The Newstead Abbey Byron Society
(formerly The International Byron Society)
Life of Byron

Early Childhood and School Days

It always comes as a shock to be told that Byron, most charismatic and romantic of figures, was born (on January 22nd 1788) at an obscure address in London - 16, Holles Street - which is now occupied by a branch of John Lewis.

His father was a wastrel whom he never knew (his absence was a serious gap in Byron's life), his mother an emotional, overweight lady who claimed descent from the Scots House of Stuart. She took him, soon after he was born, to Aberdeen, where he attended the grammar school, and where he was afflicted with ten years of Calvinist indoctrination, which, he claimed, instilled in him an ineradicable conviction that he was damned. A malformation of the right calf and ankle, which could not be cured, and gave him a limp, confirmed in his mind the idea that he was set apart for unusual punishment.

He became very fond of the Highlands, a passion which became increasingly nostalgic and sentimental the further they receded in time from him. At the age of ten he was called into the head's study, treated to wine and cake, and told in a new tone of respect that, his great-uncle having passed away, he was now the Sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale.

His mother drove him south to witness him coming into his heritage, only to find that his heritage, Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, was in too advanced a state of decay and damp to be lived in. They settled instead at a handsome house, Burgage Manor in Southwell. He wrote his first poem at the age of ten:

In Nottingham county there lives at Swine Green,
As curst an old lady as ever was seen;
And when she does die, which I hope will be soon,
She firmly believes she will go the moon.


Southwell Minster

Trinity College


After a spell at Dr Glennie’s School, Dulwich, Byron went to Harrow, where he stayed from 1801 to 1805, making trouble for some masters, making several passionate youthful attachments, and becoming a very effective gang-leader.

Cambridge University, which Byron attended between 1805 and 1807, was a training-ground for Anglican priests, and as might be expected, a hotbed of cant, obfuscation and hypocrisy. Little learning and still less research occurred there. There was, for example, a Chair of Physics, but no lectures in that subject had been given by the Professor of Physics since the 1730s. Byron went to Trinity College, one of the two largest and most prestigious (he had a room in Neville's Court). As a nobleman, he was not asked to go to lectures, or to submit to the indignity of a public examination. He didn't even have to undergo the viva which his friends had to attend. A quiet, terminal chat with his tutor was all that was needed to assure him of his degree. But he did a huge amount of unsystematic reading.

Then, as now, freshmen to Cambridge were loaded with advice about how to behave and what to avoid in both university and town. Byron ignored it all. Here are two passages from Hints to Fresh-men at the University of Cambridge (1807):

Suspect danger from WOMEN; those women, I mean, who haunt the lanes, and ends, and corners of the town, who are Hebes at night, and Hecates in the morning. But for them, the once healthful HORATIO would not now be secluded from his friends, Stung with disease, and stupefied with spleen. (- Beattie)

If you engage, at any terms, in games of chance, stake no more money than you can lose without inconvenience. Should you be a winner, make use of all your prudence; consider your gains, not as muneræ fortunæ, sed munere (- Senec.) I strongly advise you to OPPOSE IDLENESS. It is a superfluity to add, DO NOT ADDICT YOURSELF TO PLAY.

Byron's attitude to this can be seen from the following letter to his solicitor, John Hanson:

... this place is the Devil, or at least his principal residence, they call it the University, but any other appellation would have suited it much better, for Study is the last pursuit of the Society; the Master eats, drinks and Sleeps, the Fellows drink, dispute and pun, the employments of the under Graduates you will probably conjecture without my description ... (November 23rd 1805; BLJ I 81)

He was £1,000 in debt by the end of his first term. His dissipation at Cambridge, London, and of course Newmarket, laid the foundations - or rather dug the pit - of the indebtedness which plagued his life until the sale of Newstead Abbey in 1818.

Forbidden by college regulations to keep a dog at Trinity, Byron kept a bear. He wrote to his Southwell friend Elizabeth Pigot on October 26th 1807:

I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame Bear, when I bought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was "he should sit for a fellowship." ...This answer delighted them not, we have eternal parties here, and this evening a large assortment of Jockies, Gamblers, Boxers, Authors, parsons, and poets, sup with me. - A precious Mixture, and they go well together ... (BLJ I 135-6)

He was unscrupulous about returning home to Nottinghamshire if business, poetry, or boredom called him there. While ostensibly at Cambridge he published three of his four juvenile volumes at Newark: Fugitive Pieces in November 1806, Poems on Various Occasions in January 1807, and Hours of Idleness in June of the same year. Some of them reflect satirically on university life.

Byron met some famous academics while at Cambridge, particularly Richard Porson, the professor of Greek, famous for his skill in editing Aeschylus, his drunkenness, and his foul language; also the Trinity tutor Thomas Jones, who was responsible for making William Paley's Natural Theology a compulsory part of the curriculum, and who was a liberal influence on Byron's thought. But the most important positive thing that happened to him were the friendships he forged with J.C.Hobhouse, Douglas Kinnaird, William Bankes, Scrope Davies, and C.S.Matthews - the last of whom drowned tragically in the Cam four years after Byron went down.
One of the most famous portraits of Byron - the statue by Bertel Thorwalsden - is now in the Wren Library at Trinity.


Grand Tour

If Byron had been an ordinary nobleman in ordinary times, the Grand Tour would have had him going around France and Italy, perhaps Germany, and certainly to Vienna, on a post-university tour financed by his father, and in the company of a wise, experienced, but socially inferior tutor. But Byron had no father to finance him, no wise tutor to accompany him; and France, Italy, Germany and Vienna were all out of the question because of the Napoleonic wars.

So instead he borrowed £4,800 from Scrope Davies, and, accompanied by Hobhouse - no wiser than he - and William Fletcher, his faithful valet, went to Portugal, Spain, Albania, Greece and Turkey instead. Portugal they found dirty and depraved, and were nearly mugged there; Byron at least swam the Tagus - the first of his three major swimming feats. They then rode over the border and through Spain via Seville and Cadiz to Gibraltar. At Seville their landlady offered herself to Byron, who, unused to such forwardness from a bourgeoise, failed to respond. She laughed at him. At Cadiz, Hobhouse caught the clap. They saw a bullfight.

They sailed, via Cagliari in Sardinia, to Malta, where Byron wouldn't go ashore because the ship wouldn't salute him as he did so. At Malta (when they got ashore) they met numerous British worthies, and it looked, from the Arabic lessons they took, as if they were thinking of Egypt. But then they met a man called Spiridion Forresti, who persuaded them that the terra incognita of Albania was more exciting. Forresti was English ex-consul on Corfu, and wanted someone handsome to go into Albania as a present to the sadistic, charming bisexual tyrant Ali Pacha, while the English took the Ionians - which Ali, who ruled that area for the Turks, wanted for himself - back from the French.

To Albania they went, in October 1809 - met Ali Pacha, who complimented Byron on his exquisite small hands and ears, and curling hair, and told him to treat him as a father. Then they came south to Greece, where they were surprised to find how much the Greeks hated the Turks. They'd been used, and both men kept quiet about the humiliation for the rest of their lives.
Byron started to write Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, cantos I and II.

They stayed in Athens for some months, visiting Parnassus (where Byron later said they saw a flight of eagles, though Hobhouse said they were vultures), Sunium, and the plain of Marathon (where they had food-poisoning), and it was not until Mrs Macri, their Athenian landlady, offered her twelve-year-old daughter Teresa to be deflowered by Byron, that they beat a nervous retreat. They went to Smyrna, from whence they visited the ruins of Ephesus (where Byron later said they heard jackals, though Hobhouse said they were frogs).

On a ship called the Salsette, they next went - to Constantinople, via the Trojan plain, which they roamed, and the Hellespont, which Byron swam, the second and greatest of his swimming feats. At Constantinople they were moved by what they heard of the last days of Sultan Selim III, who had tried to reform the Ottoman Empire along enlightenment lines, but who had been assassinated.

Byron again showed his snootiness by refusing to go to an audience with the Caimacan (a sort of Prime Minister) on the grounds that he would have to walk behind the Secretary to the Embassy; but he did go to a later audience with the then Sultan, Mahmoud II - who, years later, said he had thought Byron was a woman in disguise.
Hobhouse left for England. Byron wrote to him "You do not know what a delightful companion you are - now you are gone".

Byron went back to Athens, where, minus Hobhouse, he indulged with enthusiasm in what he had proposed for himself before leaving - "to write a treatise entituled Sodomy simplified, or paederasty proved praiseworthy". He lived at the Athenian convent, which had a school, amongst the boys of which he made many devoted friends. He explored Greece again.

Eventually, as his money - or rather, Scrope Davies' money - began to run out, Byron left Greece. Sailing back via Malta and Gibraltar, he reached England on July 14th 1811, and started to look for a publisher for Childe Harold …
Within months of his returning, his mother died.


Seville Cathedral

Ephesus Library

Lady Caroline Lamb

Madame de Staël

Lady Melbourne

Years of Fame

The publisher Byron found was John Murray, who was a Tory - not the best candidate for the subversive poet to publish with, but highly respectable. At once, the problem focussed itself, for Murray, together with his chief editor William Gifford (whom Byron thought of as his literary father), and Byron's dull cousin R.C.Dallas, persuaded Byron to cut all the satire from Childe Harold. The poem was published on March 10th 1812, and, as Byron wrote in his memoirs, "I awoke and found myself famous".

The next four years saw Byron become one of the most celebrated men on earth. As the European wars ended, his poetry was translated into almost every major European language, French especially, the lingua franca of the cosmopolites, and his poems, together with the erotic, enigmatic legend they inspired, created, without any effort from him - indeed, to his annoyance - the Byronic Myth, which is still with us today, and which many find more interesting, and more exploitable, than the real thing, thoroughly-documented though the real thing is.

The paradox is that the poems he wrote during this period - The Giaour, The Corsair, Lara, The Bride of Abydos - were written, as he later saw it, on a prostitute impulse, to give the public what they wanted. Humour was banished, which, for one of the funniest writers in the language, must have been a strain. He wrote some satires, such as The Devil's Drive, but did not publish them. His later work, such as his classical dramas like Marino Faliero, and his ottava rima satires such as Beppo, The Vision of Judgement, and above all Don Juan, were gestures of atonement.

He became much-sought-after, both socially and sexually. His notorious affair with the witty but eccentric Caroline Lamb was actually quite brief. More important but less sensational was his affair with Elizabeth, Countess of Oxford, who encouraged his political ambitions. He gave three well-received but ineffective speeches in the House of Lords, the finest being the first, against the death penalty for the frame-breakers in his native Nottinghamshire.

In it, he said:

I have traversed the seat of war in the peninsula, I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey, but never under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return in the very heart of a Christian country....

One of the famous people he met in London society was Madame de Staël, whose book De l'Allemagne introduced him to Goethe's Faust. He also met Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate, who, as he joked later, was to become, "apart from Lady Byron, the person I hate most". His popular poems were in part inspired by Southey's eastern epics, though he put more sex and guilt into his than Southey could muster.

When Napoleon abdicated in 1814, Byron wrote an Ode to him, regretting his failure to die properly at the climax of his career, as a true hero should. Murray paid him £1,050 for it. Napoleon tried to kill himself on the day it went through proof stage.

Byron's most important love-affair was his most disastrous. He became very close to his older half-sister Augusta Leigh, whom he did not meet until well after their childhoods were over. There seems little doubt that her daughter Medora Leigh (born April 15th 1814) was his.

Very important to Byron was his friendship with Lady Melbourne, his letters to whom are among his most vivid.
Underlying his success, however, was great financial uncertainty - though, contrary to report, he did accept money for nearly all the poems Murray published, he was in debt all the time. His intention was either to sell Newstead Abbey, which, it not being an entailed property, he had the right to do, or to raise a mortgage on it. He failed in both aims, assisted by the dilatoriness of Hanson, his solicitor, and the consequence was a great insecurity - was he rich, or not?

The questions goes with many questions about Byron which are unanswerable - was he English, or Scots? Was he a romantic, or a classical writer? Was he fat, or thin? Was he homosexual, or heterosexual? The answers ("Both", in all cases) could not have done him much good psychologically.

To escape it all, he had to marry. This necessity led to the greatest error of judgement he ever made …


Marriage and Separation

Byron didn't really want to marry Annabella Milbanke (to whom he proposed through the post). His motives were, to remove the temptation which Augusta represented; to marry a "golden dolly", which he imagined Annabella to be, and relieve his debts; and - perhaps - to be reformed morally by his wife. None of these hopes came to anything.
On the road northwards to Seaham Hall in Durham (they were to be married in her father's house there) he stopped off at Augusta's house at Six Mile Bottom, wrote a letter calling the marriage off, but was persuaded by Augusta not to send it. The day before the wedding, Hobhouse, his best man, tried to persuade the vicar to cancel the ceremony on the grounds that Byron was a monster of cruelty - but the vicar said it was too late.

Byron and Annabella were married on January 2nd 1815. On the wedding night, Byron awoke, saw a candle burning on the other side of the scarlet bed-curtains, and exclaimed, "Good God! I am fairly in Hades, with Proserpina by my side!"
Byron never took his wife to Newstead Abbey, which he was still trying to sell.
The mathematical Annabella had no sense of humour, unlike Augusta, who found everything about her beloved brother slightly ridiculous. Annabella took all his sallies seriously, even when he described himself as "the avatar of a fallen angel".

Husband and wife moved into 13 Piccadilly Terrace, London, which they rented from the Duchess of Devonshire. The bailiffs had, by the end of 1815, moved in with them. Annabella's father could not pay her marriage portion, and Byron's debts were now colossal. But that was not all. Hearing that the marriage was under strain, Augusta tried to help by moving in with them, and Byron made it clear to Annabella that Augusta was his preferred lover. Modern writers have asserted that the naïve Annabella was herself infatuated with Augusta as well as with Byron, which would have increased the stress.
England's victory at Waterloo upset him, as it did Hobhouse and many others. While feeling proud of Wellington's feat of arms, they regretted the tide of feudal reaction which now swept Europe, obliterating all the good things Napoleon had achieved.

When Annabella became pregnant, which was almost immediately (for, said Byron, she could "always be caressed into tractability") Byron's behaviour got worse and worse. He started an affair with Susan Boyce, a minor actress (he was on the management committee of Drury Lane). He came home drunk, spoke violently to Annabella, fired pistols at the ceiling, and was generally obnoxious. Even the sturdy Fletcher feared for his mental stability.
Despite all this misery, Byron's creativity did not cease. He entered into a partnership with the Jewish composer Isaac Nathan and produced Hebrew Melodies, the lyrics for which Annabella was happy to copy for him; and wrote two of his most dramatic and economical poems - The Siege of Corinth and Parisina.

On December 10th Annabella gave birth to a daughter, named Ada. On January 15th 1816 she went home to see her parents, and never saw Byron again. Byron feigned incomprehension and dismay, but rumours began to circulate rapidly, and soon he, the darling of London society, had been transformed into a monster, about whom no tale was disbelieved. Assisted by malicious gossip from Caroline Lamb, people said that he was a sodomite, that he was guilty of incest, that he was insane, that he was syphilitic.

As he wrote later,

… the outcry of the period to which I allude was beyond all precedent, all parallell, even in those cases where political motives have sharpened slander - and doubled enmity. - I was advised not to go to the theatres lest I should be hissed, - nor to my duty in parliament lest I should be insulted by the way - even on the day of my departure my most intimate friend told me afterwards that he was under apprehensions of violence - from the people who might be assembled at the door of the Carriage.

A young girl called Claire Claremont - the daughter of Mary Godwin's father's second wife - "flung herself at him" during the last weeks of the separation crisis.

Aided by Hobhouse, on the husband's side, and Wilmot Horton, on the side of the wife, a separation was agreed to, and signed on April 21st 1816.
Byron quickly left England, never to return.


Annabella Milbanke

Ada Lovelace

Le Chatteau de Chillon

Villa Diodati


Byron spent the last years of his short life in exile on the continent. Facing mounting pressure as a result of his scandalous behaviour, many love affairs, disastrous marriage and mounting financial problems, Byron left England in April 1816. We have broken this exile period into three main areas:


Having decided that he could not bear to be in England any more, Byron left on April 25th 1816. Hobhouse and Scrope Davies saw him off at Dover. At his first hotel, in Ostend, he "fell like a bolt of lightning on the chambermaid". His choice of a replica of Napoleon's coach in which to travel would have made it indiscreet to travel in France, and, via Belgium, and the battlefield of Waterloo, he went down the Rhine to Switzerland, a journey which inspired him to write the third canto of Childe Harold, some stanzas of which are addressed to Ada, some to Augusta.

At Geneva he met Shelley for the first time, and the two men, so different as poets, found they had much in common intellectually. Shelley was with Mary Godwin, his mistress, and Claire Claremont, Mary's step-sister, and Byron's mistress. Claire was now pregnant. The four lived close to each other, Byron at the Villa Diodati, near the lake, Shelley and the two women in a smaller house not far away. Legends grew up at once - fanned at the time by Henry Brougham, later by Southey and Landor - that it was a depraved menage à quatre, but this seems not to have been the case. Shelley and the women went on an Alpine tour: Shelley and Byron, without them, did a circuit of the lake, which produced one of Byron's most moving poems, The Prisoner of Chillon.

Byron was moved by the memories Geneva bore of three of his idols - Voltaire, Rousseau, and Gibbon.

The summer of 1816 is famous for not having occurred. Two volcanic eruptions had thrown masses of ash into the upper atmosphere, and it was cloudy with heavy rain throughout what should have been the hot months. This inspired Byron to write one of his most prophetic poems, Darkness, which has been hailed as describing the effects of a nuclear winter.

Accompanying Byron was his neurotic physician, Dr Polidori. Inspired by a book called Phantasmagoriana, the five companions held, one night at Diodati, a ghost-story-improvising contest. Only Mary was unable to produce any ideas at all; but, weeks later, she started the most famous book to emerge from the so-called "Romantic" movement - her first novel, Frankenstein.
Hobhouse and Scrope Davies arrived at Diodati on August 26th; Shelley, Mary and Claire left on August 27th. Claire, for whom Byron felt no affection, bore his daughter Allegra in Bath the following year.
With Hobhouse, Byron went for a tour of the Alps. They were shocked to find Shelley's signature in a visitor's book, with the inscription "Philanthropist, Democrat, and Atheist" next to it. Byron erased the words discreetly. The majesty of the mountain scenery touched him; but, he wrote,

I can bear fatigue - & welcome privation - and have seen some of the noblest views in the world. - But in all this - the recollections of bitterness - & more especially of recent & more home desolation - which must accompany me through life - have preyed upon me here - and neither the music of the Shepherd - the crashing of the Avalanche - nor the torrent - the mountain - the Glacier - the Forest - nor the Cloud - have for one moment - lightened the weight upon my heart - nor enabled me to lose my own wretched identity in the majesty & the power and the Glory - around - above - & beneath me.

The tour, however little it alleviated his sense of isolation, caused him to start the work which would make him more famous and influential in the nineteenth century than any other - his play Manfred, the first act of which is set among the mountains and waterfalls of Switzerland.
Returning with Hobhouse to Diodati, he renewed his friendship with Madame de Staël, whom he had not seen since 1814. He dined often with her, showed her some of his recent poems - Chillon especially - and she may even have tried to mend the breach between him and Annabella.

Hobhouse and Byron were determined to go to Italy. Bidding farewell to de Staël, they left Diodati on October 5th. They crossed the Simplon on October 9th, marvelling at what Napoleon's engineers had created. By the 12th, they were in Italy.



Byron, with Hobhouse, entered Italy on October 12th 1816. He stayed there for six-and-a-half years, and it was there that he wrote some of his greatest poetry.

Italy was neither united nor free. Since time immemorial it had been invaded and divided. After Waterloo it was split between Papal states, Austrian-ruled states, and Italian princedoms theoretically free but in fact bound to the "legitimate" status quo. Byron had known about its thraldom before he arrived, but was made personally aware of it throughout his stay, by the way, not in which he was persecuted, for he was an English nobleman and a famous writer, but the way in which everyone else about him was persecuted, and forced to move from city to city, with the clear intention of forcing him out of the country.

He stayed at first in Milan, where he met some of Italy's leading writers, such as Monti and Pellico, and where both he and Hobhouse discovered a degree of respect which they had never been accorded in England.

He then moved on to Venice, where he settled until 1819. He studied Armenian at the monastery of San Lazzaro, and, encouraged by the unique Italian code of ethics, enjoyed the company of two of his most celebrated mistresses - Mariana Segati and Margarita Cogni - both wives to other men. Upon the cessation of the second of these liaisons, he embraced total promiscuity, perhaps for the first time.

Shelley - himself an advocate of free love - wrote:

L[ord] B[yron] is familiar with the lowest sort of these women, the people his gondolieri pick up in the streets. He allows fathers & mothers to bargain with him for their daughters, & though this is common enough in Italy, yet for an Englishman to encourage such sickening vice is a melancholy thing. He associates with wretches who seem almost to have lost the gait & phisiognomy of man, & do not scruple to avow practices which are not only not named but I believe seldom even conceived in England. He says he dissaproves, but he endures.

This state of affairs endured until he was sick of it, and he wrote his famous lyric, So, We'll go no more a-roving, as an expression of post-orgiastic disgust. Then, unexpectedly, he fell in love, early in April 1819, with the twenty-one-year old Teresa Guiccioli, wife, naturally, to someone else, and to her he remained faithful until he left the country. It was the most enduring of all his love-affairs.

In June 1818 he swam the Grand Canal, racing against two other men. He won. It was the third of the swimming feats of which he was so proud.

He spent two days in Florence, and three weeks in Rome, where he finished Manfred, the original third act of which William Gifford had criticised for its cheap comedy.
To this period belong some of his most famous works. Childe Harold IV is a great hymn of love and despair for Italy. It was recognised as such by the Italians, who translated it, and by the Austrians, who banned it. Just as he was finishing it he read an English poem called Whistlecraft, written in the Italian verse-form ottava rima, favoured by Ariosto among others, and, sensing its potential, composed Beppo, which led on a year later to his great, uncategorisable masterpiece, Don Juan. In Beppo he evolved a new way of imaging himself for public consumption:

But I am but a nameless sort of person
(A broken Dandy lately on my travels)
And take for Rhyme, to hook my rambling verse on,
The first that Walker's Lexicon unravels,
And when I can't find that, I put a worse on,
Not caring as I ought for Critics' cavils;
I've half a mind to tumble down to prose,
But Verse is more in fashion - so here goes!

Don Juan is dedicated ironically to Southey, whose turncoat politics he despised, and who had insulted him. It eventually became too hot for the conservative John Murray to handle (Gifford, Byron's literary father, deplored it), and Byron moved downmarket with it to the radical publisher John Hunt, whose cheap editions at last made his poetry available to working people, who loved his satire against the ruling classes of Europe.
Byron's Don Juan inverts the Mozartian stereotype by making women the sexual predators: this, claimed Byron, was closer to the reality.

Byron moved to Ravenna to be with Teresa Guiccioli. Teresa obtained a papal decree of separation from her husband - the only one granted in that pontificate - and, as the secret police reported on her lover to Rome and to Vienna, she, her father Ruggiero Gamba and her brother Pietro Gamba, and their households, had to move, first to Pisa and then to Genoa. Byron joined the masonic / revolutionary secret society, the Carbonari.

He wrote in his diary,

Today I have had no communication with my Carbonari cronies; but, in the mean time, my lower apartments are full of their bayonets, fusils, cartridges, and what not. I suppose they consider me as a depôt, to be sacrificed, in case of accidents. It is no great matter, supposing that Italy could be liberated, who or what is sacrifced. It is a grand object - the very poetry of politics. Only think - a free Italy!

But he soon became tired of their futile rhetorical games, and, on the failure of the Naples insurrection early in 1821, gave up hope of seeing Italy liberated in his lifetime.
The sale of Newstead Abbey to Major Thomas Wildman in December 1818 freed Byron at last from debt. Though he boasted of his avarice, he was most generous with his gifts to the poor. Wildman spends large sums of money doing Newstead up as he thought Byron should have.
Byron continued writing Don Juan, despite Teresa, who wanted him to stop it, and despite Hobhouse, who probably found lots of offensive references in it to himself (he was by now MP for Westminster). In its eleventh canto, Byron wrote, identifying with Napoleon:

But Juan was my Moscow, and Faliero
My Leipsic, and my Mont Saint Jean seems Cain;
"La Belle Alliance" of dunces down at zero,
Now that the Lion's fall'n, may rise again;
But I will fall at once as fell my Hero,
Nor reign at all, or as a Monarch reign,
Or to some lonely Isle of Jailors go,
With turncoat Southey as my turnkey Lowe.

He finally destroyed Robert Southey's reputation with The Vision of Judgement, a travesty, written at Ravenna in 1821, of Southey's Laureate work A Vision of Judgment. Southey has George III entering Heaven in triumph. Byron has George slipping into Heaven unnoticed when Southey tries to read his poem, and everyone scatters in dismay at his bad verses. In this poem Byron evolved a still more radical style of self-promotion:

God help us all! God help me too! I am
God knows as helpless as the Devil can wish -
And not a whit more difficult to damn
Than is to bring to land a late-hooked fish,
Or to the butcher to purvey the lamb -
Not that I'm fit for such a noble dish -
As one day will be that immortal Fry
Of almost every body born to die. -

In between bouts of writing The Vision, he composed Cain, a Biblical drama which ends just where Manfred starts. Cain stands at the beginning of man's Faustian thirst for knowledge, Manfred at its end. Both are miserable.

At Pisa Byron did not associate with Italian society as he had at Milan, Venice and Ravenna. Instead he found himself surrounded by numerous English: Shelley, Mary Shelley (as Mary Godwin now was) Edward Trelawny, who modelled himself on Byron's earlier heroes, the covert biographer Thomas Medwin, and others. A major tragedy which occurred at Pisa was the death of Allegra, his illegitimate daughter, whom he did not visit for the thirteen months preceding her death. Another tragedy was the drowning of Shelley, whose cremation Byron attended gloomily.

On March 24th 1822 occurred the famous Pisan Affray, in which Sergeant-Major Masi was pitch-forked by one of Byron's servants. It may have been a set-up. Whatever the case, Byron and Teresa had to move to Genoa, and then, as their affair cooled, Byron began thinking of going to Greece …
In July 1823 he wrote a letter defending the memory of his father, who had been maligned in a memoir: "Augusta and I have always loved the memory of our father as much as we loved each other…"


Milan Cathedral

Grand Canal, Venice

Rocca Brancaleone, Ravenna

Castle Assos



Byron didn't want to go to Greece, any more than he wanted to marry Annabella Milbanke. He drifted into it, perhaps knowing that if he went to Greece he would die - and not caring. Before he knew what he'd done, he was committed to going. Greece was already in revolt against the Turks, in a way, it seemed, that Italy would not be against the Austrians for many years to come. Byron doubtless felt, too, a great nostalgia for the homosexual happiness he had experienced in Greece in 1811. The need to get away from Teresa Guiccioli was part of his motive, and only a supposedly noble cause like freeing Greece could give him an excuse to leave her. Lady Blessington noted how coldly he spoke of the Greeks, and how "when one hears this same person calmly talk of the worthlessness of the people he proposes to make those sacrifices for, the loans he means to advance, the uniforms he intends to wear, entering into petty details, and always with perfect sang froid, one's admiration evaporates, and the action loses all its charms".

He left Genoa on July 16th 1823, but did not go straight to the Greek mainland. Instead, he stayed several months in the English-held Ionians, on Cephalonia principally, trying to work out which of the political factions, into which the Greek resistance was divided, it was best to support. Some of his followers, Trelawny especially, thought him needlessly cautious, and went ahead to join in the fray.

He finally crossed to Messolonghi on January 3rd 1824 - and by April 19th he was dead, having achieved, in military and political terms, nothing.

He found himself surrounded, firstly by English idealists who thought that what the feudal - nay, tribal - Greeks needed was a free press and parliamentary democracy (compare modern Afghanistan); next by numerous Greek mercenaries who were only interested in his money; and thirdly by Greek leaders who prioritised killing one another a step ahead of getting rid of the Turks. His only friends were his dogs, and the jolly English firemaster William Parry, with whom he got drunk as a release from the horror that he had brought upon himself.

He fell in love with a handsome Greek youth, Loukas Chalandritsanos, who was, however, too dim to know the score. Byron played cruel tricks on his inferiors to alleviate the stress.

A boy was dressed up as a girl and "given" to the sexually frustrated Fletcher, who was then surprised in the act by her "brother". His black servant Benjamin Lewis, who had just found himself two African girlfriends, was called before "Massa" (that's the way Byron insisted on being addressing by Lewis) kept in suspense for a few scarey minutes, and then told … that any bastards he begot on the girls would be Byron's property. Lewis collapsed, weeping with relief and gratitude.

On February 15th Byron had a kind of epileptic seizure. Early in April he went for a ride in the rain, against Fletcher's advice, and caught a fever. The doctors applied the only remedy they knew - leeches to his temples. It's been calculated that by the time he died they'd removed 43% of the blood from his body. The actual disease of which he died may have been Mediterranean tic fever - an illness picked up from dogs. Fletcher wrote to John Murray:

I now am under the Painfull Necessity of wrighting to you to Inform you of the Mallancolly News of my Lord Byron whom his no more he Departed This Miserable Life on the 19 of april after an Illness of only 10 Days his Lordship Began by a Nervious Feaver and Terminated with an Inflamation on the Brain for want of being Bled in time which his Lordship Refused till it was Too Late … Please to Excuse all Deffects for I Scearseley Now what I either Say or Do for after 20 Years Servies To My Lord he was More to me then a father And I am too much Distressed to now Give a Correct Account of every Pertickeler which I hope to Do at my arrival in England

Byron's body was brought back to England on board the Florida. Refused burial in Westminster Abbey - quite rightly, for he had been no friend to the Church of England - he was buried in the homely church of St Mary Magdalene, Hucknall Torkard, Nottinghamshire - the family vault of the estate he'd sold six years previously. Even in death, he didn't really belong.

Greece atoned by naming numerous streets and squares after him, and erecting numerous statues to him - all with perfectly-formed right calves and ankles. The commercially-exploitable Cult of Byron, begun in his lifetime, was, now that he was dead, in a position to take off properly.

But people still read his poems.

Last Will and Testament

Byron's last will and testament is stored at The National Archives (Public Record Office). We have a copy of the will available in pdf format for you to download.

Click here to download the pdf file


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