A notorious dissolute - a man of stupendous wealth - a ménage a trois, a gothic cathedral, the nation’s hero and Christmas; what do these things have in common?
It was December 20th 1800. A carriage carrying Horatio Nelson, William Hamilton and Emma was clip clopping down the kilometre long, arrow-straight drive leading to Fonthill Abbey in Southern Wiltshire. It was Fanny Nelson’s worst nightmare – her husband had arrived home only a few weeks earlier after three years in the Mediterranean. Unable to overcome her despair at the turn of events, she had the strength of character to preserve her reputation by staying at home.
Invitation with Many Motivations
But Horatio was not thinking about Fanny, he was obsessing about the Prince of Wales, who had shown an unbecoming degree of interest in Emma. Her husband, William Hamilton, who was content with his wife’s relationship with the Admiral, was being courted by his notorious nephew, William (Thomas) Beckford, the richest man in all England. The latter needed to improve his public image and thought perhaps his cousin William Hamilton just might be able to persuade the “powers-that-be” to make him a peer of the realm – which he could then inherit. Whether this would have been enough to assuage the concerns of Society is doubtful. After all, William Beckford had been forced into exile in Switzerland after being accused of sex abuse a few years before.
Image: William Thomas Beckford by Joshua Reynolds with thanks to
He returned from exile and set about building a gothic monstrosity – a faux cathedral celebrating every cliché found in the literature of the time – dark corridors, immense towers, sweeping stairways, lavish banqueting halls, carved statues and an all-embracing silence and solemnity which flirted with farce were it not on such a munificent scale. The fortune had been made by Beckford’s father who owned plantations in Jamaica and three thousand enslaved people.
Beckford had entertained the Hamilton’s for a while after their return to London but in the Christmas season no one in their right minds was going to open their homes to the couple whose ménage was the talk of the town. So for the first and only time in the thirty years that Beckford owned Fonthill Abby, he threw a party.
It was certainly not a Christmas party as we understand it. In those times, as now, Christmas had much to do with family and food and church and a nice warm feeling of being Christian folk recalling the birth of the Saviour. Carolling, plum pudding, presents and dancing were the elements everyone recognised. But the party at Fonthill was very different. There were grand dinners, actors dressed as cowled monks lighting the grand spaces with blazing torches, the “attitudes” performed by Emma and extravagant expenditure on entertainments. It was a Christmas party designed to delight hedonists, but there would have been an undercurrent that was far from festive.
Horatio was so jealous of the Prince of Wales that he could hardly take his eyes of Emma. Emma doubtless enjoyed the applause for the performance of her “attitudes” but was eight months pregnant and a month away from giving birth to Horatia her love child with Horatio. Surely someone noticed? And Sir William? One can hardly imagine he was happy to be courted by someone so threatening to his reputation as William Beckford even if he was able to overlook his wife’s pregnancy to his friend.
Historical reports of the time in the Gentlemen’s Magazine suggest everyone enjoyed the whole thing and returned to London in good spirits.
Time to Escape
A few days later, Horatio’s leave was over and he returned to the navy. He continued to suffer a surfeit of jealousy when he wondered what the Prince of Wales might get up to with Emma while he was away.
When Horatio returned triumphantly from the Baltic campaign later in 1801, he bought a house together with Sir William settling for the suburban life. William Beckford was disappointed when his cousin failed to get a peerage and continued to live at Fonthill Abbey with his collections of books and art. He wrote novels to pass the time.
A distinguishing feature of Fonthill, the two hundred and seventy five foot tower collapsed for a third time in 1825 three years after Beckford had met with a financial reverse and sold the abbey. He said his only regret was in not seeing the tower fall.
Most Christmases are fraught to some degree. Adding ambition, politics, jealousy and big personalities into the mix adds to the tension. Let’s imagine Horatio was pleased to get back to sea.
Image: Regency Traditions. The first Christmas card, commissioned by Henry Cole. John Callcott Horsley, London, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
What is your favourite historical Christmas story? Please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy to share it as a guest blog.
Nelson’s Folly is available in hard copy or on kindle at Amazon.com.au and other online book stores or at The Constant Reader Bookshop in Mosman and Crows Nest.