Lord George Byron: A Brief Biography of England’s Most Celebrated and Notorious Romantic Poet

Updated on September 17, 2018
Glenis Rix profile image

Glenis holds an Honours Degree in English Literature. Her interest in Byron began in childhood when she learned of his local connection.

Lord Byron, the Adored Celebrity

Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) was the most celebrated poet of the Romantic period. Flamboyant and notorious, he was the darling of London society, propelled to stardom by the unprecedented success of the first two cantos of his quasi-autobiographical poem Childe Harold, published in 1812. He was adored by the fashionable and aristocratic women of the time, drawn to him by his good looks, charisma and the calculated upper-class bodice-ripping style of much of his poetry. Women were said to have swooned at the sight of him, and his acclaim certainly gave him access to the beds of a large number of women who moved in aristocratic circles. Lady Caroline Lamb famously summed him up as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" - characteristics which evidently made her obsessively attracted to him. Lord Byron had a voracious appetite for sex, claiming in a letter to his publisher that he had 200 different encounters with women whilst in Venice. He was surrounded for much of his career by sexual scandal, the extent of which eventually drove him into self-imposed exile from England.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, FRS By Unknown, coloured by uploader (www.noelcollection.org) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, FRS By Unknown, coloured by uploader (www.noelcollection.org) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

The Childhood and Education of Lord Byron

Lord Byron's father was married to Catherine Gordon, a Scottish heiress whose inheritance he squandered away. He died when Byron was a small child. Byron's early years were spent in an impecunious, single parent, one child family with a mother who drank too much, tended towards hysteria and had a mercurial temper. The two of them did not have an easy relationship.

At the age of ten, when George's great-uncle, the 5th Baron Byron, died without leaving an heir, George inherited the Barony of Byron of Rochdale and along with the title the ancestral home, Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. Along with lands and a huge building in serious need of renovations, the new Lord Byron inherited a vast amount of debt. His mother was forced to sell most of her furniture to pay for the funeral of the 5th Baron. Nevertheless, she enrolled her son in Harrow School and he later went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. She rented out Newstead Abbey and from 1803 to 1808 lived in Burgage Manor, Southwell, Nottinghamshire. It was to Burgage Manor that Lord Byron returned during vacations from school and university. It was in Southwell that he fell in love with a girl for the first time, at the age of fifteen. His first published poems were printed in 1806 in the nearby town, Newark-on-Trent.

Newstead Abbey in 2017. Nowadays owned by Nottingham City Council and open to the public
Newstead Abbey in 2017. Nowadays owned by Nottingham City Council and open to the public | Source

Lord Byron's Ancestral Home at Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, England

Whilst at Harrow School and Cambridge, Byron continued to build his massive debts and was reputed to indulge in bi-sexual affairs. After he graduated from Cambridge in 1808 with an M.A. for which he had done very little work his mother gave up the lease on Burgage Manor and the two of them took up residence at Newstead Abbey; where Byron undertook extensive renovation work for which he had no means of making payment.

The Lord Byron Trail in Nottinghamshire

A
Newstead Abbey:
Newstead Abbey, Newstead Village NG15 8NA, UK

get directions

Lord Byron's ancestral home

B
Southwell:
Southwell NG25, UK

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Lord Byron's home Burgage Manor is situated here

C
Newark on Trent:
Newark-on-Trent, Newark NG24, UK

get directions

Lord Byron's first published poems were printed in Newark on Trent, whilst he was residing at Burgage Manor in Southwell

D
Hucknall Church:
3 Ogle St, Hucknall, Nottingham NG15, UK

get directions

The final resting place of Lord Byron and his daughter, Ada

A Video Tour of Newstead Abbey

Lord Byron, the Archetypal Romantic Hero

At the age of twenty-one, Byron took his hereditary place in the House of Lords. He then embarked on the customary two-year Grand Tour of Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey that was made by well-born young aristocrats. The fact that he owed large sums of money was clearly not a deterrent to him. Whilst away he wrote extravagant accounts of his sexual and physical exploits and a couple of hundred stanzas of the quasi-autobiographical Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Once published, this poem would establish his image forever in the public mind as the archetypal Romantic hero.

The character of Heathcliff in Charlotte Bronte's Wuthering Heights is constructed on the Byronic model. Almost two hundred years after Byron's death the term 'Byronic' is still understood as shorthand for a brooding, troubled, charismatic, potent, slightly disreputable man - a flawed hero.

The London "Season" - What and When was it?

Historically, Parliament, based in London, sat from late October or November through to May or June. Most aristocrats who had seats in the House of Lords had their homes in country mansions. As travel was difficult during bad weather, there was little incentive to leave the city once the winter weather had set in. It was convenient for the upper-class members of parliament to stay in London during the whole of the winter period, bringing their families with them. They needed entertainment and the London 'season' of balls, dinners, soirees, the theatre, and the opera was scheduled accordingly. The events provided ideal opportunities for upper-class girls to attract wealthy candidates for marriage and for aristocratic men to seek a girl who could provide him with an heir. It also provided opportunities for upper class married women who had already fulfilled their duty to produce an heir to the family fortune to indulge in illicit affairs with gentlemen in the social circle. Providing such affairs were conducted discreetly they were an accepted part of the contemporary culture.

When Parliament adjourned for the summer, in July or August, the upper-classes left the City to return to their country homes or to visit fashionable spas.


Byron resumed his seat and political career in the House of Lords on his return to London, making his maiden speech on 27 February 1812, just when the 'season' was getting into full swing. His political views were liberal and he was a champion of the common man, the underdog. But his interest in politics waned somewhat after the publication and instant success in March 1812 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Almacks Assembly Rooms

By George Cruickshank (Public Domain)
By George Cruickshank (Public Domain)

“During the present century [19th century], the commencement of the London ‘season’ has been gradually postponed. Since 1806, the opening of the session of Parliament has been veering from November to January; [...] the session extending till July, or the beginning of August. Thus the London ‘season’, or winter, has been thrown into the months of spring and summer.”

"A looking-glass for London – no. XI –the Court” from The Penny Magazine (April 1837)

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was published just at the time when the London 'season' was gathering momentum. It is a quasi- autobiographical narrative poem, inspired by a trip to the Alps, although the author denied that the character resembled himself in any way. The poem is a mix of travelogue, philosophy, and memories of lost and unrequited love. The expensive quarto first edition sold out almost immediately and the poem went through five editions in the first year alone. It was what nowadays would be called a blockbuster. Byron had become an A-list celebrity overnight. His presence at the smartest soirees and parties was a must for every society hostess. The London street in which Lord Byron was lodging was jammed by carriages delivering social invitations to his doorstep.He was the main topic of conversation, the man everyone wanted to meet, the subject of rumour, gossip, and speculation. And he became his own publicist, adept at dropping insinuations of something scandalous that he might have done into conversation. (To put his actions in their historical context - this was an era when the Prince Regent had made it fashionable to lie and to boast of every vice). Inevitably, the ideas that Byron planted about his exploits gathered momentum and grew as they were passed from mouth to mouth.


' I awoke one morning and found myself famous'

Words spoken by Byron to his friend Thomas Moore

'the fact is, I always say whatever comes into my head, and very often say things to provoke people to whom I am talking"

Lord Byron

Byron's Relationship with Lady Caroline Lamb

It was the 1812 Season in London, and high society gathered together at grand balls, dinners, and soirees, and single ladies were paraded in attempts to attract proposals of marriage.

Lady Caroline Lamb, a daughter-in-law of Lady Melbourne, was a high-profile member of this exclusive set, an outrageous woman, who once at a dinner party had herself carried naked on a silver salver to the table.

Lady Caroline did not give a fig for keeping up a facade of decorum. She had set her sights on Lord Byron and openly threw herself at him.She publicly boasted that she and Byron were invited to social events as a couple, and she did not mind at all being seen hanging into his carriage window or obviously waiting around for him to appear. She was insanely jealous and her behaviour eventually became so outrageous that Byron decamped to Cheltenham to escape from her attentions and she was packed off to Ireland for a holiday with her husband. Whilst at Cheltenham, Byron embarked on an affair with Lady Oxford and sent an imprudent, ill-advised, letter to Caroline Lamb. This was most probably a causal factor in the revenge that she later embarked upon.

... as a first proof of this regard, I offer you this advice, correct your vanity, which is ridiculous; exert your absurd caprices on others; and leave me in peace.

— Lord Byron to Caroline Lamb

Lady Caroline Lamb

Source

Lord Byron's Courtship of Annabella Milbanke

Not to put too fine a point on it, Annabella Milbanke was a holier-than-thou prig, who saw things in black and white with no shades in between. Hearing that a divorced woman was to be at a social event that she was invited to, she wondered, in a letter to her mother, if it would be appropriate to attend, reaching the conclusion that she could accept, providing that she was not required to speak to a divorcee. She had often proclaimed her dislike of fashionable society and her lack of interest in flirting, or in seduction. She was highly intelligent and extremely serious (Byron labelled her 'The Princess of the Parallelogram"), and a devout Christian, focused on preserving her soul for Heaven. In short, Annabella was an unlikely candidate for the attention of Lord Byron and she was a woman apparently uninterested in him. But, despite the evident mismatch of personalities and moral values, he courted her.He proposed to Annabella in October 1812, using her aunt, Lady Melbourne, his confidante, as an intermediary. Lady Melbourne was, coincidentally, also the mother-in-law of Caroline Lamb. Anxious to put a stop to Caroline's scandalous behaviour, no doubt saw this as an opportunity for a solution. Annabella rejected the proposal; judging by Byron's subsequent correspondence with Lady Melbourne,this news was received by his Lordship with some relief and no antipathy towards Annabella.

Despite the rejection, the pair entered into a lengthy and bizarre correspondence with each other. The content of the flow of letters reads like a dance, one party taking a step forward only for the other to take a step backwards. Both were evidently ambivalent about the future of their relationship, Annabella going as far as saying that they were 'ill-adapted'. But, virtuous as ever, she felt that could help him to mend his ways and thus save his soul. In the meantime, she continued her quiet life in the North of England and Byron continued his hectic London life, taking his half-sister to social events and trying to shake off Caroline Lamb.

'I congratulate A and myself on our mutual escape. That would have been but a cold collation, and I prefer hot suppers.'

Lord Byron

Lord Byron's Second Proposal to Annabella Milbanke

Nevertheless, on the 13th August 1814, Byron made a second offer of marriage to Annabella and was accepted in a letter dated the 14th September. The pair had not had sight of each other for more than a year or spoken together for more than two years. Byron seems to have been in no hurry to seal the engagement. He did not appear at Annabella's family home until the 2nd November to finalise the arrangements for the marriage. On the 13th November Byron wrote to his confidante, Lady Melbourne, about Annabella's erratic behaviour and his 'grave doubts that this will be a marriage now'. and that it was 'impossible to foresee how this would end'. After an uneasy stay of two weeks, he dashed off again and did not reappear until the wedding was to take place, on the 2nd January 1815.

It is possible that Byron had an eye on Annabella's dowry, as he had serious financial difficulties but was unable, or unwilling, to find a buyer for Newstead Abbey. On the 20th September 1814, he had written to his close friend Thomas Moore 'She is said to be an heiress, but of that I know nothing certainly, and shall not enquire'. On the 14th October in a further letter to Moore, he wrote that she was heiress to 'considerable' estates.

A second theory is that he was trying to scotch rumours about the nature of his relationship with his half-sister, Augusta.

The Honeymoon of Lord and Lady Byron

The marriage was evidently one of convenience, as many aristocratic marriages were in the nineteenth century. Letters and papers written retrospectively by Annabella suggest that from the outset the marriage was an unmitigated disaster. The first three weeks were spent in isolation at Halnaby Hall, near Darlington, North Yorkshire. Byron suggested that if his new wife needed company she issue an invitation for his sister to visit.The invitation was duly issued - and declined. Lady Byron later claimed that Byron had said to her 'Nobody understands me but Augusta. I shall never love anybody as well as her'.

To quote the words of another unhappy bride, 'There were three people in this marriage' (Princess Diana). Annabella and her new sister-in-law had not met at this point but the entered into correspondence with each other and a few weeks later the less than happy couple drove down to Swynford Paddocks, Cambridgeshire to stay as house guests with Augusta and her family. It seems from surviving correspondence that the two women got on famously. When the Byrons left at the end of March 1815 it was with an invitation issued to Augusta by Annabella to visit them at their grand new home (rented) at 139 Piccadilly Place whilst she was waiting to take up a position of Mistress of the Bedchamber in Queen Charlotte's household.

Byron's Relationship with his Half-Sister, Augusta Leigh

Augusta Leigh (nee Byron) was the daughter of Lord Byron's father,"Mad Jack" and his first wife. After the deaths of her parents, Augusta lived with various members of her aristocratic family. When children, she and Byron rarely saw each other. They first met after he went to Harrow School and even then only rarely. But from 1804 onwards she wrote to him regularly and became his confidante, especially regarding his quarrels with his mother. In a letter dated October 1804 he wrote to her from Harrow, addressing her as my dear Sister and referring to an evident attachment she had formed for Colonel George Leigh, who she married in 1807. The correspondence between the two appears to have stopped for two years when Byron was on his Grand Tour and was not resumed until she sent him a letter expressing her sympathy on the death of his mother, Catherine, in 1811. After Byron's return to England, during the 'Season', when he was residing in London to attend sittings at the House of Lords, he and Augusta inevitably bumped into each other. The two of them were seen together at social gatherings, which fuelled gossip about the nature of their relationship.

Augusta's Leigh's third daughter was born in April 1814 and was christened Elizabeth Medora Leigh. A few days after the birth, Byron went to his sister's house to see the child, and wrote, in a letter to Lady Melbourne, his confidante:

"Oh, but it is not an ape, and it is worth while" (a child of an incestuous relationship was thought likely to be deformed).

These words support the suspicions that Medora was, indeed, Lord Byron's daughter. In August of the same year, Byron and Augusta were together again, in Hastings.

However, on the other hand, it seems from surviving letters that Byron wrote to Augusta that he valued the relationship because Augusta was his only surviving close blood relative. In May 1816, following his self-imposed exile, he wrote to her from Bussells, addressing her as My Heart, indicating that he wished their correspondence to continue but otherwise writing only of his travels. By September of the same year, Byron was in Geneva and wrote that Lady Byron has broken my heart.

Perhaps this was an innocent filial relationship, perhaps there was more to it. Presumably, Augusta would have destroyed any incriminating letters that she received from Byron so it is unlikely that we will ever know for sure the truth of the matter.


The Birth of Lord Byron's Daughter, Augusta Ada

Augusta accepted the invitation to stay at the Byron town house in Piccadilly, arriving in the first weeks of April. Byron was furious with Annabella for issuing he invitation and stormed out of the house without greeting his sister. He fumed at Annabella 'You will find that it makes a difference to you in all ways'(my italics).

Annabella was pregnant, and largely confined to the house but more or less content in the company of Augusta, who had brought her eldest daughter with her, and whose stay dragged on whilst she waited to take up her position with the Queen. Meanwhile, Lord Byron was rarely at home. He had taken a job as manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, which kept him fully occupied.He continued to worry about his worsening financial situation, drinking heavily, his moods swinging wildly between pleasant and vile.The dowry installment from Annabella's father did not arrive and the baliffs were at the door. At this point Lady Byron was starting to wonder if her husband was mad.The situation worsened and eventually Annabella asked Augusta to leave. A few days later she was missing Augusta and asked her to return for the birth of her child.

The Honourable Augusta Ada Byron(known by her second name, Ada) was born on the 10th December, 1815, eleven months after the ill-fated marriage of her parents. Byron was disappointed that Annabella hadn't produced a son. Five weeks after the birth Annabella left her husband, never to return. They had been married for 54 weeks.

Lady Byron's Charges and Insinuations About her Husband

Annabella, Lady Byron, left her husband's household on the 15th January 1816 and never returned. She, her baby daughter and a maid travelled for two days by coach to her parents home at Kirkby Mallory in Leicestershire.

For two weeks Byron didn't know that she had left him. She wrote loving letters, urging him not to drink, and telling him that her parents looked forward to his arrival at their home, where he would be lovingly cared for. It is clear from her correspondence that she believed at this point that Byron was suffering from a mental illness. Better to believe this than the alternative thought that she had married a depraved and cruel man. She was willing to nurse him back to health if he would come to her parent's home in the country.

Try to see things from Annabella's point of view. In her mind, and in the minds of most people at the time, divorce was scandalous. A divorced woman had no place in society. But Annabella was afraid to return to Byron, believing that she might die if she returned to his house. She said that he had implied to her that he was a murderer. But she still vacillated. Perhaps if she was to produce an heir all would be well.

It may be that Annabella was suffering from a degree of postnatal depression throughout this period in her life. Her daughter was only five weeks old, the financial situation was dire, the rent for the previous year hadn't been paid. She almost certainly was very stressed and probably not thinking clearly.

His Lordship agreed to be examined by a doctor, who could not agree with Annabella that her husband was mad - he was merely suffering from a liver disorder. Now that Annabella could not fall back on an explanation that Byron's madness was the cause of her desertion she felt the need to justify her actions. She must be seen as the injured party in the breakdown of the marriage or her reputation would be irretrievably damaged. She wrote page after page of grievances and accusations about her husband and was persuaded that a legal separation was the easiest way out of the situation. Throughout all of this Byron appears to have remained bemused, insisting on a reconciliation. Lord Byron, who had always said that he missed the life of a bachelor, was not going to submit quietly to a separation. He demanded his wife back.

The breakdown of the marriage was the talk of London but it was not just London who wanted to know what Lady Byron's accusations were. Her husband also wanted to know and eventually, he sent Augusta to find out. Lady Byron refused to reveal what the charge was because this would weaken her advantage if the case came to court.


Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned

Lady Caroline Lamb Adds Fuel to the Fire

Byron's friend Hobhouse wrote in his diary that Lady Caroline Lamb had been spreading dreadful stories about Byron around London. The nature of one of her accusations was so terrible that he evidently could not bring himself to write the word, leaving a blank space as a substitution.

When Lady Byron first separated from His Lordship, Caroline had offered her support to Byron. She said that if Annabella attempted to use anything she read in a letter to support an appeal for separation then she would publicly say that she had written it and retract the content. But now she sent a series of letters to Annabella - more than thirty pages - suggesting that she had damning evidence against Byron. A meeting was arranged between the two women and it appears that Annabella's suspicions of incest were confirmed by what Caroline said to her.

A mistress never is nor can be a friend. While you agree, you are lovers; and when it is over, anything but friends.

Lord Byron

Lord Byron is Defeated and Goes into Self-Imposed Exile

The rumours that Lady Caroline Lamb had spread were soon brought to Byron's attention. When he was told the nature of them his reaction was that no man could survive having such a thing even said about him and that he would blow his brains out.

It was unthinkable that respectable woman would remain with a man about whom such things were said. It was felt that the only way to scotch the rumours was by persuading Annabella to return to her husband. Augusta appealed to her and so did Hobhouse. Byron sent letter after letter. To no avail. Lady Caroline had got to Annabella first.

Finally, on the 21st April 1816 agreement was reached on the terms of a separation and Byron signed the papers. But the questions and rumours about Lady Byron's secret would not die down. Life in England became intolerable for Lord Byron. He sailed from Dover on the 25th April 1816 and never returned to England during his lifetime.

The Return of Lord Byron's Body to England

Lord Byron died in Greece during his 36th year. He was, and is, regarded as a national hero by the Greeks due to his involvement in their War of Independence, fought against the Ottoman Empire and mourning took place throughout the land.

After a funeral service, during which Byron's helmet was placed on a temporary coffin, his body was shipped back to England. It laid in state for a period at the London home of one of his friends but his remains were resolutely denied a funeral in Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey. His transgressions, real and imagined, had not been forgotten by the Establishment. The body was carried from London in a carriage pulled by six plumed black horses back to Nottinghamshire, where he was buried in the family vault at St. Mary's Church, Hucknall. Thousands lined the route to watch the coffin pass, including his former lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb and the Countess of Oxford. Some of the social elite sent empty coaches to the procession as a final snub. In Nottingham, close to the Market Square, his body was greeted with respect by the local people, who had not forgotten his support for the Nottingham Frame Breakers in his famous maiden speech to the House of Lords. From Nottingham, the coach traveled the short distance to Hucknall.


The Statue of Lord Byron at Denkmal Messolongi
The Statue of Lord Byron at Denkmal Messolongi | Source

Afterword

Was George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron, ever truly happy? It is difficult to form a clear impression. At his expressed request, after his death, his unpublished autobiography and other personal papers were burnt by his friend Thomas Moore; depriving us of full knowledge of his deepest thoughts and secrets. Other than his published works, the information that is available about him is gleaned largely from the correspondence, diaries and journals left behind by other people.There has been speculation that he may have been a manic depressive. Certainly, his excesses and the symptoms that his wife attested that he exhibited during their brief marriage suggest that this may have been the case. Lady Byron attested that she thought that he might be mad and wondered whether or not he ought to be committed to an asylum. But Byron was suffering severe financial difficulties and was deeply in debt at the time, so both parties to the marriage were presumably under huge pressure, with the bailiffs at the door and the rent of the London townhouse unpaid.

Byron evidently missed the homeland that he returned to only after his death, and was saddened that he was deprived of access to his daughter Ada. He would have been comforted to know that after her own death she was, at her request, buried beside him in the family vault.

What had Caroline Lamb said about Byron? What was the dreadful secret that Lady Byron revealed to her lawyer that made separation the only way forward and which led to his self-imposed exile? It was never publicly revealed. The rumours were rife that he had enjoyed an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh and that he had fathered Augusta's daughter Medora. If the rumours had been proven true then imprisonment would have been inevitable, had he remained in England. An even worse rumour, spread by Lady Caroline Lamb, was that Byron was guilty of sodomy - a crime punishable by hanging. But was there something worse? Byron's star had risen to the heights of celebrity but he was now thought to be a flawed hero. Nevertheless, the poetry that he wrote during his self-imposed exile continued to be breathtakingly popular. Don Juan, regarded by many as his finest work sold 10,000 copies on the day that it was released. Almost two hundred years later Lord Byron's poetry is still read and is studied in universities throughout the world. He is still regarded as the greatest and most successful of the Romantic poets.


They Say That Hope is Happiness by Lord Byron

The tone of this poem is one of deep sadness and regret. It is a clue about how Lord Byron felt after he left England.

(Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas –Virgil)

They say that Hope is happiness—
But genuine Love must prize the past;
And mem’ry wakes the thoughts that bless
They rose the first—they set the last.

And all that mem’ry loves the most
Was once our only hope to be:
And all that hope adored and lost
Hath melted into memory.

Alas! it is delusion all—
The future cheats us from afar,
Nor can we be what we recall,
Nor dare we think on what we are.

Lord Byron, 1816

Lord Byron's Daughter, Ada

By Artist: Alfred, Comte d'Orsay. Digital image; Somerville College, Oxford (Somerville College, Oxford) [Public domain]
By Artist: Alfred, Comte d'Orsay. Digital image; Somerville College, Oxford (Somerville College, Oxford) [Public domain]
A statue in the National Garden, Athens depicting Greece in the form of a woman crowning Lord Byron
A statue in the National Garden, Athens depicting Greece in the form of a woman crowning Lord Byron | Source

Selected Bibliography

http://www.nottsheritagegateway.org.uk/people/byron.htm accessed 31/07/2017

http://www.ournottinghamshire.org.uk/documents/The_Poet_the_Printer.pdf accessed 01/08/2017

Hay, A. (2001) The Secret, Bodmin, MPG Books Ltd.

Howarth, R.G,(1933) The Letters of George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron (Ed), Letchworth, J.M.Dent & Sons

Watson, N.J.(2005) New Conceptions of Art and the Artist (Ed). Units 29-30, Byron, Childe Harold III, Milton Keynes, The Open University

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 GlenR

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