History William Beckford, owner of the Fonthill Estate and richest man in England, lead a rather chequered life. His father had twice been Lord Mayor of London and the family’s vast wealth was the product of slave labour on their plantations in Jamaica. William Thomas Beckford inherited these plantations, £1 million in cash and the lands and estate at Fonthill on the death of his father in 1770. With this wealth he could indulge the interests in art and architecture that he developed over his lifetime. At the age of nineteen, he met the Hon William Courtenay (later to become the 3rd Viscount of Powderham Castle and 9th Earl of Devon) who was aged only 10 at the time. The boy was reputed to have been singularly beautiful and Beckford fell in love with him – a relationship thought to have been largely romantic and sentimental. William went on to marry Lady Margaret Gordon, the Earl of Aboyne’s daughter, initially to deflect some of the growing controversy surrounding him. Six years later, Beckford, who was bisexual, took self-imposed exile on the continent after polite English society accused him of seducing the boy. Lady Margaret accompanied her husband into exile, their love growing deeply, but sadly she died in childbirth aged just 24. Beckford was a novelist, travel writer, politician, art critic who travelled extensively. He wrote the Gothic novel Vathek in 1786 for which he remains acclaimed as well as other books influenced by his travels. When he returned to England, he concentrated his talents on architecture and design at the Fonthill Estate. He was extravagant in the extreme and commissioned England’s foremost architect, James Wyatt, to build him a medieval abbey. The centre-piece was to be the tower of the Great Octagon, soaring 300 feet up. Sadly, the tower was so precarious that it collapsed several times, the final time in 1825 due to improper foundations. The Abbey was filled with treasures: paintings by the great masters, of which twenty now hang in the National Gallery, as well as many contemporary artists; and the best examples of furniture, glass and design available to him. Unfortunately, all that remains of the Abbey now is half of the North Wing – although this is in good order and a perfect example of Perpendicular Gothic architecture: very little exterior decoration, massive buttresses at the corners and deeply carved pointed-arch windows. In 1823 Beckford sold the Abbey and moved to Bath where he built another tower in Lansdowne Crescent and lived until he died in 1844. At his death he had lost most of the money he had earned and inherited, the loss of his Jamaican sugar plantation being particularly costly. William Thomas Beckford was a man capable of great feats but was scuppered by his desire to hide from the world that had pushed him into a self-imposed exile, both home and abroad. His historical influence remains strong in this part of Wiltshire and the Fonthill Estate, including the remains of The Abbey, are among the most picturesque.