Lord Byron FAQ


Frequently Asked Questions

about

The Regency Poet Lord Byron


Contents:


Q: Dates?

A: Biography: Born in London, January 22, 1788; inherited title and lands as the sixth Baron Byron May 21, 1798; married Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke in Seaham Hall, County Durham, January 2, 1815; father of daughter Augusta Ada Byron in London, December 10, 1815; died in Missolonghi, Greece, April 19, 1824.

Publications: Fugitive Pieces, in November 1806; Poems on Various Occasions, in January 1807; Poems Original and Translated, in March 1807; English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, in March 1809; Childe Harold's Pilgrimage - Cantos I and II, in March 1812; The Giaour, in June 1813; The Bride of Abydos, in December 1813; The Corsair, in January 1814; Lara, in August 1814; Hebrew Melodies, in April 1815; The Siege of Corinth and Parisina, in February 1816; Childe Harold's Pilgrimage - Canto III, in November 1816; The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems, in December 1816; Manfred, in June 1817; Beppo, in February, 1818; Childe Harold's Pilgrimage - Canto IV; in April 1818, Mazeppa and Ode to Venice, in June 1819; Don Juan - Cantos I and II, in July 1819; Don Juan - Cantos III and IV, The Two Foscari, Cain, Sardanapalus, in December 1821; Vision of Judgment, in October 1822; Werner in November 1822. (Many of his works were not published during Byron's lifetime)


Q: Was Byron homosexual?

A: Yes, and no. One of Byron's college friends, Charles Matthews, along with all things liberal and fashionable, advocated "paederasty" in the classic Greek tradition.

In a letter to a friend in 1809, Byron wrote (probably facetiously) that he was going to Turkey to do research for a treatise "Sodomy simplified or Paederasty proved to be praiseworthy from ancient authors and modern practice". Like all jokes, this must have had an edge of truth to be funny.

At Cambridge, Byron had fallen deeply in love with a choirboy, John Edelston. Byron wrote several poems that scholars believe were written to and about John, calling him "Thyrza". One of the Thyrza poems, written after John had died, indicates in the words: "The pressure of the thrilling hand, the kiss, so guiltless and refined, that Love each warmer wish forbore", that their physical contact had been restricted to hand-holding and kissing. He later referred to it as a passion "violent though pure". Even much later in life, after the "Thyrza" poems had become very famous and popular, Byron refused to say who they were addressed to and changed the pronouns from masculine to feminine to conceal that this doomed but lifelong passion was for a man.

After two years of being Byron's "almost constant associate since October 1805", John had to move away from Cambridge to London and Byron wrote to a woman friend, Elizabeth Pigot, about his heartbreak, saying that he was planning to live with his "protégé" after he had completed his studies, which would "put Lady E. Butler & Miss Ponsonby to the Blush, Pylades & Orestes out of countenance, & want nothing but a Catastrophe like Nisus and Euryalus, to give Johnathon & David the 'go by' ". These are all same-sex passionate relationships.

However, some time later John wrote a very courteous and formal letter to Byron asking for his help in getting a job. They had never met again.

While Byron was on his travels in Turkey, Albania, and Greece he wrote to Matthews frequently about his sexual conquests of boys using a coded term based on Latin "plen. et optabil. –Coit." (Frequent and desired intercourse). He reported that he was amusing himself with "a Sopha to tumble upon" with a Greek boy called Eustathius who had "ambrosial curls hanging down his amiable back".

It has been argued (with very little evidence)that while in the East, Byron was a lover of Ali Pasha or his son, Veli Pasha, rulers of Albania and the Peloponessus. They were very friendly and hospitable to Byron and Veli Pasha did give him a beautiful white horse.

Byron's relationships with friends of both sexes seem to have been shadowed by jealousy and possessiveness. John Cam Hobhouse considered himself to be Byron's "best friend" and in many ways was, travelling with him, assisting him legally and financially and finally burying him. There is no trace of sexuality between them.

Byron and Shelley became very close friends in the summer of 1816 in Switzerland. They sailed around Lake Leman together visiting the locations of a romantic novel written by Rousseau called "La Nouvelle Heloise". One afternoon they exchanged roses. This was rhapsodically memorialized by Shelley in his journal where he referred to Byron, anonymously, as "my companion".

While he was visiting Byron in Venice several years later, Shelley was shocked by Byron's ostentatiously erotic lifestyle and remarked in a letter to a friend in England that some of his street pick-ups had "lost the gait and physiognomy of men". This has been interpreted to mean they were cross-dressers. Shelley was also outraged that Byron bargained with parents for the services of their daughters.

The last poems Byron wrote were found among his papers after his sudden death. They indicated that he had fallen painfully and guiltily in love with a fifteen year old Greek boy named Loukas Chalandritsanos. Byron gave him money, fancy uniforms and the command of a regiment. As far as is known there was no physical contact between them.

Byron is known to have had sex with at least 300 women.

So the verdict is bisexual, although such distinctions were not explicit at the time. I think "hyper-sexual" covers it.


Q: Did he have sex with his sister?

A: To begin with, Augusta was his half sister and they had met only a few times before they were adults.

There was a mysterious, and not yet truly identified, lover in the summer of 1813 who gave Byron cause for guilt and worry. He wrote about this relationship in letters to Lady Melbourne, an older woman confidante, and to Thomas Moore, a fellow poet and companion "man-about-town".

Few things worried Byron who was a Lord, a legislator, a satirist and a crack shot. He implied in his letters that if this relationship was publicly admitted it would be so socially unacceptable that he and Lady Melbourne would have to discontinue their friendship and correspondence, although, in most circumstances, he did not really care about "society" or what it considered acceptable behaviour. He continued to refer to this problem in letters for over a year - until late in 1814.

During a holiday spent at the Byron family mansion, Newstead Abbey, near Nottingham, Byron and Augusta carved their names in the bark of a tree - a singularly romantic action, but not irrefutable evidence for carnal connection.

Augusta had been appointed one of the elderly Queen Charlotte's ladies in waiting and had moved to an apartment in St James's Palace. If the court had any idea that she was less than an exemplary wife, this appointment would certainly have been cancelled.

Byron's wife, Annabella, exonerated herself for having walked out on him after a year of marriage on the grounds that she believed that he had slept with Augusta.

Many researchers in the 20th Century (particularly Malcolm Elwin and Doris Langley Moore) have examined the documents and are not convinced.

A scandalous book was published in the 1860's by Harriet Beecher Stowe (the Uncle Tom's Cabin lady) revealing the incest to the world as "vindication" for Lady Byron.

Much of the documented evidence was collected by his grandson, Lord Wentworth, in the 1880's and published in 1921 as "Astarte" - the name of the incestuous lover in Byron's poem "Manfred" which has been assumed to be biographical.

Salacious gossip that continued to swirl around his wife and family included other problems - bigamy, homosexuality and marital sodomy. Incest may have been seen as a more socially acceptable sin.

Byron had sex with anyone who wanted him. If Augusta wanted it, I'm sure he obliged.

So the verdict is - maybe.


Q: Was Medora Leigh Byron's illegitimate daughter?

A: Augusta Mary Byron Leigh, was the wife of her cousin, Colonel George Leigh. She was Byron's older half sister, as her mother had died and their father remarried. Her husband's mother, Frances Byron Leigh had been very close to her brother, Jack Byron, the poet's father. It has been argued that they had had an earlier incestuous relationship, but it is unlikely that Byron, his sister or her husband knew about it, if it had occurred. George Leigh may have been a half-brother also!!!!

The poet's mother, however, who raised him in Scotland, had very little contact with the Byrons until her son inherited the Barony in 1798. Augusta, orphaned in 1791, was brought up by her mother's family and did not really meet Byron until they were both adults.

He corresponded with her on very affectionate terms when he was a teenager until he asked her to co-sign a loan to cover his extravagant lifestyle. She refused, and he became very angry with her.

In 1813, he was a feted and famous poet. Augusta's husband was in serious financial difficulties as he had been caught skimming money from sales of the horses of his patron, the Prince of Wales and, disgraced, had lost almost everything.

Byron visited her at her country house and when he returned to London, she came with him. He told a friend in a letter that his sister was going to travel with him to Europe. He later added that she planned to bring one of her children. They didn't go, because plague had broken out and they decided the trip would be too dangerous. This has been seen as an aborted elopement.

Augusta became pregnant that summer, and she spent Christmas of 1813 with Byron, at the Byron family mansion, Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire. She had never been there before. Her other children were there, too, but not her husband.

Byron said he loved her because she was his closest relative and because she made him laugh. Later in the year, they carved their names in a tree on the grounds.

The child was born in April 1814 and named Medora, the name of the heroine in one of Byron's most popular poems, "The Corsair".

Byron never showed any special affection for Medora, and she was known to the family by her first name, Libby (Elizabeth). In fact, he favoured her older sister, Georgy (Georgiana).

So - I think only DNA testing would solve this one. I'd like to start a fund to finance the test.


Q: How do you pronounce his name?

A: He wrote it many ways, and apparently pronounced it differently from time to time. He wrote it B-Y-R-O-N and B-I-R-O-N (which is the French spelling) and in Greek letters m-p-a-i-r-o-n (mu-pi-alpha-iota-rho-omicron-nu). It was reported by people who knew him that he called his wife "Lady B'rn", and that he was spoken about as "B'rn". However, the Greek spelling Alpha Iota would indicate that the vowel was clearly pronounced as /ay/. In writing to Augusta he reported that his daughter Allegra, "was a true Byron" because she couldn't pronounce her "R's". This would slur the pronunciation of the vowel and the consonant in their name. It was also reported that he changed the pronunciation to emphasize the vowel sound when he lived in Italy - which would have made it more difficult for the Italians. He wrote that at the beginning of their relationship, his Italian lover, Teresa Guiccioli, embarrassed him by calling "mio Biron" across a crowded room. She had not yet, apparently learned to say "Byron".


Q: What is his name?

A: He was born January 22, 1788, the son of Captain John (Mad Jack) Byron and Catherine (Kitty) Gordon, Laird of Ghigt (a Scottish title). His paternal grandparents were Admiral John Byron and Sophia Trevanion Byron and his maternal grandfather was George Gordon, Laird of Ghigt. He was christened George Gordon Byron.

He grew up in Aberdeen, Scotland, but by then his mother was no longer Laird of Ghigt, as she had sold her land and title to pay his father's debts. His father left them and died in France. He was registered at school as George Byron Gordon. Neighbours called him "wee Geordie Byron" and "the leetle deevil".

In 1798, he inherited lands and title as Lord Byron, with the estate of Newstead Abbey in Nottingham and Baron Byron of Rochdale in Lancashire. A confusion arises because his title and surname are the same.

He was addressed as The Right Honourable Lord Byron (by strangers and on the outside of letters) and as Byron (the title, not the name) by friends. Intimates seem to have actually called him "B", but this may just be the convention of the time to abbreviate names to initials in writing, but possibly not in fact. Servants would have said "My Lord" but an intimately beloved housemaid, Susan Vaughn, addressed her letters to "My Dearest Friend" and his wife addressed a letter to him, "My Dearest Duck".

When his mother-in-law died, a stipulation of her will was that, in order to inherit, her beneficiaries must take her family name. Byron added it to his and became George Gordon Noel Byron in 1822. He also added it to his signature.

So - George Gordon (Noel) Byron, Lord Byron, Sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale. No-one ever called him George after he became Byron - not even his mother. He is not Lord George Gordon Byron as this designates the younger brother of a Lord (like Lord John Russell). Is that clear?


Q: Was he an "old roué"?

A: He had sex from the time he was nine years old (he started with his nursemaid). He was notorious during his lifetime as a bisexual erotic athlete. It was said that he always carried a condom in his pocket - just in case. (He bought condoms by the dozen and had very few illegitimate children and no venereal disease as an adult). He set up a mistress in a house in Brompton when he was seventeen. He reported "having" more than 200 women one year when he was living in Venice. He wrote sly and suggestive poetry that shocked his friends and that his publisher refused to print. He was thirty six when he died.


Q: Did he swim the "Hellespont"?

A: Yes, the narrow waterway between Europe and Asia, that figured in the Greek story of Hero and Leander. He swam it on May 3rd 1810, from "Sestos to Abydos" and wrote a funny poem about it. He was very proud of this - long distance swimming was his favourite sport. He swam across the mouth of the Tagus River at Lisbon and from the Lido to the Rialto Bridge in Venice. This swim took four hours and he "had a woman before and after".


Q: Did he die in the Greek war for independence?

A: Byron travelled to Greece in 1823 to supervise and distribute the money collected by a committee in England that were supporting the Greek leaders who were in rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. He was in Missolonghi, planning the first raid to be organized with British help, in the spring of 1824. On April 19, he died of a fever that was probably a relapse of the malaria that he had contracted in 1811. The fever had come on as a complication of a cold after going riding in a rain storm. He is reported to have claimed to his valet that his doctors were assassinating him. He did not approve of bleeding as a treatment for fever, but after several days of illness, he became very weak and permitted the doctors to bleed him. They drew his blood repeatedly, until it ran clear, which pleased them, as they feared permanent brain damage from fever. They had also repeatedly purged him. After he fell into a coma, they were not able to give him water which he had been frequently demanding before he lost consciousness. He died a day later. He was thirty-six.


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