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Lord Byron
January 22, 1788 – April 19, 1824

 


Born

22 January 1788 in lodgings on Holles Street in London the son of Captain John "Mad Jack" Byron and his second wife, the former Catherine Gordon (d. 1811), a descendant of Cardinal Beaton and heiress of the Gight estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

Byron's father had previously seduced the married Marchioness of Caermarthen and, after she divorced her husband the Earl, had married her.

His treatment of her was described as "brutal and vicious", and she died after having given birth to two daughters, only one of which survived: Byron's half-sister, Augusta.

Illness

From birth, Byron suffered from a deformity of his right foot. Generally referred to as a "club foot", some modern medical experts maintain that it was a consequence of infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis), and others that it was a dysplasia, a failure of the bones to form properly.

Whatever the cause, he was afflicted with a limp that caused him lifelong psychological and physical misery, aggravated by painful and pointless "medical treatment" in his childhood and the nagging suspicion that with proper care it might have been cured.

He was extremely self-conscious about this from a young age, nicknaming himself le diable boiteux (French for "the limping devil", after the nickname given to Asmodeus by Alain-René Lesage in his 1707 novel of the same name).

Although he often wore specially-made shoes in an attempt to hide the deformed foot, he refused to wear any type of brace that might improve the limp.

Education

Byron received his early formal education at Aberdeen Grammar School, and in August 1799, entered the school of Dr. William Glennie, in Dulwich.

Placed under the care of a Dr. Bailey, he was encouraged to exercise in moderation, but could not restrain himself from "violent" bouts in an attempt to overcompensate for his deformed foot.

His mother interfered with his studies, often withdrawing him from school, with the result that he lacked discipline and his classical studies were neglected.

In 1801 he was sent to Harrow, where he remained until July 1805.

An undistinguished student and an unskilled cricketer, he did represent the school during the very first Eton v Harrow cricket match at Lord's in 1805.

Early Life

While not at school or college, Byron lived with his mother at Burgage Manor in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, in some antagonism.

While there, he cultivated friendships with Elizabeth Pigot and her brother, John, with whom he staged two plays for the entertainment of the community.

During this time, with the help of Elizabeth Pigot, who copied many of his rough drafts, he was encouraged to write his first volumes of poetry.

Fugitive Pieces was printed by Ridge of Newark, which contained poems written when Byron was only 14, however it was promptly recalled and burned on the advice of his friend, the Reverend Thomas Beecher, on account of its more amorous verses, particularly the poem To Mary' 'Hours of Idleness', which collected many of the previous poems, along with more recent compositions, was the culminating book.

The savage, anonymous criticism this received (now known to be the work of Henry Peter Brougham) in the Edinburgh Review prompted his first major satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809).

It was put into the hands of his relation R.C. Dallas requesting him to "...get it published without his name"

Dallas gives a large series of changes and alterations, as well as the reasoning for some of them.

He also states that Byron had originally intended to prefix an argument to this poem, and Dallas quotes it.

Although the work was published anonymously, by April, Dallas is writing that "you are already pretty generally known to be the author."

The work so upset some of his critics they challenged Byron to a duel; over time, in subsequent editions, it became a mark of prestige to be the target of Byron's pen.

Travels

Byron racked up numerous debts as a young man, due to what his mother termed a "reckless disregard for money".

She lived at Newstead during this time, in fear of her son's creditors.

He had planned to spend early 1808 cruising with his cousin George Bettesworth, who was captain of the 32-gun frigate HMS Tartar.

Bettesworth's unfortunate death at the Battle of Alvøen in May 1808 made that impossible.

From 1809 to 1811, Byron went on the Grand Tour, then customary for a young nobleman.

The Napoleonic Wars forced him to avoid most of Europe, and he instead turned to the Mediterranean.

Correspondence among his circle of Cambridge friends also suggests that a key motive was the hope of homosexual experience, and other theories saying that he was worried about a possible dalliance with the married Mary Chaworth, his former love (the subject of his poem from this time, "To a Lady: On Being Asked My Reason for Quitting England in the Spring").

Attraction to the Levant was probably a motive in itself; he had read about the Ottoman and Persian lands as a child, was attracted to Islam (especially Sufi mysticism), and later wrote, “With these countries, and events connected with them, all my really poetical feelings begin and end."

He travelled from England over Portugal, Spain and the Mediterranean to Albania and spent time at the court of Ali Pasha of Ioannina, and in Athens.

For most of the trip, he had a travelling companion in his friend John Cam Hobhouse.

Many of these letters are referred to with details in Recollections of the Life of Lord Byron.

Affairs and Marriage

In 1812, Byron embarked on a well-publicised affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb that shocked the British public.

She had spurned the attention of the poet on their first meeting, subsequently giving Byron what became his lasting epitaph when she famously described him as "mad, bad and dangerous to know".

This didn't prevent him from pursuing her.

Byron eventually broke off the relationship and moved swiftly on to others, but Lamb never entirely recovered, pursuing him even after he tired of her.

She was emotionally disturbed, and lost so much weight that Byron cruelly commented to her mother-in-law, his friend Lady Melbourne, that he was "haunted by a skeleton".

She began to call on him at home, sometimes dressed in disguise as a page boy, at a time when such an act could ruin both of them socially.

One day, during such a visit, she wrote on a book at his desk, "Remember me!"

As a retort, Byron wrote a poem entitled Remember Thee! Remember Thee! which concludes with the line "Thou false to him, thou fiend to me".

As a child, Byron had seen little of his half-sister Augusta Leigh; in adulthood, he formed a close relationship with her that has been interpreted by some as incestuous, and by others as innocent.

Augusta (who was married) gave birth on 15 April 1814 to her third daughter, Elizabeth Medora Leigh.

Eventually Byron began to court Lady Caroline's cousin Anne Isabella Milbanke ("Annabella"), who refused his first proposal of marriage but later accepted him.

Milbanke was a highly moral woman, intelligent and mathematically gifted; she was also an heiress.

They married at Seaham Hall, County Durham, on 2 January 1815.

The marriage proved unhappy.

He treated her poorly.

They had a daughter (Augusta Ada).

On 16 January 1816, Lady Byron left him, taking Ada with her.

On 21 April, Byron signed the Deed of Separation.

Rumours of marital violence, adultery with actresses, incest with Augusta Leigh, and sodomy were circulated, assisted by a jealous Lady Caroline.

In a letter, Augusta quoted him as saying: "Even to have such a thing said is utter destruction and ruin to a man from which he can never recover."

Italy

After this break-up of his domestic life, Byron again left England, and, as it turned out, it was forever.

He passed through Belgium and continued up the Rhine River.

In the summer of 1816 he settled at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, Switzerland, with his personal physician, the young, brilliant, and handsome John William Polidori.

There Byron befriended the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Shelley's future wife Mary Godwin.

He was also joined by Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, with whom he had had an affair in London.

Byron wintered in Venice, pausing his travels when he fell in love with Marianna Segati, in whose Venice house he was lodging, and who was soon replaced by 22-year-old Margarita Cogni; both women were married.

Cogni could not read or write, and she left her husband to move into Byron's Venice house.

Their fighting often caused Byron to spend the night in his gondola; when he asked her to leave the house, she threw herself into the Venetian canal.

In 1817, he journeyed to Rome.

On returning to Venice, he wrote the fourth canto of Childe Harold.

About the same time, he sold Newstead and published Manfred, Cain and The Deformed Transformed.

The first five cantos of Don Juan were written between 1818 and 1820, during which period he made the acquaintance of the young Countess Guiccioli, who found her first love in Byron, who in turn asked her to elope with him.

It was about this time that he received a visit from Thomas Moore, to whom he confided his autobiography or "life and adventures", which Moore, Hobhouse, and Byron's publisher, John Murray, burned in 1824, a month after Byron's death.

Children

Byron had a child, The Hon. Augusta Ada Byron ("Ada", later Countess of Lovelace), in 1815 with Annabella Byron, Lady Byron (née Anne Isabella Milbanke, or "Annabella"), later Lady Wentworth.

Ada Lovelace, notable in her own right, collaborated with Charles Babbage on the analytical engine, a predecessor to modern computers.

She is recognised as the world's first programmer.

He also had an illegitimate child in 1817, Clara Allegra Byron, with Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Shelley and stepdaughter of Political Justice and Caleb Williams writer, William Godwin.

Allegra is not entitled to the style "The Hon." as is usually given to the daughter of barons, since she was illegitimate.

Born in Bath in 1817, Allegra lived with Byron for a few months in Venice; he refused to allow an Englishwoman caring for the girl to adopt her, and objected to her being raised in the Shelleys' household.

He wished for her to be brought up Catholic and not marry an Englishman.

He made arrangements for her to inherit 5,000 lira upon marriage, or when she reached the age of 21, provided she did not marry a native of Britain.

However, the girl died aged five of a fever in Bagna Cavallo, Italy while Byron was in Pisa; he was deeply upset by the news.

He had Allegra's body sent back to England to be buried at his old school, Harrow, because Protestants could not be buried in consecrated ground in Catholic countries.

At one time he himself had wanted to be buried at Harrow.

Byron was indifferent towards Allegra's mother, Claire Clairmont.

Politics

Byron first took his seat in the House of Lords 13 Mar 1809, but left London on 11 Jun 1809 for the Continent.

A strong advocate of social reform, he received particular praise as one of the few Parliamentary defenders of the Luddites: specifically, he was against a death penalty for Luddite "frame breakers" in Nottinghamshire, who destroyed textile machines that were putting them out of work.

His first speech before the Lords was loaded with sarcastic references to the "benefits" of automation, which he saw as producing inferior material as well as putting people out of work.

He said later that he "spoke very violent sentences with a sort of modest impudence", and thought he came across as "a bit theatrical".

The full text of the speech, which he had previously written out, were presented to Dallas in manuscript form and he quotes it in his work.

In another Parliamentary speech he expressed opposition to the established religion because it was unfair to people of other faiths

Died

Byron was living in Genoa, when in 1823, while growing bored with his life there, he accepted overtures for his support from representatives of the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire.

With the assistance of his banker and Captain Roberts, Byron chartered the Brig Hercules to take him to Greece.

On 16 July, Byron left Genoa arriving at Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands on 4 August.

Byron spent £4000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet, then sailed for Missolonghi in western Greece, arriving on 29 December, to join Alexandros Mavrokordatos, a Greek politician with military power.

During this time, Byron pursued his Greek page, Lukas Chalandritsanos, but the affections went unrequited.

When the famous Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen heard about Byron's heroics in Greece, he voluntarily resculpted his earlier bust of Byron in Greek marble.

Mavrokordatos and Byron planned to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth.

Byron employed a fire-master to prepare artillery and took part of the rebel army under his own command, despite his lack of military experience, but before the expedition could sail, on 15 February 1824, he fell ill, and the usual remedy of bloodletting weakened him further.

He made a partial recovery, but in early April he caught a violent cold which therapeutic bleeding, insisted on by his doctors, aggravated.

It is suspected this treatment, carried out with unsterilised medical instrumentation, may have caused him to develop sepsis.

He developed a violent fever, and died on 19 April. His physician at the time, Julius van Millingen, son of Dutch-English archaeologist James Millingen, was unable to prevent his death.

It has been said that had Byron lived and gone on to defeat the Ottomans, he might have been declared King of Greece. However, contemporary scholars have found such an outcome unlikely.



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