A Blupete Biography Page

Byron's Early Life, Part 2 to the Life & Works of
Lord Byron

Our hero's grandfather was a well respected navy man, Admiral John Byron (1723-86). The admiral had two sons and three daughters. It was the eldest son, John Byron (1751-91) who was the poet's father. Young John received a commission in the army and became a captain in the guards. His military career likely matched his dismal life. "Mad Jack"5 was an unprincipled man and had the respect of no one including the members of his family. In 1779, "Mad Jack" married his first wife.6 Of that union came two daughters; the first died in infancy; the second, Augusta, lived on (we will take up Augusta and her relationship with her famous step brother, presently). "Mad Jack's" first wife died in the same year (1784) that she gave birth to her daughter, Augusta.

Byron's mother, Catherine Gordon of Gight (b.1765), was John Byron's second wife. She was one of the Gordons of Scotland, however, at the time Catherine first met John Byron, she was residing at Bath. The two married on May 13th, 1785. I am not sure when or the reasons for the move7 but eventually "Mad Jack" took Catherine off to live on the continent (shades of the first marriage). The trouble that the Byrons had with one another mounted up, such that, apparently while still on the continent, Catherine left "Mad Jack" to go to live with her family in Scotland. While laying over at London, on her way to Scotland, Catherine gave birth to her only child, George Gordon, on the 22nd January, 1788. Thereafter, Catherine took her son to Scotland. At Aberdeen, doubtlessly with the help of her family, Catherine took a small house. "Mad Jack," not long after, was at the doorstep of Catherine's place in Aberdeen. For a short period of time the three -- Catherine, John, and their baby, George Gordon -- lived together, but not for long.8 Being pressed by his creditors, abandoning his wife and young son, John Byron fled to Valenciennes, France, where he died in August of 1791.

Byron attended Aberdeen Grammar School. Due to a pronounced limp from a congenital malformation of at least one of his lower limbs9, Byron likely had problems with the socialization process involved with his early schooling. Difficulties in the school yard surely had an effect on his developing personality. But likely that which had more of an effect on the young Byron and the string of difficulties that he was to have in his adult life, especially with his female acquaintances, was Byron's relationship with his mother. Catherine, was pathetic, generous and affectionate, but with a violent and uncontrollable temper; as a boy, she alternately petted and abused Byron.10 The temper, which Byron preserved throughout the balance of his life was "passionate, sullen, defiant of authority, but significantly amenable to kindness."11

More generally, as to his early schooling, John Nichol in his biography on Byron writes:

"... he was backward in technical scholarship, and low in his class, in which he seems to have had no ambition to stand high; but that he eagerly took to history and romance, especially luxuriating in the Arabian Nights. He was an indifferent penman, and always disliked mathematics; but was noted by masters and mates as of quick temper, eager for adventures, prone to sports, always more ready to give a blow than to take one, affectionate, though resentful."12
Now, what is to be told, is how this young lame boy in Scotland was to become a peer of the realm and to take all the privileges that flow from the added appelation of "Lord". Though he personally could in no way be described as such, Byron's father, as previously noted, came from a noble English family. Byron's grand-uncle was the Fifth Baron Byron of Rochdale, a hereditary title. The Fifth Baron died in 1798 leaving no direct descendants, such that, through the laws that govern succession, this hereditary peerage fell to our poet making him the Sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale.13 As fine a gift as a baronetcy was to the young Byron, what hope, title or no tile, did such an honour hold out, where the inherited estate was all but bankrupt and where the only income to the promoter of the young lord, his mother, was a yearly income of £122, being from a small capital sum that she had managed to rescue from "Mad Jack's" spendthrift ways. What was necessary was for somebody with money and connections to take the young Lord in tow. By whatever manner, the case came to the attention of Frederick Howard, fifth Earl of Carlisle (1748-1825), a distant relative to the ten year old Lord Byron. Friends had encouraged Lord Carlisle to take the young lord under his wing and see to his education. The first thing that Carlisle did was to use his influence to get Catherine Byron placed on the civil list which was to provide her an additional yearly income of £300. What was necessary, too, was to move the young peer to London. So it was, that Catherine and her young son moved away, as it turned out, permanently from Scotland.14

The reason, I suppose, that the move to London was necessary, was, because an application had to be made to Chancery Court. Being a minor and a lord and without a father, Byron was automatically a ward of the court. A solicitor was employed to handle matters in respect to the applications for approval of the guardianship, etc. The solicitor employed was John Hanson, who, thereafter, took a personal interest in the affairs of the young Byron, and, indeed, played a pivotal role in the balance of Lord Byron's life.

For the next number of years, Byron and his mother lived at London. The young Byron was sent to school at Dulwich.15 Soon, Byron's mother was complaining to Hanson that her son was meant to be educated at a better school then that of Dulwich. Catherine was to make such a nuisance of herself, that, in April of 1801, Byron was sent to Harrow. No doubt, Byron's time at Harrow, 1801-1805, was beneficial to his budding poetic mind. He learned Latin and Greek and dipped into the classics. Also, he came to the view, as generally all boys do who attend such schools as Harrow by measuring the esteem of each other, that he was made of special social wood.16

With Byron's advancement to a Baronetcy came title to the Newstead Abbey, the ancestral Byron estate in Nottinghamshire. No sooner after she settled legal matters at London, Catherine took her ten year old son to Newstead Abbey, only "to find it in almost complete decay."

"Hitherto the less ruinous portions of the abbey had been occupied by a tenant, Lord Grey de Ruthven. The banqueting hall, the grand drawing-room, and other parts of the monastic building were uninhabitable, but by incurring fresh debts, two sets of apartments were refurnished for Byron and for his mother. Dismantled and ruinous, it was still a splendid inheritance. In line with the front of the abbey is the west front of the priory church, with its hollow arch, once a "mighty window," its vacant niches, its delicate Gothic mouldings. The abbey buildings enclose a grassy quadrangle overlooked by two-storeyed cloisters. On the eastern side are the state apartments occupied by kings and queens not as guests, but by feudal right. In the park, which is part of Sherwood Forest, there is a chain of lakes -- the largest, the north-west, Byron's "lucid lake." A waterfall or "cascade" issues from the lake, in full view of the room where Byron slept. The possession of this lordly and historic domain was an inspiration in itself. It was an ideal home for one who was to be hailed as the spirit of genius of romance."17
On arrival at Newstead Abbey, Catherine determined to effect repairs and live there. It was soon realized, however, that fixing up Newstead Abbey was an impractical plan. They returned to London where Byron started school, as we have seen, at Dulwich. Catherine was a thorn in the side of the Chancery solicitor who was in charge, John Hanson, as it seems she was to everyone including her young son. She went on about more than just a better school for her son, there were other matters and Catherine was continually working her list. Finally Hanson decided to put his foot down. He limited Catherine's involvement in her young son's affairs. A compromise seemingly was worked out. Byron's enrolment at Harrow would be arranged; and -- given the quarrels and difficulties between Catherine and her young son -- the Hanson family would establish a second home for Byron. (The Hansons lived at Earl's Court.) Byron was to be given a choice as to, with whom he wished to spend the holidays. Therefore, after 1801, one would have seen Byron, when not boarding at Harrow, visiting with either his mother or at the Hansons. In July of 1803, when Byron was fifteen years of age, his mother moved to Burgage Manor in Southwell, a village about 12 miles from Nottingham, near the ancestral Byron estate, Newstead Abbey. The young Lord Byron, in between times at Harrow, in addition to his place in London (the Hansons) and his mother's place, had a third place to which he might run. Byron's mother, not able to cope with the expenses and in need of money, had rented Newstead Abbey to Henry Edward, the nineteenth Baron Grey de Ruthyn, a lease which was to last during Byron's minority. Lord Grey extended, however, an open invitation for Byron to visit his ancestral estate anytime he pleased (Lord Grey had an eye for young boys). Determined to skip the fall term at Harrow in 1803, Byron rode to Newstead where he stayed at the gate-house with Owen Mealey, the steward. It was during this time that Byron was to first experience the pangs of love, when he met his cousin, Mary Chaworth of Annesley Hall, an event we will expand upon in due course.


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Peter Landry

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