Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.
– Lord Byron
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, later George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron, FRS (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824), commonly known simply as Lord Byron, was an English poet and a leading figure in the Romantic movement. Among Byron’s best-known works are the lengthy narrative poems Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the short lyric She Walks in Beauty.
Byron is regarded as one of the greatest British poets, and remains widely read and influential. He travelled all over Europe especially in Italy where he lived for seven years and then joined the Greek War of Independence fighting the Ottoman Empire, for which Greeks revere him as a national hero. He died one year later at age 36 from a fever contracted while in Missolonghi in Greece. Often described as the most flamboyant and notorious of the major Romantics, Byron was both celebrated and castigated in life for his aristocratic excesses, including huge debts, numerous love affairs with both sexes, rumours of a scandalous liaison with his half-sister, and self-imposed exile.
He also fathered the Countess Ada Lovelace, whose work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine is considered a founding document in the field of computer science, and Allegra Byron, who died in childhood – as well as, possibly, Elizabeth Medora Leigh out of wedlock.
Mayne states that George Gordon Byron was born on 22 January 1788 in a house on 24 Holles Street in London. However, R.C. Dallas in his Recollections states that Byron was born in Dover. He was the son of Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron and his second wife, the former Catherine Gordon (d. 1811), a descendant of Cardinal Beaton and heiress of the Gight estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Byron’s father had previously seduced the married Marchioness of Caermarthen and, after she divorced her husband, he married her. His treatment of her was described as “brutal and vicious”, and she died after having given birth to two daughters, only one of whom survived: Byron’s half-sister, Augusta. In order to claim his second wife’s estate in Scotland, Byron’s father took the additional surname “Gordon”, becoming “John Byron Gordon”, and he was occasionally styled “John Byron Gordon of Gight”. Byron himself used this surname for a time and was registered at school in Aberdeen as “George Byron Gordon”. At the age of 10, he inherited the English Barony of Byron of Rochdale, becoming “Lord Byron”, and eventually dropped the double surname.
An engraving of Byron’s father, Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, date unknown
Byron’s paternal grandparents were Vice-Admiral the Hon. John “Foulweather Jack” Byron, and Sophia Trevanion. Vice Admiral John Byron had circumnavigated the globe, and was the younger brother of the 5th Baron Byron, known as “the Wicked Lord”.
He was christened, at St Marylebone Parish Church, “George Gordon Byron” after his maternal grandfather George Gordon of Gight, a descendant of James I of Scotland, who had committed suicide in 1779.
“Mad Jack” Byron married his second wife for the same reason that he married his first: her fortune. Byron’s mother had to sell her land and title to pay her new husband’s debts, and in the space of two years the large estate, worth some £23,500, had been squandered, leaving the former heiress with an annual income in trust of only £150. In a move to avoid his creditors, Catherine accompanied her profligate husband to France in 1786, but returned to England at the end of 1787 in order to give birth to her son on English soil. He was born on 22 January in lodgings at Holles Street in London.
Catherine Gordon, Byron’s mother
Catherine moved back to Aberdeenshire in 1790, where Byron spent his childhood. His father soon joined them in their lodgings in Queen Street, but the couple quickly separated. Catherine regularly experienced mood swings and bouts of melancholy, which could be partly explained by her husband’s continuing to borrow money from her. As a result, she fell even further into debt to support his demands. It was one of these importunate loans that allowed him to travel to Valenciennes, France, where he died in 1791.
When Byron’s great-uncle, the “wicked” Lord Byron, died on 21 May 1798, the 10-year-old boy became the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale and inherited the ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire. His mother proudly took him to England, but the Abbey was in an embarrassing state of disrepair and, rather than live there, decided to lease it to Lord Grey de Ruthyn, among others, during Byron’s adolescence.
Described as “a woman without judgment or self-command”, Catherine either spoiled and indulged her son or vexed him with her capricious stubbornness. Her drinking disgusted him, and he often mocked her for being short and corpulent, which made it difficult for her to catch him to discipline him. She once retaliated and, in a fit of temper, referred to him as “a lame brat”.
Upon the death of Byron’s mother-in-law Judith Noel, the Hon. Lady Milbanke, in 1822, her will required that he change his surname to “Noel” in order for him to inherit half of her estate. He obtained a Royal Warrant allowing him to “take and use the surname of Noel only”. The Royal Warrant also allowed him to “subscribe the said surname of Noel before all titles of honour”, and from that point he signed himself “Noel Byron” (the usual signature of a peer being merely the peerage, in this case simply “Byron”). It is speculated that this was so that his initials would read “N.B.”, mimicking those of his hero, Napoleon Bonaparte. He was also sometimes referred to as “Lord Noel Byron”, as if “Noel” were part of his title, and likewise his wife was sometimes called “Lady Noel Byron”. Lady Byron eventually succeeded to the Barony of Wentworth, becoming “Lady Wentworth”.
Education and early loves
Byron received his early formal education at Aberdeen Grammar School, and in August 1799 entered the school of Dr. William Glennie, in Dulwich. Placed under the care of a Dr. Bailey, he was encouraged to exercise in moderation but could not restrain himself from “violent” bouts in an attempt to overcompensate for his deformed foot. His mother interfered with his studies, often withdrawing him from school, with the result that he lacked discipline and his classical studies were neglected.
In 1801 he was sent to Harrow, where he remained until July 1805. An undistinguished student and an unskilled cricketer, he did represent the school during the very first Eton v Harrow cricket match at Lord’s in 1805.
His lack of moderation was not just restricted to physical exercise. Byron fell in love with Mary Chaworth, whom he met while at school, and she was the reason he refused to return to Harrow in September 1803. His mother wrote, “He has no indisposition that I know of but love, desperate love, the worst of all maladies in my opinion. In short, the boy is distractedly in love with Miss Chaworth.” In Byron’s later memoirs, “Mary Chaworth is portrayed as the first object of his adult sexual feelings.”
Byron finally returned in January 1804, to a more settled period which saw the formation of a circle of emotional involvements with other Harrow boys, which he recalled with great vividness: “My school friendships were with me passions (for I was always violent).” The most enduring of those was with John FitzGibbon, 2nd Earl of Clare — four years Byron’s junior — whom he was to meet unexpectedly many years later in Italy (1821). His nostalgic poems about his Harrow friendships, Childish Recollections (1806), express a prescient “consciousness of sexual differences that may in the end make England untenable to him”.
John FitzGibbon, 2nd Earl of Clare
Ah! Sure some stronger impulse vibrates here,
Which whispers friendship will be doubly dear
To one, who thus for kindred hearts must roam,
And seek abroad, the love denied at home.
The following autumn he attended Trinity College, Cambridge, where he met and formed a close friendship with the younger John Edleston. About his “protégé” he wrote, “He has been my almost constant associate since October, 1805, when I entered Trinity College. His voice first attracted my attention, his countenance fixed it, and his manners attached me to him for ever.” In his memory Byron composed Thyrza, a series of elegies.
In later years he described the affair as “a violent, though pure love and passion”. This statement, however, needs to be read in the context of hardening public attitudes toward homosexuality in England, and the severe sanctions (including public hanging) against convicted or even suspected offenders. The liaison, on the other hand, may well have been ‘pure’ out of respect for Edleston’s innocence, in contrast to the (probably) more sexually overt relations experienced at Harrow School. Also while at Cambridge he formed lifelong friendships with men such as John Cam Hobhouse and Francis Hodgson, a Fellow at King’s College, with whom he corresponded on literary and other matters until the end of his life.
While not at school or college, Byron lived with his mother in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, in some antagonism. While there, he cultivated friendships with Elizabeth Pigot and her brother, John, with whom he staged two plays for the entertainment of the community. During this time, with the help of Elizabeth Pigot, who copied many of his rough drafts, he was encouraged to write his first volumes of poetry. Fugitive Pieces was printed by Ridge of Newark, which contained poems written when Byron was only 14. However, it was promptly recalled and burned on the advice of his friend, the Reverend J. T. Becher, on account of its more amorous verses, particularly the poem To Mary.
Hours of Idleness, which collected many of the previous poems, along with more recent compositions, was the culminating book. The savage, anonymous criticism this received (now known to be the work of Henry Peter Brougham) in the Edinburgh Review prompted his first major satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). It was put into the hands of his relation, R. C. Dallas, requesting him to “…get it published without his name”. Alexander Dallas gives a large series of changes and alterations, as well as the reasoning for some of them. He also states that Byron had originally intended to prefix an argument to this poem, and Dallas quotes it. Although the work was published anonymously, by April, Dallas is writing that “you are already pretty generally known to be the author.” The work so upset some of his critics they challenged Byron to a duel; over time, in subsequent editions, it became a mark of prestige to be the target of Byron’s pen.
After his return from his travels, he again entrusted Dallas as his literary agent to publish his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which Byron thought of little account. The first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were published in 1812, and were received with acclaim. In his own words, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous”. He followed up his success with the poem’s last two cantos, as well as four equally celebrated “Oriental Tales”: The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair and Lara. About the same time, he began his intimacy with his future biographer, Thomas Moore.
First travels to the East
The Byron’s Stone in Tepelene, Albania
Teresa Makri in 1870
Byron racked up numerous debts as a young man, owing to what his mother termed a “reckless disregard for money”. She lived at Newstead during this time, in fear of her son’s creditors. He had planned to spend early 1808 cruising with his cousin George Bettesworth, who was captain of the 32-gun frigate HMS Tartar. Bettesworth’s unfortunate death at the Battle of Alvøen in May 1808 made that impossible.
From 1809 to 1811, Byron went on the Grand Tour, then customary for a young nobleman. The Napoleonic Wars forced him to avoid most of Europe, and he instead turned to the Mediterranean. Correspondence among his circle of Cambridge friends also suggests that a key motive was the hope of homosexual experience, and other theories saying that he was worried about a possible dalliance with a married woman, Mary Chaworth, his former love (the subject of his poem from this time, “To a Lady: On Being Asked My Reason for Quitting England in the Spring”).
Attraction to the Levant was probably a motive in itself; he had read about the Ottoman and Persian lands as a child, was attracted to Islam (especially Sufi mysticism), and later wrote, “With these countries, and events connected with them, all my really poetical feelings begin and end.” He travelled from England over Portugal, Spain and the Mediterranean to Albania and spent time at the court of Ali Pasha of Ioannina, and in Athens. For most of the trip, he had a travelling companion in his friend John Cam Hobhouse. Many of these letters are referred to with details in Recollections of the Life of Lord Byron.
Byron began his trip in Portugal from where he wrote a letter to his friend Mr. Hodgson in which he describes his mastery of the Portuguese language, consisting mainly of swearing and insults. Byron particularly enjoyed his stay in Sintra that is described in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as “glorious Eden”. From Lisbon he travelled overland to Seville, Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Gibraltar and from there by sea on to Malta and Greece.
While in Athens, Byron met 14-year-old Nicolò Giraud, who became quite close and taught him Italian. It has been suggested that the two had an intimate relationship involving a sexual affair. Byron sent Giraud to school at a monastery in Malta and bequeathed him a sizeable sum of seven thousand pounds sterling. The will, however, was later cancelled. In 1810 in Athens Byron wrote Maid of Athens, ere we part for a 12-year-old girl, Teresa Makri [1798–1875], and reportedly offered £500 for her. The offer was not accepted.
Byron made his way to Smyrna, where he and Hobhouse cadged a ride to Constantinople on HMS Salsette. While Salsette was anchored awaiting Ottoman permission to dock at the city, on 3 May 1810 Byron and Lieutenant Ekenhead, of Salsette ‘s Marines, swam the Hellespont. Byron commemorated this feat in the second canto of Don Juan. He returned to England from Malta in July 1811 aboard HMS Volage.
Byron became a celebrity with the publication of the first two cantos of ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ (1812). “He rapidly became the most brilliant star in the dazzling world of Regency London. He was sought after at every society venue, elected to several exclusive clubs, and frequented the most fashionable London drawing-rooms.” During this period in England he produced many works including The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos (1813), Parisina and The Siege of Corinth (1815). Involved at first in an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb (who called him “mad, bad and dangerous to know”), amongst other amours, and pressed by debt, he began to seek for a suitable marriage, considering among others Annabella Millbanke. However in 1813 he met for the first time in four years with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. There was incestual rumours surrounding the pair ; Augusta’s daughter Medora (b. 1814) was suspected to have been Byron’s. To escape from growing debt and rumour, Byron pressed his determination to marry Annabella, who was said to be the likely heiress of a rich uncle. They married on 2 January 1815, and their daughter, Ada, was born in December of that year. However Byron’s continuing obsession with Augusta (and his continuing sexual escapades with actresses and others) made their marital life a misery. Annabella considered Byron insane; she left him -taking their daughter- in January 1816 and began proceedings for a legal separation. The scandal of the separation, the rumours about Augusta, and ever-increasing debt, forced him to leave England, never to return, in April 1816.