Charles Ernest Carson (b. 1856) was the butler of Downton Abbey, and began working at Downton Abbey as a Second Footman at the age of 19. He lived at the estate to witness the birth of Robert and Cora's three daughters: Mary, Edith and Sybil.
In 1870, Charles Carson arrived at Thrushcross Grange near Ripon aged 14 to take up the position of Junior Hall Boy under the direction of the butler Alfred Beet. Carson loved approval from Beet who he described as "the sternest butler I ever encountered" and felt his approval a prize in itself. Through his five years at Thrushcross he progressed to the positions of Hallboy to Nursery Footman and finally Fourth Footman looking after the master's Clocks. At age 19, and sometime around 1875, he left to become second footman to the Earl of Grantham, where he quickly rose in the ranks to become butler.
Between 1870 and 1875, Carson was on the stage, (or "on the halls" as his former colleague, Charles Grigg said), as a song-and-dance double act called, The Cheerful Charlies. He recalls this part of his life with little nostalgia, however. He admitted that he once had a close romance with a young woman and colleague, Alice Neal.
Carson receives a letter, and is acting strangely and has been taking food from the larder. It is revealed that Charles Grigg, his former stage partner, has come to the area and has been blackmailing Carson for food and money. He has been threatening to expose his past as a member of the duo The Cheerful Charlies and make Carson a laughing stock. He later shows up at Downton Abbey, and Carson tells Lord Grantham that he will resign, but Robert refuses to accept his resignation. Everyone who learns of it is surprised or even amused that Carson was once a theatrical performer, but Carson thinks it a affront to the dignity of his job. Robert gives Grigg £20 to go away, and threatens him with arrest if he returns.
Carson discovers that someone has been stealing wine, and later one of Lord Grantham's snuffboxes goes missing. Carson rounds up all the servants and searches rooms, but finds nothing. The snuffbox reappears and Daisy says that she saw Mr Bates take the wine. Daisy later admits that she was pressured to lie by Thomas, who was also seen by Joseph Molesley lifting Carson's wallet. Lord Grantham and Carson decide to fire Thomas, but he resigns to join the army medical corp., before they can carry this out.
The First World War has come to Downton and the young men have all enlisted. Carson is appalled that maids must serve at dinner. Carson takes many of the duties around Downton on himself and overdoes it.
Downton is turned into a convalescence hospital for the duration of the war, to allow the hospital in the village to deal with critical patients. Thomas begins managing this aspect of Downton, much to Carson's consternation as it makes him Carson's superior.
Carson gets an offer from Richard Carlisle to be butler for him and Lady Mary after their marriage, and Carson is torn, as he is fond of Mary, but still loyal to her father and Downton. He decides to reject the offer, after he learns that Carlisle tried to pay Anna to start spying on Mary. He cannot work for a man that he doesn't respect.
Like several others at Downton, Carson contracts the Spanish Flu, and his illness allows Thomas to gain employment back at Downton as a footman.
When Mary descends the staircase in her wedding gown, she first asks Carson affectionately if he thinks she will do. He replies "Very nicely milady."
He does not at first believe that Alfred, Miss O'Brien's nephew, should have been hired as he is too tall and too inexperienced. Carson is indignant about every mistake he makes. Over time, however, as he sees how diligent Alfred is, he takes Alfred under his wing and starts to teach him.
He insists that everything must be done properly for Edith's wedding even though the house is understaffed. When he discovers that Mrs Hughes may be seriously ill, Carson shows a great deal of concern, and he is overjoyed to the point of singing to himself when he learns that she'll be alright.
When Thomas's unwanted homosexual advance on Jimmy is reported to him, Carson responds with revulsion and says that Thomas is "foul". Carson will allow him to resign with a reference, but only as he wants him to go quietly. When threatened by Jimmy that Thomas must have no reference, or he will go to the police, Carson reluctantly gives in to this. Only the intervention of Lord Grantham and Bates saves Thomas' job. When asked who will tell James that Thomas is staying, Carson says that Lord Grantham wants him to stay so he should tell James.
Mr Carson is rather frustrated when Tom Branson returns to the house as the husband of Lady Sybil. After Tom is exiled, he tells Mrs Hughes he knew that Tom would bring shame and dishonor on the house. He is later deeply affected, as are the rest of the staff, by Sybil's death following complications from childbirth. Over time, he comes to respect Mr Branson even more, and comes to accept him as a member of the family.
While the family goes to Duneagle Castle in Scotland, Carson presides over the house. He remains behind when they all go out to a fair in Thirsk, knowing none of them would have fun if he went (which he acknowledges only to Mrs Hughes). He takes the time to bond to Lady Sybil's daughter. Mrs Hughes praises him for doing so. He later agrees with Mrs Hughes that maid Edna Braithwaite has to go after she unsettles the other maids and makes unwanted advances on Mr Branson.
When Lord Grantham insists on keeping Mary sheltered following her husband's death, Tom goes to Carson as he feels he does not know who else to turn to. He insists they need to help bring Mary back to the world. Out of love for Mary, Carson tells her she is letting herself be defeated. She is angry at him for doing this, but later breaks down and cries in his arms.
Charles Grigg writes to Carson saying he has ended up in the workhouse and needs help. Carson, still upset with Grigg, throws the letter in the trash. But Mrs Hughes finds it, reads it, then finds Grigg and sets him up at Isobel Crawley's house for a time. Carson is upset at what she has done, but she insists he needs to stitch up this "open wound" and asks if he feels nothing for this man he sang and danced with.
It is revealed the split between Carson and Grigg was a woman they both loved, Alice Neal, who chose Grigg. When Grigg gets a job and prepares to leave, he bids Carson farewell at the train station. He reveals that Alice died five years ago, but they split up long before. But he tells him she told him Carson was the better man. They shake hands, and later Mrs Hughes gives Carson a portrait of Alice to put on his desk.
When Edna Braithwaite returns to be Cora's maid, O'Brien having left, both Tom Branson and Mrs Hughes are upset. She insists that they cannot have her back at the house, but Carson says they must. He feels that her ladyship having already lost a daughter and son-in-law, it would be too much for her if she felt that Lady Sybil's husband was "unworthy". He also notes that Edna seems to have gotten some training and perhaps she has entered the real world. Mrs Hughes nevertheless is afraid her return is a ticking bomb, which proves to be true when Edna heartlessly tries to seduce, then blackmail Tom. Fortunately she manages to save him and send Edna away again. Carson expresses regret only for the disruption to her ladyship but admits he never cared much for Edna. Mrs Hughes tells him he'll feel less sorry when she tells him the whole story one day, and that they were mad as hatters to let her back in the house.
Carson continues to express a longing for the past at Downton and resisting change, such as when Nellie Melba and Jack Ross both come to Downton. However he admits Ross was a decent fellow, and praises England leading the world in the fight against slavery. Still he is not a fan of the jazz music that plays that night.
When Alfred decides to pursue cooking, Carson encourages him, saying he is a hard worker. Later, when Alfred does not get accepted, Carson insists he keep working hard, and later praises him for expressing gratitude for the kindness he received from him and the family after he replaces a candidate who dropped out. He says gratitude is what he likes to see. When Molesley initially hesitates to replace Alfred as a footman (something Carson thought he would not do considering his difficulty finding work), Carson is really upset with him and refuses to take him on even when Alfred does leave. Unfortunately for him, Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore fight in Molesley's corner, and Carson relents.
Carson treats the staff to a day out at the seaside (after his other options of different museums attracted none of their interest), and in a tempting of things to come, Mr Carson holds Mrs Hughes's hand as they go into the sea together.
Carson is asked to be the Chairman of the War Memorial in Downton Village, instead of the more obvious and traditional choice of Lord Grantham. Despite the committee's insistence that Carson is better suited for the post, as he knew the soldiers and their families, he insists that His Lordship be made Patron, else he will not serve. During the course of his chairmanship, he faces difficulties deciding where the Memorial ought to be held and goes head to head with His Lordship, as well as Mrs Hughes. (He would like to create a Garden of Remembrance, while the others want a stone edifice in the centre of the village.) After a disagreement with Mrs Hughes however, Carson is quick to acquiesce, and he tells her that the bonus of his changing his mind is that they are on the same side once more.
Later on in the series, Mrs Patmore attempts to convince him (through Mrs Hughes) to include her nephew, Archie Philpots in the Memorial, to which Carson strongly disagrees with. He feels that it would be disrespectful to the men that stayed and fought for their country, to include a soldier who had been shot for cowardice. This causes some discomfort between the Cook and himself, and so he makes a special effort to support and advise her when she is considering investing in a property.
Inspired by their visit to Mrs Patmore's cottage then, Carson nervously asks Mrs Hughes if she would consider investing in a property with him. His idea is that they could rent it out or run and Bed and Breakfast, so that they might increase their savings by the time they retired. While her answer to him is not direct, it is clear that she is overcome by this business proposal, and that she thinks his intentions might be to venture farther than that in the future.
After viewing a number of cottages together, Mrs Hughes tells Carson that she did not have the money to invest in the first place, although she would have liked to come in with him, had she been able. Ashamed and almost heartbroken, it is strongly suggested here that his intent had always been to share the project with her especially, and to possibly retire together one day. At Christmas, he steals her away from the carolling upstairs, and tells her that he has bought the house in both their names. And when Mrs Hughes rejects the idea again, claiming he would not want to be stuck with her for the years to come, Carson insists that he does indeed want to be 'stuck' with her. So, after 5 seasons and 12 years on the show, and possibly another 12 of their working relationship that we did not witness, it is a Christmas miracle to see these two finally confess their feelings of tenderness for another, and to take that step forward in their relationship.
Carson is approached by Mrs Patmore with Mrs Hughes' concerns about their marriage. Those concerns are that Mrs Hughes is concerned that Mr Carson does not find her beautiful, and also if he wants their marriage to involve intercourse. Mr Carson says that he wants a "full marriage" and Mrs Hughes eventually agrees to this.
Carson is a man who takes his job seriously. He is very strict about the standards at Downton, and is upset whenever they are disrupted or breached by his coworkers. However, he does have a deep respect and admiration for the Crawley family and others of the "upstairs" world. Mrs. Hughes accuses him of worshiping them. Despite his stern exterior, he shows almost fatherly concern for his coworkers. Thomas is surprised to see him teaching Alfred about spoons, as he had never done anything like this for Thomas. Carson replied that Thomas had never asked. Though he is determined that they ensure that the house is run efficiently, and they never seek to cause trouble. He is initially against the employment Mr. Bates because he believes that his lameness will cause dissension as others will have to do his work for him, but later admitted he could not imagine Downton without him. Like Lord Grantham, he has difficulty accepting change and takes great pride in Downton Abbey and what it symbolizes. Despite his personal beliefs, he will put the honour of the house before them, such as loathing Thomas Barrow's homosexuality, but wishing to see him go quietly without bringing scandal to the house.Actor Jim Carter has stated that Carson sees upstairs and downstairs as two completely separate worlds, which is why he is upset when Lady Sybil marries Tom Branson, the former chauffeur. He can however be a surprisingly kind man, such as when he called Tom's respect for Cora's invitation for Kieran Branson "exemplary" and when he shows a preference for Alfred over Jimmy even though Jimmy has had more experience as a footman than Alfred despite being angry at Alfred for his past errors. To those to whom he is close, he is always extremely concerned when they might be in serious trouble, such as when Mrs. Hughes might have had cancer. He also has a very loving side, such as when he comforts Lady Sybil's daughter.
Politically, Carson is a monarchist, loyal to and proud of the British monarchy. He also detests being called "liberal."
Mr. Carson often at the end of each day shares moments with the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes. They meet in her sitting room or his pantry and talk about how the day went. They are very different, she is much more practical about the job and accuses him of worshipping the Crawleys. He cares about her, this is seen when he learns that she does not have cancer and is moved to hum a cheerful song. It has long been suspected that he has harboured feelings for her since very early on in their working relationship. When Carson bought a house to live in, he registered it in Mrs. Hughes name as well and soon proposed to her to which she gladly accepted. They were married a short time later.
Mr. Carson loves Lady Mary like a daughter and has comforted her on many occasions. When she was remembering the night she spent with Kemal Pamuk and how she regretted it, he told her that she was still very young to which she replied, "Am I? I don't feel it." When at the garden party in 1914, she accepted Matthew Crawley's proposal to her but he turned down her response as he felt it had taken too long and she wasn't sure enough, he comforted her and she said tearfully, "Don't worry, Carson. I'm never down for long."When she became engaged to Sir Richard Carlisle, Mr. Carson knew that Mary was not happy like she should be. When he had a heart problem and she came to see him, he told her to tell Matthew that she loved him. "Then even if he is killed," Mr. Carson reasoned, "You won't be sorry. If you don't tell him, you could regret the rest of your life." Mary wanted to follow Mr. Carson's advice, but after having a conversation with Lavinia Swire, Matthew's then fiancee, she discovered how much Lavinia loved Matthew and decided against taking Carson's advice. Sir Richard Carlisle asked Mr. Carson to be the butler at Haxby, which was going to be his and Mary's house when they were married. Mr. Carson accepted, feeling he could help Mary "in those early years when it's important to get it right" to use his words. Mrs. Hughes asked him if he would like it over at Haxby, and would he regret leaving Downton, to which Carson replied, "I will regret it every moment of every day," he said, but his sense of loyalty to Mary propelled him to Haxby. However, when Anna told him that Sir Richard had tried to bribe her into spying on Lady Mary, he took back his word, feeling he could not "work for a man [he] didn't respect." Lady Mary was completely disappointed in him and hurt him with her harsh words. "And I always thought you were fond of me!" Carson's look of heartbreak at this moment clearly said it all: He felt she should not be marrying Sir Richard and only wanted her to be happy. When Carson contracted Spanish flu in 1919 and Lady Mary broke off her engagement in January 1920, they forgave each other.
Lady Mary was married in spring 1920 and as she walked down the stairs in her wedding dress, both Robert and Carson looked up to her, eyes full of pride. "Will I do, Carson?" she asked him, smiling. "Very nicely, my lady," he answered, eyes glistening.
When she was about to have her baby in September 1921, Carson was in a feverish mood ("Who wouldn't be, after Lady Sybil?" he says to Mrs. Hughes, referring to Sybil's disastrous birth of her daughter and how he does not want the same thing to happen to Mary). Upon learning she had given birth successfully he was so happy he forgot to ask what sex the baby was.
When Lady Sybil Branson, Sybbie's mother, died in July 1920, Carson broke down and expressed grief. In September 1921, when Sybbie's nanny was not there, Sybbie started to cry. Carson picked her up and soothed her in the library. He told Mrs. Hughes when she came in that he was remembering Lady Sybil when she was Sybbie's age (a little over a year old at the time).
- "If you're asking, whether I'll regret leaving Downton, I want to regret it every minute of every day. I thought I would die here, and haunt it ever after".- to Mrs Hughes when she asks whether he'll be happy to leave Downton to move to Haxby with Mary and her then fiance Sir Richard Carlisle
- "May I give you one piece of advice, my lady? Tell him what's in your heart. If you still love him, let him know. And even if he's killed and he may be, you won't be sorry. If you don't tell him, you'll regret it all live long." - building up Lady Mary's self-confidence about her true feeling for Matthew
- "You're too tall to be a footman. No footman should be over 6 foot 1." - to Alfred Nugent in Episode 3.01.
- "Where's the style, Mrs. Hughes? Where's the show?" - Episode 3.02.
- "I thought Mr. Branson's respect for her ladyship's invitation exemplary." - to Mrs. Hughes, showing a respect for Tom Branson he seldom shows.
- "I've never been called a liberal in my life and I don't intend to start now!" - to Jimmy Kent.
- "The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end, that's all there is."
- "I'd sooner chew broken glass." -Mr. Carson on not wanting to go to the fair.
- "If you have a problem with that definition Mr. Barrow, then you can go eat in the yard."
Behind the scenes
- In "The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era" by Jessica Fellowes and Matthew Sturgis, Julian Fellowes relates that the character of Carson was based on Arthur Inch, a retired butler, now deceased, who served as the principal advisor on the movie "Gosford Park".
- According to Phillys Logan, who played Mrs Hughes, and Jim Carter, who played Carson, Carson fell in love with Mrs Hughes first, and his feelings for her probably became apparent for the audience, when she had that cancer scare and Carson was very upset about it. Later when they found out she wasn't ill, Carson was so relieved, he sang an old love song.
According to the non-canonical 2015 Text Santa, Carson describes someone as "kind and jolly and, in their youth had a substantial beard" and Robert replies that they "can't ask Mrs Patmore" and Carson protests that he was talking about himself.