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Sunday, 13 October 2013

Lord Byron

Lord Byron (1788-1824) (birth name George Gordon) was the 6th Baron Byron. He was addressed as The Right Honourable Lord Byron by strangers and as Byron (the title, not the name) by friends. No one ever called him George after he became Byron, not even his mother.

Lord Byron was born on January 22, 1788 in a house on 24 Holles Street in London.

His father, Captain John "Mad Jack" Byron died when he was three, having spent all his inherited fortune. Byron was bought up by his mother, Catherine Gordon of Gight, an impetuous, volatile Scot and a Calvinist nurse in Aberdeen. A harsh and dependent parent, Catherine was just the wrong sort of person to raise a sensitive child, clinging to him one moment, and the next denouncing Byron as a "lame brat,” because of a club foot.

Byron was pronounced limp due to both his achilles tendons being deformed and a wrongly shaped right foot which he tried to disguise. He was forced to undergo painful and unsuccessful medical treatments throughout his childhood. Always deeply sensitive about his deformity, he finally received adequate medical care in his teens which corrected the problem.

His over-protective mother kept George separated from his peers and his elder half-sister, Augusta.

He claimed to have read more than 4,000 novels before the age of 15.

Byron was educated at a local strict Calvinist Aberdeen Grammar school between 1794 to 1798. Then Dr. Glennie’s School, Dulwich and Harrow. At Harrow, he was popular and outgoing, though by his own admission he did very little schoolwork.

Byron went on to Trinity College, Cambridge University in 1805 where he read much literature but cared little for their subjects. A strange and bellicose student. He left, without a degree and deeply in debt, in 1807 to pursue an extravagant lifestyle in London.

In 1798 Byron inherited a half ruined estate, Newstead Abbey, worth £140,000 and a moderate income from his Great Uncle.

Byron became the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale upon the death of his great-uncle on 21 May 1798, and inherited Newstead Abbey, the family's ancestral home given to John Byron by Henry VIII in 1540. The half ruined estate,was worth £140,000.

Extravagant by nature, by 1809 he had accumulated debts of £13,000. Byron sold Newstead Abbey to schoolboy friend Thomas Wildman in 1818 for £94,500 to pay his debts.

Byron was 5' 8½" (1.74 m) tall with large grey eyes, a full mouth, a string, Clark Gable mustache and wavy chestnut hair. y the early 1820s he had grown unfashionably long hair. In his younger years he was somewhat porky. at the age of 18 he weighed 14 1/2 stone. Years of dieting reduced him to 9 3/4 stone.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, by Richard Westall 

Byron was a dandy who wore cravats tied in a loose, floppy bow. Young men copied his fashion style of wearing an open collar and flowing cravat.

Flakes of his sunburnt skin can be found at the Biblioteca Classense in Ravenna, Italy.

Byron was "mad, bad and dangerous to know" according to his mistress  Lady Caroline Lamb. He obtained a reputation as being unconventional, eccentric, flamboyant and controversial. His life was ruled by his passions, at times Byron was lively and generous other times morose and self pitying.

Byron was tight fisted, and his servant Fletcher complained that his master was “so very economical, it was quite disagreeable.”

Byron was hugely intelligent. On his death, his brain weighed 82oz (average weight 49oz)

He was renowned for his acerbic sense of humour. On one occasion, Byron gave his publisher John Murray a handsome Bible as a gift and he left it on his table where his guests might see it. One day a visitor remarked that at John 18 v 40 in the sentence "Now Barabbas was a robber", the poet had deleted the word "robber" and substituted "publisher". Byron's present was removed from the table.

At the age of 14 he fell in love with a neighbour, Mary Chaworth, and wrote love poetry to her, calling her his “morning star”. Byron was heartbroken, however, when he overheard Mary callously call him "that little lame boy" while talking to a friend.

His affair with his voluptuous half sister Augusta Leigh, whom he got to know only when they were both adults, horrified the nation and the resulting criticism was motivation for Byron to modify his reputation and marry the amiable, religious, serious, literal minded mathematician Annabella Milbanke.

Byron married Annabella on January 2, 1815 in the drawing room of her father's home at Seaham Hall, Durham. Byron wrote "I got a wife and a cold on the same day, but have got rid of the last pretty speedily. I have got great hopes this match will turn out well."

Portrait of Annabella Byron (nee Anne Isabella Milbanke) (1792-1860)

The marriage ended after a year, Annabella leaving him after the birth of their daughter, probably because of suspicions of his sexual relationship with his half-sister, Augusta, to whom he was deeply attached.

Byron's 1816 poem The Dream described his long love for Mary Chaworth and the disaster of his marriage to Annabella Milbanke.

Byron never met their daughter Ada Augusta (1815-51). Her mother left him when Ada was a month old.

In 1833, Ada met Charles Babbage, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge and inventor of the Difference Engine, a calculating machine. During a nine-month period in 1842-1843, she translated for him Italian mathematician Louis Menebrea's memoir on Babbage's newest proposed machine, the Analytical Engine. With the article, she appended a set of notes which specified in complete detail a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, recognised by historians as the world's first computer program. On 10 December 1980, the U.S. Defence Department approved the reference manual for their new computer programming language, Ada.

Byron had an affair with the future PM Lord Melbourne's wife, the petite, blonde, emotional, wild, eccentric, Lady Caroline Lamb. It nearly broke Melbourne.

Countess Teresa Guiccioli (1801-73), the young wife of an elderly Italian count was introduced to Byron shortly after her marriage to elderly Count Guiccioli. She accompanied him on his later travels through Italy and Greece and was his mistress until his death. Teresa was a short, red-blonde blue eyed, curvaceous.

Byron had a little girl, Alba, by Clare Clairmont, the half sister of Mary Shelley. She died aged 5 of typhus and the death of Alba and of the poet Shelley plunged him into grief and despondency.

After an early collection of poems was badly reviewed, Byron toured Spain, Portugal, Asia Minor, Malta Albania and Greece. His travels were the genesis for his Childe Harold poem.

Overnight fame came to Byron with the first two cantos of Childe Harold (1812) about a pilgrim who roams about the world to escape from himself. After its publication Byron's entry in his memoranda was "I awoke one morning and found myself famous."

Lord Byron wrote his semi-autobiographical tale in verse The Corsair while snowed up at Newstead Abbey in England with Augusta Leigh. It was published on February 1, 1814 by John Murray.  It sold 10,000 copies on its first day and over 25,000 copies in the next month.



Byron didn't necessarily enjoy writing. He once said, "One of the pleasures of reading old letters is the knowledge that they need no answer".

He habitually used a rhyming dictionary. His seemingly effortless verses did not reflect the hard work in finding the right word to rhyme.

In 1819 Byron published the first part of his epic satire, Don Juan, about the amorous adventurer. Critics felt it was morally deprived though the public are lapped it up. Blackwood’s magazine denounced Don Juan as “a filthy and impious poem”.

Byron wrote a racy memoir, but his rival executors Hobhouse and Thomas Moore consigned them to flames three days after news of his death reached England.

Byron found it repulsive to watch women eat. He was put off a growing romance with a visiting Italian opera singer called “La Pulcella,” by watching her devour enormous dinners. Night after night he saw her fill her mouth with chicken wings, custards, peaches and sweetbreads.

Inclined to put on weight, fearful of getting fat, for days on end all Byron ate was biscuits and soda water, chewing tobacco to keep his mind off hunger occasionally treating himself to a mixture of fish, greens, potatoes or rice drowned in vinegar. He took vinegar to lessen his appetite and he refused most dinner invitations.

Lord Byron by Henry Pierce Bone


Byron owned a beloved Newfoundland dog called Boatswain. Sometimes when his female admirers requested a lock of his hair he sent one from his dog.

He wrote an epitaph of Boatswain, which read "Near this spot are deposited the remains of one who possessed beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity and all the virtues of men without their vices."

When at Cambridge students were banned pets, such as cats and dogs. So Byron got himself a bear as it wasn't mentioned on the banned list.

Boatswain lies buried at Newstead Abbey and has a monument larger than his master's. The epitaph he wrote for his dog, reads " Near this spot are deposited the remains of one who possessed beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity and all the virtues of men without their vices."

Byron had a great fondness for animals, and amongst his pets when he lived at Palazzo Mocegugo, Venice were a fox, at least two monkeys, a parrot, several cats, an eagle, a crow, a falcon, peacocks, guinea hens, an Egyptian crane, a badger, geese, a heron and a sickly cow.

Lord Byron would buy geese to fatten for Christmas but would become so attached to them he couldn’t kill them. He ended up with four pet geese.

After moving to Venice, Byron rented a flat at 1673 Calledella Piscira, near St Marks Square, Venice then after a year moved to Mocenigo Palazzo, on the SW curve of the Grand Canal.

He lived the last part of his life, from 1823, Missolonghi, a northern Greek town.

Byron was a keen swimmer, and and was prouder of his swimming than his poetry. He swam across the Hellespont, the stretch of water linking the Aegean with the Black Sea on May 3, 1810. He did it in imitation of Leander, who in Greek mythology crossed it each night to visit Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite. Nine years later, Byron boasted of his feat in his poem Don Juan.

After visiting one of his ladies at a Palazzo in Venice Byron departed and threw himself fully clothed into the Grand Canal and swam the canal. The next night he did the same thing but to avoid being wounded by the oars of a gondolier he swam with his right hand and held a torch in his left hand to give himself light.

A useful boxer, Byron once sparred with John "Gentleman" Jackson, the former bare knuckled champion in the boxer's Bond Street gym. He was a pupil at the boxing school there. Byron boxed in a dressing gown.

He played for Harrow in the first Eton v Harrow cricket match in 1805.

Lord Byron took his seat in the House Of Lords on March 13, 1809. He made little use of his seat but did speak on behalf of stocking weavers in his home county of Nottinghamshire on February 27, 1812.

House of Lords 1809

Byron's scandalous lifestyle was much condemned, he was notorious as an enemy of conventional morality and religion. He had a great contempt for the establishment including the Church of England.

The scandalous break up of marriage and his ensuing exploits invoked a public outcry. As a result of the public abuse and hounded by creditors, he fled out of England and wondered over Europe spending time with Percy Shelley which included that famous night in Switzerland of spooky tales that gave birth to Frankenstein.

Before he sailed Byron wrote farewell letters to friends on notepaper pillaged from Napoleon’s imperial bureau at Malmaison stamped with the Napoleonic eagle.

Byron dabbled in Italian revolutionary politics- he was a member of the Italian Carbonari, a political secret society.

He intended to serve the cause of Greek independence but died there before he could achieve much. After being nominated to the committee for Greek Independence in 1823 he joined the Greek combatants, who had risen against the Turks and landed at Missolonghi where he welcomed with regal honors.

Lord Byron in Albanian dress painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813.


He defaced the beautiful marble of the temple at Sunion in Greece by carving his name. It can still be seen today.

Byron was an epileptic. Three months before his death, Byron collapsed in agony with a major epileptic fit, clutching his stomach. He treated himself with huge quantities of cider with brandy chasers.

Byron died in the evening of April 19, 1824 after days of rheumatic fever caught from Missolonghi marshes. He passed away from a loss of blood due to Greek doctors attempting to cure his fits by leeches.

The citizens of Missolonghi observed a mourning period of 21 days. His body was embalmed and his heart buried under a tree in Messolonghi. His remains were sent to England and were buried in the Parish Church of Hucknall Torkard, near Nottingham.

Lord Byron on His Deathbed, by Joseph Denis Odevaere (c. 1826). 

The sight of Byron’s coffin being rowed up the Thames prompted grief on a huge scale with hysterical women hurling themselves at his corpse when it was put on public view.

Lady Caroline Lamb's accidental meeting with Byron's funeral procession helped provoke the disintegration of her mind .

In later years, the Abbey allowed a duplicate of a marble slab given by the King of Greece, which is laid directly above Byron's grave. In 1969, 145 years after Byron's death, a memorial to him was finally placed in Westminster Abbey.

In Guayaquil Ecuador, there is a statue in honor of the Ecuadorian poet, Jose Olemedo. It is really a statue of Lord Byron purchased because it would have cost too much to commission a statue of the poet himself.

Arguably Byron was Britain's first celebrity, who was famous for being famous.

Sources The Frank Muir Book, The Book of Lists. Independent Magazine 8/10/94, Oxford Book of English Literature, Microsoft® Encarta® 99 Encyclopedia.  

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