Adieu to a Most Amiable Mamma…

 I thought my dear Augusta that your opinion of my meek mamma would coincide with mine… But she flies into a fit of phrenzy, upbraids me as if I was the most undutiful wretch in existence, rakes up the ashes of my father, abuses him, says I shall be a true Byrrone, which is the worst epiphet she can invent.

Am I call to this woman mother?

In the hagiography which often passes for the writing of Byron’s life, Catherine Gordon Byron is somewhat of a Marmite figure for you will either love her or you hate her!

However, my hatred of Marmite is equal to the fondness that I have for the story of this most ‘Amiable Mamma’ who Byron described as ‘A tender and peremptory parent who indulged me sometimes with holidays and now and then with a box on the ear.’

A Portrait of Lord Byron’s Most ‘Amiable Mamma’

Catherine Gordon was born in 1764 in the Castle of Gight, in the shire of Aberdeen to Katherine Innes and George Gordon, the 12th Laird of Gight and her ancestry could lay a proud claim to the descent from the sister of King James II ; a wild race noted for their ferocious battles, treacherous deeds, suicide and murder.

In 1820 while living in Europe and in a letter to his publisher John Murray, Byron alluding to his mother’s ‘haughty’ pride in her Gordon ancestry, described her as:

‘being precise upon points of genealogy like all the Aristocratical Scots – She had a long list of ancestors like Sir Lucius O’Triggers most of whom are to be found in the Old Scotch Chronicles – Spalding – & in arms & doing mischief…’

For it was with the suicide of her father who had been found drowned in the Avon Canal in Bath on January 9 1779 that the ‘romping good-humoured girl of sixteen, inclined to corpulency’ became the 13th and final Laird of Gight and with a passion for dancing and with a temper to match, the wealthy, outspoken and superstitious Miss Gordon was introduced to Bath society in 1785.

Her presence was to be quickly noted by John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron who despite his grief for the death of his wife Amelia, Baroness Conyers and the plight of his motherless daughter Augusta; was in desperate need of a wife who could continue to support him in the manner to which he had become accustomed.

The naive and romantic Catherine was united in Holy Matrimony to the feckless and charming John Byron on Friday May 13 1785 at St Michael’s Church in Bath and with no marriage settlement in place, all Byron had to do was to agree to take the name of Gordon and then he could make free with his wife’s money, all £22,580 of it.

O where are ye gaein’, bonny Miss Gordon,
O where are ye gaein’ sae bonnie and braw.
Ye’ve married, ye’ve married wi’ Jonny Byron,
To squander the lands of Gight awa

For not only had Catherine married an upstart Englishman but by the winter of 1787 and with the lands of Gight squandered ‘awa’ Catherine now ‘big with bairn’ could now only follow her cruel and dissipated husband to Chantilly in France in an effort to escape his creditors.

As the birth of her child approached, Catherine returned to England and having surrendered the care of the five year old Augusta to the girl’s pious grandmother Lady Holderness; the impoverished young mother-to-be moved into a furnished room at 16 Holles Street to await her lonely confinement.

And it was here that on Tuesday January 22 1788 she gave birth to a boy who was born with a caul over his head, a deformity of the right leg and with the prosaic names of George Gordon in honour of her father.

Catherine would return to her homeland of Aberdeen with her ‘dear son George’ as a toddler and after the death of ‘Mad Jack’ on August 2 1791 in Valenciennes, she devoted herself to the well being of her ‘ill-deedie laddie’ denying him nothing despite his mischievous nature, her tightened purse strings and short temper.

Their provincial and happy life in Aberdeen came to an end in August 1798 as Catherine and her son, now the 6th Lord Byron would leave Scotland to take possession of Newstead Abbey in Nottingham, the ancestral abode of the Byron family since the Reformation.

And by all accounts their first season at Newstead was an idyllic one despite the dilapidated mansion with a leaky roof and the bare grounds stripped of all woodland and Byron would plant an oak tree in the garden which he would later celebrate in verse:

  Young Oak!

when I planted thee deep in the ground,

hoped that thy days would be longer than mine;

  That thy dark-waving branches would flourish around,

And ivy thy trunk with its mantle entwine.

The ‘Byron Oak’ in the Grounds of Newstead Abbey in springtime…

And as he, with his boys, shall revisit this spot,

    He will tell them in whispers more softly to tread.

Oh! surely, by these I shall ne’er be forgot;

 Remembrance still hallows the dust of the dead.

With Byron now a Peer of the Realm, Catherine would be increasingly marginalised over time as the decisions concerning the health and education of her son were the responsibilities of his guardian Lord Carlisle and the attorney John Hanson and with maternal pride and fond concern frequently mistaken for ignorance, fickleness and tedious embarrassment as Dr Glennie attested:

Mrs Byron was a total stranger to English society and English manners… a mind almost wholly without cultivation… and not endowed with powers to retrieve the fortune and form the character and manners of a young nobleman, her son.

There is no doubt that Catherine as a woman of volatile opinion and expansive feeling was probably her own worst enemy, but then life had been hard for her and without the benefit of a supportive network and financial security, who are we to judge?

As Byron moved through adolescence frequently bored of school, in need of cash and always willing to challenge authority; the relationship with his mother was to become ever more explosive and unpredictable and in a series of letters to his ‘dearest Augusta’, he lets forth with invective, which although amusing, suggests a cruel attitude which affords him little credit.

I have at last succeeded, my dearest Augusta, in a pacifying the dowager, and mollifying that piece of flint which the good Lady denominates her heart.

She now has condescended to send you her love, although with many comments on the occasion, and many compliments to herself.

But to me she still continues to be a torment, and I doubt not would continue so till the end of my life… It is a happy thing that she is my mother and not my wife, so that I can rid myself of her when I please…

And with Byron full of teenage angst and pockets full of ready cash obtained by dubious means; the ‘good Lady’ was far from pleased:

That Boy will be the death of me and drive me mad! I never will consent to his going Abroad. Where can he get Hundreds? Has he got into the hands of money lenders? He has no feeling, no Heart.

This I have long known he has behaved as ill as possible to me for years back, this bitter Truth I can no longer conceal, it is wrung from me by heart-rending agony.

I am well rewarded, I came to Nottinghamshire to please him and now he hates it.

He knows that I am doing everything in my power to pay his Debts and he writes to me about hiring Servants and the last time he wrote to me was to desire that I would send him £25.0.0 to pay his Harrow Bills which I would have done if I had had as much as he has – three hundred – I am glad I did not, but it shows what he is, God knows what is to be done with him, I much fear he is already ruined at eighteen!!! Great God I am distracted I can say no more.

As Byron made plans to travel abroad with his friend John Cam Hobhouse, he was also planning to uproot his mother from her cosy home at Burgage Manor in Southwell to Newstead Abbey, a cold, damp ruin which promised social isolation and more than one visit from the bailiffs.

Burgage Manor in Southwell, Nottinghamshire…

However, despite the acrimony in which they had parted, Catherine was also to be the recipient of Byron’s most beautifully witty and picturesque letters that were written as he travelled throughout the East.

If I wed I will bring you home a sultana with half a score of cities for a dowry, and reconcile you to an Ottoman daughter in law with a bushel of pearls not larger than ostrich eggs or smaller than walnuts.

Her reply is equally witty in return and there are delicious hints that mother and son would surely have enjoyed some lighthearted times together.

A thousand thanks for your long letter which amused me much. I see you are quite charmed with the Spanish Ladies. For Heavens sake have nothing to do with them. They make nothing of poisoning both Husbands and Lovers if they are jealous of them or offend them. The Italian ladies do the same.

I will however agree to your marrying a very pretty very sensible rich Sultana, with half a Million to her fortune not less, and also a Bushel of Pearls and diamonds. No other is worthy of you nor will she be received by me.

Despite her ill-health, she valiantly tried to maintain the upkeep of the Abbey throughout the long winter of 1810 and 1811 and continued to juggle her son’s debts while in constant fear of a bailiff removing her belongings.

Hutton the Bailiff and two of his men arrived from Nottingham. How is this? I thought this business would have been settled… I did not think you would let this come on me… They say the things must be sold immediately.
P.S. For God(s) sake do not let me live in this state…

Catherine died at the age of forty six on Wednesday August 1 1811 at Newstead Abbey surrounded by her devoted servants and as her son was travelling from London poste haste to be by her side after borrowing ‘forty pounds’ from John Hanson as he didn’t have the funds to undertake the journey from London.

My poor mother died yesterday! I heard one day of her illness, the next of her death – Thank God her last moments were most tranquil… I now feel the truth of Mr Gray’s observation, ‘That we can only have one mother.’ Peace be with her!

Every thing is doing that can now be done plainly yet decently for the internment.. 

On Friday August 9 , her remains were interred to the Byron family vault in the Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire and thirteen years later in 1824, she would be reunited with her ‘Dear son George’ and granddaughter Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace in November 1852.

The ‘Byron’ Memorial Tablet in the Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham

Byron’s biographer John Galt was moved to write charitably of Catherine some years after her death:

Notwithstanding her violent temper and other unseemly conduct, her affection for him had been so fond and dear, that he undoubtedly returned it with unaffected sincerity and from many casual and incidental expressions which I have heard him employ concerning her, I am persuaded that his filial love was not at any time even of the ordinary kind.

Sources used:
Byron and His World, Derek Parker (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd 1968)
Byron’s Letters and Journals Volume One, Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1973)
My Amiable Mamma A Biography of Mrs. Catherine Gordon Byron, Megan Boyes (J.M. Tatler & Son Ltd 1991)

Let Me Have the Implora Pace!

The last sad rites to the illustrious dead were performed upon the remains of this great poet at four o’clock on Friday evening last, in the family vault of the church of Hucknall Torkard, in this county, close to the ancient demesne of the Byons, who held Newstead Abbey for centuries…

On this day, July 16 and an incredible 23 years ago I celebrated the safe arrival of my youngest son Tom and in 1824 a further 194 years ago, the church of St Mary Magdalene in the town of Hucknall in Nottingham welcomed the safe arrival of Byron’s remains for burial after his death at the age of 36 on April 19 in the town of Missolonghi in Greece.

Ten o’clock being the time fixed for the procession to leave Nottingham, the great bell at St Mary’s tolled at that hour.

A quarter before eleven o’clock, the hearse, adorned with the large sable plumes, drawn by six black horses, each bearing a plume of feathers on his head, was ordered to the front of the Blackmoor’s Head Inn, for the purpose of receiving the body of his Lordship, which, on being brought out and placed therein, the first mourning coach and six came up, in which was put the urn, containing the heart, &c., covered with a black silk velvet pall ornamented with escutcheons of the Byron arms, on a white ground.

The utmost silence prevailed during this ceremony. The arrangements having been completed, at eleven o’clock the procession set out.

At half past eleven o’clock, a number of the undertaker’s men arrived, and immediately began to clothe the pulpit and reading desk with black cloth. A large seat next to the pulpit, together with communion table and rails were also covered with black cloth.

An eschutcheon of the poet with the motto, ‘Crede Byron’ underneath, was hung in front of the pulpit below the cushion. All these preparations were finished by half past one, at which hour the minute bell began to toll.

The church and little village were crowded to excess at this hour, and all eyes were fixed on the road which the procession had to pass… Although the procession left Nottingham at 20 minutes past eleven and had only seven miles to traverse, it did not reach Hucknall church until half-past three o’clock.

The Rev. Chas Nixon, the vicar, who was in attendance all day, immediately repaired to the church yard where he received the body…

At a quarter before four o’clock the procession entered the church.

The body and urn being brought in, and placed on two trestles fixed in the aisle, the mourners passed to the seats prepared for them. The coronet and cushion were then placed upon the case of feathers.

The Rev. Chas Nixon, the vicar, clothed in his white surplice, then read a part of the beautiful service of the Church of England’ and in a few minutes the undertaker and his attendants slowly removed the coronet supporting it on the cushion at the head of the tomb, whilst the clergyman read the remainder of the service.

The coffin was then gradually lowered, and placed on an old leaden coffin…. The original intention was that it should have been laid upon his mother’s coffin, but the mutilated and decayed state of the latter rendered that impossible; it rests, however, exactly next to it, with the case containing the urn at the head.

Around the vault stood Col. Leigh, chief mourner (the present Lord Byron was said to be indisposed at Bath); next to him, Mr Hobhouse and Mr Hanson; then Lord Rancliffe and Colonel Wildman; the Household of the deceased in the rear.

The whole ceremony was finished at 20 minutes past four o’clock.

One wish of the late distinguished poet is gratified by his remains being deposited in his native land, and in the tomb of his ancestors, and in his own words, to mingle with ‘The crush’s relics of their vanished might.’

However, before I become too carried away with this wonderful evocative account of Byron’s funeral and the moving processional scenes of the crowds of ordinary people who attended him to his grave; I am reminded of a letter written by Byron to his faithful publisher John Murray in the summer of 1819:

‘I am sure my Bones would not rest in an English grave – or my Clay mix with the earth of that Country: – I believe the thought would drive me mad on my death-bed could I suppose that any of my friends would be base enough to convey my carcase back to your soil – I would not even feed your worms – if I could help it.’

In toto!

And on that note, I’m off to see if I can enjoy a large slice of birthday cake!

The Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham

Sources used:

Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 6 1818-1819 Ed Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1976)

Then and Now What the Papers Said About the Death of Lord Byron (The Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene Hucknall)

Seaham Hall? I Like the Place Vastly!

I have been very comfortable here, – listening to that d-d monologue, which elderly gentlemen call conversation, and in which my pious father-in-law repeats himself every evening – save one, when he played upon the fiddle.

However, they have been very kind and hospitable, and I like them and the place vastly, and I hope they will live many happy months…

In the early days of March 1815, Byron was preparing to take his leave of Seaham Hall which had provided the backdrop to his fated marriage on a cold January morning some weeks earlier.

On the outskirts of a small fishing village and perched on a grassy hill that that overlooks the wild and windy north east coast and far away from the glamour of the ‘Melbourne Court’ in London, the ‘pretty Spot’ of Seaham Hall was the family home of Ralph and Judith Milbanke.

Although Annabella had been born at Elemore Hall in May 1792 as the completion of  Seaham Hall was still underway, Annabella would spend her happy childhood years of bathing in the sea, clamouring across the rocks, dreaming up stories of dragons and shipwrecks while running across the sands and where she would live in peaceful anonymity until January 1815 and from then on her life would never be the same again:

Few of my pleasures were connected with realities – riding was the only one I can remember. When I climbed the rocks, or bounded over the sands with apparent delight, I was not myself.

Perhaps I had been shipwrecked or was trying to rescue other sufferers…

On the journey to their new home at 13 Piccadilly Terrace in London, the newly married couple also made a visit to Byron’s sister Augusta Leigh at Six Mile Bottom in Newmarket which would for Annabella become the ‘scene of such deep horrors’ but that is for another story!

Although Byron would never visit Seaham again, Annabella returned to her ‘dear home’ in 1817 with feelings of distress and profound sadness.

I see those moments as thro’ a veil;

The veil of sorrow hath passed between

And dimmed the hues of the distant scene;

And the beach where Hope’s unchidden rover,

So joyfully has bounded over,

Shall never shew her traces again

The tides of grief have made them in vain!

Although much altered over the intervening years, Seaham Hall is now a rather nice hotel and spa and on cold weekend in February and with the clearest skies imaginable, the Polite Tourist returned to the place that Byron in his letter to Tom Moore was to confess to taking a liking to ‘vastly’.

A sentiment the Polite Tourist is only too happy to agree with!

Sources used:

Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 4 (1814-1815) Ed: Leslie A Marchand (London: John Murray 1975)

The Life and Letters of Anne Isabella Lady Noel Byron Ethel Colburn Mayne (London: Constable & Co Ltd 1929)

Stone Me! Such a Pretentious Poseur!

“P.S. – Torwaltzen has done a bust of me at Rome for Mr Hobhouse – which is reckoned very good – he is their best after Canova – & by some preferred to him. – I have had a letter from Mr. Hodgson – maudlin & fine feeling – he is very happy – has got a living – but not a child – if he had stuck to a Curacy – babes would have come of course because he could not have maintained them. – –

Remember me to all your friends, &c. &c…..

An Austrian officer the other day, being in love with a Venetian – was ordered with his regiment into Hungary – distracted between love & duty he purchased a deadly drug which dividing with his mistress both swallowed – The ensuing pains were terrific but the pills were purgative – & not poisonous – by the contrivance of the unsentimental apothecary – so that so much suicide was all thrown away…. “

Only Byron could ‘P.S’ such a fabulous letter with a tale of two futile suicides, the disadvantage to his friend who is now no longer a poor and potentially propagating Curate and of himself being immortalised in stone..

Hobhouse inspired by his love of classical antiquity had commissioned the fashionable Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen to make a portrait bust of his ‘dearest friend’ during their visit to Rome in May 1817.

Image Courtesy of the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen

One wonders if he had to try hard to persuade his ‘dearest friend’ to actually sit for Thorvaldsen as the first meeting between the artist and Byron was one of wry amusement on the part of one and studied indifference by the other.

The inauspicious start did little to deter Thorvaldsen from his task despite the challenges Byron presented.

“When I was about to make Byron’s statue; he placed himself just opposite me, and began immediately to assume quite another countenance to what was customary to him.

Will you not sit still? said I; but you must not make these faces.

It is my expression, said Byron. Indeed? said I, and then I made him as I wished, and everybody said, when it was finished, that I had hit the likeness.

When Byron, however, saw it, he said, “It does not resemble me at all; I look more unhappy”.

He was, above all things, so desirous of looking extremely unhappy..”

Image Courtesy of the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen

Unhappy or not, Byron’s reaction to the bust was also one of wry embarrassment as he was later to write:

“I would not pay the price of a Thorwaldsen for any human head and shoulders….a bust looks like putting up pretensions to permanency…”

Perhaps he was also thinking about the myth of Medusa, another troubled and irreverent beauty:

“Even you, Medusa, should you seek your reflection, shall turn to rock the instant you see your face…”

Despite Byron’s reaction to his likeness, Hobhouse was delighted with Thorvaldsen’s work and anticipating his friend in the style of a Roman conqueror he proposed that the bust should be decorated with a laurel wreath across the brow.

However, the reaction from the bemused poseur was emphatic:

“I protest against & prohibit the “laurels” – which would be a most awkward assumption…. – but I won’t have my head garnished like a Xmas pie with Holly – or a Cod’s head and Fennel – or whatever the damned weed is they strew round it…”

I think that Byron was quite right not rest upon his laurels – besides a laurel wreath would only have hidden all of those wonderful curls!

However, in typical Byronic fashion, he was not immune to the admiration for another bust – far from it!

“The Helen of Canova (a bust which is in the house of Madame the Countess d’Albrizzi, whom I know) is without exception, to my mind, the most perfectly beautiful of human conceptions, and far beyond my ideas of human execution”

‘Bust of Helen’ by Antonio Canova (1811) Image Courtesy of Accademia Galleries Venice.

For as a guest at the Venetian salon of Countess Albrizzi in 1816, he came across Antonio Canova’s ‘Ideal Head of Helen’ on display in all of her finery and his delight for Canova’s genius would later inspire the following lines:

In this beloved marble view,
Above the works and thoughts of Man –
What Nature could – but would not – do
And Beauty and Canova can!

Sources used:

So Late into the Night (Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 5) Ed, Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1976)

The Byronic Image The Poet Portrayed, Robert Beevers (Olivia Press 2005)

The Works of Lord Byron Letters and Journals. Vol. IV. Ed, Rowland E. Prothero (London: John Murray 1900)

Marry in Haste in the Month of May

Mr Farquar of Doctor’s Commons has a copy of the certificate of my marriage which he got from Bath…..I was married however on the 12th or 13th May (I don’t know which) – 1785 at St. Michaels Church, Bath (and St Michaels Parish I suppose but I don’t know for certain) and this is all I can inform you about it.

Catherine Gordon Byron

It is interesting that Byron’s mother should have been unsure as to the precise date of her fated marriage to John Byron in the year 1785.

With her Scottish ancestry for omens and superstition perhaps Catherine’s confusion is understandable for she did indeed marry ‘Mad Jack’ Byron on Friday May 13 and by all accounts their brief marriage was a disaster.

And even though our last May Friday 13 was in 2016 – I can still remember a day not entirely free from mishap much like the fated Catherine Gordon Byron some two hundred and thirty one years ago!

With the suicide of her father who had been found drowned in the Avon Canal in Bath on January 9 1779 that the ‘romping good-humoured girl of sixteen, inclined to corpulency’ became the 13th and final Laird of Gight and with a passion for dancing and with a temper to match, the wealthy, outspoken and superstitious Miss Gordon was introduced to Bath society in 1785.

Her presence had been quickly noted by John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron who despite his grief for the death of his wife Amelia, Baroness Conyers and the plight of his motherless daughter Augusta; was in desperate need of a wife who could continue to support him in the manner to which he had become accustomed and weeks later the marriage by License of ‘John Byron Esq… a Widower’ of less than one year to the young and naive spinster was held in the beautiful ‘Parifh’ Church of St Michael in Bath – the town synonymous with the romance of my favourite Jane Austen novel Persuasion.

Their marriage was ‘folemnized’ in the presence of two of Catherine’s friends who despite being anxious for her welfare had been unable to halt her dash into the charismatic and feckless orbit of John Byron and with no marriage settlement in place, all Byron had to do was to agree to take the name of Gordon and then he could make free with his wife’s money.

The star of their ill-starred union would be born on January 22 in 1788 but by then most of Catherine’s wealth had been swallowed up by her husband’s wild spending or by his creditors.

O where are ye gaein’, bonny Miss Gordon,
O where are ye gaein’ sae bonnie and braw.
Ye’ve married, ye’ve married wi’ Jonny Byron,
To squander the lands of Gight awa

In August 1791 John Byron died in France and Catherine was left to raise her son ‘Geordie’ alone with only the meagre allowance that had been salvaged from what remained of her wealth in addition to her strong will and determination to do all that she could for her only child :

George is well….but at present he is my only comfort and the only thing that makes me wish to live..’

However, on Monday January 2 1815 Catherine’s ‘only comfort’ was to star in his own ill-starred marriage to Annabella Milbanke at Seaham Hall in County Durham having presented his bride with the wedding ring that had once belonged to his mother.

Clearly, the Gordon trait for fearing bad omens and superstition was ignored – again!

Sources used:
My Amiable Mamma A Biography of Catherine Gordon Byron Megan Boyes (J.M. Tatler & Son Ltd. 1991)

I Have Suffered! Can It Ever Be Known?

“My own Sweet Sis – the deeds are signed – so that is over. – All I have now to beg or desire on the subject is – that you will never mention not allude to Lady Byron’s name again in any shape – or on any occasion – except indispensable business….”

This was to be one of Byron’s last letters to his ‘Dearest Augusta’ as he made plans to leave his home and his life in England behind him.

He had signed the deed of separation on the afternoon of Sunday April 21 1816 signifying the end of his brief year-long marriage to Annabella and from the fatherhood of his five-month old daughter Ada.

He left 13 Piccadilly Terrace on April 23, St George’s Day, bound for Dover and finally departed from England on Thursday April 25 and was never to see Augusta, Annabella or Ada again.

The Byron separation had been one of bitterness, legal wrangling, innuendo, veiled threats and finally a plea for a ‘private arrangement’ and the winner undoubtedly was Annabella who in January 1816 had demanded:

“to pursue such measures as may be necessary to effect a secure & final separation between Lord Byron and myself…  I am more convinced of the escape I have had, and the impossibility of ever regretting the step I have taken.

All I have suffered can never be known.”

Not knowing precisely what Annabella had suffered during her marriage was to precipitate in scandalous rumour, vitriol and exile for Byron, the unfortunate loser and which brings us to the fifth and final possible reason.

I say it’s really not my habit

To intrude

Furthermore, I hope my meaning

Won’t be lost or misconstrued

But I’ll repeat myself

At the risk of being crude

There really are five reasons

To leave my lover

Five reasons to leave my lover

5 Reasons to Leave My Lover by Lady Byron © 1816

Reason Five: Dereliction of Principle

Upon receiving the notice from Sir Ralph Milbanke that his daughter was insistent upon a separation from him, Byron had asked for confirmation from Annabella herself who duly replied with the following charge:

“that total dereliction of principle, which, since our marriage, you have professed and gloried in…”

Augusta was also to hint at this charge in a letter sent to Annabella about her concern for Byron’s well-being as their separation was being increasingly played out in public and much to Byron’s disadvantage:

“There are reports abroad of a nature too horrible to repeat….Every other sinks into nothing before this MOST horrid one… This MOST dreadful report! – who knows what it may urge him to do.

He said to me last night in an agony ‘Even to have such a thing said is utter destruction & ruin to a man & from which he can never recover’

I am alas! but too well convinced you are acting from Duty – From Principle. Surely even the truth is better concealed if possible….”

But what was this mysterious truth that led Byron to a total dereliction of principle?

His angry former mother-in-law was to say of him that it was ‘not fit such men should live’ and the poet Thomas Campbell in his defence of Annabella was to say:

“It concerns morality and the most sacred rights of the sex that she be acquitted of any share in the blame, which was Byron’s and Byron’s alone.”

Even Lady Caroline Lamb had something to say about Byron’s ‘dereliction of principle’ in her one of her many farewell letters to him:

“I do not believe I never will believe you can have had the heart to suffer me to be so treated – what I have gone through – it is neither my wish or intention to repeat…

henceforward you are safe – the means you took to frighten me from your door are not in vain.”

On February 22 1816 after a private interview with her legal advisor Dr Stephen Lushington, Annabella was to reveal something so shocking that separation from Byron was inevitable and that it must forever remain unknown to the rest of the world and it had the desired effect.

Byron was forced into acquiescence and exile and as the ’cause’ of the separation was not revealed, rumour and innuendo was to prevail and very much to his discredit.

In Byron’s time adultery was commonplace, his two closest female confidants, Lady Oxford and Lady Melbourne had given birth to children of questionable paternity and incest was more of a murkier issue for although morally wrong, it was not yet considered to be a crime.

However, homosexuality and the act of sodomy were certainly considered to be criminal behaviour.

The threat of the gallows was a very real one and suspected sodomites were frequently pilloried in front of a baying, angry crowd with dreadful consequences.

Could this have been the pivotal reason for Annabella’s determination for a separation after a marriage of only a year?

Could this explain why she was almost unremitting in her campaign to ensure that Byron remained the ‘guilty party’ and thus the unsympathetic character forced into exile?

George Colman certainly believed this to be so!

Me thinks ’twas yesterday as both in bed

We lay: her cheeks were pillowed on my breast,

Fondly my arms her snowy bosom pressed.

Love no denial found, desire no stay.

That night it was, when tired of amorous play,

She bade me speak of wonders I had seen.

“And thou, dear Anna, think’st thou I can see

Without longing all these charms in thee?

Then turn thee round, indulge a husband’s wish,

And taste with me this truly classic dish”

Ah, fatal hour, that saw my prayer succeed,

And my fond bride enact the Ganymede….

‘Tis true, that from her lips some murmurs fell –

In joy or anger, ’tis too late to tell;

But this I swear, that not a single sign

Proved that her pleasure did not equal mine.

Don Leon © The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Colman was the theatrical manager at Drury Lane, a wonderful writer of comedy who considered Byron a friend and one whom he liked to get drunk with and he was also to show an intuitive understanding of the complexities of the Byron marriage and the subsequent separation which perhaps offers us a tantalising hint of what happened all those years ago.

Sources used:

So Late into the Night (Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 5) Ed: Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1976)

Lord Byron’s Marriage The Evidence of Asterisks, G. Wilson Knight (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1957)

Lord Byron’s Wife, Malcolm Elwin (London: John Murray 1974)

The Uninhibited Byron An Account of His Sexual Confusion, Bernard Grebanier (Peter Owen 1970)

The Whole Disgraceful Truth, Paul Douglass (Palgrave MacMillan 2006)