Figure 1.--This is the earliest known portrait of George Gordon (Lord) Byron. He was painted at age 7 in 1795 by John Kaye of Endinburgh (Sir John Murray). This is an engraving by Edward Finden from the painting.
Lord Byron is one of the best known and most important poets of the 19th century. His romantic verse made him a cultural icon of Victorian England. He led a short, but eventful life pursuing romantic adventures, mostly in southern Europe.
The Byron family were of Norman stock. The
founder of the family was Sir John Byron, succeeded by his great-nephew, the poet. Admiral the
Hon. John Byron was the poet's grandfather.
John Byron's eldest son, Captain John Byron, the poet's father, was was called at the time, a libertine.
He mairred twice.
First wife: His first wife was the marchioness of Carmarthen (born Amelia D'Arcy), Baroness Conyers in her own right. One child of the marriage survived, the Hon. Augusta Byron (1783-1851), the poet's half-sister, who, in 1807, married her first cousin, Colonel George Leigh. Second wife: His second marriage to Catherine Gordon (b. 1765) of Gight in Aberdeenshire took place at Bath on the 13th of May 1785.
John Byron is said to have squandered the fortunes of both wives. It is certain that Gight was sold to pay his
debts (1786), and that the sole provision for his wife was a settlement of 3,000 pounds. It was an
unhappy marriage. There was an attempt at living together in France, and, when this failed, Mrs
Byron returned to Scotland. On her way thither she gave birth to a son, christened George Gordon
after his maternal grandfather, who was descended from Sir William Gordon of Gight, grandson of
James I. of Scotland. After a while her husband rejoined her, but went back to France and died at
Valenciennes on the 2nd of August 1791.
Byron's mother was not a bad woman, but she was not a good mother. Vain and capricious, passionate and self-indulgent, she mismanaged her son from his
infancy, now provoking him by her foolish fondness, and now exciting his contempt by her
paroxysms of impotent rage. She neither looked nor spoke like a gentlewoman; but in the conduct of
her affairs, she was praiseworthy. She hated and avoided debt, and when relief came (a civil list
pension of 300 pounds a year) she spent most of it on her son. Fairly well educated, she was not
without a taste for books, and her letters are sensible and to the point. But the violence of her temper
was abnormal. Her father committed suicide, and it is possible that she inherited a tendency to
mental derangement. If Byron owed anything to his parents it was a plea for pardon.
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron, English poet, was born in London at 16 Holles
Street, Cavendish Square, on the 22nd of January 1788.
The poet's first years were spent in lodgings at Aberdeen.
George was lame from his birth. His right leg and foot, possible both feet, were contracted by
infantile paralysis, and, to strengthen his muscles, his mother sent him in the summers of 1796, 1797,
to a farm house of Deeside. He walked with difficulty, but he wandered at will, soothed and inspired
by the grandeur of the scenery. To his Scottish upbringing he owed his love of mountains, his love
and knowledge of the Bible, and too much Calvinism for faith or unfaith in Christianity. The death of
his great-uncle (May 19, 1798) placed him in possession of the title and estates. Early in the autumn
Mrs Byron travelled south with her son and his nurse, and for a time made her home at Newstead
Abbey. Byron was old enough to know what had befallen him. "It was a change from a shabby
Scotch flat to a palace," a half-ruined palace, indeed, but his very own. It was a proud moment, but
in a few weeks he was once more in lodgings. The shrunken leg did not improve, and acting on bad
advice his mother entrusted him to the care of a quack named Lavender, truss-maker to the general
hospital at Nottingham. His nurse who was in charge of him maltreated him, and the quack tortured
him to no purpose. At his own request he read Virgil and Cicero with a tutor.
Very little information is available on the clothes and hair styles George wore as a boy.
I have little information on the clothes worn by George. As he was born in 1788, the fashion of dressing noys in specialized children's fashions was just becoming established.
Certainly George wore dresses as a younger boy. I have no information on the dresses he wore as a boy. We know that by the age of 7 he was wearing trousers, so he had to have been breeched before that age.
After George was breeched he apparently wore skeleton suits, with tight long trousers. The only real evidence HBC has on his clothes is a 1795 painting. His skeleton suit has a short jacket and very tight trousers that do not look much like trousers as they are so tight. With his skeleton suit he wears a large, open ruffled collar.
As was common before the turn of the 19th cebtury, George wore his hair long at shoulder length. I'm not sure wheter it was curled or not, probably not. It was clearly not curled into ringlets, as this was a style that appeared later in the 19th century.
From 1794 to 1798 he attended
grammar school, "threading all classes" till he reached the fourth. It was a good beginning, a solid
foundation, enabling him from the first to keep a hand over his talents and to turn them to a set
Byron was sent in August 1799 to a preparatory school at Dulwich. The master, Dr Glennie, perceived
that the boy liked reading for its own sake and gave him the free run of his library. He read a set of
the British Poets from beginning to end more than once. This, too, was an initiation and a
preparation. He remained at Dulwich till April 1801, when, on his mother's intervention, he was sent
His Harrow days (1801-1805) were fruitful in two respects. He learned enough Latin and
Greek to make him a classic, if not a classical scholar, and he made friends with his equals and
superiors. He learned something of his own worth and of the worth of others. "My
school-friendships," he says, "were with me passions." Two of his closest friends died young, and
from Lord Clare, whom he loved best of all, he was separated by chance and circumstance. He was
an odd mixture, now lying dreaming on his favourite tombstone in the churchyard, now the
ring-leader in whatever mischief was afoot. He was a "record" swimmer, and, in spite of his
lameness, enough of a cricketer to play for his school at Lord's, and yet he found time to read and
master standard works of history and biography, and to acquire more general knowledge than boys
and masters put together.
In the midsummer of 1803, when he was in his sixteenth year, he fell in love, once for all, with his
distant relative, Mary Anne Chaworth, a "minor heiress" of the hall and park of Annesley which
marches with Newstead. What was sport to the girl was death to the boy, and when at length he realized the
"hopelessness of his attachment," he was "thrown out," as he said, "alone, on a wide, wide sea." She
is the subject of at least five of his early poems, including the pathetic stanzas, "Hills of Annesley,"
and there are allusions to his love story in Childe Harold and in "The Dream" (1816).
Byron went into residence at Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1805. Cambridge did him no
good. "The place is the devil," he said, and according to his own showing he did homage to the
genius loci. But whatever he did or failed to do, he made friends who were worthy of his choice.
Among them were the scholar-dandy Scrope Berdmore Davies, Francis Hodgson, who died
provost of Eton, and, best friend of all, John Cam Hobhouse (afterwards Lord Broughton). And
there was another friend, a chorister named Edleston, a "humble youth" for whom he formed a
romantic attachment. He died whilst Byron was still abroad (May 1811), but not unwept nor unsung,
if, as there is little doubt, the mysterious Thyrza poems of 1811, 1812 refer to his death.
vacation of 1806, and in 1807 which was one "long vacation," he took his pen, and wrote, printed
and published most of his "Juvenile Poems." His first venture was a thin quarto of sixty-six pages,
dated the 23rd of December 1806, but before that date he had begun to prepare a second collection
for the press. One poem ("To Mary") contained at least one stanza which was frankly indecent, and
yielding to advice he gave orders that the entire issue should be thrown into the fire. Early in January
1807 an expurgated collection entitled Poems on Various Occasions was ready for private
Encouraged by two critics, Henry Makenzie and Lord Woodhouselee, he determined to
recast this second issue and publish it under his own name. Hours of Idleness, "by George Gordon
Lord Byron, a minor," was published in June 1807. The fourth and last issue of Juvenilia, entitled
Poems, Original and Translated, was published in March 1808.
Hours of Idleness enjoyed a brief triumph. The Critical and other reviews were "very indulgent,"
but the Edinburgh Review for January 1808 contained an article, not, as Byron believed, by Jeffrey,
but by Brougham, which put, or tried to put the author and "his poesy" to open shame. The sole
result was that it supplied fresh material and a new title for some rhyming couplets on "British Bards"
which he had begun to write. A satire on Jeffrey, the editor, and Lord Holland, the patron of the
Edinburgh Review, was slipped into the middle of "British Bards," and the poem rechristened
English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (published the 1st of March 1809).
Byron during April 1808, whilst he was still "a minor," obtained his inheritance. Hitherto the less ruinous portions of the abbey had been occupied by a tenant, Lord Grey de Ruthven. The banqueting hall, the grand drawing-room, and other parts of the monastic building were uninhabitable, but by incurring fresh debts, two sets of apartments were refurnished for Byron and for his mother. Dismantled and ruinous, it was still a splendid inheritance. In line with the front of the abbey is the west front of the priory church, with its hollow arch, once a "mighty window," its vacant niches, its delicate Gothic mouldings. The abbey buildings enclose a grassy quadrangle overlooked
by two-storeyed cloisters. On the eastern side are the state apartments occupied by kings and queens not as guests, but by feudal right. In the park, which is part of Sherwood Forest, there is a chain of lakes -- the largest, the north-west, Byron's "lucid lake." A waterfall or "cascade" issues from the lake, in full view of the room where Byron slept. The possession of this lordly and historic domain was an inspiration in itself. It was an ideal home for one who was to be hailed as the spirit of genius of romance.
Byron on the March 13, 1809, took his seat in the House of Lords. He had determined, as soon as he was of age, to travel in the East, but before he sought "another zone" he invited Hobhouse and three others to a house-warming. One of the party, C. S. Matthews, describes a day at Newstead. Host and guests lay in bed till one. "The afternoon was passed in various diversions, fencing, single-stick: . . . riding, cricket, sailing on the lake." They dined at eight, and after the cloth was removed they handed round "a human skull filled with Burgundy." After dinner they "buffooned about the house" in a set of monkish dresses. They went to bed some time between one and three in the morning. Moore thinks that the picture of these festivities is "pregnant in character," and argues that there were limits to the misbehaviour of the "wassailers." The story, as told in Childe Harold [canto
1, stanzas v-ix], need not be taken too seriously. Byron was angry because Lord De La Warr did not wish him good-bye, and visited his displeasure on friends and "lemans" alike. May and June were devoted to the preparation of an enlarged edition of his satire.
At length, accompanied by Hobhouse and a small staff of retainers, he set out on his travels. He sailed from Falmouth on July 2 and reached Lisbon on July 7, 1809. The first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage contain a record of the principal events of his first year of absence.
Byron married Isabella Milbanke on January 2, 1815. They lived together for a little more than a year. They had a daughter--Ada. Isabella left him on January 15, 1816. Much has been written about their relationaship. They were legally separated on April 21. He at first thought to contest the separation, but realizing that the scandal might destroy him decided against it. While we are not going to persue the details here, Byron was in short a cad of the higest caliber. [Stowe] Byron has his defenders. [Elwin] Most disapasinate scholars agree that the charges levied by Isabella were esentially true. [Eisler] Byron's behavior was nothing but brutish. He married Isabella for her money and his personal behavior before, during, and after the marriage was scandalous. It is food for thought how someone who wrote so movingly of romantic love could have conducted his own personal realtionships with such itter disregard for these individuals involved. As the shocking details of his personal life began to surface, Byron left England April 25, never to return.
Byron at once offered money and advice, and after some hesitation on the score of health, determined "to go to Greece." The revolutionary Greeks were split up into parties, not to say factions, and there were several leaders. It was a question to
which leader he would attach himself. Byron felt that he could act with a "clear conscience" in putting himself at the disposal of a man whom he regarded as the authorized leader and champion of the Greeks. He sailed from Argostoli on December 29, 1823, and after an adventurous voyage landed at Missolonghi on the January 5, 1824. He met with a royal reception. Byron may have sought, but he did not find, "a soldier's grave."
During his 3 months' residence at Missolonghi he accomplished little and endured much. He advanced large sums of money for the payment of the troops, for repair and construction of fortifications, for the provision of medical appliances. He brought opposing parties into line, and served as a link between Odysseus, the democratic leader of the insurgents, and the "prince" Mavrocordato. He was eager to take the field, but he never got the chance.
Byron's health gave way, but he does not seem to have realized that his life was in danger. On February 15 he was struck down by an epileptic fit, which left him speechless though not motionless. He recovered sufficiently to conduct his business as usual, and to drill the troops. But he suffered from dizziness in the head and spasms in the chest, and a few days later he was seized with a second, though slighter, convulsion. These attacks may have hastened but they did not cause his death. For the first week of April the weather confined him to the house, but on the 9th a letter from his sister raised his spirits and tempted him to ride out with Gamba. It came on to rain, and though he was drenched to the skin he insisted on dismounting and returning in an open boat to the quay in
front of his house. Two hours later he was seized with ague and violent rheumatic pains. On the 11th he rode out once more through the olive groves, attended by his escort of Suliote guards, but for the last time. Whether he had got his deathblow, or whether copious blood-letting made recovery impossible, he gradually grew worse, and on the ninth day his of illness fell into a comatose sleep. It was reported that in his delirium he had called out, half in English, half in Italian, "Forward - forward - courage! follow my example - don't be afraid!" and that he tried to send a last message to his sister and to his wife. He died at six o'clock in the evening of April 10, 1824, aged 36 years and 3 months. The Greeks were heartbroken. Mavrocordato gave orders that thirty-seven minute-guns should be fired at daylight and decreed a general mourning of twenty-one days. His
body was embalmed and lay in state. On the 25th of May his remains, all but the heart, which is buried in Missolonghi, were sent back to England, and were finally laid beneath the chancel of the village church of Huchnall-Torkard on July 16, 1824. The authorities would not sanction burial in Westminster Abbey, and there is neither bust not statue of Lord Byron in Poets' Corner.
Eisler, Benita. Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (1999).
Elwin, Malcomb. Lord Byron's Life (1962).
Stowe, Hariet Beecher. Lady Byron Vindicated (1870).
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