George Gordon, Lord Byron

  (1788 - 1824)

Short Biography

Lord Byron from the engraving by Dean after West 
Lord Byron from the engraving by Dean after West

Blight
Biographies of George Gordon, Lord Byron have been generally blighted by the omissions, intentional or otherwise, of biographers in reporting his sexuality: documents have been destroyed, genders changed and evidence suppressed or misinterpreted. This accumulation of nearly two hundred years of evasion, looking the other way and downright lies weighs heavily on those who would like to get to the truth. more on Byron's sexuality

Parents
George Gordon Noël Byron, who was to become the sixth Lord Byron at ten years of age, was the son of a Guards Officer, Captain John ('Mad Jack') Byron, and a Scottish heiress, Catherine Gordon of Gight, who were married on 13th May 1785 in Bath, England, and removed soon after to their estate in Scotland, where Mr Byron proceeded to liquidate his wife's assets to pay his debts. more

Birth
During the Spring of 1786, the Byrons moved back to England, staying first in London, where Jack was arrested and incarcerated in the King's Bench Prison, but bailed, then in South Warnborough, Hampshire in August 1786. Still pursued by creditors, they decamped to Cowes on the Isle of Wight in July 1787, but Jack soon left here for France. Mrs Byron followed shortly after, but returned alone to London in late 1787, where little George was born at 16 Holles Street, on the 22nd January 1788.

His right foot and lower leg
George was born with a deformed right foot and lower leg, which was often called a 'club foot' at the time and since, but more recently, based on a study of the special boots made for him, it is thought that it was rather a dysplasia or failure of the limb to form properly, giving him a 'grotesquely thin calf and a small foot'. more

Aberdeen
Mrs Byron returned to Scotland during the summer of 1789 (1), and the baby was put under the care of a nurse, Agnes Grey. The little family were briefly rejoined by Byron's father, who writes to his sister:

She is very amiable at a distance; but I defy you and all the Apostles to live with her two months, for if anybody could live with her, it was me.

Portrait of Catherine Gordon of Gight
Catherine Gordon of Gight, Byron's Mother

His main object in visiting her was, however, to extort even more money out of the unfortunate woman. An informant of Thomas Moore, Byron's amiable biographer, reports:

By her advances of money to Mr Byron on the two occasions when he visited Aberdeen, as well as the expenses incurred in furnishing the floor occupied by her, after his death, in Broad Street, she got in debt to the amount of 300l, by paying the interest on which her income was reduced to 135l. On this, however, she contrived to live without increasing her debt; and on the death of her grandmother, when she received the 1122l set apart for that lady's annuity, discharged the whole. (Moore, Thomas, Life of Lord Byron, note p6, John Murray, London, 1932)

In September 1790, Jack Byron left once again for France, where he lived with his sister in Valenciennes, and where he died in August 1791 (3). Catherine writes to his sister:

You wrong me very much when you suppose I do not lament Mr Byron's death. It has made me very miserable... Necessity not inclination parted us at least on my part and I flatter myself that it was the same with him and notwithstanding all his foibles for they deserve no worse name I most sincerely loved him.

more on Catherine Byron

Early education
At five years old, his education was entrusted to a Mr Bowers, but he made little progress, and he was removed to the care of one Ross, a 'very devout, clever little clergyman', under whom he made good progress, and next to a man called Paterson, the son of his shoemaker, who was a 'good scholar' and a 'rigid Presbyterian', and under whom he began to learn Latin, a study continued at the local Grammar School, where he stayed until he moved to England at the age of ten. more on his early education

His Scottish relations
After the death of Jack Byron, Catherine and her son became frequent guests of her grandmother, Margaret Duff Gordon, Lady Gight, in Banff. In the summer of 1796 (8), he also stayed for some time convelescing from an attack of scarlet fever at Ballater, forty miles west of Aberdeen on the River Dee, in what is now the Cairngorms National Park. more on Byron and nature

The heir presumptive
In late summer 1794 (6) Catherine received news of the death of William Byron, grandson of the fifth Lord Byron, in Corsica, which meant that her son became heir presumptive to the Byron title and estates.

Mary Duff
He records an early passionate attachment with Mary Duff, a distant cousin, in his journal of 1813 (25), looking back on his childhood to about the age of 8. more on early attachments

 
Map of Great Britain: Lord Byron
Map of Great Britiain showing places associated with Lord Byron

Inheritance
On 21 May 1798 (10) the fifth Lord Byron died, and George inherited the estates and title of his great uncle. He moved in August 1798 (10) with his mother and his nurse, May Gray, who had replaced her sister Agnes, to the ruinous Newstead Abbey. John Hanson, a London solicitor, who had previously been appointed by Mrs Byron to look after Byron's interests, was at Newstead with his wife to meet them. Hanson appointed Owen Mealey as overseer for the tenant farms, installing him in the lodge, and later the somewhat reluctant Earl of Carlisle as guardian for George. more on Newstead Abbey

Engraving of Newstead Abbey 
Newstead Abbey

With the onset of winter, it became impossible for them to stay at Newstead, and in late November 1798 (10), they moved to lodgings in Nottingham. George was shortly after left with his nurse, May Gray, under the supervision of his relations, the Byron-Parkyns, while his mother travelled between Newstead and London.

In May 1799, Catherine Gordon Byron was granted an annuity of £300 (about £15,000 in 2010 terms) from the civil list (moneys paid to the Royal Family), probably as a result of her appeal to the Duke of Portland, Tory leader of the House of Lords.

May Gray, his nurse
John Hanson informed Byron's mother of May Gray's unacceptable conduct towards the young lord in a letter dated 1st September 1799 (11), which led to her dismissal.
more on May Gray

Dulwich
On the initiative of John Hanson, he was sent to school at Dr Glennie's in Dulwich in August 1799 (11), where he continued until April 1801 (13), when Hanson and his guardian, Lord Carlisle, secured his entry to Harrow school, then under the headship of Dr Joseph Drury. more on his further education

Harrow School (1801,13 to 1805,17)
While at Harrow School, Byron developed a series of 'passionate' relationships with other boys, to whom he wrote some of his first poetry. more on Harrow

Southwell and Mary Chaworth
Catherine Byron let Newstead to Lord Grey de Ruthyn in April 1803 (15), and herself rented Burgage Manor in Southwell shortly after.

Burgage Manor, Southwell
Burgage Manor, Southwell

George arrived at Southwell at the end of term in July, but quickly left again, relations with his mother, a volatile woman who alternated between shows of doting affection and unrestrained anger, becoming increasingly difficult. He installed himself with Owen Mealey in the lodge at Newstead, and then, at the invitation of William and Anne Clarke, at nearby Annesley Hall, where he renewed his acquaintance with Mary Chaworth, heiress to the Chaworth estates, and three years his senior. He fell desperately in love, and refused to return to Harrow in September. Catherine writes to Mr Hanson:

You may well be surprised and so may Dr Drury, that Byron is not returned to Harrow. But the Truth is, I cannot get him to return to school, though I have done all in my power for six weeks past. He has no indisposition that I know of, but love, desperate love, the worst of all maladies in my opinion.

Annesley Hall
Annesley Hall take a walk

But Mary rejected him for the dashing John Musters, a member of the local gentry, reputedly the natural son of the Prince Regent (later George IV), whom she subsequently married despite the opposition of her mother and step-father, and to her own later regret, supposedly at the time referring to Byron dismissively as 'that lame boy', a comment of which Byron apparently became aware.  more on Mary Chaworth

Lord Grey de Ruthyn
During the winter of 1803/4 (15/16) he stayed with Lord Grey de Ruthyn in Newstead Abbey, but broke with him shortly after the New Year. Writing to his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, he explains:

... my reasons for ceasing that Friendship are such as I cannot explain, not even to you my Dear Sister .... but they will remain hidden in my own breast.

It is generally supposed that the reason for the break was that Lord Grey made sexual advances towards young George. more on Lord Grey de Ruthyn

Elizabeth Pigot
The Pigot family lived close by Burgage Manor in Southwell. Byron struck up a friendship with both John and Elizabeth Pigot, and also with their uncle, the Reverend J.T. Becher, who aided and encouraged him to publish his poetry. Elizabeth records her first impressions on meeting him (Byron):

The first time I was introduced to him was at a party at his mother's, when he was so shy that she was forced to send for him three times before she could persuade him to come into the drawing-room, to play with the young people at a round game. He was then a fat, bashful boy, with his hair combed straight over his forehead...  (TMLJ, p33) more on Elizabeth Pigot 

University
He then attended
Trinity College, Cambridge, where he formed a close friendship with John Cam Hobhouse, and took as a lover the choirboy John Edleston in between his bouts of sexual excess with whores, actresses, and maidservants.

First poetry
He published Fugitive Pieces in 1806 (18), revising and enlarging it in 1808 (20), at which point it received scathing criticism in the Edinburgh Review, prompting his reply English Bards and Scots Reviewers (1809, 21), which comprised over a thousand lines of rebuttal, invective and justification. 

Grand tour and Childe Harold
Hobhouse accompanied him on a grand tour beginning in 1809 (21), during which they visited Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, Malta, Albania, Greece, Smyrna and Constantinople, meeting among others the colourful but ruthless Albanian tyrant Ali Pasha. In Greece he dined with Andreas Londos, the governor of Vistitza (now Aigion), who gave him a passionate rendering of Arise you Sons of Greece, and opened his eyes to the longing of the Greek people to be free from their Turkish masters. It was during this tour that he began his autobiographical poem Childe Harold. In Athens the two men lodged with a widow, one of whose three daughters is celebrated in the poem Maid of Athens. In March 1810 (22) he sailed with Hobhouse for Constantinople by way of Smyrna, visiting what was then considered to be the site of the ancient city of Troy, and swimming the Hellespont in imitation of Leander. According to Thomas Medwin, he later summarised his feelings about Turkish manners as follows:

I see not much difference between ourselves and the Turks, save that we have foreskins and they none, that they have long dresses and we short, and that we talk much and they little. In England the vices in fashion are whoring and drinking, in Turkey, sodomy and smoking, we prefer a girl and a bottle, they a pipe and a pathic
more on the Grand Tour

Ali Pasha
Ali Pasha

Hobhouse returns to England, Byron enjoys unfettered (homo)sexual freedom
Leaving Constantinople at the beginning of July 1810 (22), he parted from Hobhouse on the island of Zea, returning to Athens, where he joined Lord Sligo for a tour of the Pelepponese, during which they visited Ali Pasha's son, Veli, sultan of the Morea (Pelepponese). They returned to Athens at the end of August, and he installed himself in the Capuchin convent at the foot of the Acropolis, where he writes: we have nothing but riot from noon till night and promises to have a world of anecdotes for you and the Citoyen (LBL II 16-17)

Return to England
He left Athens in April 1811 (23), summarising his situation in a letter from Malta to Hobhouse dated May 22nd 1811 (23).

1st At twenty-three the best of life is over and its bitters double. 2ndly I have seen mankind in various Countries and find them equally despicable, if anything the Balance is rather in favour of the Turks. 3rdly I am sick at heart.
Here he quotes from Horace fourth book, first ode, To Venus: Nor maid nor youth delights me now, / Nor credulous dream of heart"s exchange, nor hours / of challenged wine bout, nor the brow / Girt with a wreath of freshly gathered flowers.
4thly A man who is lame of one leg is in a state of bodily inferiority which increases with years and must render his old age more peevish & intolerable. Besides in another existence I expect to have two if not four legs by way of compensation. 5thly I grow selfish and misanthropical, something like the Jolly Miller - I care for nobody and nobody cares for me. 6thly My affairs at home and abroad are gloomy enough. 7thly I have outlived all my appetites and most of my vanities, even the vanity of authorship. (LBL II,47-48)

He arrived in London on July 14, 1811 (23).

Death of Mother, Charles Skinner Matthews and John Edleston
The deaths of three people who were, or had been, close to him followed in quick succession. Firstly his mother in August: I heard one day of her illness, the next of her death, he writes in a letter on 2 August 1811 (23). (LBL II 67). This death was closely followed by that of Charles Skinner Matthews: My mother lies a corpse in this house: one of my best friends is drowned in a ditch .... In ability who was like Matthews? How did we all shrink before him! he writes to Scrope Davies on 7 August. (LBL II, 68/9). In October, he received news of John Edleston's death, writing to Hobhouse on 13 October: At present I am rather low, & don't know how to tell you the reason - you remember E[dleston] at Cambridge - he is dead - last May - his Sister sent me the account lately - now though I never should have seen him again, (& it is very proper that I should not) I have been more affected than I should care to own elsewhere; Death has been lately so occupied with everything that was mine, that the dissolution of the most remote connection is like taking a crown from a Miser's last Guinea. (LBL II 114)

Childe Harold
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, an exotic travelogue spiced with romantic disillusionment, was published in March 1812 (24). It was an instant success, the first edition selling out in three days.

Success in Society and further poetry
He began to be lionised by Whig society, and capitalised on his success with a series of verse narratives : The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair and The Prisoner of Chillon, while he carried on affairs with Lady Melbourne, Lady Oxford, and, most famously, Lady Caroline Lamb. Lady Melbourne, who was much older than he, became his confidante, and began to steer him towards marriage with her niece, Annabella Millbanke.

  Portrait of Lady Caroline Lamb  Portrait of Jane Harley, Lady Oxford
Lady Melbourne, Lady Caroline Lamb and Jane Harley, Lady Oxford

Lady Caroline Lamb
Married to William Lamb, a future Prime Minister, daughter-in-law of Lady Melbourne and grand-daughter of Georgiana, Countess Spencer through her mother Henrietta Posonby, Countess Bessborough, Lady Caroline had been long known as a free, perhaps wild spirit. She writes of her heroïne Calantha in the novel Glenarvon: I am not like those I see:- my education, my habits, my feelings are different; I am like one uncivilized and savage; and if you place me in society, you will have to blush every hour for faults I shall involuntarily commit. (Vol I p127) The scandal and scenes of high drama which accompanied Byron's irresolute attempts to ditch her after a passionate affair of four months bore out this character assessment. She was also responsible for the famous assessment of Byron as 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'.

Jane Harley, Lady Oxford
Between November 1812 (24) and May 1813 (25), Byron conducted an affair with Jane Harley, Lady Oxford, whose five children were known as the Harleian Miscellany, originally a collection of pamphlets from the 1st Earl of Oxford's library published between 1744 and 1753, but here indicating the varied paternity of Lady Oxford's offspring. Byron took a great interest in Charlotte, the Harley's eleven year old daughter, and dedicated the new edition of Childe Harold to her. He writes to Lady Melbourne on 5 April 1813 (25) : The date ring you shall have if you like it - the others have been transferred to Charlotte Harley whom I should love forever if she could always be only eleven years old - and whom I shall probably marry when she is old enough and bad enough to be made into a modern wife. --- We have had as yet very few fine days and these I have passed on the water and in the woods -- scrambling and splashing about with the children ....

Augusta Leigh
His half sister, Augusta Leigh, arrived in London on 26 June 1813 (25), and the emotional intimacy he began to enjoy with her soon led to sexual intimacy. In August 1813 (25) he was making plans to leave England with her. Lady Melbourne urged him not to consider such a course, suggesting that rumours of incest would be disastrous for both him and for Augusta. She suggested that he transfer his attentions to another, in the event the wife of James Wedderburn Webster, Lady Frances. Byron writes in a letter to Lady Melbourne dated 28 September 1813 : I have tried and hardly too to vanquish my demon - but to very little purpose - for a resource that seldom failed me before - did in this instance - I mean transferring my regards to another - of which I had a very fair and not discouraging opportunity at one time - I willingly would - but the feeling that it was an effort spoiled all again - and here I am - what I am you know already.

Marriage
He was married to Annabella Millbanke in January 1815 (27), and she gave birth to a daughter in December, but left him in January 1816 (28), and never returned. Rumours concerning the cause of their separation centred around Byron’s relations with his half sister Augusta Leigh, though it seems clear that the proximate cause was Annabella’s revelation to her nursery governess that Byron had practised sodomy on her. Byron signed the separation papers, and left England in April of that year (28), never to return.

Portrait of Augusta Leigh Portrait of Anabella Millbanke
Augusta Leigh by James Holmes and Anabella Millbanke by George Hayter (1812)

Portrait of Claire Clairmont
Claire Clairmont by Amelia Curran (1816)

Switzerland
He visited the battlefield at Waterloo, then Switzerland, staying at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, where he composed the third canto of Childe Harold, and where Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary Shelley and her half-sister Claire Clairmont visited him during the summer. 

Engraving of the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva
The Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva

Birth of daughter
On her return to England, Claire Clairmont gave birth to his daughter, Allegra. 

Venice
In the autumn of the same year (1816, 28) he left for Venice, where he embarked on a career of debauchery with numerous local women and girls, men and probably boys, at times negotiating for their favours with their parents, and committing acts which, according to Shelley, either had no name or were unheard of in England. 

Engraving of the Grand Canal, Venice 
The Grand Canal, Venice

Shelley writes of Byron and Childe Harold in a letter to Peacock from Naples dated 22 December 1818:

The spirit in which it is written is, if insane, the most wicked and mischievous insanity that ever was given forth. It is a kind of obstinate and self-willed folly, in which he hardens himself. I remonstrated with him in vain on the tone of mind from which such a view of things alone arises. For its real root is very diferent from its apparent one. Nothing can be less sublime than the true source of these expressions of contempt and desperation. The fact is, that first, the Italian women with whom he associates are perhaps the most contemptible of all who exist under the moon - the most ignorant, the most disgusting, the most bigoted; countesses smell so strongly of garlic, that an ordinary Englishman cannot approach them. Well, L.B. is familiar with the lowest sort of these women, the people his gondolieri pick up in the streets. He associates with wretches who seem almost to have lost the gait and physiognomy of man, and who do not scruple to avow practices, which are not only not named, but I believe seldom ever conceived in England. He says he disapproves, but he endures. He is heartily and deeply discontented with himself; and contemplating in the distorted mirrors of his own thoughts the nature and destiny of man, what can he behold but objects of contempt and despair? But that he is a great poet, I think the address to Ocean proves. And he has a certain degree of candour while you talk to him, but unfortunately it does not outlast your departure. No, I do not doubt, and for his sake, I ought to hope, that his present career must end soon in some violent circumstance.

Lord Byron's room in the Mocenigo Palace
Lord Byron's room in the Mocenigo Palace

Don Juan
In the summer of 1818 (30) he completed the first canto of Don Juan, sending it to Hobhouse in England, who reacted by saying it would be impossible to publish. But Byron resisted the advice of his friends and of his publisher, Murray, to take out the ‘indelicacies’. 

Countess Guicciolo and the Carbonari
In April 1819 (31) he met Countess Teresa Guicciolo, then 19 years old and married to a man three times her age. He followed her to Ravenna, and won the friendship of her father and brother, who initiated him into the revolutionary society of the Carbonari, a group involved in fighting for freedom from Austrian rule

Mocenigo Palace, exterior
Mocenigo Palace, exterior, eng Wallace after Prout,( rh building with large chimneys)

Further poetry and plays
Here he wrote The Prophecy of Dante, a further three cantos of Don Juan, and the poetic dramas Marino Faliero, Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari, and Cain, which were all published in 1821 (33). 

Pisa and the Bay of Lerici
When Teresa’s father and brother were exiled for their part in an abortive plot, they moved with Byron to Pisa, then Leghorn (Livorno), where he leased a house close to Shelley’s villa on the Bay of Lerici. 

The London Greek Committee
In April 1823 (35) the London Greek Committee contacted him with a view to acting as its agent in helping the Greeks with their War of Independence from the Turks. Byron immediately accepted the role. On 16th July of the same year (35) he left Genoa, arriving in Cephalonia, an island off the mainland of Greece, in August. Here he used £4000 (about £200,000 in modern terms) of his own funds to enable part of the Greek fleet to relieve Missolonghi, which was in a state of blockade, then sailed for Missolonghi himself in December, joining enthusiastically in the plans to attack the Turkish held fort at Lepanto. 

Death and burial
But in February he had a fit, for which he was bled with leeches applied to his temples. By the 23rd he was well enough again to arrange the release of 29 Turkish prisoners, men, women and children, repatriating them at his own expense. But in April he fell ill again, and on April 19, 1824 (36) he died. His body was embalmed. The heart was removed and buried in Missolonghi, and his remains were then sent to England, and buried near Newstead Abbey, having been refused burial in Westminster Abbey.

Index to more detailed information

Notes

Abbreviations :

Hunter, Archie, Wellington's Scapegoat, Pen and Sword, 2003

AYTF Young, Arthur, Travels during the years 1787, 1788 and 1789 undertaken more particularly with a view of ascertaining the cultivation, wealth, resources, and national prosperity of the Kingdom of France, London, 1792

BECP, Eisler, Benita, Child of Passion, Fool of Fame, first published Hamish Hamilton, 1999

DRHP Fisher, D.R. ed http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/member/gally-knight-henry-1786-1846  

FGLA Gribble, Francis Henry, The Love Affairs of Lord Byron, London, 1910

FCJG Carter, Francis, A Journey from Gibraltar to Malaga, London, 1777

GRWW Roberts, Greg, Wicked William, http://www.wickedwilliam.com/127/

FPL Fernando Pessoa, Lisbon, What the Tourist Should See: http://lisbon.pessoa.free.fr/Pessoa_Lisbon.htm

HHPG Herbert, Henry, Portugal and Galicia, with a review of the social and political state of the Basque provinces, Murray, London, 1836

JCDT Carr, John, Descriptive Travels in the Southern and Eastern parts of Spain, London, 1811

JGDW John Gurwood, Dispatches of Fielf Marshal the Duke of Wellington vol 3, Cambridgue University Press, first published 1844

LBL Byron, Lord George Gordon, Byron's Letters and Journals, 13 vols

LCGL Crompton, Louis, Byron and Greek Love, University of California Press, 1985

MBLW Boyes, Megan, Love Without Wings, Derby, 1988

RGR Gronow, Rees Howell, Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, London, 1862

TMLJ Moore, Thomas, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, first published J.Murray, London, 1832

RPLJ1 Protheroe, Rowland, The Works of Lord Byron, Letter and Journals Vol 1, Free Plain Vanilla Electronic Texts, September 2005 

WDAQ1 Drummond, William, Academical Questions, Vol I, Bulmer and Co, London, 1805

WJTS Jacob, William, Travels in the South of Spain: in letters written AD 1809 and 1810, London, 1811

 

1. Browne, Denis, The Problem of Byron's Lameness, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine (1960, Jun, 440-442)  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1870002/?page=1

2. Quoted by Tuite, Sarah, Lord Byron and Scandalous Celebrity, p161, Cambridge University Press

3. TM, p5

4.TM note p6

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