Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes has admitted that it was “testing” killing off Dan Stevens’ character Matthew Crawley in the wake of his exit from the show.

Speaking to trade magazine The Hollywood Reporter, the writer revealed that he was left with no option but for Matthew to die, in light of his long relationship and subsequent marriage to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery).

However he said that other storylines – such as the unexpected death of Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) in childbirth earlier in the series also complicated matters.

“We knew Jessica was leaving from quite a long time before,” Julian explained, “and so we completely decided calmly to kill her off in the fifth episode, so that would give people three episodes to recover and then we’d have the Christmas special and everyone could move forward.

“But having done that, when the news came through that Dan was also leaving we couldn’t do that again, so that was a bit testing.”

Executive producer Gareth Neame added: “We all agreed that the only way to break Mary and Matthew apart was for one of them to die. There really was no alternative.”

And Julian agreed, saying: “We couldn’t have three years of them being in love and suddenly him taking against her and nipping off to Japan. That wasn’t a workable scenario.”

The fourth series of Downton Abbey will begin on ITV in the autumn.