Nelson stayed at the Fonthill Estate between December 20th and 24th 1800. He went there with Sir William Hamilton and Emma at the invitation of the owner William Beckford
This represents a short and relatively uneventful period in Nelson's life. However, I take this opportunity to describe the visit, explore the way Beckford impacted the lives of the Hamiltons and Nelson, and tell the story of Fonthill Abbey - a story somewhat stranger than fiction.
William Beckford's mother was the cousin of Sir William Hamilton. His father was Alderman William Beckford, twice Lord Mayor of London, who had inherited a huge fortune based on Jamaican sugar plantations.
When the Alderman died in 1770 this same fortune passed to his nine year old son. The young William's inheritance included a huge estate (Fonthill in Wiltshire) and a country house (Fonthill Splendens) in addition to capital of £1.5 million and an annual income from Jamaica of £70,000.
Beckford's life was dogged by scandal. He was a modest author, he travelled, he indulged in the fine arts on a massive scale - he was also bi-sexual. Despite marrying and producing two daughters, he indulged in many homosexual affairs. One of these was with William (Kitty) Courtenay, the youngest son of Lord Courtenay, and it caused Beckford to be ostracised by "normal" society.
|Nov 1780||Beckford visited Naples where Sir William had been ambassador since 1764.|
|1782||A second visit to Naples. Beckford travelled with thee coaches and outriders|
|Jun 1791||Sir William visited England on leave. With him was Emma Hamilton who he would marry in September of that year. He made a visit to his property in Wales and en route broke his journey at Fonthill.|
|1793||Beckford built a wall, 12 feet tall and seven miles long around the inner part of his estate.|
|1796||He commenced the building of a mock abbey on a ridge on the estate|
|1797||The mock abbey collapsed|
|1798-1800||Building the "Fonthill Abbey" recommenced|
Sir William, retired from his role in Naples, had returned to England with Emma and Nelson.
The Hamiltons' first London house was No. 22 Grosvenor Square, lent to them by William Beckford. Nelson on occasions stayed there with them.
|May 1800||The tower of the abbey again collapsed.|
|24 Nov 1800||Nelson and the Hamiltons attended Drury Lane Theatre, sitting in William Beckford's personal box.|
|20-24 Dec 1800||
Nelson and the Hamiltons stayed at Fonthill as guests of William Beckford
In hooking these guests Beckford had 2 ulterior motives
1. It would be a tremendous coup for the declasse Beckford to have Nelson, the nation's darling, as a guest.
2. It would give Beckford the chance to pressurise Sir William into a plot he was hatching. i.e. in return for £2000 per annum, Sir William should attempt to gain a peerage and that that peerage should pass to Beckford on his death.
contemporary description of the visit as reported in The Gentleman's
Dear Sir, Fonthill, Dec. 28 1800
As you are desirous of some account of the late entertainments given by Mr. Beckford to Lord Nelson, Sir William and Lady Hamilton, at Fonthill, I will do as best I can, without pretending much talent for description, to gratify your curiosity.
As soon as they reached the lodge of the park, the Fonthill volunteers, already waiting, drew up in a double line. Their band of music consisting of thirty performers, playing "Rule Britannia," the corps presented their arms, and marched on either side of the carriages in slow procession up to the house. Here Mr. Beckford, with a large company of gentlemen and ladies, received Lord Nelson and his party on the landing of the grand flight of steps in the portico before the marble hall. The volunteers now formed into a line upon the lawn in front of the house, and fired a feu de joye, whilst the band played "God save the King." The day which had been thick and foggy, cleared up just before Lord Nelson's arrival; so that the military parade and salute, under the command of Capt. Williams, were performed with admirable effect. The company now entered the house, and about six o'clock sat down to dinner. After coffee, a variety of local pieces were finely executed by Lady Hamilton in her expressive and triumphant manner, and by Banti with all her charms of voice and Italian sensibility. (There were other eminent performers, vocal and instrumental.)
The company, after some time, divided into parties of conversation, cards, or music. Supper was serve at twelve. Every sort of delicacy appeared upon table; the greatest elegance and taste were displayed in the desert. The supper, in short, was such as might worthily succeed the dinner. The two next afternoons and evenings passed in the same manner. The mornings were spent in seeing the house, the paintings, the library, and in such excursions out of doors as the weather admitted.
On Tuesday the 23rd, the festivities were transferred from the Mansion-house to the Abbey.
The company being assembled by five o'clock, a number of carriages waited before the house to receive them. The several parties, as arranged for each, took their places. Lord Nelson was loudly huzzaed by the multitude as he entered the first coach. They all proceeded slowly and in order, as the dusk of the evening was growing into darkness. In about three quarters of an hour, soon after having entered the great wall which incloses the abbey-woods, the procession passed a noble Gothic arch. At this point the company were supposed to enter the Abbot's domain; and hence, upon a road winding through thick woods of pine and fir, brightly illuminated by innumerable lamps hung in the trees, and by flambeaus moving with the carriages, they proceeded between two divisions of the Fonthill volunteers, accompanied by their band playing solemn marches, the effect of which was so heightened by the continued roll of drums placed at different distances on the hills. What impression at this dark hour, the blaze of lights, partly stationary and partly moving, as reflected from the windows of the carriages or gleaming on the military armour, together with music echoing through the woods; what impression, I say, this ensemble of light, sound, and motion, must have made on those who could quietly contemplate it all at a distance, may be left to imagination without any attempt to describe it.
The company on their arrival at the Abbey could not fail to be struck with the increasing splendour of lights and their effects, contrasted with the deep shades which fell on the walls, battlements, and turrets, of the different groups of the edifice. Some parts of the light struck on the walls and arches of the great tower, till it vanished by degrees into an awful gloom at its summit; over which, mounted on a staff of 50 feet, the broad sheet (The Vice-Admiral's flag, in compliment to Lord Nelson) of colours could at some moments be discerned, by catching lights mysteriously waving in the air.
The parties, alighting in orderly succession from their carriages, entered a groined Gothic hall through a double line of soldiers. From thence they were received into the great saloon, called the Cardinal's parlour, furnished with rich tapestries, long curtains of purple damask before the arched windows, ebony tables and chairs studded with ivory, of various but antiquefashion; the whole room in the noblest style of monastic ornament, andilluminated by lights on silver sconces. At the moment of entrance they sat down at a long table, occupying nearly the whole length of the room (53 feet), to a superb dinner, served in one long line of enormous silver dishes, in the substantial costume of the antient abbeys, unmixed with th refinements of modern cookery. The table and side-boards glittering with piles of plate and a profusion of candle-lights, not to mention a blazing Christmas fire of cedar and cones of pine, united to increase the splendour and to improve the coup'-d'oeil of the room. It is needless to say the highest satisfaction and good-humour prevailed, mingled with sentiment of admiration at the grandeur and originality of the entertainment. It should not be omitted, that many of the artists, whose works have contributed to the embellishment of the abbey, with Mr. Wyatt and the President of the Royal Academy at their head, formed a part of the company. These gentlemen, with the distinguished musical party before mentined, and some prominent characters of the literary world, formed altogether a combination of talents and genius, not often meeting at the same place.
Dinner being ended, the cmpany removed up stairs to the other finished apartments of the abbey. The staircase was lighted by certain mysterious living figures at different intervals, dressed in hooded gowns, and standing with large wax-torches in their hands. A magnificent room hung with yellow damask, and decorated with cabinets of the most precious japan, received the assembly. It was impossible not to be struck, among other objects, with its credences, (or antique buffets) exhibiting much treasure of wrought plate, cups, vases, andewesr of solid gold. It was from this room that they passed into the Library, fitted up with the same appropriate taste. The Library opens by a large Gothic screen into the gallery, which I described to you in a former letter. This room, which when finished will be more than 270 feet long, is to half that length completely fitted up, and furnished in the most impressively monastyc stile. A superb shrine, with a beautiful statue of St. Anthony in marble and alabaster, the work of Roffi, placedupon it, with reliquaries studded with brilliants of immense value, the whole illumintaed by a grand display of waxlights on candlesticks and candelabras of massive silver gilt, exhibited a sceneat once strikingly splendid and awfully magnificent. The long series of lights on either side of the room, resting on stands of ebony enriched with gold and those on the shrine all multiplied and reflected in the great oriel opposite, from its spacious squares of plate-glass, while the whole reflection narrowed into an endless perspective as it receeded from the eye, produced a singular and magic effect.
As the company entered the gallery a solemn music struck the ear from some invisible quarter, as if from behind the screen of scarlet curtains which backed the shrine, or from its canopy above, and suggested ideas of a religious service; ideas which, associated as they were with so many appropriate objects addressed to the eye, recalled the grand chapel scenes and ceremonies of our antient Catholic times. After the scenic reprsentation a collation was presented in the library, consisting of various sorts of confectionary served in gold baskets, with spiced wines &c. whilst rows of chairs were placed in the great room beyond, which had first receive the company above stairs. A large vacant space was left in the front of the seats. The assembly no sooner occupied them than Lady HAmilton appeared in the character of Agrippina, bearing the ashes of Germanicus in a golden urn, and as presenting herself before the Roman people with the design of exciting them to revenge the death of her husband; who, after having been declared joint emperor by Tiberius, fell a victim to his envy, and is supposed to have bee poisoned by his order at the head of the forces which he was leading against the rebellios Armenians. Lady Hamilton displayed, with truth and energy, every gesture, attitude, and expression of countenance, which could be conceived in Agrippina herself, best calculated to have moved the passions of the Romans in behalf of their favourite general. The action of her head, of her hands and arms in the various position of the urn, in her manner of presenting it before the Romans, or of holding it up to the gods in the act of supplication, was most classically grceful. Every change of dress, principally of the head, to suit the different situations in which she succesively presented herself, was performed instantaneously with the most perfect ease, and without retiring or scarcely turning aside a moment from the spectators. In the last scene of this beautiful peice of pantomime, she appeared with a young lady of the company, who was to personate a daughter. Her action in this part was so perfectly just and natural, and so pathetically addressed to the spectators, as to draw tears from several of the company. It may be questioned wheteher this scene, without theatrical assistance of other characters and appropriate circumstances, could possibly be represented with more effect. The company delighted and charmed broke up, and departed at 11o'clock, to sup at the Mansion-house. On leaving this strange nocturnal scene of vast buildings and extensive forest, now rendered dimly and partially visible by the declining light of lamps and torches, and the twinkling of a fw scattered stars in a clouded sky, the company seemed, as soon as they had passe the sacred boundary of the great wall, as if waking from a dream, or just freed from the influence of some magic spell. And at this moment that I am recapitulating in my mind the particulars of the description I have been writing you, I can scarcely help doubting whether the whole of the last evening's entertainment were a reality, or only the visionary coinage of fancy.