William John Bankes and his life in exile

William John Bankes by George Sandars

We're marking 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality by exploring the LGBTQ heritage at many of our places. William John Bankes was wealthy, powerful and well-connected. So why did he live out the last years of his life in exile?

Kingston Lacy is a grand country manor and estate in Dorset. The scale and significance of its collections is thanks to the work of generations of the Bankes family, and to one man in particular: William John Bankes (1786 - 1855). His devotion to Kingston Lacy never wavered, even when he was forced into exile over his homosexuality.

The pride flag flying at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
The pride flag flying at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
The pride flag flying at Kingston Lacy, Dorset

A monument to art

William remodelled the house at Kingston Lacy in the 1830s, and had it encased in Chilmark stone. His eye for detail, his love of art, and his own talent as a draughtsman were evident throughout his life. He travelled widely, often sketching the places he visited, and was always adding to his knowledge of art. His expert eye had a great influence on the collections at Kingston Lacy, from an exceptional store of ancient Egyptian artefacts to the masterful paintings and sculptures that adorn room after room.

Shabti fragment from a box marked 'Minor Egyptian Antiquities', Kingston Lacy
Shabti fragment from a box marked 'Minor Egyptian Antiquities', Kingston Lacy
Shabti fragment from a box marked 'Minor Egyptian Antiquities', Kingston Lacy

Persecution

Developing Kingston Lacy was a life-long passion for Bankes, but he could never be fully himself. He was homosexual, but forced to keep it a secret for fear of the consequences. It was not just the shame that society had attached to homosexuality, but severe punishment. Homosexual acts between men were deemed a criminal offence. It was enshrined in law and punishable by death. 

In 1833, Bankes narrowly escaped punishment for his homosexuality. He had been charged for “an unnatural offence” - meaning physical relations with another man. It was only thanks to the influence of his powerful family and friends that he was not charged.

Exile

 In 1841, Bankes was again charged for taking part in an 'indecent act', and this time he had to live abroad in voluntary exile to escape the charges. Leaving Kingston Lacy, the home he loved, was a real wrench. But we know from surviving letters that he continued to remodel and redecorate Kingston Lacy from abroad for 14 years, until he died in Venice in 1855. 

The glorious ceiling in the Spanish Room at Kingston Lacy
The Spanish Room ceiling at Kingston Lacy
The glorious ceiling in the Spanish Room at Kingston Lacy

Returning home

It's thought that Bankes risked his life to visit Kingston Lacy at least once before his death. In one of his letters home, he references a minute detail on one of the doors and asks for it to be fixed. Such a detail could only have been seen in person. 

What's certain is that Bankes' enduring love of Kingston Lacy has enriched and preserved its outstanding collection, which we can still enjoy today.

Discover the internationally important art collection at Kingston Lacy
The art collection in the Saloon at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
Discover the internationally important art collection at Kingston Lacy

Prejudice and Pride

This is just one of the stories we’re exploring as part of a programme called Prejudice and Pride. Throughout the year you can discover more with events, exhibitions and installations which tell the stories of the men and women who challenged conventional notions of gender and sexuality and who shaped the properties in which they lived. We’ll also be taking part in community celebrations including Pride festivals around the country and Heritage Open Days to build an understanding of LGBTQ histories in local communities. 

This article is adapted from our new guidebook, ‘Prejudice and Price: Celebrating LGBTQ Heritage’ by Alison Oram & Matt Cook. It is available now at National Trust shops and our online store.