LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

The Life of Lord Byron
Newstead Abbey

  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26  27  28  29  30  31  32  33  34  35  36  37  38  39  40  41  42  43  44  45  46  47  48  49 
Creative Commons License

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH


The figure which this ancient edifice cuts in the memoirs, as well as in the works of the poet, and having given a view of it in the vignette, make it almost essential that this work should contain some account of it. I am indebted to Lake’s Life of Lord Byron for the following particulars:

“This Abbey was founded in the year 1170, by Henry II., as a Priory of Black Canons, and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It continued in the family of the Byrons until the time of our poet, who sold it first to Mr. Claughton, for the sum of 140,000l., and on that gentleman’s not being able to fulfil the agreement, and paying 20,000l. of a forfeit, it was afterwards sold to another person, and most of the money vested in trustees, for the jointure of Lady Byron. The greater part of the edifice still remains. The present possessor, Major Wildman, is, with genuine taste, repairing this beautiful specimen of gothic architecture. The late Lord Byron repaired a considerable part of it, but forgetting the roof, he turned his attention to the inside, and the consequence was, that in a few years, the rain penetrating to the apartments, soon destroyed all those elegant devices which his Lordship contrived. Lord Byron’s own study was a neat little apartment, decorated with some good classic busts, a select collection of books, an antique cross, a sword in a gilt case, and at the end of the room two finely-polished skulls, on a pair of light fancy stands. In the garden likewise, there was a great number of these skulls, taken from the burial-ground of the Abbey, and piled up together, but they were afterwards recommitted to the earth. A writer, who visited it soon after Lord Byron had sold it, says, ‘In one corner of the servants’ hall lay a stone coffin,
in which were fencing-gloves and foils, and on the walls of the ample, but cheerless kitchen, was painted, in large letters, ‘waste not—want not.’ During the minority of Lord Byron, the Abbey was in the possession of
Lord G——, his hounds, and divers colonies of jackdaws, swallows, and starlings. The internal traces of this Goth were swept away, but without, all appeared as rude and unreclaimed as he could have left it. With the exception of the dog’s tomb, a conspicuous and elegant object, I do not recollect the slightest trace of culture or improvement. The late lord, a stern and desperate character, who is never mentioned by the neighbouring peasants without a significant shake of the head, might have returned and recognised every thing about him, except perhaps an additional crop of weeds. There still slept that old pond, into which he is said to have hurled his lady in one of his fits of fury, whence she was rescued by the gardener, a courageous blade, who was his lord’s master, and chastised him for his barbarity. There still, at the end of the garden, in a grove of oak, are two towering satyrs, he with his goat and club, and Mrs. Satyr with her chubby cloven-footed brat, placed on pedestals, at the intersections of the narrow and gloomy pathways, strike for a moment, with their grim visages and silent shaggy forms, the fear into your bosom, which is felt by the neighbouring peasantry, at ‘th’ oud laird’s devils.’ I have frequently asked the country people what sort of a man his Lordship (our Lord Byron) was. The impression of his eccentric but energetic character was evident in the reply. ‘He’s the devil of a fellow for comical fancies—he flag’s th’ oud laird to nothing, but he’s a hearty good fellow for all that.’”

Horace Walpole (Earl of Orford), who had visited Newstead, gives, in his usual bitter sarcastic manner, the following account of it:

“As I returned, I saw Newstead an Althorp. I
like both. The former is the very abbey. The great east window of the church remains, and connects with the house; the hall entire; the refectory entire; the cloister untouched, with the ancient cistern of the convent, and their arms on it; it has a private chapel, quite perfect. The park, which is still charming, has not been so much unprofaned. The
present Lord has lost large sums, and paid part in old oaks, five thousand pounds’ worth of which have been cut near to the house. En revench, he has built two baby-forts to pay his country in castles, for damage done to the navy, and planted a handful of Scotch firs, that look like ploughboys dressed in old family liveries for a public day. In the hall is a very good collection of pictures, all animals. The refectory, now the great drawing-room, is full of Byrons: the vaulted roof remaining, but the windows have new dresses making for them by a Venetian tailor.”

The following detailed description of Byron’s paternal abode, is extracted from “A visit to Newstead Abbey in 1828,” in The London Literary Gazette:

“It was on the noon of a cold bleak day in February, that I set out to visit the memorable abbey of Newstead, once the property and abode of the immortal Byron. The gloomy state of the weather, and the dreary aspect of the surrounding country, produced impressions more appropriate to the views of such a spot, than the cheerful season and scenery of summer. The estate lies on the left hand side of the high north road, eight miles beyond Nottingham; but, as I approached the place, I looked in vain for some indication of the abbey. Nothing is seen but a thick plantation of young larch and firs, bordering the road, until you arrive at the hut, a small public-house by the wayside. Nearly opposite to this is a plain white gate, without lodges, opening into the park; before stands a fine spreading oak, one of the few remaining trees of Sherwood forest, the famous haunt
of Robin Hood and his associates, which once covered all this part of the country, and whose county was about the domain of Newstead. To this oak, the only one of any size on the estate, Byron was very partial. It is pretty well known that his great uncle (to whom he succeeded) cut down almost all the valuable timber; so that, when Byron came into possession of the estate, and indeed, the whole time he had it, it presented a very bare and desolate appearance. The soil is very poor, and fit only for the growth of larch and firs; and, of these, upwards of 700 acres have been planted. Byron could not afford the first outlay which was necessary, in order ultimately to increase its worth; so that as long as he held it, the rental did not exceed 1300l. a-year. From the gate to the abbey is a mile. The carriage road runs straight for about three hundred yards through the plantations, when it takes a sudden turn to the right; and, on returning to the left, a beautiful and extensive view over the valley and distant hills is opened with the turrets of the abbey, rising among the dark trees beneath. To the right of the abbey is perceived a tower on a hill, in the midst of a grove of firs. From this part the road winds gently to the left till it reaches the abbey, which is approached on the north side. It lies in a valley very low; sheltered to the north and west, by rising ground; and to the south, enjoying a fine prospect over an undulating vale. A more secluded spot could hardly have been chosen for the pious purposes to which it was devoted. To the north and east is a garden, walled in; and to the west the upper lake. On the west side, the mansion is without any enclosure or garden-drive, and can therefore be approached by any person passing through the park. In this open space is the ancient cistern, or fountain, of the convent, covered with grotesque carvings, and having water still running into a basin. The old church-window, which, in an architectural
point of view, is most deserving of observation, is nearly entire, and adjoins the north-west corner of the abbey. Through the iron gate which opens into the garden, under the arch, is seen the dog’s tomb; it is on the north side, upon a raised ground, and surrounded by steps. The verses inscribed on one side of the pedestal are well known, but the lines preceding them are not so. They run thus:

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.
This praise, which would be unmeaning flattery
If inscribed over human ashes,
Is but a just tribute to the memory of
Boatswain, a dog,
Who was born at Newfoundland, May, 1803,
And died at Newstead, November 18th, 1808.

 The whole edifice is a quadrangle, enclosing a court, with a reservoir, and jet d’eau in the middle; and the cloisters still entire, running round the four sides. The south, now the principal front, looks over a pleasure-garden to a small lake, which has been opened from the upper one, since Byron’s time. The entrance-door is on the west, in a small vestibule, and has nothing remarkable in it. On entering, I came into a large stone hall, and turning to the left, went through it to a smaller one, beyond which is the staircase. The whole of this part has been almost entirely rebuilt by Colonel Wildman; indeed, during Byron’s occupation, the only habitable rooms were some small ones in the south-east angle. Over the cloister, on the four sides of the building, runs the gallery, from which doors open into various apartments, now fitted up with taste and elegance, for the accommodation of a family, but then empty, and fast going to decay. In one of the galleries hang two oil-paintings of dogs, as large as
life; one, a red wolf-dog, and the other, a black Newfoundland, with white legs, the celebrated Boatswain. They both died at Newstead. Of the latter, Byron felt the loss as of a dear friend. These are almost the only paintings of Byron’s which remain at the abbey. From the gallery, I entered the refectory, now the grand drawing-room; an apartment of great dimensions, facing south, with a fine vaulted roof, and polished oak floor, and splendidly furnished in the modern style. The walls are covered with full-length portraits of the old school. As this room has been made fit for use, entirely since the days of Byron, there are not those associations connected with it which are to be found in many of the others, though of inferior appearance. Two objects there are, however, which demand observation. The first that caught my attention was the portrait of Byron, by
Phillips, over the fireplace, upon which I gazed with strong feelings; it is certainly the handsomest and most pleasing likeness of him I have seen. The other is a thing about which every body has heard, and of which few have any just idea. In a cabinet at the end of the room, carefully preserved, and concealed in a sliding case, is kept the celebrated skull cup, upon which are inscribed those splendid verses:
Start not, nor deem my spirit fled, &c.

People often suppose, from the name, that the cup retains all the terrific appearances of a death’s head, and imagine that they could
Behold through each lack-lustre eyeless hole
The gay recess of wisdom and of wit.
Not at all; there is nothing whatever startling in it. It is well polished, its edge is bound by a broad rim of silver, and it is set in a neat stand of the same metal, which serves as a handle, and upon the four sides of which, and not upon the skull itself, the
verses are engraved. It is, in short, in appearance, a very handsome utensil, and one from which the most fastidious person might (in my opinion) drink without scruple. It was always produced after dinner, when
Byron had company at the Abbey, and a bottle of claret poured into it. An elegant round library-table is the only article of furniture in this room that belonged to Byron, and this he constantly used. Beyond the refectory, on the same floor, is Byron’s study, now used as a temporary dining-room, the entire furniture of which is the same that was used by him. It is all very plain, indeed ordinary. A good painting of a battle, over the sideboard, was also his. This apartment, perhaps, beyond all others, deserves the attention of the pilgrim to Newstead, as more intimately connected with the poetical existence of Byron. It was here that he prepared for the press those first effusions of his genius which were published at Newark, under the title of Hours of Idleness. It was here that he meditated, planned, and for the most part wrote, that splendid retort to the severe critiques they had called down, which stamped him as the keenest satirist of the day. And it was here that his tender and beautiful verses to Mary, and many of those sweet pieces found among his miscellaneous poems, were composed. His bed-room is small, and still remains in the same state as when he occupied it; it contains little worthy of notice, besides the bed, which is of common size, with gilt posts, surmounted by coronets. Over the fireplace is a picture of Murray, the old family servant who accompanied Byron to Gibraltar, when he first went abroad. A picture of Henry VIII., and another portrait in this room, complete the enumeration of all the furniture or paintings of Byron’s remaining at the Abbey. In some of the rooms are very curiously-carved mantel-pieces, with grotesque figures, evidently of old date. In a corner of one of the galleries there still remained
the fencing foils, gloves, masks, and single-sticks he used in his youth, and in a corner of the cloister lies a stone coffin, taken from the burial ground of the abbey. The ground floor contains some spacious halls and divers apartments for domestic offices, and there is a neat little private chapel in the cloister, where service is performed on Sundays. Byron’s sole recreation here was his boat and dogs, and boxing and fencing for exercise, and to prevent a tendency to obesity, which he dreaded. His constant employment was writing, for which he used to sit up as late as two or three o’clock in the morning. His life here was an entire seclusion, devoted to poetry.