John Bates (born 1869) is Robert Crawley's valet. Initially he is poorly treated by most of the staff due to the fact that he uses a cane (he was wounded in the Boer War). Thomas Barrow and Sarah O'Brien make several attempts to get rid of him. Despite this, he is eventually able to earn the respect of much of the staff, such as Anna Smith and Mr Carson, who are impressed by his morals and work ethic, despite his disability.
Shortly after the sinking of the RMS Titanic, John Bates arrives at Downton Abbey to replace Mr. Watson as the valet to Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham. Upon arrival, the staff (except Anna Bates and to some extent William Mason) give him the cold shoulder as they do not believe he is suited to the job as Lord Grantham's valet as he uses a cane. The job requires him to take the stairs frequently and bring luggage up to people's rooms. The butler, Charles Carson, is upset that others will need to help him do his job. Meanwhile, the footman Thomas Barrow was hoping to be promoted to valet himself and is personally offended to lose the job to "Long John Silver."
It is some time before the rest of the servants learn that Bates is an old friend, and served Lord Grantham in the Boer War as batman. This is where he received his leg injury. Mr. Bates finally says to the astonished and speechless staff with perfect timing, "You never asked." Bates received the Queen's South Africa Medal and the King's South Africa Medal, meaning he served at least 18 months service, and up to the end of the war in May 1902.
Thomas Barrow and lady's maid Sarah O'Brien strive to have him sacked from Downton Abbey. The first attempt to get rid of him is when O'Brien knocks his cane away when he is standing in a receiving line to greet the Duke of Crowborough. Bates then proceeds to fall flat on his face. Only Anna, who helps him up, offers him any sympathy and friendship. Due to this incident, and forced to bow to the feelings of most of the staff, and as Carson says for the good of the estate, Lord Grantham fires him, even knowing that his friend will have little luck finding another placement because of his disability. Carson addresses to the servants and decrees that Bates has left "without a stain on his character." William, the second footman, offers to do some extra work for Bates if he stays, but Thomas cuts him off saying that "its not up to you." But, as Bates is leaving, Lord Grantham runs after the motor (car) and insists he stay, saying "It's not right."
In order to improve the servants' opinions of him, Bates goes to a a shop that has devices that will supposedly correct his limp. The device is an utter failure, and it causes him great pain until Mrs Hughes finds out and persuades Bates to get rid of the device, and he does it by tossing it into a pond.
Thomas and O'Brien still mercilessly try to sack Bates, while the most of the staff ignore him, he gains an ally in William Mason when he observes Thomas bullying the younger man who is suffering with severe homesickness. Thomas also ruins his attempts to kindle a romance with kitchen maid Daisy. Bates shoves Thomas to a wall, calls him a "filthy little rat," and threatens to "punch your shining teeth through the back of your head." An overconfident Thomas makes a snide remark that Mr. Bates can do nothing to stop him. Thomas, despite this, still remains smug downstairs, but he learns one thing: Bates, despite his disability, he is not to be underestimated - and he has a temper.
Thomas then steals some wine and Bates has caught him red-handed, although Bates pretends not to notice the theft. Although when Bates makes a statement that questions Thomas' right to property, both O'Brien and Thomas know that Bates saw him steal the wine. Because of this, Thomas steals a snuff box from Lord Grantham's room and hides it in Bates' room. With Anna's help, he finds the snuff box in his room (as Anna predicted), and Anna offers to put it in Miss O'Brien's room if he wanted to. Despite the chance to get rid of Thomas or O'Brien, Bates puts the snuff box back in Lord Grantham's room. Anna and Bates, in front of the servants, ask Carson and Mrs Hughes, the housekeeper, to conduct a search on the servant's rooms. She also asks them to do it immediately, so that none of the servants have a chance to hide the box. Carson and Mrs. Hughes agree, and begin to search the servants' rooms. Hastily, Thomas and O'Brien run to their rooms to search for the box as they speculate that Bates and Anna put it in their rooms. Bates and Anna, to the bewilderment of the servants, are left laughing as they run up. He and Anna also grow closer, and she admits that she loves him. He says "he is not a free man".
Thomas and O'Brien try to frame Bates for the wine theft that Thomas actually committed. Thomas gets Daisy to lie to Carson saying that she saw Mr. Bates coming out of the cellar. Although when Daisy witnesses Thomas bullying William even worse than before, the confesses to Carson that she lied and did it as a favor for Thomas. Bates was found innocent of the wine theft, but he confesses to Anna, Carson, and Mrs. Hughes that he was a drunkard "until a couple of years ago," and that he went to prison for theft. This leaves all three of them shocked.During Sybil Crawley's first London season, O'Brien meets a lady's maid that lives in the house of a colonel in Bates' former regiment. She later tells O'Brien, through the post, that Bates has stolen regimental silver. O'Brien and Thomas tell Carson who then confronts Bates who does not deny this claim. In order to save Bates, Anna visits Bates' mother, discovers his marriage to Vera Bates, and that he does not love Vera, and that he went to prison for a theft that Vera committed. Due to this evidence, Bates does not leave Downton. During the garden party, Bates later hints to Joseph Molesley that he returns her love, right before Lord Grantham announces England is now at war with Germany.
John Bates returns to Downton Abbey after his mother's funeral. He believes he can finally divorce Vera and therefore proposes to Anna. But Vera shows up at Downton and blackmails him with the threat to publish Lady Mary's scandal involving Kemal Pamuk, which could damage Anna's reputation since she helped cover it up. He is forced to resign his job (Robert Crawley is not happy to learn this) against his will and return to live with her. Anna is heartbroken.
Anna finds him working in a pub in Kirkbymoorside. Both she and Lord Grantham visit him there. John reveals he may have information about his wife having an affair, which means he can sue for divorce. He is convinced to return to Downton, where he is welcomed back by Carson and Mrs Hughes.
However, Vera has compromising information that will delay the divorce. John offers Vera money to keep quiet about the story that she was blackmailing him with and to leave them alone. However, she lies to him. Vera goes to Richard Carlisle to expose the story, and he pays her for it but does not use it because it would give his then-fiancée, Lady Mary Crawley, a bad name. Mary in fact has gone to Carlisle and persuaded him to buy the story. Mary later thanks John for what he did for her. Vera on the other hand is angry and swears John will not escape her wrath.
He goes to confront his wife about this and returns with a scar on his cheek. The next day a telegram arrives informing Bates that Vera has died by eating a pie containing poison. It is suspected that the death was suicide, although lack of a suicide note suggests there was no premeditation. Bates had bought some arsenic to kill rats in their house when they were married, and believes that it was her spur of the moment decision to eat the poison. Bates and Anna realize that this looks bad for him and that he may be accused of murdering his wife. She suggests that he go to the police to tell them about the arsenic, as they may find out anyway and it would be worse.
Growing tired of waiting, Anna tells Bates that she wants to marry him immediately. Only Mary Crawley and Jane Moorsum know of the marriage, but the couple planned to tell everyone after the funeral of Lavinia Swire. After attending the funeral, they return to Downton and discover two officers who are waiting to arrest Bates for the murder of his wife. Bates and Anna declare their love for each other before he is escorted away by the officers.Lord Grantham's lawyer George Murray. Mrs Hughes and Miss O'Brien must testify against him. Lord Grantham is called as a defense witness and is cross examined. The evidence shows Bates in a bad light and he is found guilty. Although initially sentenced to hang, the lack of apparent premeditation results in commutation to life imprisonment. Anna and the lawyers are still planning to appeal the verdict.
Thomas Barrow has taken over as Lord Grantham's valet.
The time he spends in prison is made all the more difficult because he is confined in close quarters with characters that are described as "undesirable." He warns his cellmate Craig to let him be and then he sees Craig being passed something by the guard Durrant. Worried about what he has seen and what he can tell others, Craig has planted drugs in Bates's bed, intending to frame him. Fortunately, another prisoner, Dent, who hates Craig, warns him in time. Bates finds the drugs and hides them. But this puts him on bad terms with the guards, who cut off all correspondence between him and Anna and prevents her from visiting him.
Dent later told him that Craig and one of the guards, Durrant, were working together selling drugs. Durrant brings them into the prison and Craig sells them to the other inmates. After Bates successfully got Craig on bad terms with the guards by putting the drugs in his bed, his and Anna's letters were finally delivered to each of them. Another guard, Turner, warned Bates that Durrant did not like him and so he became more watchful for an opportunity to deal with Craig. Anna finds information which will clear Bates - Audrey Bartlett saw Vera making the crust for the poisoned pie after Bates had left London by train to return to Downton. As the arsenic was found in the pie, but not the ingredients, Vera had to have put it in herself. Durrant finds out and pressures Audrey Bartlett to change her story when Bates' lawyer George Murray comes to see her. Bates threatens Craig that he will give information to the authorities that will get Craig's sentence extended and Durrant fired, unless they get her to tell the truth.
In 1920, after Audrey Bartlett gives a testimony that clears his name, Bates is released from prison, and he returns with Anna to a cottage near Downton. They start painting it and it is done by the time O'Brien pays a visit. Mrs Hughes informs him of the situation regarding Thomas and Jimmy, and though he wants Thomas to go he does not want to see anyone's life ruined. Later he alarms Miss O'Brien when he mentions "her ladyship's soap," which Thomas has mentioned to him indicating he knows she caused Cora's miscarriage back in 1914. He tells this to Anna as well as his disappointment that Thomas is staying on in a higher position than himself, and he has no idea what the phrase Thomas gave him means.Duneagle Castle in Scotland, and they go on a picnic together. One day while talking outside the house, they meet a crying Lady Rose. They give her sympathy and a mint to hide the fact that she has been smoking. Rose laments her life. With a sad smile Bates tells her that his whole childhood was so bad that she would consider it impossible, but he had survived and so would she. Later, he receives a surprise from his wife at the Ghillies Ball, when she shows how well she can dance, thanks to lessons given to her by Rose MacClare. Bates says of her to Mary, "Yes. She is marvellous."
After Green rapes Anna during the performance of Nellie Melba, Anna feels soiled and unworthy of her husband. She begins pushing him away, lying that it has been from working too long together which is why she's keeping her distance from him. She even moves back into Downton away from the cottage.John fears he has done something terribly wrong but cannot understand what, and believes that Anna no longer loves him. He cannot learn the truth from her, but after overhearing her speaking to Mrs Hughes he confronts the latter. At first she does not say anything, but then Bates threatens to leave because he cannot work where he is not loved and happy anymore. At that, fearing his departure would break Anna, she admits the truth, but insists it was someone who barged in from the outside. However, Bates asks her to swear it was not Green, and she does. Anna too swears Green too was not to blame when John confronts Anna in the boot room. He tells her that she is not soiled, but that he in fact loves her more than ever. They reconcile with embraces and tears, but he is certain Green is responsible, and remarks that he is a "dead man" if it was him. Later, he tells Mrs Hughes nothing is settled.
John swears to punish the man who attacked his wife. He sees himself as having failed to protect Anna. Later, when Lord Grantham goes to America, he takes Thomas Barrow with him instead of John after Mrs Hughes expresses concern that John should stay with Anna. When Green returns with Lord Gillingham, John is listening when Green reveals he went downstairs while Nellie Melba was singing. Later Green dies in London in a traffic accident. Both Anna and Mary suspect John of being involved as he was absent the whole day of the accident, having told Carson he was going to York, but there is no proof he was involved, and they take the matter no further.Grantham House for the London season in 1923, which includes Rose's debunate. Mrs Hughes discovers a ticket in one of John's old coats which indicates he travelled onwards from York to London on the day Green died. She puts the matter into Lady Mary's hands, although Mary is unsure of whether she can keep this secret in light of the potential murder. Mrs Hughes insists nonetheless that they can never know what happened that day. John might have been nowhere near Piccadilly and went to London for a different reason, but she asserts she will not wrong him if he went to avenge his wife's honor. When Lord Grantham learns from Rose that a love letter from the Prince of Wales to Freda Dudley Ward was taken by Terence Sampson, he asks John if, while in prison, he had made the acquaintance of anyone able to make a convincing forgery. John says that he did, and that if he were to have a sample of the handwriting, he could produce the forgery within the day. Later we see John himself forging a note in Sampson's hand giving them permission to enter his flat, so they can look for the letter. The Crawleys are unable to find it, but then John suspects Sampson did not leave it at home (which they searched while distracting Sampson with a card game) but carried it with him to keep it safe. While helping Sampson on with his overcoat, he retrieves the letter. He then hands it over to Lord Grantham, saying that it was in the inside pocket of Sampson's vest, revealing that he is a highly skilled pickpocket. Mary rewards John for his loyalty by burning the ticket. Mr Bates and Anna later have a day at the seaside with the rest of the downstairs staff.
The police return to Downton asking about Green's time there, because now they are wondering if Green's death really was an accident, and apparently Green had told members of Gillingham's staff that he had not gotten along well with Bates.
Anna is employed by Mary to help her go on a secret weekend with Lord Gillingham, but when Bates accidentally finds anti-pregnancy devices Mary asked Anna to buy for her while trying to find something else, he becomes really upset. He accuses Anna of trying to avoid getting pregnant and telling him that she wants to have his child.
When Anna defends herself, asking why she would want to do that, Bates replies, "Because you think I'm a murderer." He reveals that he has known all along that Mr Green was the man who raped her, since Green mentioned he went down to the kitchens during the concert. He explains to Anna he wanted to kill him, and was planning on going to London, but he did not get on the train despite purchasing a ticket.
He knew he would kill Green if he saw him, and would hang - he could not put Anna through that. When he heard of Green's death he says "it was like the hand of fate", and he kept the ticket as a "talisman". He explains that the fact he still had it, untorn, was proof that he never used it. Anna is nonetheless overjoyed that he is innocent, and that they no longer have to keep secrets between one another.
Despite their hopes that they can move on, the police arrest Anna after she is identified by a witness as being on the pavement near Green before he fell (whereas earlier they had heard whoever argued with Green was shorter than Bates). Bates tries to stop them from taking Anna, but he has to be restrained by Lord Grantham.
Bates visits Anna in prison, staying behind while the family holiday at Brancaster Castle. Anna explains the prosecutors found out she had struck her stepfather with a knife after he sexually assaulted her. George Murray explains they will use this as proof it was not against her nature, but he hopes he can rule it as inadmissible since Anna's mother made her stepfather not bring up charges.
Nevertheless, when Anna is going to be tried, Bates, desperate for her to be out of prison, chooses to take matters into his own hands. He writes separate letters confessing to killing Mr Green, and goes into hiding in Ireland with family there, leaving only contact information to Lord Grantham, who keeps it secretBut by Christmas 1924, Molesley and Baxter find proof of Bates' innocence in the testimony of a York pub landlord who remembered Bates from the day Green died, while the witness who identified Anna had begun having doubts. Bates soon returns, sneaking into Downton's Christmas Eve party and surprising Anna with his presence. He takes her aside and they share a joyful reunion.
Sergeant Willis visits Bates and Anna, and tells the latter and the former that a confession has been made regarding Green's death, but the confession needs to be proven. Anna tells Bates that she had suffered a miscarriage, and fears that she will not have children. When Sergeant Willis comes back to Downton saying that the confession was real, the servants and the upstairs family have an informal ball in the servant's hall.
Bates is concerned that Anna's recent miscarriage is affecting her normality, and Bates suggests a little time off to help solve the problem. Unbeknownst to Bates, Lady Mary takes Anna to see Dr Ryder for solutions about her pregnancy. When Anna returns back to Downton, she is in a better mood that when she had left.Bates also attends the wedding and the wedding reception of Charles Carson and Elsie Hughes.
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