William in the words of others 1: during his lifetime

Although they were written in private diaries, journals and letters during William’s lifetime (1768-1835), most of the passages below were not published until the 20th century.  Few of these people ever met William or knew much (if anything at all) about the reality of his life.

All the texts below have been copied from secondary sources and each needs to be checked with the original manuscript or newspaper. There will probably be some typos alongside mistranscriptions.

1779   William Beckford at Fonthill, 18 December:

  • How often when angered by stupidity in very shape, have I wished for the little C. [William], that child, who, I can assure you, has five times the sense, taste, and discernment of the whole circle put together in which I am at present fated to move.

1780   William Beckford, 16 April:

  • his [William’s] wild roving eyes instinct with the brightest fancy and yet softened by tears […] His countenance one moment appeared as lively as light; the next, a dark shade came over it, and those eyes, which but the last instant sparkled with vivacity, now glistened with tears.

1781   William Beckford at Paris, 22 February:

  • Of all the human creatures male or female with which I have been acquainted in various countries and at different periods he [William] is the only one that seems to have been cast in my mold. When I first began to know him the pleasing delusion would often suggest itself of our having been friends in some former existence. You know he was never so happy as when reclined by my side listening to my wild musick or the strange stories which sprang up in my fancy for his amusement. […] I doat upon his extasies at the harpsichord, they are so like my own […] In short all those who live move and have their being in his company are more fortunate according to my ideas than St. Peter and all his Saints in the conception of a Catholic.

1783   William Beckford at Cologny, 20 October:

  • those heavenly eyes [William’s] which I cannot help believing impossible to behold with indifference.

1784   William Beckford in a letter to Samuel Henley, London 6 May:

  • Wm I believe quite lost in flowers & foolery at present, perhaps you may raise him out of the lap of idleness, but the task will be difficult.

1784   William Beckford in a letter to Samuel Henley, London 19 May:

  • Wm has been long returned from Devonshire & wastes away in the warm sun of idleness. Don’t imagine that I have indulged him as much as appearances a year or two ago might have tempted you to believe. Of late I have rated him soundly & done my utmost to check & ridicule his milenary [sic] dispositions. I suppose he will be with you next week, but not with the title of viscount, Ld not having given himself any sort of trouble to obtain the Earldom.
  • How impatient I am to know yr opinion of my friend [William] after a week or two’s scrutiny. I am in hopes it will not be very difficult for you to fix his attention to objects more worthy of it than balloon hats or silvered sashes. He has, I am convinced, the most affectionate regard for me, & the most perfect confidence in what I say to him. You may conclude, therefore, he will come into Suffolk with the strongest prejudice in yr favour, & the utmost readiness to follow your instructions. He wishes much for a harpsichord, & I beg you will have the kindness to procure one for him. Pray introduce him to Vathec, whom at present he hardly knows by name.

1785   William Beckford at Fonthill in a letter to Samuel Henley:

  • a certain young person I once thought my friend [William] has proved himself the meanest traytor & the blackest enemy.

1785  William Beckford, Lake Geneva September:

  • je me traîne vers le soir aux bords du Lac & appuyé contre les murailles de la vieille Tour de Glérolles je contemple les sombres teintes d’un Ciel de Tempête réfléchi dans l’abîme des eaus […] les flots gagnent, couvrant le rivage — — je me retire — — — ils me poursuivent en mugissant — je les vois s’épuiser en rosée futile, se briser à mes pieds & disparaître comme les voeuxs & l’attachement de mon indigne Ami [William]

[towards evening I drag myself to the shore of the lake and, leaning against the walls of the old tower of Glérolles, contemplate the sombre hues of a tempestuous sky reflected in the waters’ depths […] the waves surge, covering the beach — I draw back — they pursue me with a roar — I see them wearing themselves out in a froth of spume, breaking up at my feet and vanishing like the vows and affection of my unworthy Friend]

1787   William Beckford in his journal, Lisbon 4 June:

  • This day three years ago I little dreamt of ever having a conference with friars in Portugal. I was then on the high road to fame and dignity, courted by Mr. Pitt, fawned upon by all his adherents, worshipped and glorified by my Scotch kindred, and cajoled by that cowardly effeminate fool William Courtenay.

1790   William Beckford, London 5 February:

  • Le fameux est toujours dans son Chateau en Devonshire — il compte pourtant bientot de paroitre en plein Parlement & se fait faire une Voiture qui lui coutera deux milles livres sterling. — C’est un bardache, s’il en fait jamais; il se pare comme une poupée et se farde comme une p— et vient de refuser une très belle femme avec une dotte enorme.

[The dandy [William] is still at his castle in Devonshire – but he’s planning to appear at Parliament when it meets and he’s spending two thousand pounds sterling on having a carriage made for him — There’s a fairy if ever there was one; he dresses up like a doll and paints himself like a whore … and he’s just turned down a fine-looking woman with a huge dowry.]

1790   Ann Robinson in a letter to her brother Frederick Robinson, Saltram 17 July:

  • Lord Courtenay’s Fête begins with a Masquerade on the 2d of next month, a Concert on the 3d and a Ball the 4th the only thing wanting will be company, many people have returned his ticket and note of invitation, he has offended a great many by the part he took in the contest for the county Mr Rolle and Mr Bastard went to ask his interest, he told the former he should give his vote for him, and Sir Charles [Bampfylde], upon which Mr Bastard said he had nothing more to say and walked off, there was no harm in his voting for who he pleased, but he was very rude to them both, said nothing else to them and did not ask them to come in or set down,

1793   European Magazine & London Review, reporting a Grand Gala in London on 18 January to celebrate queen Charlotte’s birthday:

  • Of the Carriages, those of Lord Kenyon, the Duke of Montrose, and Lord Courtenay, were most conspicuous.

1796  Gabriel Christoph Benjamin Busch, Versuch eines Handbuchs der Erfindungen | Tanzkunst:

  • Im Jahr 1791 bezahlte Lord Courtenay, auf zeinem Landsitz Powderham, einem Künstler 100 Guineen oder 600 Rthlr. dafür

In the year 1791 at Powderham, his country seat, lord Courtenay paid an artist 100 guineas or 600 Reichstahler for such [decorating a dancefloor with flowers, festoons and other designs in chalk – the artist may have been Robert Fulton]

1796   sir H. Bate Dudley (owner & editor of the Morning Herald), Vortigern and Rowena:

  • Lord C-tn-y: – I sawe it fluttering o’er a bank of violettes, gaier than a May-born butterflie! If our Naturalists looke not to it, we shall loose, I feare, the stocke of this sweete non-descript in cold extinction; for, by the masse, it seems too delicate, t’endure the vulgar toiles of procreation!

1799   John Swete in his journal, quoting phrases from Horace, Oxton May:

  • [Powderham:] a more miserable and offensive Village is scarcely elsewhere to be found […] loathsome from filth and penury […] putrid exhalations from stagnant waters, pools and ditches, heaped up with a mass of offensive matter […] ruinous, discolored mud walls, without doors, and damp, dirty rooms within, demonstrating from their effects on the countenances of those who made them their abode, variety of wretchedness […] it would give me more delight, was I the Lord of Powderham to see it [Swete’s idea of ‘rendering such a Village Picturesque’] realized, than to have it in my power to boast that the taste and expence which I had lavished on a gala fete, were equal to those of Lucullus; or that my Gardens, might have been produced as rivals to those far-famed of the Phaeacian Alcinous.
  • I speak as a Clergyman, who would be solicitous for the welfare of his flock; and who is fully satisfied that his most earnest exhortations to the poor dependants, to be zealous after God and to attend their Church, would have but a momentary effect, when He [William], who should set them an Example was –

Parcus Deorum Cultor, et infrequens [a casual and occasional worshipper]

Reflexions of this sort, have at times rendered the situation of my Friend irksome to him [John Andrew, rector of Powderham]: but considerations of gratitude and consanguinity have enforced their suppression: –

At nunc non erat his locus! – [but now is not the time for these matters]

1800   Silvester Treleaven in his diary, Moretonhampstead 24 March:

  • Rev Wm. Clack [William’s cousin] and the two Church-Wardens collected the Town for the above purpose [fund to ease ‘the distresses of the Poor’ in Moreton-hampstead]. Lord Courtenay subscribed ten Guineas.

1800   Exeter Flying Post, 14 August:

  • His Lordship [William] embarked on board his elegant barge […] accompanied by another barge having a band of music on board. A cannon was immediately fired, the band struck up “God Save the King” and the boats got under weigh.

1801   Silvester Treleaven in his diary, Moretonhampstead 16 July:

  • Moreton Fair, Cattle in general sold high. This Day Lord Courtenay and Lord Geo. Thynne [husband of William’s sister Harriet] visited Moreton, Lord Courtenay gave two guineas to the Ringers and one Guinea towards Mardon Down Amusements.

1804   Silvester Treleaven in his diary, Moretonhampstead 18 September:

  • Lord Courtenay and two of his Sisters arrived here, about 12 noon, walked to North Bovey, returned and dined at the London Inn, and for the great attention paid them, his Lordship very politely proposed giving Mr. Hancock a New Sign (His Arms) which was accepted by the latter.  After dinner they took a view of the Church walk’d in the Century [a field], gave the Ringers a Guinea, and sat off for Ford about six in the evening

1805   mrs Parry Price from Chester in her journal, Exmouth 24 June:

  • when we got there [Powderham] it was past 2 o’clock & the housekeeper came to us to the Chaise & told us she was extremely sorry to inform us that she could not let us see the house, as his Lordship [William] had made a rule that no person should be let in after two o’clock; as he had altered his hour of dining from 7 to 3. I expressed great disappointment & the housekeeper said she was much distressed to refuse us but that she really durst not act contrary to her orders. I then begged to drive to the front of the house & through the grounds but that was also refused. I then requested to see the flower garden, having heard of it spoke of as a very fine one, she said the gardener was then at his dinner but he would soon have done & then he would wait on us. By this time Mrs Moore became so provoked by refusals that in a whisper she begged we might not see it as the[y] were allowed by everybody to be much finer at Lord Lisburn’s & we came away without seeing anything but the back part of the house, & the drive up to it, which is beautiful with a bridge over the river Exe, which runs through his grounds & we also saw his Lordship cross the yard & he came past the carriage but he never turned his head to look at us & Mrs Moore as I observed before is a very pretty elegant young woman & was extremely well dressed, as to myself I knew I had no claim to his notice but her youth & beauty I was in hopes would have operated in our favour if he had seen her. His Lordship has a good figure and was dressed in a green jacket, with a black velvet collar and nankeen pantaloons.

1806   Silvester Treleaven in his diary, Moretonhampstead 4 March:

  • Lord Courtenay visited Moreton, accompanied with one of his sisters and several other Ladies and Gentlemen. His Lordship having a desire to see the Moreton Volunteers they paraded for that purpose, he was highly pleased with their soldier like appearance and was surprised to see them go through the light manoeuvres with such dexterity, they being on the twenty days establishment only.  He dined at the London Inn, and gave a public ball and supper at the White Hart, where the table was served up in a stile superior to any thing his lordship ever saw in the Country.

1809   Joseph Farington in his diary, 3 October:

  • A trait of the inconstancy and extravagance of Lord Courtenay was mentioned to us. After having indulged a fancy to build a House at Torquay so far as to have erected and covered in [sic], He gave it up and resolved to build one at Brixham. The ground was measured and preparations made, when He again adopted a new fancy which at present is to build a House near Lord Borringdon’s [sic] at Saltram. When He last came to Brixham He had with him twenty-four Servants and fifteen Horses. Such is the extravagance & frivolousness of the representative of one of the most noble of our English families. [See 1810 for a different account of the Torquay episode, also reported in Farington’s diary.]

1810   Mr Yard, apothecary at Chudleigh, as recorded in Joseph Farington’s diary, 10 October:

  • Mr. Yard called in the evening and spoke of reports respecting Lord Courtenay which are daily becoming more particular. Many of the neighbouring gentlemen refuse to hold intercourse with him; but several respectable families still continue to visit Him. Powderham Castle, where he resides, is abt. seven miles from Chudleigh. He proposed to build a House at Torquay & to reside there occasionally, & the walls of the House were raised and covered in but the people of the place reviled and insulted His servants in terms so opprobrious & this was done with such perseverance that the scheme of finishing the House was given up, & it remains a monument of the public opinion against Him. [See 1809 for a different account of this episode, also reported in Farington’s diary.]

1811   Percy Bysshe Shelley in a letter to Thomas Jefferson Hogg, London 8 May:

  • you cannot breathe you cannot exist if no parts of loveliness appear in co-existent beings. I think were I compelled to associate with Shakespeare’s Caliban with any wretch, with the exception of Lord Courtney, my father, B[isho]p Warburton or the vile female who destroyed Mary that I should find something to admire;

1811   mr justice Robert Day in his diary, Newcastle (County Limerick) 9 September:

  • the disgusting Sodomite Lord Courtenay

1811   Dr Jonathan Parker Fisher, Sub-dean of Exeter cathedral, recorded in Joseph Farington’s diary, 17 May:

  • Lord Courtney had affected to disregard any proceedings against Him, saying that should He be accused before the Lords they most of whom he said were like Himself would not decide against Him. Thus shameless was He in His mind; 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. […] One of his Sisters, an unmarried Lady, resided with Him. To Her He bequeaths £1600 a year provided she does not marry, a strong trait of His disposition & mind.

1812  US Navy report on British aliens living in or near New York City, July:

  • Courtney, Lord […] 5 ft. 7½ in., age 44, fair complex., grey hair, fair eyes, Bloomingdale, gentleman

1821   madame Henriette Campan in a letter to Hortense duchesse de Saint-Leu, Draveil 24 October and Mantes 22 November. Madame Campan, half joking after failing to secure some of William’s costly dahlia tubers for her friend, is quoting a line by Voltaire:

  • Nous avons déjà ici des dahlias doubles d’un lilas superbe, mais le lord qui habite le château de Draveil [William] en a de toutes les couleurs qui sont gros comme des têtes de pivoines. Il a payé chaque bulbe 25 guinées, et le loup-garou les fera brûler plutôt que d’en donner à ses voisins. Je veux que tous les coeurs soient heureux de ma joie, est un vers qui n’est pas pour cet Anglais.
  • […] le vilain lord qui as acheté Draveil […] sa grille est fermée pour tout le monde.

[We already have some double dahlias here of a suberb lilac colour, but the lord who lives in the château at Draveil has them in all colours with heads as big as peonies. He paid 25 guineas for each tuber, and the rough/rude beast would rather burn them than give any to his neighbours. I wish my joy brought happiness to every heart is not a motto for this Englishman […] the scurvy lord who has bought Draveil […] his gate is closed to everybody.]

1822   A Pensioner, The Old Baily Solicitor:

  • [1812?] Lord Courtenay being made acquainted with the depression of the times, ordered an abatement of Rent, to be extended to the Tenantry
  • Brown however was not be daunted by such a Bug-bear, he took legal advice, and his case being submitted to Lord Courtenay’s Trustees, in England, who of course communicated with his Lordship, on which, in a fews days after, an order came to Alexander [Alexander Holmes, Agent in Newcastle], requiring him to stop any proceedings against Mr. B., signifying at the same time, that such acts were unwarrantable, and totally without the consent or knowledge of his Lordship or Trustees.

1823   William Benbow, The Crimes of the Clergy:

  • Lord Courtney, now in Paris, and who narrowly escaped the gallows, was so humane and charitable, that to this day all the poor in the neighbourhood of Exeter lament his absence;

1826   William Bailey, Records of Patriotism and Love of Country:

  • Lord Courtenay […] that vile wretch

1831  Henry William Paget, marquess of Anglesey and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in a letter to lord Grey, UK prime minister, 23 July:

  • These are the Peers of Limerick, all having good property in it:
    • Massey       – Opposition
    • Carbery      – Opposition
    • Courtenay  – !!!
    • Clare           – Jobber and Absentee.
    • Dunraven  – Jobber.
    • Limerick    – Arch-jobber.
    • Cloncurry  – Does not reside in [the county of Limerick].

1831   Thomas Christopher Banks in an open letter to Lord Brougham and Vaux:

  • [William] One who ought to think himself happy that his titles and estates have not been forfeited, or himself paid the debt to the law like the Lord Hungerford of Heytesbury […] never ventured to put the question of guilt to a trial […] his motto, “Ubi lapsus? quid feci?” [putting] a question which its owner avoids to leave to a tribunal of his country to answer.

1834   Stendhal in manuscript notes for his novel Lucien Leuwen, as translated by H. L. R. Edwards:

  • Lord Link, sardonic character. Milord Link is a ‘bishop of Clogher’ [i.e. homosexual], but do not say so. Milord Link is exiled from England, he has four or five apartments in Montvallier [Nancy], a town which he has chosen as being too well known and discredited elsewhere. But do not mention this reason. An ironical person, but too lazy to be malicious, and a perfect hand with women because they have no other effect on him than children of seven.
  • Modèle: marquis Courtenay de Draveil. […]

1835  Thomas Raikes in his journal, Paris 28 May and 2 June:

  • On Monday, died, in the Place Vendome, the Earl of Devon, formerly Lord Courtenay, who for many years has resided abroad for reasons well known to the world. He has left no children,and his splendid fortune, with his title, go to a distant relation. The report is that he was killed by the ignorance of his French physician.
  • Earl Devon has made a singular will. He has left to his upper servant his house in the country, in the forest of Tenars, his plate, and in short all his property in France; and to his coachman, his carriages, horses, harness, and everything appertaining to his stables.


Engraving by William Ward after painting by Matthew Peters: The Gamesters

Inscription: Lettered with title, caption “Vice whatever sex or form it may assume leadeth to destruction, – woe to the unruly youth who hath been seduced into its acquaintance”, dedication to the “…young Nobility of England…” by the publisher, and “Painted by the Revd. M. Peters R.A. / Engraved by Wm. Ward / London Pubd 1st June 1802 at I Ackermann’s Repository of Arts 101 Strand”.

William is seated on the left of the table and Thomas Rowlandson on the right.