Adultery, elopement and incest: the scandalous sex lives of the 18th-century Byrons

The renowned poet Lord Byron has gone down in history for being “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. But his ancestors were hardly paragons of virtue either, writes Emily Brand, who explores three generations of Georgian debauchery in her new book. Here, she shares just a few of the notorious scandals – from shipwrecks to incest…

The renowned poet Lord Byron has gone down in history for being “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. But his ancestors were hardly paragons of virtue. (Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In April 1816, the notorious George, sixth Lord Byron, was leaving England for the final time. Hounded by increasingly damaging accusations – of adultery, sodomy (then a capital offence), and incest with his half-sister – he was escaping to the continent. (His many homosexual encounters were seemingly not, for the moment, public knowledge.) Like most married men of his rank he had committed adultery and fathered illegitimate children. It was a self-professed era of pleasure and bawdiness, when men’s gallantries were routine, printed pornography blossomed, and the sex industry was not only thriving but highly visible. But even in this atmosphere, as intimate details of Byron’s own sexual tastes spilled into society, the line was drawn at such flagrant ungodliness. His travelling companion reported that, on his first night abroad, Byron consoled himself by falling “like a thunderbolt upon the chambermaid”. Second perhaps only to the Italian libertine Giacomo Casanova, he remains one of the most notorious seducers of the Georgian era.

A portrait of the poet Lord Byron with his ancestral home Newstead Abbey
A portrait of the poet Lord Byron with his ancestral home Newstead Abbey. (Image by Culture Club/Getty Images)

But he was not the only Byron to have forged a questionable sexual career – the name already carried the weight of certain unfortunate and immoral connotations. When he inherited his family title and estates in 1798 aged just ten, the recent history of the Byrons was already littered with adultery, elopement, illegitimacy and incest.

In April 1816, the notorious George, sixth Lord Byron, was leaving England for the final time. Hounded by increasingly damaging accusations – of adultery, sodomy (then a capital offence), and incest with his half-sister – he was escaping to the continent. (His many homosexual encounters were seemingly not, for the moment, public knowledge.) Like most married men of his rank he had committed adultery and fathered illegitimate children. It was a self-professed era of pleasure and bawdiness, when men’s gallantries were routine, printed pornography blossomed, and the sex industry was not only thriving but highly visible. But even in this atmosphere, as intimate details of Byron’s own sexual tastes spilled into society, the line was drawn at such flagrant ungodliness. His travelling companion reported that, on his first night abroad, Byron consoled himself by falling “like a thunderbolt upon the chambermaid”. Second perhaps only to the Italian libertine Giacomo Casanova, he remains one of the most notorious seducers of the Georgian era.

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A portrait of the poet Lord Byron with his ancestral home Newstead Abbey
A portrait of the poet Lord Byron with his ancestral home Newstead Abbey. (Image by Culture Club/Getty Images)

But he was not the only Byron to have forged a questionable sexual career – the name already carried the weight of certain unfortunate and immoral connotations. When he inherited his family title and estates in 1798 aged just ten, the recent history of the Byrons was already littered with adultery, elopement, illegitimacy and incest.


Listen: Emily Brand explores the dramatic lives of the Georgian aristocratic family whose lives were blighted by scandal long before the arrival of the renowned poet, on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


The Byrons’ taste for pleasure

In 1677, Lord Byron’s great-great-grandfather William (who would become the third Lord Byron), received with amusement an epistle from a friend, which fawningly asked:

“Is’t not enough the Byrons all excell,

As much in loving, as in fighting well?”

Years later, the amorous reputation of his son (also called William – the fourth Lord Byron) provoked gossip: his second wife had died in 1712, resulting in uncharitable tongues suggesting that “’tis said she died of a distemper her Lord gave her”. At the age of 51, the fourth Lord Byron took a third teenage wife, who dutifully provided him with a daughter and four sons who survived to adulthood: Isabella, William, John, Richard and George. (The second son, John, would become the famous poet’s grandfather.) Raised in aristocratic privilege in the 1720s and ’30s, these siblings developed an inevitable taste for pleasure, and the loss of their father in 1736 perhaps contributed to their inability to curb it.

Isabella – the only sister – held a lifelong determination to pursue true love which brought her to the limits of propriety. There is no evidence to suggest that her much-older first husband Henry, Lord Carlisle, was not her first sexual partner (although her marriage was dogged by rumours of infidelity). Though the marriage successfully produced five children, their struggles with impotence are implied by the presence amongst her notebooks of a remedy, tactfully noted in French, for “an ailment very common in men of a certain age”.

Isabella Byron, the only daughter of the fourth Lord Byron, painted by Thomas Gainsborough
Isabella Byron, the only daughter of the fourth Lord Byron, painted by Thomas Gainsborough. (Image by Mary Evans Picture Library)

Her brother William, becoming the fifth Lord Byron at just 13, plunged quickly into a world of heady dissipation as a young gentleman and grew accustomed to getting his way with women. Even while negotiating his marriage to a pretty teenage heiress, he was also stubbornly pursuing an actress – she later claimed that he actually had her abducted with the intent of compelling her to accept him, and threatened to kill himself if she did not oblige.

For his part, navy officer John (younger brother to the fifth Lord Byron), probably gained much of his sexual education in the Chilean city of Santiago, the final stop of a remarkable, five-year-long castaway survival story that began when he was 16. Certainly he was entranced by the bottom-pinching and half-naked women he flirted with at the local fandangoes. (Though one scurrilous and likely invented account later declared that he had lost his virginity to a cleaning girl at Westminster School when he was 12.) His eventual marriage to his cousin Sophia was affectionate and fruitful – despite his absences abroad, the couple had nine children in 13 years.

A portrait of John Byron, by Joshua Reynolds
A portrait of John Byron, by Joshua Reynolds. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Rampant infidelity

None of these siblings – even the ‘gallant’ John – managed to stay faithful to their spouses. William’s half-hearted commitment to his marriage only weakened as years drew on – his eyes wandered to his wife’s friends, servants, and pretty women sweeping across assembly room floors. “I never saw any thing more Cavalier”, his sister wrote, after witnessing his attentions to a married woman at a ball in York.

Isabella’s own marriage to Lord Carlisle was cloaked in gossip about her flirtations, and hints of infidelity. As a rich young widow “determin’d to pursue that which pleases me”, her reputation saw her targeted by mischievous suitors and caught up in scandalous trysts. When her second marriage to a toy boy baronet collapsed under angry accusations of adultery, she travelled Europe with a penniless German soldier who had charmed her into paying his way. The couple’s constant, unconvincing protests that there was “nothing improper” in their relationship only persuaded visitors that it was quite clearly a sexual affair.

Subjects of gossip

In the 1770s no fewer than three members of the family provided material for the gossiping Town and Country Magazine, which ran a monthly feature on high-society sex scandals. First was Isabella’s son Frederick, Lord Carlisle, and his amours abroad. Second, its revelation of John’s affair with his wife’s teenage chambermaid led to a humiliating public dissection of his entire sexual history. As well as his alleged encounters at school, he was credited with indulging in orgies with ‘princesses’ of the South Seas on his voyages, and being seduced by Italian landladies. But it was John’s eldest son, known as Jack – later the father of the poet – who could lay claim to the family’s most dissipated career of the century.

His appearance in the Town and Country Magazine provides the only known image of Jack, but it captures nothing of his good looks. (Its crude portraits were usually woefully inaccurate.) One newspaper later gushed that he had been spotted and was “reported by all the world to be as handsome as ever”.

The scandal that catapulted him to notoriety, in 1779, was his affair with the married Amelia, Lady Carmarthen. The subsequent divorce proceedings that followed saw their intimacies described in excruciating detail in court and the press: the bedsheets “much tumbled”, giggling behind closed doors, clandestine letters and illicit midnight meetings. Though the couple eventually married they had gained no friends by it. Official accounts painted him as a reckless and selfish youth; less sympathetic magazines labelled him a worthless nobody who had broken up a family and couldn’t stop boasting of his conquest.

Amelia, Lady Carmarthen
The scandal that catapulted Jack Byron to notoriety, in 1779, was his affair with the married Amelia, Lady Carmarthen, pictured. (Public Domain)

Incestuous relationships?

Evidence for the most shocking of Jack’s exploits comes in his private correspondence. In 1790, having abandoned his second wife Catherine and their infant son George, he took up with his eldest sister Fanny in France. On her departure his letters to her filled with boasts of his conquests, but repeatedly spilled into distinctly unbrotherly territory. He wrote passionately of her beauty, of his fury that she was his sister – and, ultimately, that during sex with other women, whenever he did anything “extraordinary” he could think only of her. On reading these sexually charged and self-indulgent missives it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the siblings had slipped into incest while living together (if not before), and sets an alarmingly prescient backdrop for the later relationship between Jack’s two surviving children, Augusta and the poet George.

Though it is unlikely that this affair became public knowledge, by the poet’s lifetime the seal had been set on his grandfather Jack’s reputation for immorality – he was posthumously accused of settling gambling debts by charging aristocratic ladies for sexual favours.

A legacy of scandal

It was Sophia Byron, wife of navy officer John and mother of Jack, who was perhaps the most long-suffering member of the family. She braved a series of scandals precipitated not only by the men, but also by her daughters: the married Fanny took a string of lovers and another eloped at 16. Despite poor health caused by decades of stress, Sophia clung to her pride and continued to attend fashionable soirees – once throwing a courtesan out of a salon held by her friend Hester Thrale. But despite this public hauteur, even the honourable Mrs Byron nursed a taste for the bawdy (and a hypocritical penchant for whatever gossip whirled around other people’s families). She did, however, have the sense to keep it behind closed doors.

When Sophia privately sent Hester an innuendo-ridden poem she found amusing – though it was ostensibly about a flower the imagery was relentlessly phallic – her friend wrote in her diary that she thought it “so obscene that I will not pollute my book with it”. And though she did not live to witness her poetic grandson’s distinguished career of debauchery and literary success, Hester followed it avidly on her behalf. In 1821, when Lord Byron had been abroad for almost five years, the elderly hostess reminisced about her old friend, commenting, “Poor Mrs Byron … would have enjoyed her grandson’s reputation, would not she?” With the rise of his celebrity, the poet had elevated the family’s reputation for scandal and seduction to new heights of notoriety.

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Emily Brand is an author and historian specialising in romantic relationships during the long 18th century. Her new book The Fall of the House of Byron is published by John Murray and available now