The 20 Most Despicable Characters in Downton Abbey History, Ranked

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photos by PBS

When we think of Downton Abbey, we think poshness and proper five-course meal etiquette, sipping tea and delighting in the barbed bon mots of the Dowager Countess. But let’s not kid ourselves: In the world that Julian Fellowes built over six seasons, things often got nasty. And when they did, one or more of the 20 characters listed below were usually in some way involved.

Here’s the definitive ranking of the 20 most despicable characters in Downton Abbey history, ranked from mildly appalling to the utter and complete worst.

20. Major Patrick (or is it Peter?) Gordon, the disfigured soldier who claimed to be Patrick Crawley
Remember back in season two, when Downton turned into a convalescent home for wounded World War I soldiers, and a guy with a bandaged face who was recovering from amnesia convinced Edith that he was actually Patrick Crawley, the Downton heir thought to have died on the Titanic? Well, further investigation strongly suggested that the dude was totally lying and toying with Edith’s emotions, which is cruel, but perhaps slightly forgivable considering that we’re talking about a physically and emotionally wounded veteran.

19. Mr. Skinner, Edith’s editor at The Sketch
To be fair, we never got to know Mr. Skinner. But we know that he’s the kind of man who can’t handle women in authority and spends most of his time screaming at Edith and making her life difficult. Therefore, he’s despicable. I wish that, just once, Edith had been able to yell back at him, using the same vocal inflection Superintendent Chalmers uses on The Simpsons.

18. Terrence Sampson
A man who tries to swindle money from other rich men during card games? Unethical, sure, but maybe not despicable. However, when he stole the letter that revealed Freda Dudley Ward had been getting it on with the Prince of Wales, that pushed him into despicable territory.

17. Septimus Spratt and Gladys Denker (tie)
The Dowager Countess’s respective butler and lady’s maid share a ranking since, in the last two seasons, they’ve often displayed their worst qualities while in each other’s presence. Spratt got a head start on Denker, though, doing awful things like attempting to sabotage Molesley during a crucial luncheon for Lady Shackleton and generally being a priss-potty tattletale who sounds like Severus Snape with several Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans jammed in his throat. Denker has her own set of problems: She drinks too much, she’s a busybody, she brags, she blackmails and she’s just super-annoying. The fact that Spratt has been secretly writing an advice column for Edith’s magazine redeems him a little. But when these two are together, the result is usually, literally and figuratively, a soup that tastes absolutely terrible.

16. Horace Bryant
The father of Major Bryant — the man who impregnated housemaid Ethel Parks — is a rotten, misogynistic old man. The shoddy way he treats the mother of his grandson tells you he’s a bad guy. And if for some reason you’re still not sure, his mustache seals the deal.

15.  Lord Sinderby
The father of Atticus was initially prejudiced against Rose because she’s not Jewish. He also fathered a child out of wedlock and has kept his wife in the dark about it for years. He eventually softened toward Rose when she pitched in to help him keep his adultery a secret — that’s what family’s for! —  but his stuffiness, coupled with his lack of ethics, make him pretty insufferable.

14. Stowell, Lord and Lady Sinderby’s butler
This stone-cold jerk was so rude and snobby to Tom Branson that watching another Tom — as in Thomas Barrow — give Stowell his comeuppance was actually satisfying for once. That’s right: We finally met a butler who made Thomas seem reasonable and respectful by comparison.

13. Rita Bevan
The most devious chambermaid in the history of the Grand Hotel Liverpool, Rita is ruthless in her attempt to expose the tryst between Lady Mary and Lord Gillingham. But she accepts such a modest amount of money from Robert, and does it so quickly, there’s no way for her to rank higher on this list. Rita Bevan, if you really want to be despicable, you need to show a little more commitment.

12. Craig, Bates’s drug-smuggling cellmate
It wasn’t bad enough that John Bates got stuck in jail and falsely accused of murdering his estranged wife. No, he also had to get stuck with Craig as his jail roommate. Craig was terrible because he smuggled drugs into prison. Craig was also terrible because he tried to frame Bates for drug possession. Craig was really, really terrible because he tried to suppress witness testimony that could exonerate Bates. The only reason he doesn’t rank higher is that Craig was also boring and so expendable as a character that Julian Fellowes didn’t even bother to give him a last name.

11. Inspector Vyner
Maybe Inspector Vyner is technically a decent person. But he arrested Anna Bates on murder charges based on evidence that was circumstantial to use a very generous term, and nonexistent to use a term that’s actually accurate. He also dragged out the investigation into the death of Lord Gillingham’s valet to an excruciating degree, conducting inquiries in the least-efficient manner possible. Pro tip: If you’re just going to arrest someone with no proof, you can probably skip the repeated interrogations that cast such a pall over season five.

10. Lady Mary Crawley
Some people will probably say Mary has no place on this list. Others will say, “Why on God’s green Earth isn’t she in the top five?” This position seems like the right spot for our stubborn and often chilly protagonist, whose behavior in last week’s episode alone guaranteed that, despite her redeeming qualities, she simply had to be included here. Yes, Mary has been kind and generous to Anna, but she’s also been consistently cold and snobbish for all six seasons of Downton Abbey.  She’s toyed with the emotions of several men, sometimes because she was genuinely confused, and also, sometimes, because it was just plain fun. But her most egregious, gnawing character flaw is the way she treats her sister Edith, constantly spewing spite at her and chipping away at Edith’s self-esteem without showing an ounce of remorse. Remorse finally came in last week’s episode, but only after she crushed Edith’s chance to get married — and not even for the first time on this show! And no, by the way, that letter Edith wrote to the Turkish Embassy over a decade ago does not justify the way Mary has treated her. Not by a long shot. You know what, I’m going to stop writing about this now because if I don’t, I’ll move Mary right to the No. 3 slot.

9. Amelia Cruikshank
Alas, we were only getting to know ye, Amelia Cruikshank, condescending weasel of a human who encouraged the marriage of her future father-in-law solely because she can’t bear the thought of visiting him in a nursing home in some distant future. Let me also reiterate that this woman plans to wed Larry Grey by choice. So not only is she an asshole in her own right and by marital association, she also has wretched taste in men.

8. Edna Braithwaite
Ah yes, the scheming maid who tried to hit on Tom while he was mourning Sybil's death, got fired, then managed to worm her way back into Downton to work as Cora’s lady’s maid, then pursued Tom relentlessly until she finally hit that and then tried to convince him he had gotten her pregnant. Now I ain’t sayin’ she’s a gold digger, but … oh, wait. Actually, I am saying that. Was everything about Edna’s character uncomfortable from a feminist perspective? Yes. But she was such a disdainful person that it was hard to feel much sympathy for her, even when Mrs. Hughes straight-up slut-shamed her.

7. Vera Bates
Vera Bates is the ultimate nightmare wife. She steals and allows her husband to do time for it. She cheats on her spouse and demands his money and attention, but won’t give him a divorce. And in the ultimate affront, she commits spite-suicide by pie, a rare and especially bitter sin that involves killing oneself by poisoning a dessert and making it look like your husband did it. In short, Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction looks like Minnie Mouse compared to Vera Bates.

6. Nanny West
This loathsome woman who briefly provided “care” for George and Sybbie ranks pretty high on this list considering how short her time on Downton Abbey was. But when you refer to sweet children like Sybbie as “wicked little crossbreeds” that’s what happens.

5. Sir Richard Carlisle
We see the actor Iain Glen now and think of him as the poor guy carrying a torch for Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones. But let’s not forget he once portrayed the oily and unlikable Richard Carlisle, a newspaper man who routinely used the dirt he had on others to wield his own power, and who once publicly announced his engagement to Mary without even bothering to tell her he was going to do it. Carlisle’s crimes may not be as severe as the sins committed by others on this list, but he was so thoroughly unlikable, petty, and jealous that you could sense he would be a wife abuser before he and Mary even got married. He was so awful, he actually compelled Matthew Crawley to punch him in the face. And Matthew Crawley was a lover, not a fighter!

4. Larry Grey
Larry Grey is the Downton Abbey equivalent of pharma CEO Martin Shkreli and Ethan Couch, the guy who used the affluenza defense, rolled into one. He’s smug, entitled, incredibly rude, and 100 percent the total bastard that Tom Branson once accused him of being. His brother, Tim, is no picnic either, but Larry — clandestine drugger of drinks and insulter of Isobel Crawley — is far worse. Every sentence he utters is an invitation to punch him in the face. Just watch this dinner scene in which he behaves like the Prime Minister of Dickheads and try to refrain from putting a fist through your laptop screen.

3. Thomas Barrow
It seems unkind to speak ill of Thomas when the guy just attempted suicide. But our Mr. Barrow has been the most consistent plotter of nefarious schemes for nearly all six seasons of the show. To not acknowledge that would be a nice-washing of Downton history. (Nice-washing is when you act like a person has been nice all his life when he hasn’t.)

So let us now bow down to the evil that Thomas Barrow has done, which has included, but is in no way limited to: stealing wine; accusing Bates of stealing wine; falsely acting like he’s a war hero; selling food on the black market; stashing his lordship’s dog in a shed in order to receive a reward for “miraculously” finding her; engaging in elaborate schemes to make his colleagues look bad; manipulating Miss Baxter so he can get intel on Anna and Mr. Bates; rampant tattletaling on too many occasions to specify; frequent backstabbing; tutoring a fellow co-worker so he can learn to read … oh wait! That last thing was nice. Thomas has done so very many bad things that sometimes it’s hard to recognize when he’s good. Thomas may be a reformed despicable person now, but even so, if there were a Downton Abbey Despicable Hall of Fame, an entire wing of it would be devoted to Thomas Barrow.

2. Sarah O’Brien
Three words: Her Ladyship’s Soap. The fact that Cora’s lady’s maid purposely dropped a bar of soap on the floor so that Cora would slip and miscarry her child is, easily, one of the most wicked things anyone’s ever done on Downton Abbey. But O’Brien — whose curly bangs were created in Satan’s hair salon — was wicked and spiteful every day during her years at Downton, where she constantly attempted to undermine Thomas as well as others, and managed up so effectively that Cora never caught on to who she truly was. (People who manage up well while masking their own heinousness are the scourge of this planet.) She didn’t stick around long enough to fully redeem herself. She left behind only the memories of her vile behavior and the lingering scent of vengeful bitterness.

1. Alex Green, a.k.a. Lord Gillingham’s valet
This. Fucking. Guy. First of all, he viciously raped Anna Bates, the sweetest person on Downton Abbey. He also, as we would later find out, raped many other women, too. On top of that, he’s guilty of single-handedly ruining large chunks of seasons four and five and a teensy part of six because the story line involving Anna’s rape and the valet’s subsequent shove-murdering refused to go away. It was as stubbornly persistent as the curls in O’Brien’s satanic bangs. For all these reasons, Mr. Green, you stupid, horrible, serial rapist: You are the worst that Downton Abbey ever had to offer.