). However, Stevens left Downton Abbey by his own choice. As the actor explained to The Telegraph, “We were always optioned for three years,” and when his initial contract was up, Stevens took stock and decided that because Downton Abbey was “a very monopolizing job… I wanted a chance to do other things.”
However, Stevens’ decision to quit Downton Abbey created a problem for series creator Julian Fellowes – and not just because Matthew was the show’s male romantic lead. As Fellowes told Vanity Fair, “Dan only decided to leave when we were about to start filming [Downton Abbey season 3], had already written five episodes and cast them.” The showrunner explained that had Stevens given the production more advance notice that he wanted to leave the series, they could have written a different, less shocking death for Matthew. Fellowes also mused that he could have even killed off Matthew and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) in the same episode (and the same car crash) since she had also announced she was exiting Downton Abbey in season 3.
Dan Stevens did indeed find the new opportunities he sought after leaving Downton Abbey. He was cast in the lead role as David Haller, the psychic son of Professor X (Harry Lloyd) in FX’s Legion, the X-Men spinoff which just wrapped its three-season run. As a mentally unbalanced mutant, the role of David Haller was as far from Matthew Crawley as Stevens could want – as was his biggest movie role to date, playing the Beast in Disney’s 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast opposite Emma Watson. By taking on an iconic Disney role, Stevens followed in the footsteps of his fellow Downton Abbey castmember Lily James, who played Cinderella in 2015.
Since Matthew is dead, Dan Stevens naturally won’t be a part of the Downton Abbey movie, which is set in 1927 and will focus on the remaining characters of the series. Still, Matthew Crawley was fondly remembered in Downton Abbey when the series concluded in 2015 and fans hope there will be some acknowledgment of Matthew in the Downton Abbey movie.