Frances Wilson

Excess and incest were meat and drink to the Byrons

The poet seems almost tame compared to his forebears, especially the 5th Lord, ‘Devil Byron’, a profligate murderer who ruined the family

George Gordon, Lord Byron. Credit: Getty Images

‘Some curse hangs over me and mine,’ wrote Lord Byron, and thanks to Emily Brand, who is a genealogist, it is now possible to see why Byron was so darned Byronic: excess, incest and marital misery flowed in the bloodstream. The gloom that looked like a Regency pose was entirely pre-programmed; George Gordon Byron’s script was handed to him at birth. Being mad, bad and dangerous to know was as instinctive to the Byrons as howling at the moon for a pack of wolves.

When he compared his family to ‘whole woods of withered pines’, the poet was not exaggerating. Every branch was rotten. The son of a sociopath known as Mad Jack and the grandson of an ill-fated mariner dubbed Foul-Weather Jack, the ten-year old boy inherited the title from his great uncle, the 5th Lord Byron, who was generally referred to as the Wicked Lord or Devil Byron. The barony came to little George Gordon after the premature deaths of a heap of cousins he had neither heard of nor met: in order to claim his coronet, the pudgy, club-footed lad from Aberdeen had climbed over more dead bodies than Richard III.

Brand frames this gloriously entertaining portrait of Byron’s 18th-century forebears around Newstead Abbey, the family seat since 1540. Built by Henry II to atone for the murder of Thomas Becket, the priory was raided by the King’s men during the dissolution of the monasteries and then looted by the Parliamentarians during the civil war, after which it was ransacked again by the Wicked Lord in order to pay his debts.

The 5th Lord Byron was generally referred to as the Wicked Lord or Devil Byron

For the Romantic poet, who took up residence in 1808, Newstead was not a home but a reminder of his family’s fate; it was also a thrillingly real-life example of the Castle of Otranto or any of the other medieval monstrosities that kept Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland awake at night.

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