Viscountess Hinchingbrooke outside her front door
In the imposing hallway of her Dorset manor house, Julie Montagu stops and points up at one of the many portraits staring down from the double-height walls surrounding the grand staircase. “Basil Montagu. He’s one of my favourites. Fascinating story. He was the illegitimate son of the fourth Earl of Sandwich and his mistress, the singer Martha Ray,” says Julie, aka Viscountess Hinchingbrooke. “He was so poor that the poet William Wordsworth had to help him out and eventually he became a lawyer,” Julia continues as she heads off towards the library.
She is explaining how her husband’s ancestor, the first earl, had to take the port of Sandwich for his title instead of his preferred Portsmouth because it had already been given by the King to someone else.
“And that’s how we became Sandwiches,” she says, laughing.
It is the fourth earl who is credited with creating the eponymous snack because, so the story goes, he skipped lunch in favour of gambling and would order his staff to bring him a slab of salt beef between two slices of toasted bread that he could eat at the card table.
She is a font of knowledge on the aristocratic family she married into in 2004 but it is hard to imagine someone more incongruous with their surroundings than Julie, dressed as she is in her yoga gear and fingerless gloves (“I am always freezing”) and speaking with a broad Illinois accent.
And, by her own admission, she has come a long way from the Midwest of her childhood to rural west Dorset.
“When you’re an American, from day one, at school, you are taught that you can be anything you want to be,” she says.
“You are literally told ‘just go and do it and if you fail try a different way’. I have worked since I was 14 years old and it’s ingrained in me, this work ethic. I helped my husband where I could but I kept doing my own career.”
That all changed three years ago when her in-laws, the 11th Earl and Countess Sandwich, moved across the driveway from Mapperton, the manor house, into the rectory and Julie, her husband Luke and their four children moved in.
Julie also has a new weekly TV series – An American Aristocrat’s Guide To Great Estates which starts tonight – to thank for arguably knowing more about British stately homes than the Sandwiches themselves.
“I didn’t feel as passionate about Mapperton until I did the TV series. Going round to all the homeowners I have learned so much about this home, about this history and all the other wonderful homes in Britain.”
In the series, Julie is given rare behind-the-scenes access to some of the country’s poshest stately homes to see how the aristocrats really live.
She travels from Floors Castle, the largest inhabited castle in Scotland, to Eastnor Castle, on the edge of the Cotswolds, home to steam engine enthusiast James Hervey-Bathurst and his five daughters.
“I thought that everybody was just doing weddings but they’re not,” says Julie, who admits that she was welcomed into the bosom of the families, often staying overnight and dining with her hosts, because of her title.
The Viscountess in her kitchen
“My husband and I having taken over this home, they feel more comfortable, they can relate to me and they really opened up – much more than I thought they would.”
But if Julie now acts – and feels – like one of the club, it wasn’t always that way.
“Have I experienced snobbery within the upper classes? Yes,” she says. “I could make a million guesses about that.
“Is it because I didn’t come from the right family, is it because I am too American, is it because I’m too emotional? I don’t know.
“There have been looks, there have been underlying comments that you can read things into.”
If Julie’s trials as an American navigating the tricky upper reaches of the British class system bring someone else to mind, it is hardly surprising, as she compares herself to the Duchess of Sussex frequently.
In fact, she is somewhat of an expert, having worked as a royal commentator for the BBC and NBC during live coverage of Harry and Meghan’s wedding in May 2018.
Meghan’s inability to fit in with the Royal Family is down to the cultural gulf between the two countries, she says. But while Julie lets it ‘‘go in one ear and out the other”, she thinks it is different for Meghan.
“And this is where my yoga comes in really handy. Luckily Meghan, like me, comes from that background – her mother is a yoga teacher – and you can either let that snobbery affect you or you can just think to yourself, ‘Thank goodness I’m not like that’.
“But it’s much harder for her. No one can imagine what it’s like marrying into the Royal Family compared to my marrying into the British aristocracy. I have to work, whereas she’s told not to work and that right there is a huge difference.”
Julie, whose husband’s forebear the first Earl of Sandwich brought King Charles II out of exile and is partly responsible for the Royal Family’s continued position, also believes Harry’s decision to step back is tied to the death of Princess Diana.
“If you marry someone who had to walk behind his mother’s casket aged 12, in front of millions of people, you can’t imagine the effect on him.
“I am of the view ‘Great, let them do what they want’. I really think they’re smart enough not to capitalise on the name Sussex Royal and put their faces on a tub of margarine. They’re going to be respectful.
The Viscountess in her yoga gear with a couple of friends
“It’s sad for the British public and I am sad about it, as she’s somebody else I can relate to on a level and now they’re moving away. But Harry’s had enough and in my view, it’s more Harry than Meghan.”
While Julie sees changes within the upper classes in Britain (“they’re much more down to earth than people think, they’re warm and open”), she believes the Royal Family is a different matter.
“Meghan and I, both of us were marrying into the upper classes. But it’s different in America because you can move between different classes quite easily. Here you can’t.
“The Royal Family has so many more protocols and traditions and the Queen Mother’s unofficial motto was ‘never complain, never explain’. As an American, it’s really hard for us to do that.
“Meghan has worked her way up, been very vocal about issues and is then being told by the Royal Family, ‘You can’t do that any more’. I think Harry probably saw that and realised, ‘Okay, I’m not going to become king – I’m sixth in line – this situation is never going to change, let’s do something about it’.
The Viscountess and her family
“For me, luckily, I can give my opinion at dinner parties, I can openly cry – I can just be me and if that rubs people up the wrong way then fine. But I’m not being told, ‘never complain, never explain’.”
When Julie first met Luke at a drinks party in 2002, she only realised he was an aristocrat when she noticed the title – “Viscount” which she pronounced like “discount” – on his credit card.
She was a single mother of two children, Emma, now 21, and Jack, 18, from her first marriage, and now has William, 15, and Nestor, 13, with Luke, 50 – whom she supported through his recovery from prescription drug dependency after he was misprescribed sleeping pills following a sinus operation.
Julie was the sole breadwinner because her husband was unable to work for three years, and he received a substantial settlement for medical negligence in 2014.
Julie taught yoga and developed an online nutrition course and later started a blog, The Flexi Foodie, which now has an international following and was turned into a best-selling cookbook.
The couple married – Julie proudly wearing the Montagu tiara – in the croquet pavilion at Jacobean Mapperton, which, to bolster their finances, has been seen in both the 2015 film Far From The Madding Crowd with Carey Mulligan and the 1996 adaptation of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
Julie and Luke live in the south wing of Mapperton, which is open to the public from March to October, because it keeps costs down – and it’s what aristocrats do.
“You wouldn’t believe how they live,” says Julie of her experience filming the TV series.
Julia sympathises with Meghan Markle
“Inveraray Castle is a great example. I had coffee with [Duchess of Argyll] Eleanor Campbell and the kitchen’s quite small, with a breakfast area. But the door right next to us leads out to the really grand dining room where they filmed the 2012 Downton Abbey Christmas special.
They live in a tiny part of the house.
“We live back there,” says Julie pointing. “My husband and I have a bedroom, the kids have a bedroom, there’s a kitchen and sitting room – that’s it.”
Julie runs sell-out yoga retreats (“the isolation and lack of mobile signal make it perfect”) during the winter season but had to “Americanise” the bedrooms of the Grade I listed house with en-suite bathrooms.
Mapperton hosts culinary events and weddings and Julie is brimming with other money-making ideas although she admits, at times, that the responsibility of the estate is overwhelming.
Are they ever tempted to sell stuff off?
“I would be lying if I said it hadn’t crossed our minds. It can be frustrating, burdensome and tiring but you get over that quite quickly because if we sell it then we’ve sold our family history.”
• An American Aristocrat’s Guide To Great Estates starts tonight on the Smithsonian Channel at 8pm.