To celebrate the death of Lord Byron (22 Jan 1788 – 19 April 1824) author Christy Fearn explores his rebellious life. ‘Byron Clough’ features in Issue 5 of Dawn of the Unread.
Arrive in Nottingham by train and one of the first things that you will see when leaving the station is a huge banner displaying three portraits. These are Nottingham’s ‘Rebel Writers’: Alan Sillitoe, DH Lawrence, and Lord Byron. All three are worthy of the title, but it is perhaps most fitting for the poet, Lord Byron.
Byron first came to live in Nottingham as a child. His father had abandoned his wife and son and Byron was brought up by his poverty-stricken mother, in Aberdeen; they lodged on St. James’ Street in Nottingham and he wrote his first poem at the age of ten, about an old woman who also lived in Nottingham at Swine Green. He inherited his title at the same age, and with that came the Nottinghamshire stately home, the truly gothic Newstead Abbey.
Being born with a deformed foot and a limp, Byron knew what it was like to be an outsider and constantly championed the underdog. He viewed his disability as a challenge, so from his schooldays onwards would play cricket, ride, swim, and take lessons in fencing and boxing. Whilst he lived I Southwell he took part in Amateur Dramatics, directing and starring in the play The Weathercock. (The Southwell Theatre Club revived this in 1998 at the festival of Britain & Greece; performing in various venues around Greece, including Messolonghi where Byron died.) His first poems Fugitive Pieces were published in 1806 by John Ridge, a local Newark printer. Byron and his mother lived at Burgage Manor in Southwell, until Byron was old enough to move into Newstead. He kept two pet dogs, a terrier called Fanny and a Newfoundland; his beloved Boatswain. Boatswain was buried at Newstead and has an elaborate tomb in the grounds. During his time at Trinity College, Cambridge, Byron kept a pet bear in his rooms, because dogs were not allowed. Immediately after graduating, Byron travelled to Europe. He swam the Hellespont whilst on his Grand Tour (1809-11). When he returned, his travels inspired him to write Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the poem that made him famous overnight.
1812 was a momentous year for Byron; as well as finding fame through his poetry he made his Maiden Speech in the House of Lords. Originally Byron was to speak about Catholic Emancipation, but he chose instead to champion the local stocking-knitters. Many of the framework knitters had lost their employment due to the new machinery. They banded together and called themselves ‘Luddites’; followers of the mythical leader ‘Captain’ Ned Ludd, and smashed up the ‘wide frames’: the machines that had put them out of work. Whilst Byron did not approve of their vandalism, he pointed out that it was only through desperation that the stockingers had destroyed the machines. Frame-breaking was hotly debated in parliament with PM Spencer Perceval’s government bringing in the Frame Bill: making frame-breaking or even planning to smash the machines, a capital offence. When the Bill was passed, Byron wasted no time in writing a poem An Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill, railing against the injustice and lack of compassion of the government for its starving people.
Byron’s political activities are often overshadowed by his relationships and sexual exploits. He was vain about his appearance and controlled his image with an almost contemporary awareness; young ladies who read Childe Harold were not disappointed when they saw portraits of the author. His open shirt, pale skin and dark curling hair set hearts fluttering. IHis Hi sByron fell in love often and from a very early age; his first sweetheart was a little Scottish girl called Mary Duff, when he ‘roamed as a young highlander’. He formed deeply romantic friendships at school and university. He wrote a poem about the Cambridge chorister, John Edleston, and tore his student gown whilst climbing into a chapel window to listen to his angelic voice. But it was Mary Chaworth, who lived at Annesley (close to Newstead) who stole his heart and then broke it by calling him ‘that lame boy’. Mary eventually married Colonel John Musters; ironically he had been in charge of the militia sent to quell the Luddite rebellion.
Byron married in January 1815. His wife, Annabella Milbanke was intelligent, mathematical but had no sense of humour. It was doomed from the start. Byron had proposed to her by post and was regretting his decision right up until the actual wedding day. He married her mainly for her money and in order that she might reform his wayward character. Byron in his teens had fathered a child with one of his serving maids at Newstead, and he was now in love with Augusta Leigh, his half-sister. Byron and Augusta had not been brought up together, but had kept up a lively correspondence whilst Byron was at school and university. When they met again as adults they were instantly close; Augusta laughed at her brother, Annabella took everything he said seriously. Byron and Augusta had spent time together at Newstead, but he never took Annabella there; by the time they married, Byron was trying to sell the Abbey to pay off his debts. Byron’s lifestyle did not suit Annabella; he was often seen at the theatre, drinking and parading in Covent Garden with an actress on each arm. He would stay up all night writing and drinking. Soon after the birth of his daughter (Agusta Ada), Annabella left him and took the child to her parents’ house. A few months later they were separated formally and Byron left England never to return.
Despite the whirlwind of scandal surrounding Byron, he managed to enjoy his travels through Europe, this time visiting the recently-vacated battlefield of Waterloo. He collected a few souvenirs that had been scattered on the ground; a cockade from the hat of one of Napoleon’s soldiers and uniform badges. He crossed the Alps and settled in Switzerland, where he was joined by the radical poet Shelley, Mary Godwin (now calling herself Mrs Shelley) and Claire Clairmont, with whom Byron had a brief affair during the final months of his marriage. Claire soon gave birth to their daughter, Allegra, and Byron decided to take the child away from her mother when he moved to Venice. In December 1816 Byron’s thoughts turned once again to the framebreakers. He wrote a Song for the Luddites which he sent to his friend Thomas Moore.
By this time Byron’s fame had turned into notoriety. Young ladies were warned not to look at him: ‘He is dangerous to look at.’ During the Venetian Carnival Byron, like his latest hero, Don Juan, boasted that he had over 200 women! He kept his intellect occupied by learning Armenian (a notoriously difficult language) and writing two books on Armenian Grammar. Later he was involved with the Carbonari, another band of secret freedom-fighters, who used his house as an arsenal. Byron hoped that Italy could be united, instead of the predicament with warring factions and individual states. Eventually he tired of the situation, despite having a passionate love affair with the young Countess Guiccioli who had left her elderly husband for Byron.
The ‘broken Dandy’ as he called himself in his poem Beppo, wandered further, this time to Greece. Greece had been occupied by the Turks for almost 400 years and Byron dreamt of the Greeks finally achieving their freedom. Byron poured the money that he had made from the sale of Newstead into the cause. He united Greeks and Albanians against the Turks. He even adopted a Turkish girl who had been shipwrecked when a boat ran aground not far from Messolonghi. Unfortunately Byron did not live to see his beloved Greece gain its independence. He caught a fever after riding in the rain. His doctors bled him excessively and he never recovered. The great hero died on 19th April 1824. When he was young, Byron had expressed a wish to be buried with his dog at Newstead, later he asked to be buried in Greece. Neither of these wishes was fulfilled. Neither was his request ‘not to be hacked about’; the surgeons performed an autopsy and removed various organs. Byron’s heart was interred in the Heroes’ Garden in Messolonghi, but his body was brought back to England. The poet who had scandalised a nation could not be buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, so Byron’s funeral cortège wound its way slowly up the country back to Nottinghamshire.
The nobility, not wanting to seem to condone Byron’s behaviour, sent their empty carriages to follow it as far as Hampstead, after which they turned back, leaving only Byron’s closest friends, servants and Colonel Leigh, who went instead of his wife, the grief-stricken Augusta. Byron’s embalmed body was put on show for four days at the Blackamore’s Head pub in Nottingham city centre. People flocked to see him. The newspapers that had criticised and satirised him wrote gushing obituaries. The out-pouring of grief is only comparable to that expressed after the death of Princess Diana. At Hucknall the crowd was so large it was difficult to get the coffin inside the church. Byron’s servants broke down in grief during the service. Byron was finally laid to rest in the family vault underneath the church of St Mary Magdalene. His daughter Ada would be buried there in 1852. Byron was eventually given a memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey in 1969.
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.
- Our Rebel Writers’ Trail (Sillitoe.com)
- Interview with Mark Shotter (leftlion.co.uk)
- Christy Fearn’s website (christyfearn.blogspot.co.uk)
- Framebreakers of 1811 (sillitoetrail.com)
- The Girl with the Byron Tattoo (dawnoftheunread.com)
- Lord Byron’s Frame Breakers Speech (bl.uk)