Through its run, Downton Abbey had dozens of main characters. This list starts with the least intelligent and ends with the most.
The world of Downton Abbey and its residents, the Crawley family and their servants, is a system of inequality. The lives of the characters are almost all defined by the luck of to whom you are born. One of the things that are clear, is that intelligence has nothing to do with a character’s position in life. The wealthy, though perhaps better educated, are not smarter, and the servants are not dumber.
Through its run, Downton Abbey had dozens of main characters. In order to keep the list manageable, it only focuses on 10 of the characters who appeared in all of the seasons and the film. The list starts with the least intelligent and ends with the most.
Lord Grantham, while well-intentioned, is an idiot. He lost the entire fortune of the Crawley family, as well as Cora’s fortune that she brought to the marriage. It was only through a stroke of enormous luck that he didn’t end up losing the whole estate.
His biggest issue comes from his hubris. He’s a snob, and his belief in the class system leads him to make some very harmful decisions. When his daughter Sybil’s labor becomes difficult, rather than listening to the doctor who has known her whole life but is lower class, he listens to the posh doctor he brought in from London. Sybil pays for that decision with her life. At least none of the other characters’ stupidity ended up killing anyone.
Cora isn’t as big an idiot as her husband. She is hopelessly naïve and has no judgment when it comes to the people she should trust. First of all, she trusts and confides in O’Brien, her ladies maid, believing all the poisonous lies that O’Brien whispers in her ear. It never occurs to her that O’Brien may have ulterior motives. Once O’Brien leaves, Thomas takes her place as the one who tells her lies in order to get his own way.
If she was only taken advantage of once, or maybe twice, that would be understandable. “Fool me once” and all of that. But the fact that she never catches on and allows herself to be taken advantage of over and over again places her at the dumb end of the list.
An argument could be made that Daisy belongs on the other end of this list. She’s one of the few characters who actively seeks to better herself, primarily through education. Daisy proves herself to be an adept student. But being ambitious and book smart isn’t all there is to intelligence. Like Cora, Daisy makes dumb decision after dumb decision and never seems to learn from her mistakes.
When Downton Abbey begins, Daisy is very young and so dumb mistakes can be overlooked. However, towards the end of the series, twelve years have gone by and she’s still speaking before she thinks and rushing in headlong to things despite everyone else’s warnings.
On the face of things, Edith is an intelligent woman. She’s the owner and editor of a magazine, she was a capable caregiver when Downton turned into a hospital during the war, she learned to drive, all things that wouldn’t be expected of a woman of her standing in the 1910s and ‘20s.
But Edith makes stupid, selfish decisions all through the series. First of all, she never turns the other cheek to Mary, despite the mountain of evidence that she will always come out worse on those skirmishes. Secondly, she orchestrates the pseudo-adoption of her daughter to a farmer on Downton’s estate, not thinking that perhaps the family will become attached to the baby. And she doesn’t tell her boyfriend the truth about her daughter, even though it was utterly clear that she should have. It’s good she was adept at the magazine business because every personal decision she made was just dumb.
Thomas enjoys a good scheme. He tries his hardest to manipulate people and situations so that they benefit him. Yet, it almost never works. He tries to take down Mr. Bates several times, but the only time Mr. Bates gets into trouble is his own doing. For unknown reasons, he tries to use new maid Edna to take down Anna, and that backfires too. One of his few schemes that worked, getting rid of Nanny West, was only successful because she was horrific, which wasn’t something he knew.
Part of Thomas’s issue is that he knows people don’t like him, so he tries to make their lives miserable. But if he put in half of the time he uses trying to manipulate people into being kind to them, he might actually have friends and be happy. It does seem that towards the end of the series he starts to take steps into that direction, so maybe he can learn.