17 May: On this day in history
What events happened on 17 May in history? We round up the events, births and deaths…
17 May 1510
Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli died in Florence. One of his most celebrated works, The Birth of Venus, is now on display in Florence's Uffizi Gallery.
17 May 1521
Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham was executed for treason on Tower Hill. His bid to rebuild the power of his family and his royal blood had attracted the suspicion of King Henry VIII.
17 May 1749
Birth of Edward Jenner, pioneer of smallpox vaccination and the father of immunology, in Berkeley, Gloucestershire.
17 May 1768
Birth of Henry William Paget, later the first Marquess of Anglesey. During his life he will elope with the Duke of Wellington's sister-in-law, lose a leg at Waterloo and become Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland.
17 May 1792
New York's first stock exchange was established when 24 merchants and stockbrokers signed an agreement under a buttonwood tree outside 68 Wall Street.
17 May 1824: Lord Byron’s diaries are burned
The salacious secrets penned in its pages are lost forever
On 19 April 1824, the poet and libertine Lord Byron died in Greece at the tender age of 36, having succumbed to a raging fever. Less than a month later, his grieving friends committed one of the greatest crimes in literary history. Gathering at the home of his publisher, John Murray, in Albemarle Street, London, they tore apart his memoirs and set them on fire.
How did such a wanton act of destruction come about? Between 1818 and 1821, Byron had compiled his memoirs, giving them to friend and fellow poet Thomas Moore to read. Moore sold them to Murray for 2,000 guineas, with the intention that they be published after Byron’s death – a plan that, in life, the poet was eager to carry out.
After his demise, though, Byron’s friend John Cam Hobhouse warned that the material within the manuscript was too sexually explicit to be revealed to the world. And on 17 May, Hobhouse and Moore met with Murray at the latter’s home to discuss the memoirs’ fate.
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During the gathering at Albemarle Street, attended also by the lawyers of both Byron’s widow and his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, the men agonised over the fate of Byron’s unpublished – and possibly most notorious – manuscript. Certainly, they feared that the lewd passages would destroy the poet’s posthumous reputation. It is likely, too, that the memoirs also contained defamatory material about not only Byron himself but also his friends present in that room.
At one point it was suggested that the manuscript should be hidden away, safe from prying eyes. However, it was deemed that the only way to truly secure such scandalous information was to erase it entirely. The pages containing Byron’s memories and incendiary opinions would have to be torn up and tossed in the fire.
Ever since, conjecture and rumours have swirled around Byron’s lost memoirs and the revelations they may have contained about the poet’s mysterious private life. Some scholars live in hope that a copy of the manuscript still exists somewhere; if so, it is yet to be discovered. Byron’s secrets, it seems, have gone with him to the grave. | Written by Helen Carr
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