George Gordon Noel Byron was born in London on January 22, 1788. His mother was Catherine Gordon of Gight in Aberdeenshire. His father John Byron an officer in the Coldstream Guards, was known as ‘Mad Jack’ a compulsive gambler who gambled away all his wife’s fortune and estates. The father abandoned the family leaving them destitute and living on a small income.
The mother and child moved to Aberdeen where young George would later attend the grammar school. His father died in 1791 and when his great uncle the 5th Baron Byron died in 1798 he inherited the title of Lord Byron aged just 10. On the death of his uncle, the family left Aberdeen and took up residence in Nottingham by the estate at Newstead Abbey which was part of his inheritance. Byron continued his education at Harrow and then Cambridge University. It was during this period that Byron developed his poetry and began to compose a collection of poems which he published as a book called, ‘Hours of Idleness’ in 1807, which the following year received a savage critical assessment by an anonymous reviewer in the Edinburgh Review. (The reviewer was one Henry Peter Brougham, a member of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning. Later Lord Brougham) Byron was so stung by the criticism of his work that he responded with a satire called ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’ in 1809 which upset some of his critics, so much so that some issued challenges to duel. Later, like Burns it became a certain mark of prestige to be the target of the great poet’s pen.
Brougham’s review begins;
“The poesy of this young Lord belong to the class which neither gods nor men are said to permit.”
"Yet mark one caution ere thy next Review
Spread its light wings of saffron and of blue,
Beware lest blundering Brougham destroy the sale,
Turn beef to bannocks, cauliflowers to kail."
In 1809 aged 21, Byron embarked on a tour of the Mediterranean countries for two years, and it was then that Byron began to develop into a serious poet. And the year after he returned to England, the first cantos of his epic narrative poem 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage' were published, with the result that Byron became famous overnight, the leading figure in the romantic movement, and has become one of the most influential poets in English literature, and very wealthy.
In July 1811, Byron returned to London and began a series of love affairs which scandalised the London society. The first of these was with the eccentric Lady Caroline Lamb who described him as, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’ His private life was notorious, with whispers of his promiscuity, his many affairs with married women, siring illegitimate children, his regular use of opium and his homosexuality. The in the summer of 1813, he embarked on a dangerous route when he began an affair with his half-sister, which caused the greatest of all the scandals, more so when she gave birth to his child.
In 1814, Byron with his reputation almost in threads, decided that he should get married and began to re-invent himself as a family man, put all his years of debauchery behind him and settle down to a family life and immerse himself in his poetry. He married Annabella Milbanke in January 1815 and in December that year she gave birth to a daughter, Augusta Ada. However, by January 1816 the doomed marriage collapsed, he returned to his old ways and Annabella left Byron amid his drinking, increased debt, and rumours of his relations with his half sister and of his bisexuality. He never saw his wife or daughter again. In April 1816 amid pressure from his friends and racked with guilt about his affairs and his dishonour, he left England, never to return, and spent his remaining years in exile abroad.
During the early part of his travels, he befriended Percy Shelley and his wife Mary, and during this time he wrote a number of works including the poetical-drama Manfred. It is well recorded that whilst in Geneva, Byron one stormy night suggested a ghost story contest, the result of which Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Later Mary would credit Byron for his influence in shaping the idea for the work. The Shelley’s left for England in the summer of 1816, and Mary Shelley’s step-sister who had accompanied them on the tour, gave birth to Byron’s daughter in January 1817.
Byron became bored; he left Geneva for Venice, Italy, and continued with numerous affairs along the way, describing them later in his epic poem ‘Don Juan.’ In 1818 aged 30, he met 19-year-old Teresa Guiccioli, a married countess. The pair were immediately attracted to each other and began an intimate relationship until she separated from her husband. Teresa’s father greatly admired Byron and initiated him into the Carbonari, a secret society dedicated to free Italy from Austrian rule. It was during this period that Byron wrote some of his most famous works, including 'Don Juan' (1819-1824).
In July 1823, still restless, Byron left Italy to join the Greek insurgents who were fighting a war of independence against the Ottoman Empire. He spent £4000 of his fortune to refit the Greek navy and took command of a unit of Greek freedom fighters. Then on February 13th 1824, at Missolonghi, Byron became ill with a fever, the doctors in attendance bled him which likely gave him an infection and Byron died on the 19th April.
Lord Byron, the poet who scandalised the drawing rooms of England became a hero, still adored today in Greece. His body was shipped back to England for burial, and his death mourned throughout Britain, but was refused a place in Poet’s corner at Westminster Abbey, citing his ‘questionable morality.’ Byron one of the greatest of all the English poets was buried at his ancestral home in Nottinghamshire. It wasn’t until 1969 that the authorities allowed a memorial to be placed on the Abbey floor commemorating him.
And even after his death, controversy still followed Lord Byron, for one month after his death an event took place which still reverberates as an act of wanton destruction in the world of English literature. During his time in exile, Byron had named Thomas Moore the Irish poet as his literary executor, and gave him a manuscript of his memoirs written by himself. Byron instructed Moore that these were to be published after his death. John Murray, Byron’s Scottish publisher on being presented with the volumes, made a decision to destroy them. Six of Bryon’s friends and the executors of his will, met at Murray’s house at 50 Albemarle Street, London, tore the pages from the books and burned them in the fireplace of the drawing room. (The very room where Byron first met Sir Walter Scott) Only the poet Moore opposed the act, but he was later criticised for allowing this to happen, although unable to stop it.
Whatever is was the Byron had written, Murray and company thought the contents were so scandalous that were not thought fit for public consumption. None of the six ever revealed the contents of Byron’s memoirs which were thought to be so damaging.
Was he a Freemason?
Highly unlikely, although a number of publications name Lord George Gordon Byron the poet, as being a Freemason, they are mistaken in suggesting he had been initiated into the mystic tie. It was in fact his great grand-uncle the 5th Lord Byron who was a member of the Craft. He was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England, April 30, 1747 to March 20, 1752. Where the confusion arises is that Lord Byron was a member of the Carbonari, (charcoal burners) an underground secret society which had links with the Freemasons, and writers naturally assume he must have been a freemason to have joined this group. Not so.
Byron like Burns was a prolific letter writer, and in his correspondence there is no mention of freemasonry, although he does mention his time in the Carbonari on numerous occasions;
“February 18th, 1821.
“To-day I have had no communication with my Carbonari cronies: but, in the mean time, my lower apartments are full of their bayonets, fusils, cartridges, and what not. I suppose that they consider me as a depôt, to be sacrificed, in case of accidents. It is no great matter, supposing that Italy could be liberated, who or what is sacrificed, it is a grand object—the very poetry of politics. Only think—a free Italy!!!
Nevertheless, he does mention the Craft, the only mention of Freemasonry I can find in his poetry, is in the epic poem Don Juan, Bryon refers to it twice, first narrating that Don Juan is a Brother, and the second making a Masonic comparison;
Canto XIII - Verse XXIV.
And thus acquaintance grew, at noble routs,
And diplomatic dinners, or at other—
For Juan stood well both with Ins and Outs,
As in freemasonry a higher brother.
Upon his talent Henry had no doubts;
His manner showed him sprung from a high mother,
And all men like to show their hospitality
To him whose breeding matches with his quality.
Canto XIV - Verse XXII.
And therefore what I throw off is ideal—
Lowered, leavened, like a history of Freemasons,
Which bears the same relation to the real,
As Captain Parry's Voyage may do to Jason's.
The grand Arcanum's not for men to see all;
My music has some mystic diapasons;
And there is much which could not be appreciated
In any manner by the uninitiated.
If Byron had been a Freemason, I have no doubt that he would have taken great delight in mentioning it, and wrote of it, as would those brethren of his have taken great pleasure in being associated with the great man within the Brotherhood and made his membership known.
Stewart Donaldson HM
Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No.2