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Walmer Castle

William Lygon, 7th Earl of Beauchamp, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, and resident of Walmer Castle during the 1920s and 30s, held lavish homosexual parties at Walmer. This ultimately led to his fall from grace, the break up of his family, and the plotline for Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited'.

Beauchamp family at Walmer in the mid 1920s
William Lygon, 7th Earl of Beauchamp (4th from right) with his family at Walmer in the mid 1920s © Historic England Archive

Cabinet minister

From a long line of aristocratic stock, Lygon was a senior cabinet minister in Lord Asquith's government. He was First Commissioner of Works, in charge of works to royal residences and governmental buildings. In 1913, he was given the role of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, a post that comes with Walmer Castle.

Walmer Castle with the vegetable garden in the foreground
Walmer Castle from the vegetable garden © Historic England DP173039

Fun family man

Lygon was a family man - he married Lady Lettice Grosvenor, sister of Bend'or Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster. They had seven children together; William, Hugh, Lettice, Sibell, Mary, Dorothy and Richard. Family photos suggest a close-knit family with a holiday feel when at Walmer.

Lord Beauchamp with children on Walmer beach
William Lygon with children on Walmer beach 1915. Left to Right: Mary, Elmley, Dorothy, Lettice, Hugh © Historic England Archive

Lygon enjoyed the pomp and ceremony that came with his role. Dover was still the main entry point for visiting foreign dignitaries, and it was among his duties to dress in his finery and welcome them on behalf of the King.

Beauchamp in ceremonial dress as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports
Lord Beauchamp at his installation as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports © Historic England Archive

Party boy

However, when the family were away he was rumoured to have thrown parties, to which he invited his high-class friends, along with local fishermen and youths.  A hint of the nature of these parties is given in the memoirs of Lady Christobel Aberconway.

One Sunday, my host, Lord Jowitt, asked my husband if he and I would like to see one of the famous castles of the Cinque Ports. Delightedly we accepted. I don’t know whether William Jowitt telephoned to ask if we might call on Lord Beauchamp… we arrived and were shown in to a garden surrounding a grass tennis court. There was the actor Ernest Thesinger, a friend of mine, nude to the waist and covered with pearls.

Lady Christobel Aberconway

Getting caught

It was in Sydney however, in 1930, when he was undertaking a round the world trip, that what were once rumours turned into cold hard facts. He was travelling with a young valet who lived with him as his lover for his whole two-month trip. Word got back to London and his brother-in-law, Bend'or Grosvenor the Duke of Westminster hired detectives and began to gather evidence against him.

The most striking feature of the vice-regal ménage is the youthfulness of its members….Rosy cheeked footmen, clad in liveries of fawn, heavily ornamented in silver and red brocade, with many lanyards of the same hanging in festoons from their broad shoulders, [who] stood in the doorway, and bowed as we passed in….Lord Beauchamp deserves great credit for his taste in footmen.

The Australian Star reporter

Bend’or Grosvenor

Grosvenor was a bullying, womanising, angry man. According to Lady Aberconway he was 'nothing but a fatuous, spoilt, ageing playboy'. He had always disliked Lygon.

Grosvenor had had four wives, and had produced no surviving male heir, whereas his brother-in-law had three sons. In addition to this the Duke was a staunch Tory, whereas Lygon was the Liberal Party's leader in the House of Lords. To ruin him would not only satisfy his personal vendetta, it would be politically advantageous too.

Lord Beauchamp sitting on a wall looking out to sea
Lord Beauchamp looking out to sea at Walmer 1925 © Historic England Archive

Grosvernor presented his evidence to his sister, who filed for divorce, before moving away to the Duke's Cheshire estate and taking to her bed. He also presented this evidence to King George V, who is reported to have muttered: "I thought men like that shot themselves."

Lygon was given the option of facing trial and the public scandal that would accompany it, or give up all his public duties and leave the country. He chose the latter. He was not prepared to see his children used as witnesses against him in a homosexuality case.

[William Lygon] is a man of perverted sexual practices, has committed acts of gross indecency with male servants and other male persons and has been guilty of sodomy….throughout the married life …the Respondent habitually committed acts of gross indecency with certain of his male servants

Extract from divorce petition


He fled first to Germany where he almost attempted suicide, and then he split his time between Paris, Venice, Sydney and San Francisco - the four cities in the world that were relatively tolerant of his sexual orientation.

Grosvenor ordered Beauchamp's children to testify against their father, but they all refused. Though his wife had deserted him, his children's support never wavered. They shunned their mother and never made peace with her (except the youngest son Dickie). Grosvenor became their worst enemy and he let it be known that anyone dealing with the Lygons would be outcast by him. In a display of spite, Grosvenor wrote Lygon a short letter:

Dear Bugger-in-Law,
You got what you deserved.

Bend’or Grosvenor

Cut off from the rest of society the children pulled together and took it in turns to visit their father wherever he may be. According to Sibell, he never grumbled, nor mentioned Bend'or again; he accepted his situation for what it was.

Hugh Lygon

The second son, Hugh, was William's favourite. He studied at Oxford, where he experimented with his own sexuality. It was here he met Evelyn Waugh, and perhaps had a love affair with him. It is thought that Waugh based the character of Sebastian Flyte on Hugh, in his most famous work, Brideshead Revisited.

Man in dressing gown reclining on the ground
Hugh at Walmer castle on the bastion, 1925 © Madresfield

When Hugh went bankrupt, he went to stay with his father in Sydney and letters suggest that they had a happy time together surfing, watching shows, playing tennis and boxing.

By the time of his mother's death in 1936, Hugh was wrestling with alcoholism and his own homosexuality. Overcome with grief after his mother's funeral he went on a motoring holiday in an open-topped car in the German countryside. When he stepped out of the car one evening, intoxicated from drink or suffering from heatstroke, or both, he fell backwards and fractured his skull on the pavement.

Distraught, his father rushed to his bedside but he never regained consciousness and died three days later. His body was returned to England and Lygon risked arrest by returning for the funeral.

Return and reprieve

It was not until George VI came to the throne, that the warrant for his arrest was lifted and Lygon returned to England in July 1937. He wasted no time in painting out his wife's image from a fresco in their personal chapel, and the family threw her bust in the moat.  He spent his final year with his children, before dying of cancer in 1938.

Walmer Castle and the Boardwalk Garden
Walmer Castle and the Boardwalk Garden in 2015 © Historic England DP173015
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    Law and Oppression

    Anglo-Saxon laws made no mention of same-sex desire or sodomy. Sexual activity between men wasn't criminalised until the reign of Henry VIII.