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Have you ever ventured into the Octagon, which used to be the Queen Mary library, for meetings or lectures and has your eye started wandering around the room? In doing so your gaze may have rested on several busts clinging to the edge of life on the balcony, looking down on us. This week the focus is on Lord Byron. A series by Special Collections Information Assistant Anne Marie McHarg.

Bust of Byron in the Octagon

Bust of Byron by Francis Verheyden commissioned by the People's Palace c. 1888.

Lord Byron was born 22 January 1788 and died 19 April 1824. He was christened George Gordon Byron but is known as Lord Byron. He was one of our greatest poets, politician and an English peer. He was one of the leading figures of the Romantic Movement. His poems are well loved, and he remains widely read and still influential to this day.

Like Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron wrote long narrative poems. Among his best-known works was Childe Harold's Pilgrimage the first two cantos of which were published in 1812.  Don Juan was another of his famous works. Many of his shorter lyrics in Hebrew Melodies also became popular. 

He was the son of Catherine Gordon of Gight, an impoverished Scots heiress, and Captain John (“Mad Jack”) Byron, a fortune-hunting widower with a daughter, Augusta. By the time Bryon was born his father had squandered his wife’s inheritance and fled into exile from English creditors to France where he died in 1791 at the age of 36.


Byron’s formal education began at Aberdeen Grammar school. Later he moved to the school of Dr William Glennie in Dulwich in August 1799. While here he was encouraged to exercise in moderation but could not restrain himself from "violent" bouts in an attempt to compensate for his deformed foot. His mother often interfered with his education by constantly withdrawing Bryon from school, therefore as a result he lacked discipline and his classical studies were neglected.

His first attempt of writing poetry was in 1800, as a result of an “Ebullition of passion” for his cousin Margaret Parker. In 1801 he was sent to Harrow, where he remained until 1805. He was an undistinguished student, but he continued to write verse, and played sports. By the end of his school life, he did represent the school during the very first Eton v Harrow cricket match at Lord's in 1805, despite being relatively unskilled at the sport!

During his early years at Harrow, he began to form passionate attachments with the younger boys and before reaching his teenager years he had been sexually initiated by his maid. Byron had relationships with both sexes during his life and may have been bisexual. After Harrow he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. Whilst at Cambridge he continued to engage in multiple sexual affairs and discovered politics via his initiation into the Cambridge Whig Club. When he became of age at 21, he took up his seat in the House of Lords.

From 1809 Bryon and his friend John Cam Hobhouse did the Grand Tour of Europe, mainly visiting several Mediterranean countries. Whilst on tour he had begun work on his first drafts on the poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a partly autobiographical account of a young man’s travels abroad. He visited Greece for the first time and fell in love with both the country and the people. Byron arrived back in England in 1811 just as his mother died, and in 1812 the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage were published. Byron became famous overnight. He was quoted as saying “I awoke one morning and found myself famous”.

Amorous Affairs

Byron had numerous affairs in his life. One such affair was with Lady Caroline Lamb, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat and novelist in 1812 who coined the phrase “Mad, bad and dangerous to know”. She apparently said (when she heard him described as ugly and having a club foot)if he is as ugly as Aesop. I must see him”. This was a very passionate, eccentric affair with a married, titled women and the scandal shocked the British public. On hearing of this very public affair Lady Melbourne had no sympathy with Lady Caroline Lamb’s highly strung nature and was disgusted with Lord Bryon. Lady Melbourne was keen to bring it to a close and become Lord Byron’s confidante, suggesting her own niece, Annabella Milbanke as a wife for him.

Later, Lord Byron spoke of Lady Melbourne in his journal on 17 & 24 November 1813 saying:

The best friend I ever had in my life and the cleverest woman. If she would have been a few years younger, what a fool she would have made of me, had she thought it worth her while.

He also had affairs with Lady Oxford, Lady Frances Webster and, very probably, with his married half-sister, Augusta Leigh. In 1814 Augusta gave birth to a daughter. The child took her father’s surname of Leigh but gossip was rife that the baby girl’s father was in fact Byron. Perhaps in an attempt to recover his reputation, the following year Byron married Annabella Milbanke, with whom he had a daughter Augusta Ada.

Later life

Byron made the decision to flee English shores to escape his mounting debts and scandalous love affairs, and so in 1816 he left for Europe, never to return. He spent that summer at Lake Geneva with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary and Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont, with whom Byron had had an affair whilst in London. Claire was an attractive, lively and voluptuous brunette and the couple rekindled their affair. In 1817 she returned to London and gave birth to their daughter, Allegra.

In the late autumn of 1818, he sold his ancestral home Newstead Abbey for the sum of £94,500. This helped Byron to clear his outstanding debts and left him with a generous income.

During his Italian period, he continued writing and produced some of his outstanding works, Prophecy of Dante, Beppo and Don Juan, which he never completed.

In the summer of 1823 Byron departed Italy for Greece.  He gave his support to the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire by joining the Greek insurgents. He spent £4000 refitting the Greek fleet and in December 1823 sailed to Missolonghi, where he took command of a Greek unit of fighters.

His health began to deteriorate and in February 1824, he fell ill with a fever. He never recovered and he died at Missolonghi 19 April 1824. His death was mourned throughout Greece, where he was revered as a national hero. His body was brought back to England to be buried in Westminster Abbey but this was refused on account of his “questionable morality”. He is buried in St Mary Magdalene Church, Hucknell Torkard at his ancestral home Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire. In 1881 the King of Greece donated a marble plaque to mark his burial place. It is inlaid with brass and set into the chancel floor near as possible to his coffin in the vault below.

One hundred and forty five years after his death, Lord Byron was finally given a memorial plaque in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, in 1969.

Every Friday our Special Collections librarian Anne-Marie will be introducing you to each of the writers featured in the Octagon in this blog series.



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