Hailed as one of the greatest poets in the history of the English language, Lord Byron and his poetry continue to be admired and studied to this day. What has also endured, however, is Byron’s dark legacy as a person, with a history of heartbreak, seduction, and even taboo relationships to his name. Here are 43 facts you might not have known about the controversial poet.
1. An Even Half-Dozen
Byron’s full name was George Gordon Byron. He was the 6th person in his family to hold the title of “Baron Byron.” Since he would die without a legitimate son, the title would be passed on to his cousin.
2. Where’s Byron?
There is some dispute as to where Byron was born. Records state that he was born on the 22nd of January, 1788, but accounts differ as to whether he was born in London or in Dover.
3. Living That Lifestyle
Due to his unprecedented popularity as an artist, Byron is often considered the first “celebrity.” In his lifetime, he was hailed as the greatest living poet in the world. All that he needed was a rock band to front, and he’d have fit in perfectly into the 20th century.
4. Dear Old Dad
Byron’s father was named John Byron, though he was known during his lifetime as “Mad Jack.” After a tumultuous personal life, Mad Jack died of unknown causes at the young age of 35. Lord Byron later claimed that his father had cut his own throat, though this is unproven; he likely died of tuberculosis or an overdose.
5. Gone Too Soon
Tragically, Byron would himself only surpass his father’s lifetime by a single year.
6. Would You Call That a Deadbeat?
Byron’s father and mother, Catherine Gordon, had a truly tumultuous marriage. Things got so bad between the parents that they tried living in separate houses on the same street to gain a bit of distance. This failed to solve their problems (as anyone could have predicted, really), and “Mad Jack” became so fed up with his wife and young son that he abandoned them for Scotland, where he would meet an early death, deeply in debt.
7. The Gold Diggers of 1779
Before marrying Catherine and fathering Lord Byron, Mad Jack had already gained a dark reputation as a reckless, philandering man. His first wife was Amelia Osborne, a fabulously wealthy Marchioness. Mad Jack wasted no time seducing her, but his treatment of her soon turned “brutal and vicious.” Tragically, Amelia died in childbirth, and Mad Jack moved onto the also wealthy Catherine.
8. Big Shoes to Fill
Believe it or not, Byron’s eccentric father was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the madhouse that was the Byron family; many members had notorious reputations for womanizing and gambling. One of the most infamous examples was the 5th Baron Byron, who was known as a lust-monger and murderer. Who can really blame Byron for turning out the way he did?
9. Where Is the Grass Greener?
As if the Byrons weren’t chaotic enough, Byron’s mother’s family, the Gordons, were also wracked with tragedy. In the span of just five years, Catherine lost her two sisters and both her parents to various accidents and misfortunes.
10. Club Foot
Byron was born with a deformed foot, and he was lamed by it for the rest of his life. The cause of this deformity remains uncertain, with some historians guessing that it might have been an improper bone formation known as dysplasia. Byron was highly self-conscious of his foot, even nicknaming himself “the limping devil.”
11. You’re the Best Around! No-one’s Ever Gonna Keep You Down!
Despite his physical limitations, and maybe partly because of them, Byron was deeply committed to sports and exercise. He became particularly known for boxing, horseback riding, and swimming. Of course, his limp meant that he couldn’t pursue physical activity nearly as much as he would have wanted, but nobody can say he didn’t try.
12. Mama’s Boy
Raised mostly by his mother, the young Byron quickly grew to share her passion for reading. Byron would read such classics as Arabian Nights, as well as history books and the Bible. It’s not surprising that Byron would grow up to become a writer in his own right.
Byron also inherited a very short and violent temper from his mother. The young Byron would suffer fits of fury, but unlike most angry kids, his tantrums were often eerily noiseless. Such was his “silent rage” that on one occasion, he actually bit so hard into a china saucer, a piece came off in his mouth.
14. This Won’t Make Thanksgiving Awkward, Right?
Byron allegedly wrote his first poem in 1800. It was a love poem written in honor of his, er, cousin, Margaret Parker. In fact, Parker wasn’t the only one of Byron’s cousins to catch his eye: he also felt a romantic attachment to his relative Mary Duff.
15. Big Spender
Even after growing up dodging his father’s debt creditors, Byron inherited what his mother would call a “reckless disregard for money.” He spent his adult life racking up debts of his own, and was forced to leave England in 1816 partly to escape his own creditors.
16. The Perks of Nobility
In 1798, the 10-year-old Byron acquired the title of “Baron” when his great-uncle died. The transition from his previous life to this new phase was so emotionally turbulent that the child Byron reportedly burst into tears when he first attended class and was addressed by the Latin word for “lord.”
17. How Inconvenient
As was common among the nobility at the time, Byron embarked on a grand tour of Europe from 1809 to 1811. Of course, fans of history will remember that the Napoleonic Wars were tearing Europe apart at the time, so Byron focused his travels to the nations bordering on the Mediterranean.
18. Land o’ Scots
Byron fell ill with scarlet fever when he was around eight years old. His mother relocated her ailing son to the Scottish Highlands in the hope that the change of scenery would improve his condition. Byron was deeply affected by this stint, and the highlands are brought up frequently in his later poetry.
19. Let’s Give Them Back!
The British Lord Elgin once removed multiple marble columns from the Parthenon in Athens. When Byron was given a tour of the Parthenon, he noticed the gaps and empty spaces. Outraged, he expressed his severe disapproval of Elgin in at least two of his written works. Sadly, Elgin wasn’t abashed or remorseful, nor did he offer to return the marbles.
20. You’re So Vain
Byron received a lot of attention in his life, partly because of his very handsome features. He was certainly aware of his physical charms, and he worked to make sure he stayed as good-looking as possible. One of his strategies was to wear “curl-papers” in his hair while he slept.
21. I Love the Smell of Sea Salt in the Morning!
On the 3rd of May, 1810, Byron swam the Hellespont Strait from Europe to Asia. This was the first-ever recorded incident of a man swimming in open water as a recreational activity, and led to the recognition of open water swimming as a hobby. Byron’s part in fueling this activity is honored every year by a swimming event in the Hellespont Strait that recreates that first trek across the water.
22. I Hate That Guy
Byron had unbridled contempt for the famous British poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In one particular example of Byron’s hate, he nicknamed Wordsworth “Turdsworth” in a personal letter. Stay classy, Byron.
23. As Played by…
As you can imagine, many actors have portrayed Byron on film and television. Some of these actors are Hugh Grant, Dennis Price, and Gabriel Byrne.
24. Red Flags?
Being rather vain, Byron was deeply concerned about his weight. Throughout his adult life, he fluctuated between 130 and 200 pounds, and tried to regulate himself by dieting. He spent large portions of his life as a vegetarian, and sometimes survived on white wine and dry biscuits alone. He also often wore clothes that made him sweat profusely. But it never lasted: the poet often broke his diet by indulging in vast portions of meat and desserts, after which he’d purge his body and start over.
25. He Went Both Ways
Byron may have been bisexual. While studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, he developed a very close relationship with a younger student named John Edleston, though the nature of their time together is still ambiguous. While he was in Greece, however, he wrote several poems in honor of a young man named Lukas Chalandritsanos, whom he adored.
26. Mad About You
The poet adored animals, particularly dogs. As a youth, he had a pet Newfoundland dog named Boatswain. Sadly for Byron, Boatswain contracted rabies. Instead of abandoning him, though, Byron tried to help his beloved pet, dismissing any risk of being bitten in the name of nursing the afflicted animal. It was in vain: Boatswain died.
27. Man’s Best Friend
Though he barely had any money for himself when Boatswain succumbed to rabies, Byron commissioned a monument for the dog at Newstead Abbey, and even initially requested that he be buried beside him.
28. Grin and Bear It
When Byron studied at Trinity College, he was miffed to find out that keeping dogs wasn’t permitted. Like any Arts major worth their salt, Byron determined to stick it to the Man in the most outrageous way possible. After combing the guidelines of the college, Byron discovered that there was no rule forbidding anyone from keeping a bear with them. As a result, Byron kept a tame bear in his room!
29. How Much Did He Pay for Pet Food?!
The poet would go on to keep a huge variety of pets across his various homes throughout Europe. Besides the usual cats and dogs, Byron also kept horses, monkeys, peacocks, geese, guinea hens, an eagle, a badger, a fox, a heron, an Egyptian crane, a falcon, a crow, and a goat! We regretfully must add that he didn’t also keep a partridge in a pear tree.
30. When Writers Unite
While Byron was living abroad in Switzerland, he became good friends with another pair of writers: Percy and Mary Shelley. In fact, it was while they were spending time with Byron in the June of 1816, sheltering from a three-day storm, that Mary Shelley developed her famous novel Frankenstein.
31. You’re Welcome, Bela Lugosi!
Perhaps not surprisingly, Byron is one of the inspirations for our traditional image of a vampire. The same time that Byron was hanging out with the Shelleys, another of his companions was John William Polidori. Byron inspired Polidori to create the aristocratic vampire archetype in his book The Vampyre. Aping Byron, this character is a wealthy, decadent figure who is handsome and charming, yet undoubtedly harbors a dark inner nature. Bram Stoker then used that archetype when he wrote Dracula, the defining novel of vampire literature.
32. Incomplete Classic
One of Byron’s most famous works is his epic poem Don Juan. Based on the legendary figure of the same name, the poem is actually a satire. Rather than being a womanizer, the Don Juan is the one being seduced by women. The poem came under fire for its “immoral content,” but that didn’t stop it from being very popular in its day. Sadly, Byron never finished the poem; the seventeenth canto remained unfinished at the time of his tragic death.
33. Wayward Dad
It’s uncertain how many children Byron had, as only one of them was legitimate. You might know this child as Ada Lovelace, whose own life was as renowned as her famous father. As for illegitimate children, Byron is known to have had a son by one of his maids, and a daughter named Clara Allegra with a stepsister to Mary Shelley.
34. Unhappy Childhood
As a child, Byron was subjected to abuse from at least two different people in his life. One was a nurse named May Gray, who was said to have “perpetually” beat him to the point that it shocked any witnesses. After this, a man named Lavender was assigned to look after him and hopefully cure his foot condition. Instead, Byron was abused by Lavender, too, until he was able to tell his mother and have the man dismissed.
35. If the Shoe Fits…
In 1816, one of Byron’s former lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, published her novel Glenarvon. The story featured a main character who was very clearly based on Byron himself, and it was not at all a flattering portrait. Lamb also famously called Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
36. Loved and Left
It was a well-publicized scandal when Byron was discovered having an affair with Caroline Lamb, who was a married woman at the time. The poet soon moved on, but Lamb never got over their fling. She would stalk him, sometimes even in disguise, in the hopes of winning him back. But that wasn’t even the worst of it.
Her deteriorating emotional state caused her to lose so much weight during this time that Byron joked to his friend that he was being “haunted by a skeleton.” When she left a message saying, “Remember me!” on his desk, Byron mocked the message with a poem that he titled “Remember Thee! Remember Thee!”
37. Bad Breakup
As you can imagine, Byron’s flings were often tumultuous, but few ended in as much tragedy as his affair with Margarita Cogni. Cogni was 22 years old, married, and illiterate when she moved into Byron’s Venice home with him. Cogni and Byron were said to fight so fiercely that Byron would frequently sleep in his gondola to get away from her. Their affair ended with Byron insisting that she move out. In response, Cogni threw herself into one of Venice’s canals.
38. Twice Beloved
One of the wildest rumors about Byron’s love life was that he had an incestuous affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Having grown apart in their youth, Byron and Leigh later did develop a very “close” bond as adults. Historians are deeply divided to this day just how close these two actually were, but a few experts do suspect that Leigh’s daughter Medora was the fruit of a love affair with Byron.
39. Til Debts Do Us Part
Whether or not these rumors are true, they spurred Byron into a quick marriage with Annabella Millbanke, the mother of his legitimate daughter Ada. Unsurprisingly, it was not a happy union. Pretty soon, Millbanke became certain that Byron was insane and still obsessed with his half-sister Augusta. She separated from him and he, still dogged by rumors and his many debts, fled to mainland Europe. He would never return while he was alive.
40. It’s All Greek to Me
The last years of Byron’s life were spent in Greece, trying to raise money for the Greeks as they struggled to fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire.
41. Dying Days
In February 1824, while in Greece, Byron suddenly took ill. Though for a time it seemed like he might recover, in April he contracted a ruthless fever and was dead within days. Historians still puzzle over his death, but they’ve suggested a disturbing possibility: the treatment for Byron’s illness involved blood-letting, which was likely carried out with non-sterilized instruments. With such unsanitary conditions, the great poet may have died of sepsis. He was 36 years old.
42. After Death
Byron is hailed as a hero to this day in Greece, and a Greek version of his surname became a popular boys’ name. In England, meanwhile, he had already been popular, but his young death fighting an underdog’s cause led to him being lionized. His coffin lay in state in London for two days, drawing countless mourners.
43. How Poetic
Allegedly, Byron’s last words were Oh questa è una bella scena.” Translated from Italian, it means “Oh, this is a beautiful scene.”
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