William in ‘The other love’

The other love by H. Montgomery Hyde was first published in 1970 in London (England), and in the USA under the title The love that dared not speak its name. The author of books on Roger Casement and Oscar Wilde as well as The strange death of lord Castlereagh, Hyde was the Ulster Unionist member of the UK parliament for Belfast North from 1950 to 1959 when members of the local constituency party deselected him as their candidate for the general election, largely because of his views on homosexuality. Although not gay himself he played a significant part in campaigns to end repressive legislation before the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York (USA). His contribution was increasingly overlooked in the ensuing phase of gay liberation and gay pride.

The text below is copied from the british paperback edition of 1972 (chapter 3, Georgian justice, pp. 87-90). Hyde was summarising the established version of William’s life as held in 1970 but this does mean that his account is riddled with falsities. In particular: it is evident from texts of the time that the event which precipitated the scandal of 1784 took place at Fonthill, probably in November, rather than at Powderham in September, and that it was very different from the ridiculous fiction devised by Beckford’s mother; the account of William’s departure from England is fantasy, omitting his years of residence in New York state from 1811-1814; and, whether or not he had wanted the title of earl of Devon, William certainly used it in his will of 1831. The polemic that Hyde quotes was written in that year by Thomas Christopher Banks in an open letter to Lord Brougham and Vaux who was lord chancellor at the time. Romney’s portrait of William is shown at Beckford’s letters to Charlotte Courtenay (scandals and reputation).


William Courtenay was born in 1768, the only boy in a family of fourteen. He was brought up with his thirteen sisters at Powderham Castle, his father’s seat near Exeter, which he eventually inherited. He was a singularly beautiful boy, judging by the portrait which Romney painted of him in his early teens at the instance of his friend William Beckford. Beckford, who is chiefly remembered today as the author of Vathek, was the wealthy and eccentric squire of Fonthill, which had once belonged to the the ill-fated Earl of Castlehaven. He was probably bisexual.2 He first met young Courtenay, whose senior he was by nine years, when Courtenay was ten, and immediately fell in love with him. The relationship which resulted, though it was largely romantic and sentimental, at least on Beckford’s side, was to prove disastrous for them both, when it reached a climax five years later, in 1784. By the autumn of that year everything seemed to be going well for Beckford. He was married to an earl’s daughter, he had been elected a Member of Parliament, and it was being openly said in the newspapers that he was about to be raised to the peerage; indeed there is some evidence that the patent of peerage had actually been made out and only lacked the king’s signature. Then suddenly everything collapsed while Beckford and his wife were on a visit to Powderham. Early one morning, Courtenay’s tutor, who occupied a room next door, heard his pupil cry out, and he immediately went to the door of Courtenay’s bedroom, which he found locked. It appeared that Beckford was within, possibly in bed with the boy. Beckford denied that he was in any such compromising position, and would not say what had been happening. It was only much later that he admitted that he had been carrying on an affair with Courtenay’s aunt, Lady Loughborough, and that Courtenay had been acting as courier in their correspondence. One of Beckford’s letters or notes was said to have fallen into wrong hands, and Beckford in a fit of annoyance went to Courtenay’s room to chastise him, hence his crying out.

[ 2 J. W. Oliver, The Life of William Beckford (1932).]

An attempt was made to hush up the whole business. But it was soon a subject of gossip. The gossip eventually reached the ears of King George III, who is said to have wished that Beckford should be hanged: this not being feasible, the king had to content himself with cancelling the patent for the peerage. Beckford promptly went abroad, where he remained for the next ten years. In the political circumstances of those days he was able to retain his membership of the House of Commons, but even on his return to England he seldom attended Parliament, preferring to live with a physician and a French abbé in the seclusion of Fontill, where he embarked upon a course of the most fantastic architectural extravagance, which eventually crippled him financially and forced him to sell Fonthill and much of its valuable contents.

Meanwhile Lord Courtenay, who on his father’s death had inherited Powderham, where he lived a curious bachelor life with one of his unmarried sisters, became an inveterate homosexual and, as the years went on, less and less discreet in his behaviour. In 1810 it was reported by the diarist Joseph Farington that ‘many of the neighbouring gentlemen refused to hold intercourse with him’, although ‘several respectable families’ still continued to visit him. He had recently planned to build a house in Torquay for occasional residence, and indeed the walls were erected, ‘but the people of the place reviled and insulted his servants in terms so opprobrious and this was done with such perseverance that the scheme of finishing the house was given up and it remains a monument of the public opinion against him’.

Meanwhile, an Exeter magistrate named Morton had been diligently collecting evidence against Courtenay, although he received no support from his fellow justices on the bench, who were no doubt landed proprietors like the noble viscount. But in May, 1811, Morton obtained statements which conclusively pointed to Courtenay’s guilt under the statute. At first Courtenay, who would have normally been tried by his peers, as was Castlehaven, pooh-poohed the possibility of any proceedings, so Farington tells us, adding with characteristic flippancy that

should he be accused before the Lords, they, most of whom were like himself, would not decide against him. . . . But, when he was informed that the Officers of Justice were ordered to pursue him, he lost all resolution, wept like a child and was willingly taken on board a vessel, the first that could be found, an American ship, and passed there under a feigned name. After he had been on board some time, he asked whether he might not be called by his own name but was told it would be dangerous on account of the sailors whose prejudice against him might have had bad effects.

Before his hurried embarkment, he made a will under which he left his sister £1,600 a year, provided she did not marry, an action which the normally sexed diarist described as ‘a strong trait of his disposition and mind’.3

[ 3 James Greig (ed.). The Farington Diary (1926), VI, 147-8, 273.]

The vessel which had been taken on board [sic] eventually landed Courtenay in France, where he was to spend the remaining twenty-four years of his life in obscurity, relieved only by one incident which again brought him to public attention. In 1831 the earldom of Devon, which had been dormant for 265 years, was revived in his favour by the House of Lords. Because Courtenay was unmarried and had no brothers to inherit his viscountcy, the latter title was due to become extinct when he died. But the earldom, by the terms of its creation, would pass to a distant cousin, William Courtenay, son of the Bishop of Exeter, provided the viscount’s claim to it could be established. This cousin happened to be a clerk in the House of Lords, an occupation which left him plenty of time for genealogical research, and it was the result of this activity that the erring Lord Courtenay unexpectedly found himself Earl of Devon, his industrious cousin thus becoming heir presumptive to this latter title. The newspapers of the time commented at large on the matter, remarking that the new earl ‘ought to think himself happy that his tithes and estates have not been forfeited, or himself paid the debt to the law’, and taunting him with the fact that he ‘never ventured to put the question of guilt to a trial’, but remained ‘skulking abroad, afraid to venture on taking his seat in Parliament’. But Courtenay was not to be drawn, since he had no doubt been advised that he risked immediate arrest and possible execution if he set foot in England. He prudently chose to stay on in his comfortable Paris house in the Place Vendôme until his death in 1835 and his cousin’s succession to the title which Courtenay had not wanted and had never used.

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Photographs of the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York (USA). https://www.history.com/topics/gay-rights/the-stonewall-riots © 2023 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Page history

  • 2023 March 22: first published online.