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The Bad Lord Byron

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest
 

Through the coronet of Byron dates only from the time of the Civil Wars, yet the Byron family can boast of a noble descent, which they can trace back at least as far as the Conquest, when they were already the owners of extensive lands in Yorkshire. As they had not often to write their names, they figure as Birons and Burons, and even as Burrons, so little attention at that time was paid to orthography. They were probably greater adepts with the sword than with the pen; and they kept such state in their Castle of Horseley, or Horeston, that they became famous throughout the length and breadth of the land for hospitality.
     At the time of the Doomsday Survey, Ralph de Buron appears to have held divers manors in Notts and Derbyshire, as well as in his own more northern county; and Burke tells us how his grandson Hugo, retiring in middle life from secular affairs, from a feudal baron became a professional monk, and died at the hermitage of Kersal, belonging to the great priory of Lepton. He left, however, a son, whose descendant, marrying a Nottinghamshire heiress, appears to have increased the wealth of the house; and lair grandson, John Byron, received the honor of knighthood from Henry VII. in reward of his valor at the battle of Bosworth Field.
     We pass from him over four generations, and come upon yet another Sir John Byron, Knight of the Bath, whose seven sons all either died or bled on the battlefield in support of the cause of royalty. His eldest son, another Sir John, was in command of the reserve corps at the battle of Edge Hill, and was the leader of the attack which at Roundaway Down routed Waller and the other Roundheads, and forced what Lord Clarendon calls the I impenetrable' regiment of Sir Arthur Hazlerig's cuirassiers to save themselves by flight. Sir John was raised to the peerage in reward of these services in 1643, and his brother and successor held the castles of Newark and of Appleby for the king. One of his great grandsons was the celebrated admiral Byron, who as a midshipman sailing on board the Wager round the world, under the flag of Lord Anson, was cast away on a desert island, where he endured great hardships for five years, but at last was rescued and returned to England. He lived to become an admiral, and was the grandfather of the poet George Gordon Byron, who has twined the bay leaves with his ancestral laurels, and has immortalized by his pen a name already well known to history.
     This Admiral Byron's elder brother William, the fifth wearer of the Byron coronet, was a person to whom a very painful notoriety attached. He succeeded to the honors while quite a boy, and seems to have been spoiled by the want of education and discipline. Left his own master while still a youth, he became a man about town,' and indulged himself freely in all the fashionable vices which marked the young scions of noble houses in the last century. He still bears in the neighborhood of Newstead Abbey the reputation of the 'Bad Lord Byron ;" and in his lifetime he bore the character of a most passionate and vindictive temper. The story of his duel with his neighbor and former friend, Mr. Chaworth of Annesley, which took place at the Star and Garter hotel in Pall Mall, in January, 176, has been often told, but will bear telling again.
     The quarrel was a very silly and groundless one-a dispute over their wine cups as to the actual amount of game on their Nottinghamshire estates. Among the company present were several men of fashion and ` quality,' as the phrase then ran-Mr. John Hewett (who acted as chairman), Mr. Francis Molineux, Mr. Willoughby, Sir Robert Burdett-almost all of them men connected by the ties of family or property with Nottinghamshire, and members of a county club which met once a month at that hotel. Some words on the subject had passed between them, but the matter had dropped. But as they were leaving the house Mr. Chaworth was enticed into a private room by Lord Byron, whlocked the door, at once drew his sword, and made a lunge at his neighbor, calling on him to defend himself. It was the custom then for
every gentleman to carry his sword, so the battle was fought by the dim light of a candle, and so thoroughly did it prove a combat outrance that Mr. Chaworth, though the better swordsman of the two, was run through the body, and died a few hours afterwards. Mr. Chaworth was sensible to the last, made his will, and wrote a letter to his mother in the country, informing her of the 'unfortunate accident.'
     A coroner's inquest was held on the body of Mr. Chaworth, and resulted in a verdict of manslaughter. In a few weeks after, Lord Byron was put upon his trial before his peers, the members of the House of Lords, to answer for his offence. The trial took place in Westminster Hall, where also he was convicted of manslaughter. 'Peers, by an old statute, in all cases where the benefit of clergy is allowed, are dismissed without burning in hand, loss of inheritance, or corruption of blood; his lordship was accordingly dismissed on paying the fees.' So writes old 'Sylvanus Urban' in the Gentleman's Magazine, in the pages of which is 'an authentic narrative of the late duel between Lord Byron and William Chaworth, Esq.;' but it does not add much information to the account given above, except that the party dined at the then fashionable hour of four, and that after dinner a conversation arose on the game laws and the preserving of game, in the course of which Mr. Chaworth and Lord Byron came to high words, the former remarking that 'Sir Charles Sedley and himself had more game on five acres than his lordship had on all his manors.' A bet for a hundred guineas followed, and Mr. Chaworth called for pens, ink, and paper, in order that the bet might be reduced to writing; but another Nottinghamshire squire,
who was one of the company, treated it in a jesting manner, and said that it was a foolish bet, and one that could never be decided. The talk, however, ran on, Mr. Chaworth saying, in a chaffing way, that I if it were not for his own and Sir Charles Sedley's care, Lord Byron would not have a hare on his estate: This put his lordship on his mettle, and he asked, with a smile, what and how many were Sir Charles Sedley's manors. Mr. Chaworth answered, 'Oh, Nuttall and Bulwell.' Lord Byron did not dispute Nuttall, but he claimed Bulwell as his own, on which it appears that Mr. Chaworth said, if you want information as to Sir Charles Sedley's manors, you know where to find him; and if he does not give you satisfaction, I can; and you know where to find me, in Berkeley Row.'
     It is more than probable that he purposely used the word I satisfaction' with a double meaning; and therefore, when the party broke up and they met on the stairs, Lord Byron asked him what be meant. These words, too, could be taken, of course, in an offensive sense; and probably, the Byron blood being up, his lordship did put upon them the worst construction. The result has been told above. Lord Byron in the first instance received a slight wound, but his return thrust proved fatal. The door being opened, the peer and the squire were found locked together in a death-struggle. A surgeon was sent for, and he at once said that the wound was mortal, and that Mr. Chaworth had not many hours to live. The family lawyer was summoned, and the wounded man was just able to make his will, and expired, saying with his last breath that he would rather lie on his death-bed than feel that he had wantonly taken away another man's life.
     'These,' writes Sylvanus Urban, 'are the particulars of this unfortunate affair, by which it would seem that neither Mr. Chaworth himself nor any of his friends could blame Lord Byron for the part that lie had in his death. Mr. Chaworth himself, it is manifest, was under apprehension of having mortally wounded Lord Byron, and Lord Byron, being still engaged (in the duel), had a right to avail himself of that mistake for the preservation of his own life. His lordship himself, no doubt, might have wished that in that situation he had disabled his adversary only; but, in the heat of duelling, who can always be collected? Mr. Chaworth, as we read in another page, 'was a most amiable character, about forty years of age, and a bachelor.' It is not a little singular that his niece, Miss Chaworth, was the first object of the poet Byron's earliest boyish affections.
Notwithstanding Lord Byron's formal acquittal of the charge of manslaughter by the House of Peers, he was, however, regarded by the public as a guilty man, and everybody 'fought shy of him,' both in town and in the country. He betook himself to Newstead Abbey, and led a most retired and secluded life within its dreary walls, uncheered by the company of wife or child or brother, and almost entirely forsaken by his former friends. The 'old lord' seems to have been a most spiteful and unnamable character. He always carried firearms on his person, being probably rather tired of using his sword, and his only companions were two fierce dogs, a mastiff and a bull-dog. He quarreled with his only son, who died before him, as also did his grandson; and to spite the former he cut down almost all the timber on the Newstead estate, sold the family portraits, and even dismantled the rooms of the Abbey. He had to follow his daughters, all unmarried, to their graves; and, when he died, lie had neither child nor grandchild near him to close his eyes, while he knew that the Byron coronet must pass to an infant grandnephew whom he had never seen, and whose name he scarcely knew or cared to know.
     That grandnephew, he little then imagined, was destined in the course of a very few years to restore by his pen its luster to the tarnished shield of the House of Byron.


Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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