Lord Byron : what I didn’t know about the man

A few years back I took part in an event at this venue –

Rochdale Town Hall 1909

Okay, not quite that long, perhaps. This is a postcard of Rochdale Town Hall from 1909 and I was there in 2012. However the building is still as impressive as it was at the turn of the 20th century. It has recently undergone a massive restoration project and is well worth a visit, if you are ever in the area.

So why was I there?

I was taking part in a celebration for this man on his 224th birthday.

Lord Byron

It’s Byron. Of course. He was 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale, in case you were wondering about the connection.

Quick disclaimer

This blog is NOT going to focus on the women in Byron’s life. There are so many that it would take far too long. This is more about the things I didn’t know about Byron until I started researching for my talk. I confess I was woefully ignorant. I had only known him as the bad boy of Regency London. Perhaps some of this may be new to you, too.

It’s all in the genes

For a start, I didn’t know just how wild a family he came from.

Byron's grandfather John Byron. Reynolds

John Byron (Joshua Reynolds)

His grandfather was Admiral John Byron, nick-named “Foulweather Jack”. Some say this was because of his ill-luck with the weather, others claim it was due to his bad temper. He wrote a book about his experiences after being shipwrecked off the coast of Chile and his struggles to get back to England. It was successful enough to be reprinted in several editions – perhaps he passed on his creative genes to his grandson.

In case you might find an 18th century account of the story hard going, it is also the basis of a novel by Patrick O’Brian, “The Unknown Shore” and retold in a book by David Grann as “The Wager, A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder”.

But Granddaddy John didn’t rest on his laurels – he circumnavigated the world with his own squadron and annexed the Falkland Islands for Britain in 1765. He was governor of Newfoundland for three years from 1769. He also fought in battles during the American Revolution and was an Admiral of the White before he died in 1786.

I blame the parents…

Captain Mad Jack Byron

Then there’s Byron’s father, “Mad Jack” Byron. He was a Guard’s officer, described by Benita Eisler in her biography of Byron as having “boundless sexual appetite and unburdened by scruples of any sort”.

I didn’t know that!

He preyed on women with money, ran off with the Marchioness of Carmarthen and eventually married her within weeks of her becoming divorced. They had three children together before she died – probably of tuberculosis, although newspapers preferred to hint at “mysterious circumstances” or even remorse for leaving her first husband.

Then, in Bath, Mad Jack met the heiress Catherine Gordon. They married in 1785 and, in order to lay his hands on her estate in Scotland, he took her surname and became John Byron Gordon. I didn’t know that was where the Gordon bit came from.

Two years later all the money and lands were gone, except Catherine’s small income of £150 from a trust Mad Jack couldn’t touch.

They went to France to avoid his creditors, but Catherine returned to England to have her baby. In cramped lodgings above a parfumier’s in Holles Street, just off Cavendish Square, Catherine gave birth to George Gordon Byron in January 1788.

Catherine took young Byron off to Aberdeen, but even there she wasn’t free of her husband. He turned up like a bad penny at their lodgings in Queen Street, but soon left again. He continued to borrow money from her until he finally died abroad in 1791.

Byron wasn’t kind about his mother

He criticised her drinking and her appearance, but apart from one famous outburst of temper where she referred to him as “a lame brat”, she appears to have loved and seriously over-indulged her son. She also supported him financially while he was at Harrow and Cambridge. That sounds pretty good, for a single mother.

Lads will be lads

Lord Byron in Albanian Dress by Phillips, 1813

Lord Byron in Albanian Dress by Phillips, 1813

At the age of ten, George became Baron Byron of Rochdale and, after a rip-roaring time at Cambridge, he took the grand tour, wrote Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and “woke up famous”.

But in between, he took his seat in the House of Lords and was in favour of social reform. He was one of the few to defend the actions of the Luddites, spoke against the Frame Breaking Bill (by which Luddites faced the death penalty).

He was also vehemently against Lord Elgin’s removal of the marble friezes from the Parthenon, penning The Curse of Minerva in 1811 and bringing up the subject of the Parthenon Frieze again in Childe Harold the following year.

But Society wasn’t interested in his championing of social reform. He was a celebrity, invited everywhere.  He was cultivating the gloomy, brooding persona of Childe Harold. The women loved it, as his numerous affairs indicate.Byron c 1813 by Thos Phillips

But he had a weight problem

Our hero was constantly worried about his weight. He tried quite a number of what today we would call fad diets in an effort to keep off the pounds. That said, however, he was also quite active. He played cricket, fenced and rode, and in 1810 he famously swam the Hellespont. That’s the Dardanelles, to you and me.

By Berry Bros and Rudd Ltd, St James's Street SW1 by Robin Sones, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=113110060

Along with other fashionable gentlemen of the day, George used to visit the wine merchants, Berry, Bros & Rudd in St James’s Street to have himself weighed on their coffee scales. The wine merchant kept records of all their customers….

Byron was first weighed when he was just 17 and 5ft 8” (1.7m) tall. The records show that “In boots and no hat”, he weighed 13 stone 12lbs  (around 88 kilos). Following in the footsteps of another famous George, perhaps?

George Cruikshank, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It is now thought that Byron had an eating disorder. He definitely did not like to see women eat and often excused himself from joining society dinners, preferring to turn up afterwards. He also disliked dancing (understandable, perhaps, with his deformed foot).

Annabella, Lady Byron. Public Domain via WIkipedia Commons

Annabella, Lady Byron

He married Anne Isabella Millbanke in 1815, but things did not go well. Money problems plagued the couple and Byron was subject to fits of anger and mood swings.

His wife kept a diary, afraid that he was going mad. She left him a year later, following the birth of their daughter, and never returned. Rumours were already flying about, regarding his relationship with his half-sister, Augusta.

In 1816 Byron left England for ever

“Fare Thee Well” Cruikshank 1816

He began contributing to The Examiner, a radical journal that made frequent attacks on the monarchy and the government. In 1822 he travelled to Italy with Shelley and published a political journal called The Liberal, free from fear of prosecution by British authorities. The first edition included contributions by Leigh Hunt, Byron, William Hazlitt, Mary Shelley. The Liberal published only  four editions. Shelley died in August 1822 and the journal folded.

We know Byron was a champion of Greek liberation. What I didn’t know was that before travelling to Greece, he was active in the Carbonari movement to free Italy from Austrian rule. Many of his friends including his lover, Teresa Guiccoli, disapproved of his writing the satire Don Juan while he was in Italy. He promised Teresa he would discontinue his work on it, but he didn’t.

Well, when did he ever do as he was asked?

The End

Death of Byron. Odevaere

Lord Byron on his Deathbead by J D Odevaere c 1826.

Byron caught a chill in Greece and died of marsh fever in April 1824.  His body was brought back to England but the major churches refused to hold a ceremony for him and he was buried in the family vault in Nottingham.

His friends burned his memoirs, which he had intended for publication after his death. He had to wait until 1969 to get his memorial in poets’ corner in Westminster Abbey.

And just a final thought

He succeeded his Great-Uncle William to become Baron Byron of Rochdale. Great-Uncle William was another dodgy relative, dubbed “the Wicked Lord” and “Devil Byron” after his death. So wasn’t it fortunate that Lady Caroline Lamb found another description of our George?

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know.

But that’s another story, as our Sophie found on her Georgette Heyer walk round Mayfair. To be continued…Sarah Mallory

Sarah (pictured above at Byron’s Birthday event. Rochdale Town Hall)

11 thoughts on “Lord Byron : what I didn’t know about the man

  1. lesley2cats

    Yes – a lot of it was new to me, Sarah! He was a very modern man, wasn’t he? I knew about his support for Greek liberation, but not really about his championship of social reform in this country. Fascinating, thank you.

    Reply
    1. Sarah Mallory

      Glad you enjoyed it, Lesley. Byron was a great poet but he is mostly known these days for the scandals. I am not sure if he’d be angry about that or whether it would make him smile wryly…
      Thanks for dropping by!

      Reply
  2. Susan Allan

    I remember visiting Newstead Abbey, (Byron’s Nottinghamshire home), when I was a teenager, and finding the strangest sense of connection to the man. I already liked his poetry, but as I learned more about him, I admired the man – who demonstrated and much more enlightened view of the world than so many of his peers. I think it’s such a shame that his reputation was reduced to his sexual activities when he was a man of so many parts. Thanks for this reminder of what an interesting man he really was.

    Reply
    1. Sarah Mallory

      I am glad this brought back memories, Susan. Did Byron court scandal when he was alive, or did he just not care about it? I don’t know, but I agree with you, the was a fascinating character.

      Reply
  3. Sarah Mallory

    Hi Liz. I am so glad you enjoyed this. Byron was a very complex character, I think. Very passionate in his liberal beliefs as well as his love-life! Thanks for replying.
    (BTW it was his daughter, Ada Lovelace who was the mathematician – I wonder which side of the family those genes came from? )

    Reply
  4. Elizabeth Bailey

    A really interesting insight into the man, thank you. He’s such a controversial figure that this kind of info usually doesn’t come to light. On the other hand, he was a bit of a poseur by all accounts and he didn’t treat women well, perhaps because he was so courted. I don’t think Caroline Lamb did him any favours either, the way she behaved. I feel enlightened!

    Reply
    1. Sarah Mallory

      Thanks, Liz, I am glad you enjoyed it. A poseur? Yes, I am sure he played up to his adoring public, and there seems to have been a trend in his family for treating women badly. His father kept borrowing money from his poor mother even thought she had very little herself. Still, I can’t help liking the guy. At a distance, of course! Thanks for dropping by.

      Reply
  5. Joanna Maitland

    I didn’t know much of this, Sarah, and nothing about his wicked forbears. Fascinating all round Thank you. Now waiting for Sophie’s contribution…

    Reply
    1. Sarah Mallory

      Glad you enjoyed it, Joanna. When I was asked to participate in Rochdale’s Byron event all those years ago, I thought I should do a little research on the man and as you know, research can send authors down so many fascinating rabbit holes! And yes, I am looking forward to reading Sophie’s next post!

      Reply

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