George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824), was, as T S Eliot remarked, ‘certainly a vain man, in quite simple ways’, one of which involved taking tremendous pride in his ancestry. But just as he spent much of his life rehearsing dark, ruinous myths about his lineage, sometimes promising to revive and restore it, Byron also pledged himself to exile from his native land. His poems enact recurrent dramas of nostalgia and escape, imprisonment and liberation, a yearning to be secure and a yet greater desire for release. He spent only a few years intermittently inhabiting his tumbledown ancestral home, Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire; having boasted of his lifelong devotion to the place, he was compelled by lack of funds to sell up twenty years after he had inherited it. By that stage, he was already living abroad.
Newstead began life as an Augustinian priory, founded by Henry II. When Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-16th century, it was converted into an elegant country house for Sir John Byron, adviser to the king and lieutenant of Sherwood Forest. His great-grandson became the first Baron Byron. Emily Brand’s winsome, bustling account of the family begins just under eighty years later, in 1720, and charts the period in which Newstead gradually became a byword for glamour, folly and depravity.
The fifth baron, or ‘Wicked Lord’ William, was captious, eccentric, cowardly and violent. The name he chose to give one of his beloved racehorses – Why Do You Slight Me? – suggests a man who was unlikely to forgive and forget. This ‘worthless’ aristocrat had, it was said, a ‘sad charicter in everything’. He continues to possess some distinction as the only masonic grand master ever to have been charged with murder. Having dispatched a neighbouring landowner in a drunken club brawl, and having squandered his funds on constructing a model navy at Newstead, he then set about ruining the estate when his son and heir (also called William) eloped with his cousin Juliana. The Wicked Lord, who claimed that intermarrying would result in pollution of the noble line with madness, bitterly opposed their union. This wasn’t, in truth, a matter of principle. Marriages between cousins were neither uncommon in this period nor unheard of in the Byron family. But the Wicked Lord was in desperate need of cash. He had confidently looked to his son to marry an heiress in order to settle the family debts. When William the younger defied paternal orders, the fifth baron sequestered himself indoors and determined to burn through what was left of his son’s inheritance. He drove Newstead into a state of calamitous disrepair, stripping the house of its treasures, devastating the fine woods surrounding it and massacring thousands of deer.
This enjoyably vicious plan was interrupted when his son predeceased him in 1776. William also survived his grandson, who was killed by cannon fire in 1794 while fighting in Corsica. The fifth lord eventually died, unlamented, four years later. Local legend has it that, on his death, swarms of humming crickets – his only companions at Newstead, other than a proverbially loyal manservant – left the estate. The title and Newstead Abbey then passed to his great-nephew, the poet, who became a peer and a landowner at the fine old age of ten.
What can you say about the Byron clan, other than that they were a rum bunch? Restless, quarrelsome and capricious, they would surely have benefited from reading Emily Brand’s previous book, How to be Happy Though Married (2013), even if most of them would have been keener on her Georgian Bawdyhouse (2012). Blessed with vats of money and dozens of houses, the Byrons devoted their lives to wasting the lot. The family motto, Crede Byron (‘Trust in Byron’), might have been contrived in order to persuade yet another creditor to wait for payment.
There is a fine exception to the Byronic rule in the figure of Admiral John, younger brother of the Wicked Lord, who as a teenage sailor survived a horrifying mutiny and shipwreck on HMS Wager. His clear-eyed account of his trials in the South Seas, The Narrative of the Honourable John Byron, was published in 1768 and became a bestseller. Admiral Byron’s adventures clearly inspired his grandson the poet, perhaps especially one episode involving an unfortunate dog called Boxer. While stranded on an inhospitable island after the wreck of the Wager, John and his fellow sailors became increasingly desperate for food. There was talk of cannibalism. John tried to save his canine companion, protesting ‘his faithful services and fondness’, but Boxer was taken away by force and killed. Another of the party later recalled that the ‘Dog-Feast’ was ‘exceeding good eating’. John, ever pragmatic, had his fair share – even returning to the spot several weeks later and making a second meal of his dog’s rotting paws. This tale appears to resurface in Canto II of Lord Byron’s brilliant, rambling epic poem Don Juan, when the hero, shipwrecked and drifting at sea with his companions, is made to sacrifice his spaniel. Juan initially refuses to devour any part of his old friend, but ‘feeling all the vulture in his jaws,/With some remorse received (though first denied),/As a great favour one of the fore-paws’.
The Fall of the House of Byron is pacey, well observed and written with gusto. There is little in the way of original research here and much of the book is pure speculation, but it is composed with affectionate glee. I suppose the present Lord Byron might reasonably object to the title, with its echo of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and suggestions of a clan gone dead. Newstead Abbey may, as it happens, no longer be theirs. But despite the best efforts of previous generations, the Byron line lives on.