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Cora Crawley (played by Elizabeth McGovern) was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1868 to Isidore Levinson, a dry-goods millionaire and Martha Levinson. She is the wife of Robert Crawley, duaghter-in-law to Violet Crawley, and mother of Mary, Edith and Sybil. In 1888, at the age of 20, she was engaged to Robert, Viscount Downton, at the end of a season in London. Assuming that she would have a son to inherit the title and fortune, she had agreed, at the insistence of her father-in-law, that her very large dowry would become part of the Grantham estate, which is entailed to male heirs. When Patrick, the cousin who is Robert's heir in the absence of a son, dies in the sinking of the Titanic, it is revealed that the new heir is a much more distant cousin, Matthew Crawley. Cora had been hoping for a marriage between Patrick and Mary, so that her money would have benefited her eldest daughter after Robert's death and gone eventually to her grandson instead of to a stranger to whom she is not related. She therefore thinks Robert should seek to break the entail.

In the Summer of 1914, Cora becomes pregnant but miscarries after slipping on a bar of soap deliberately left near the tub by her maid O'Brien, who mistakenly fears she was about to be replaced. During the Great War she takes charge of Downton when it is converted into a convalescent home for wounded officers. Shortly after the war, Cora is, along with other members of the house, struck down with Spanish influenza and seems close to dying before making a full recovery. After receiving a letter from Sybil, who tells her she and her husband Branson, the former chauffeur, are expecting a baby, she tells Robert that although he may not be prepared to visit Sybil and support her through her pregnancy, she is, as she wants to be a part of her grandchild's life.

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