Who was Lord Byron?

Born George Gordon Byron on 22 January 1788, the poet – one of the famous of the Romantics – was the only son of Captain ‘Mad Jack’ Byron and Catherine Gordon, a Scottish heiress. Catherine relocated to Aberdeen with her infant son in 1789, where she was left to fend for herself after her husband’s exile to avoid being jailed for debt.


Byron’s childhood in Aberdeen was marred by hardship; his mother was volatile, flitting between violence and tenderness towards her son. She even allegedly dubbed him a ‘lame brat’ due to a birth defect affecting his foot.

Contemporary accounts suggest Byron was born with a clubfoot affecting his right side, which would have led to other physical health complications such as a shorter leg and altered gait.

In 1798, at the age of ten, Byron inherited Newstead Abbey and the title ‘Baron Byron of Rochdale’ upon his great uncle’s death. He would eventually sell the Abbey in 1818 for £94,500, to settle his debts.

Following his initial education at Aberdeen Grammar School, Byron then attended Harrow from the age of 13. By this time, he had discovered his love of writing and found a favourite spot: the graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Harrow-on-the-Hill.

He would refer to this location in a letter to John Murray when arranging the burial of his daughter Allegra, in 1822, saying: “There is a spot in the churchyard, near the footpath, on the brow of the hill looking towards Windsor, and a tomb under a large tree (bearing the name of Peachie, or Peachey), where I used to sit for hours and hours when a boy.”

After Harrow, Byron attended Trinity College, Cambridge, which he later reminisced as “the most romantic period of [his] life”. It was during his time there that an intriguing incident unfolded: upon being denied permission to bring his pet dog, Byron exploited a loophole in the university’s regulations and arrived with a bear instead. Remarkably, his argument that there were no explicit provisions against the more unconventional pet prevailed, and he could be seen walking the grounds with the bear.

After his time at university, Byron took up a seat in the House of Lords. However, he soon became restless and instead began a two-year long tour around Europe with his friend, John Cam Hobhouse. It was on this trip that he fell particularly in love with Greece, a passion that would define the later period of his life.

Lord Byron in Greek Costume
Romantic poet Lord Byron wearing Greek costume, after a painting by Thomas Phillips (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What is Lord Byron most famous for?

Lord Byron is renowned for his contributions to the Romantic movement in literature. He gained widespread fame with the first two cantos of his narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in 1812, the reflections of a young man disillusioned with his life of pleasure.

However, it is Byron’s satirical epic Don Juan that remains perhaps his most famous work today. Written in ottava rima, a form popularised by Italian poets, the poem follows the romantic escapades of its protagonist.

In addition to these works, Byron penned numerous other poems, including She Walks in Beauty and When We Two Parted. However, Byron’s influence extends beyond literature; he is also known for his love affairs that often embroiled him in scandal.

Lord Byron’s love affairs

Byron had countless love affairs with both sexes throughout his life. During his time at Trinity College, Cambridge, he fell in love with a choirboy, John Edleston. Their intimacy lasted until Byron left Cambridge, in 1807. His passion for Edleston is made clear in his poem To Thyrza:

Ours too the glance none saw beside;

The smile none else might understand;

The whisper'd thought of hearts allied,

The pressure of the thrilling hand;

The kiss so guiltless and refin'd

That Love each warmer wish forbore;

Those eyes proclaim'd so pure a mind,

Ev'n passion blush'd to plead for more.

Perhaps the most famous of all Byron’s affairs, though, was with Lady Caroline Lamb – wife to William Lamb, who would later become the 2nd Viscount Melbourne. The two met in 1812, and Byron was captivated.

The couple were far from discrete; Byron described her as “the cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago”. Caroline even attempted to persuade Byron to elope with her, despite still being married to William.

Portrait of Lady Caroline Lamb
Portrait of Lady Caroline Lamb, a friend of the English poet Lord Byron (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

This affair lasted from March to August, and its end would have a lasting impact on Caroline. She declared him ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ – a description that would forever be associated with him. And that wasn’t all; four years later, in 1816, she humiliated Byron in a highly esteemed novel Glenarvon, which depicts him as a character who betrays those around him.

Another of Byron’s love affairs wrapped in scandal – but somewhat unconfirmed – was with his married half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Despite being half-siblings, the two hadn’t met until Byron was a student at Harrow. After this meeting, the two wrote to each other regularly.

It is unknown how much truth there is to the claims of incest surrounding Byron and Augusta. The starkest piece of evidence lies in the birth of her third child, Elizabeth Medora Leigh, in 1814.

After visiting the newborn child, Byron wrote to a friend that: “Oh! but it is ‘worth while’, I can’t tell you why, and it is not an ‘Ape’, and if it is, that must be my fault; however, I will positively reform. You must however allow that it is utterly impossible I can ever be have so well lie else-where, and I have been all my life trying to make someone love me and never got the sort I preferred before.”

Many have taken Byron’s declaration of the child not being an ‘ape’ to refer to the expectations surrounding a child born from incest. He also declares that if the baby was born like this, then ‘that must be my fault’ – another hint that the child might have been his.

Regardless of the ambiguity surrounding the true nature of this relationship, London society did not take well to the rumour of Byron’s relationship with Augusta.

Seemingly to recover his damaged reputation, Byron proposed to Annabella Milbanke in the September of that same year. They were married in January 1815, and Annabella soon gave birth to a daughter in December, named Augusta Ada. She would later become Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer in history.

Why did Lord Byron separate from his wife?

In January 1816, just a year after their marriage, Annabelle left to live with her parents. Soon after, they separated.

It was clear from the start that Byron had not married his wife, Annabella Milbanke, due to love. It seems to have been in attempt to recover his reputation due to his many love affairs, and also due to financial necessity.

Romantic poet Lord Byron in profile, seated with his chin in his hand
Lord Byron was as well known for his affairs as his poetry (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

Why was Lord Byron exiled?

Byron’s separation from Annabella was far from straightforward. She had accused him of incest, as well as homosexuality and heterosexual sodomy. The latter two were viewed to be illegal.

In response, Byron left England in April 1816. He would never return.

What was Byron’s life like after exile?

Byron’s legal separation didn’t seem to teach him many lessons. After fleeing, he spent the Summer of 1816 with Percy Bysshe Shelley, his soon-to-be wife Mary Godwin and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont.

Having previously embarked on an affair with Claire, Byron rekindled their relationship during time spent in Lake Geneva, Italy. In 1817, she gave birth to their daughter, Allegra, in Bath.

For the next two years, Byron would embark on a further set of love affairs with various women – including his landlord’s wife, Marianna Segati, and Margarita Cogni, the wife of a Venetian baker, while he was in Italy.

But it was in 1819 that he began a more notable affair with Countess Teresa Guiccioli, a 19-year-old and again – married – woman. In 1820, Byron moved in with her; he wrote prolifically during this time, with works including The Prophecy of Dante.

How did Lord Byron die?

Byron’s earlier travels had instilled in him a love for the country of Greece. In July 1823, this love went a step further when he joined the Greek insurgents in the war for independence from the Turkish. He spent a total of £4000 while refitting the Greek fleet and, in December of the same year, took command of his own unit.

However, his health began to deteriorate. Byron had been prone to fevers for much of his life, but this one would prove to be his last. Doctors attempted to cure his afflictions by bloodletting, which would have ultimately made him weaker.

He regained consciousness to mutter his final words: ‘Now I shall go to sleep. Good night’ or ‘I want to sleep now’. He died on 19 April 1824, at the age of 36.

Why was Lord Byron refused a burial in Westminster Abbey?

Due to his fame, it was assumed that Byron would be laid to rest in Westminster Abbey upon bringing his body back to England. However, this was denied, on the grounds of ‘questionable morality’.

In 1969, however, a memorial to Byron was made on the floor of the Abbey.


Where is Lord Byron buried?

Byron is buried in St. Mary Magdalene Church, near Newstead Abbey. His heart, however, was buried in Missolonghi, Greece, where he died.

Life of the Week: Lord Byron

Member exclusive | Explore the lives of some of history’s most intriguing figures. In this episode, Corin Throsby discusses how the Romantic poet Lord Byron became the era's most scandalous celebrity.

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Lauren GoodDigital Content Producer, HistoryExtra

Lauren Good is the digital content producer at HistoryExtra. She joined the team in 2022 after completing an MA in Creative Writing, and she holds a first-class degree in English and Classical Studies, during which she studied ancient history and philosophy.