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A Brief Biography of Lord George Byron (1788-1824), Britain’s Most Celebrated and Scandalous Romantic Poet

Glenis has an Honours Degree in English Lit. Her interest in Byron began in childhood when she learned of his links with her hometown.

Lord Byron: The First Adored Literary 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 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 ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, FRS By Unknown, coloured by uploader ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Childhood and Education of the Romantic Poet Lord George Byron

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.

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

Byron 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 Nottinghamshire Ancestral Home of Lord Byron—Newstead Abbey in 2017. Nowadays owned by Nottingham City Council and open to the public

The Nottinghamshire Ancestral Home of Lord Byron—Newstead Abbey in 2017. Nowadays owned by Nottingham City Council and open to the public

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 undertaken by 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.

Lord Byron in the UK Government's House of Lords

Byron resumed his hereditary 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 after the publication and instant success in March 1812 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Lord Byron’s Celebrity Following the Publication of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was published just at the time when the London 'season' was gathering momentum. 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.

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Byron had become an A-list celebrity overnight. 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 into conversation of something scandalous that he might have done. (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).

Almacks Assembly Rooms During the London Season by George Cruickshank (Public Domain)

Almacks Assembly Rooms During the London Season by George Cruickshank (Public Domain)

Byron's Relationship with Lady Caroline Lamb

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

She 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.

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 a letter to Caroline Lamb that was probably a causal factor in the revenge that she later embarked upon.

Letter from Byron to Caroline Lamb informing her of his attachment to "another"

... 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

A Portrait of Lord Byron’s Mistress, Lady Caroline Lamb

A Portrait of Lord Byron’s Mistress, Lady Caroline Lamb

Lord Byron's Courtship of Annabella Milbanke

Annabella Milbanke was a evidently holier-than-thou prig, who saw things in black and white. 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. 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, she 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 backward. 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.

Lord Byron's Second Proposal to Annabella Milbanke

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. But 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 with his future in-laws, 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. 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.

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.

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 Brussells, 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 Honeymoon of Lord and Lady Byron

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'.

Annabella and her new sister-in-law had not met at this point but the entered into correspondence with each other. A few weeks later the unhappy 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 well. When the Byrons left at the end of March 1815 it was with an invitation issued to Augusta by Annabella to stay with them at their grand new home (rented),139 Piccadilly Place, whilst Augusta was waiting to take up her new position as Mistress of the Bedchamber in Queen Charlotte's household.

The Birth of Lord Byron's Daughter, Augusta Ada Byron

Augusta accepted the invitation to stay at the Byron townhouse in Piccadilly, arriving in the first weeks of April. Byron was furious with Annabella for issuing the 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 bailiffs were at the door. At this point, Lady Byron was starting to wonder if her husband was mad.

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.

Lady Caroline Lamb Adds Fuel to the Scandal Surrounding Lord Byron

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.

Lord Byron’s 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 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 From Greece 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 in 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.

The Statue of Lord Byron at Denkmal Messolongi

The Statue of Lord Byron at Denkmal Messolongi

Was Lord Byron Ever Happy?

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. But Byron was suffering severe financial difficulties and was deeply in debt at the time, so he was presumably under huge pressure, with the bailiffs at the door and the rent of the London townhouse unpaid.

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. 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.

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

Selected Bibliography accessed 31/07/2017 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

Papers of the Noel, Byron and Lovelace families

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Glen Rix

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