How would I describe a visit to Newstead Abbey? Well, it’s like walking into a Gothic novel. The Romantic ruins of the west front and the cloisters of the 12th century Augustinian priory survive, serving as a testament to the violence of the dissolution of the monasteries, whilst the remains have long since been appropriated into a comfortable, if crumbling, aristocratic country residence. Inside, the Great Hall is decorated with the obligatory heraldic flags and coats of arms, and all the stock motifs of the Northanger Novels can be ticked off; a suit of armour, check; a heavy wooden chest, check – and no doubt packed with mouldering ancient manuscripts, or failing that, a lone laundry list; and of course, there’s a secret doorway. You don’t have to be Catherine Morland to have your imagination go into overdrive, not when ‘Mad, bad, and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron’s reputation precedes him. The poet’s ancestral home unquestionably remains a draw for his admirers, but for every Claire Clairmont style super-fan there’s bound to be someone who just doesn’t see the appeal – and sure enough at last month’s free Heritage Open Day I did overhear someone question what all the fuss was about when Byron only lived at Newstead for a couple of years. Shocking – I know.
Byron lived at Newstead Abbey on-and-off between 1808-1814 before finally selling-up in 1818, and the former library is now home to the Byron Collection – comprising letters, manuscripts, portraits, and even his old boxing gloves. Don’t miss the review of ‘Don Juan’ that warns this is unsuitable reading for young ladies – now there’s a recommendation if ever there was one! I think it’s time to dust off those Norman cantos…
This is someone whose private life is every bit as tantalizing as his poetry, and following the visitor route round to what was Byron’s bedroom, there was inevitably a queue of ladies waiting to climb the spiral staircase for a peek inside – not much has changed in 200 years on that score! Here stands Byron’s bed – the very giltwood fourposter he brought with him from his student rooms at Cambridge – and a pistol still lies on his bedside table. If walls could talk, this room would have some tales to tell. Legend has it that it was in the neighbouring dressing-room where the ghost of a monk appeared to Byron to warn him against marrying Annabella Millbanke. Alas, the supernatural omen was not heeded and the wedding went ahead in January 1815. As foretold, it proved to be a disastrous union. Not only were the pair a bad match in terms of temperament but the marriage was dogged by scandal, with Byron suspected of conducting an incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh.
Whilst the women in Byron’s life came and went, he remained devoted to his dog, Boatswain. When the Newfoundland died of rabies in 1808, he had a monument erected at Newstead, inscribed to ‘One who possessed Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity, and all the Virtues of Man without his Vices.’ Whatever Byron’s own vices may have been, at least he was an animal lover – cue fangirl swoon. Mounting debts finally forced Byron to sell Newstead to his old school friend, Thomas Wildman in 1818. Understanding the importance of ancestral ties, Wildman asked Byron to leave a portrait of himself behind, but on Halloween it is easy to imagine he never really left. On 17th April 2015 Haunted Events UK will be marking the anniversary of Byron’s death with a commemoration at Newstead Abbey. If he doesn’t make an appearance himself, maybe the mysterious monk will be on hand to offer relationship advice.