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'Downton Abbey' star on shock exit: "It was a very difficult decision"

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Warning: This article contains spoilers that some readers may prefer to avoid. Please click here if you wish to continue.

Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens has spoken about his shock departure from the show.

The actor, whose character Matthew Crawley was killed off in last night's (December 25) Christmas special, made the decision not to renew his contract back in February.

Downton Abbey - Christmas Special 2012:  Matthew Crawley

© ITV



"We were always optioned for three years. And when that came up it was a very difficult decision," Stevens told The Daily Telegraph.

"But it felt like a good time to take stock, to take a moment. From a personal point of view, I wanted a chance to do other things. It is a very monopolising job.

"So there is a strange sense of liberation at the same time as great sadness because I am very, very fond of the show and always will be."

Stevens will be on stage as Morris Townsend in The Heiress in New York until February. He's also in talks to star in a new movie based on the story of WikiLeaks.

Photo gallery - Downton Abbey Christmas special:
"It is a desire for freedom really," he added. "I don't see money or a particular status as an actor as a goal but I want to do the best work I can in as interesting a range of roles as I can.

"And I think a moment like this is quite unique and presents those opportunities more than ever before.

"None of us had any idea of how successful Downton was going to be. I thought I was signing up for another period drama that had a slightly modern feel.

"It had a freedom about it because it was coming out of the head of Julian Fellowes. Anything could happen and generally did.

Mary and Matthew marry in Downton Abbey

© ITV



"It was very emotional shooting the end of this series, because those guys are like family. We have been living together for three years and have been on the most amazing journey.

"I don't think any of us, with the possible exception of Maggie [Smith], have had this kind of explosion in our career paths, and may never again. It has been so bizarre, and only those who have been through it can understand it."

ITV wished him "every success for the future" and confirmed that Michelle Dockery will be returning to her role as Lady Mary in series four, which begins production in February.

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