Anyone doing a cursory search for Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) — and there will be many of you after this week's episode of Downton — may have come across an entirely different Anna Bates from history.
Born 40 years before Downton's Anna, the Anna Bates of historical import was a Canadian giantess, but don't be fooled. It's a stretch to imagine that a Nova Scotian circus performer who died when the fictional Anna was still a toddler had much impact on the character development of Downton's beloved lady’s maid, so the shared name is probably a coincidence.
As it turns out, Anna the TV character doesn't have all that much in common with someone of her station at the time — the main difference being her employers and a husband are decent human beings. That, and her hair wouldn't have been quite as flawless.
Anna and John Bates (Brendan Coyle) don't exactly have money to burn, but in real life, the couple would likely have been much worse off. According to The Mirror, in 1910, a live-in domestic servant (the most common occupation for women at the time) may have been earning as little as 12 to 18 pounds a year — about $1500 U.S. dollars today. That doesn't buy you a ton of sharp-looking hats, if she'd even been allowed to wear them in the first place!
Interestingly, the part of Anna's life that seems most ripped from turn-of-the-20th century headlines is her husband's murder accusation. In John's big Season 2 arc, he's accused of murdering his wife, Vera, after she blackmails him into not getting a divorce.
In all likelihood, John wouldn't have had the money to get a divorce in the first place — and many journalists would use this as a way to gain sympathy with lower-class readers. In one 1884 case, a newspaper story prompted a defendant's fellow citizens to gather 50,000 signatures for his reprieval. The way violent crime was reported, especially wife-murder, wedged a divide between upper- and lower-class Britain. Although John's trial came at the very end of this wave, cases like his, especially if another woman was involved, were an oft-sensationalized narrative.
Don't worry, though: Association with a violent tragedy isn't the only realistic part of Anna's character. When a servant and the family did have a close relationship, said Lucy Delap in a History & Policy paper, "the myth of familial belonging exerted a great deal of emotional pressure on young women to put their employers’ needs ahead of their own." With Anna always being available, whether the Crawleys need a shoulder to cry on or an extra set of arms to move a body, that, at the very least, describes her to a tee.
The short answer: No, Anna's not based on one, real person, but she's not all fiction, either. But if she were one of the luckier women working as live-in help in Downton-era England, she very well could've been real.