Newstead Abbey: Lord Byron’s Inspiration

Contributor: Simon Brown

Location: Newstead, Nottinghamshire, UK

Description: Newstead Abbey was Lord Byron’s ancestral home, nestled in the isolated landscape of Nottinghamshire.

Byron’s attachments in his short life were always transient, and usually deeply powerful. That was true of his affections for people, objects or places. But he had an extraordinary capacity to see beauty and inspiration in everything around him, and absorb that into his work and his actions.

Newstead is a hugely significant example of that. He lived there for only a small proportion of his tragically short life. Yet Newstead’s influence on him was huge, and his influence on Newstead is, of course, timeless.

Newstead was founded as an Augustinian priory around 1163, on the orders of Henry II. It sits in an ideal natural landscape: in the heart of Sherwood Forest, alongside the River Leen and close to the ancient road between Nottingham and York.

Many reigning kings stayed at Newstead in order to hunt in the royal hunting park in Sherwood. This of course brought with it a great cost, and Newstead Priory soon became notorious for financial problems. The canons there also gained a reputation for excess and drunkenness.

This community lived together for nearly 400 years, until Henry VIII’s seismic religious reforms in the 16th century brought the seizure of all religious houses in England. Sir John Byron had worked for Henry as a commissioner, and was granted Newstead for the sum of £810 in 1538. This began nearly 400 years – and nine generations – of ownership by the Byron family.

Each generation brought great change, and a little part of the outside world, to Newstead. William, the 4th Lord Byron, was a great creative and artistic figure, who painted and wrote music at Newstead in the early 18th century. He was financially very astute. He was a gentleman to the bedchamber of Queen Anne. He amassed a great art collection including works by Rubens, Van Dyck and Titian. Newstead flourished in his time, with the international connections that these brought.

This great legacy was almost completely squandered by his son William the 5th Lord Byron. He spent his youth in the navy, following which he led a hugely expensive and excessive social life. This included financing a fleet of six ships on the upper lake at Newstead, for staging mock naval battles. This fleet was operated by a full time crew, and fought with live cannon. William’s life took a downward turn after he killed his cousin William Chaworth in a duel, and was found guilty of manslaughter by his peers. He served no sentence, but his life of excess began to catch up with him. He was consumed by debt and mental and physical illness. He sold off the entire contents of Newstead: furniture, livestock and his father’s great art collection. He died alone in his empty, ruined mansion in 1798.

This 600-year history of burgeoning rise and calamitous fall was the legacy that was inherited by George Gordon, upon learning he was to become the 6th Lord Byron at the age of 10. Newstead was already a symbol and vessel of many aspects of life that he would grow to adore and characterise: madness, excess, irrepressible and obsessive creativity, splendid gothic isolation, internationalism and many others.

There are many examples of how Lord Byron amplified, and took inspiration from, this legacy.

His first act, on his first visit to Newstead at ten years old, was to symbolically plant an oak tree in the grounds. He left soon after to attend school at Harrow, and Newstead was leased to Lord Grey de Ruthyn. When Byron had returned to find that the tree had been neglected, he saw a metaphor for the ruined splendour of his own family. He immortalised his response in his poem To an Oak at Newstead:

Such, such was my hope, when in infancy’s years,
On the land of my fathers I rear’d thee with pride;
They are past, and I water thy stem with my tears,—
Thy decay, not the weeds that surround thee can hide.

The tree did go on to flourish after his death, and became one of the most prominent sites of pilgrimage for visitors to Newstead. Only the stump now remains, but that doesn’t diminish its symbolic power.

A further example is of the way Byron commemorated the life of his best friend at Newstead: his Newfoundland dog Boatswain. Byron’s great love of animals has become an integral part of his legend, and he kept many dogs, hedgehogs, geese, turtles and – infamously – a bear at Newstead.

Boatswain was a constant companion for Byron, often swimming with him in the upper lake. His death from rabies in 1808 was devastating, and Byron constructed a huge, elaborate tomb for him in the gardens. It was built on the spot of the altar of Newstead Priory’s church, illuminating his attitude to the church as well as to Boatswain. Byron intended to be buried alongside him on his own death.

The epitaph that Byron wrote for the tomb mourned the loss of a friend, while inevitably mourning the human race that he was now left with:

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.

These are two small examples of many, of how life in Newstead’s unique landscape shaped, and was shaped by, Lord Byron’s creativity and emotional resonance. Byron’s sudden and dramatic leap to fame across Europe with the publication of the first canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage catapulted Newstead to similar prominence.

Today Newstead is a place that continues to tell Byron’s story, which stretches across Europe. At Newstead that story is placed in the context of the rich and complex heritage that came before him, and the ways in which it has continued to be shaped by him.

It is therefore fitting that Newstead is an entry to RÊVE. Like any place it holds many different narratives and points of view, and is full of contradictions. That makes Newstead a fitting representation of Lord Byron and the hugely complex and compelling life story he leaves us with.

Date: built c.1163

Creator: founded by Henry II

Subject: Byron, Lord George Gordon 1788 – 1824

Media rights: Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

Object type: Building, place

Format: stone, natural landscape

Language: English

Related objects: Byron’s hair; Lord Byron’s Autograph at the Castle of Chillon

Publisher: Notttingham City Museums and Galleries