George Gordon, Lord Byron

  (1788 - 1824)

Sexuality

Blight
Biographies of George Gordon, Lord Byron have been generally blighted by the refusal of commentators to accurately report 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.

But suppression of the truth was inevitable in a society which imposed the death penalty for buggery as late as 1835, which did not repeal the death penalty for that act until 1861, and which did not de-criminalise homosexuality until 1967. Byron's friend, John Cam Hobhouse, with similar proclivities, writes from Newgate in 1819 where he was incarcerated for writing a radical pamphlet:

A man was hanged this morning for an unnatural crime. Had my windows fastened up but could not sleep. They began putting up the scaffold at 4 o'clock. The tolling of the bell at 8 was frightful. I heard the crash of the drop falling and a woman screech violently at the same moment. Instantly afterwards, the sound of the pye man crying, "all hot, all hot." Tis dreadful hanging a man for this practice.2

As far as can be ascertained, Byron was bisexual, and practised full anal intercourse (buggery) with men and boys where he could. We know this because he says so himself: evidence for the fact is incontrovertible.

Harrow School
First hand evidence of customs at Harrow School are available from descriptions recorded by John Addington Symonds who was a pupil there in the 1850's :
Every boy of good looks had a female name and was recognised either as a public prostitute or as some bigger fellow's bitch. Bitch was the word in common usage to indicate a boy who yielded his person to another. The talk in the studies and dormitories was incredibly obscene. One could not avoid seeing acts of onanism, mutual masturbation and the sport of naked boys in bed together. There was no refinement, no sentiment, no passion, nothing but animal lust in these occurrences. They filled me with disgust and loathing. ... One bitch by the name of Cookson, who had served variously all three Masters, and was known as the
notissima fossa of the House, fell out of favour .... After he had been rolled on the floor, indecently exposed and violated in front of spectators, [the three] took to 'trampling' on Cookson whenever they encountered him; ... they squirted saliva and what they called 'goby' on their bitch, cuffed and kicked him at their mercy, shied shoes at him and drove him with curses whimpering into his den.1

Though describing conditions some fifty years later in the Victorian period, there is no reason to suppose that things were different during the Regency when Byron was at the school. Indeed, it is astonishing that anyone could be surprised at what might happen in a dormitory where adolescents are left together to their own devices.

Byron himself writes of his early relationships with other boys as 'passions', listing his 'principal friends', and his 'juniors and favourites' separately. His early biographer, Moore, goes on to comment that:
To a youth like Byron, abounding with the most passionate feelings, and finding sympathy with only the ruder parts of his nature at home, the little world of school afforded a vent for his affections, which was sure to call them forth in their most ardent form. Accordingly, the friendships which he contracted, both at school and college, were little less than what he himself describes them, 'passions'.5

A very neat gloss on what is already an ambiguous, toned down and abbreviated account. John Cam Hobhouse, however, observes in a note in the margin of his copy of Moore's biography:
M knows nothing, or will tell nothing of the principal cause and motive of all these boyish friend[ships]4

Summary
Once we get by the rather uninteresting question of whether or not Byron was homosexual, we can move on to the rather more interesting analysis of his passions for both male and female partners, which are complex and intense, and run the whole gamut of love and sex and the interrelations between the two.

Notes

Abbreviations :

TM: Moore, Thomas, The Life Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, John Murray, London, 1932. 

1. Chandos, John, Boys Together, English Public Schools 1800-1864, London, 1984, p307
2. Quoted by Tuite, Sarah,
Lord Byron and Scandalous Celebrity, p161, Cambridge University Press
3. Quoted by Crompton, Louis, Byron and Greek Love, Faber and Faber, London, 1985, 81
4. ibid, p81
5. TM, p22

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