Fonthill Abbey - History and Facts | History Hit

Fonthill Abbey

Salisbury, England, United Kingdom

Peta Stamper

11 May 2021
Image Credit: CC / Rictor Norton and David Allen

About Fonthill Abbey

Fonthill Abbey, also known as Beckford’s Folly, was an 18th century Gothic revival dwelling built in Wiltshire, England. Designed by William Thomas Beckford and architect James Wyatt, Fonthill Abbey’s main tower collapsed several times leading to the abbey being almost completely demolished.

Today, only a short crenelated tower and section of the north wing remain of Beckford’s brainchild, Grade Two listed in 1966. The original Fonthill Abbey is also regarded as an example of the queer ‘Gothick’ architectural style.

Fonthill Abbey history

Fonthill Abbey was the creation of the arch-Romantic William Thomas Beckford, the son of a wealthy plantation owner who by the age of 11 had inherited the equivalent to £91, 800,000 today. During the 1780s, Beckford has begun writing his famous Gothic novel, ‘Vathek’. At this time, Beckford’s uncle Alexander Lord Lougborough, found out he was having an illegal same-sex affair with the son of a viscount, William Courtenay.

Lougborough published the scandal in the newspapers and although there was no proof, Beckford had to go into exile in Switzerland. After his wife died during childbirth, Beckford travelled Europe extensively before returning to England despite being shunned by society.

With his colossal wealth and an equally colossal architectural vision, in 1796 Beckford and architect James Wyatt began construction of Fonthill Abbey. By combining different styles and features, Wyatt created a faux effect of layered historical development in the abbey.

To speed up construction, Beckford offered labourers cheaper ale and commandeered the local wagons for moving building materials. In return, he gave the poor free coal and blankets during the winter. The first part to be built was the great tower that rose 90 metres before collapsing. Another tower replaced it – also 90 metres tall – which similarly collapsed.

Ultimately, the haste and grandiose design of Beckford’s tower meant it was structurally unsound. In 1825, the tower collapsed and damaged the west wing, although by this point Beckford had already sold Fonthill. The remains of the abbey were demolished in 1845 so that only a small 2 storey remnant of the north wing with a tower stood.

Fonthill Abbey today

Today, only a small habitable section of the original Old Fonthill Abbey remains, now privately owned and used as a wedding venue and occasional filming location. Although a shadow of its former incarnation, visitors to the estate can easily appreciate the original scale of Beckford’s project from the vaulted corridor, sanctuary and oratory that have been made fit for habitation.

Through a modern lens, Beckford’s excessive and camp designs have been interpreted as part of a queer style of Georgian ‘Gothick’ architecture that celebrated eccentric and impertinently extravagant designs such as Fonthill Abbey.

Getting to Fonthill Abbey

Located just off the A350 and A303 between Bournemouth and Bath, Fonthill Abbey lies along Great Western Avenue within the Fonthill Estate. The abbey is a 7 minute drive from the nearby village of Hindon. Buses 25, 26, 26A and 86 stop in Hindon, from which it is a 50 minute walk to the abbey remains. However, be advised the abbey is on private property so seek the permission of the landowner before travelling.