"Newstead! What saddening scene of change is thine,
Thy yawning arch betokens sure decay;
The last and youngest of a noble line
Now holds thy mouldering turrets in his sway"
(Elegy on Newstead Abbey, Lord Byron)

Byron at Newstead Abbey

Byron’s mother, Catherine Gordon, raised in Gight Castle in the highlands of Scotland, had a Celtic fondness for romantic ruins, turbulent history, fortune-telling and the supernatural. His Scots nurse, May Grey, a hell-fire Calvinist, evidently shared the fascination, regaling her young charge with bedtime stories of ghosts and ‘bogies’. Both mother and son were avid readers, and devoured the Gothic novels which were the literary rage of the day - dark extravagant fantasies of murder, intrigue and madness such as William Beckford’s "Vathek" or Mrs. Radcliffe’s "Mysteries of Udolpho". Little wonder then that it was love at first sight for Lord Byron and Newstead Abbey.

At the impressionable age of ten, the boy who was later to become the most influential English poet of the Regency age discovered that he had inherited from a flamboyantly mad English grand uncle a baronetcy and the ownership of a rambling, semi-derelict mansion - Newstead.

Wee George , accompanied by his mother and his nurse, made what was doubtless a rather gruelling three day journey by stage coach from Scotland to Nottinghamshire, to view the ancestral hall of the Byron family, arriving on an August afternoon in 1798.

The sight that greeted them might have cast most hopeful heirs into instant depression. The park, which Horace Walpole described at an earlier date as "charming", had been systematically despoiled of its timber and deer by the 5th Lord, some said as an act of spite after his son married against his wishes. The East wing of the house was open to the sky, and the Refectory so derelict that it was being used as a store for hay. As one of Byron’s friends described it later, "Of the Abbey Church, one end only remains; and the old kitchen is reduced to a heap of rubbish". The only room with a dry roof was the scullery, where the Byron’s predecessor, the 5th Baron or "Wicked Lord" was said to have spent the last years of his eccentric life, accompanied by his troop of tame crickets.

For Byron and his mother however, the rambling, ruinous edifice, with its picturesque setting, colourful legends, and ghostly echoes of "Far off sad unhappy times and battles long ago", was the perfect gothick mansion.

The hall was heavily mortgaged, and the Byrons had no money, so initially the property was let to a tenant, Lord Grey de Ruthyn, whilst the poet and his mother lodged in Nottingham and later Southwell. He occasionally lodged at the gatehouse however, and took the opportunity to ride around the estate and call on his neighbours. It was during one of these teenage summers at Newstead, that Byron supposedly fell passionately in love with Mary Chaworth, his "Star of Annesley", the pretty seventeen year old heiress of the neighbouring estate, two years his senior and already romantically involved with another local blade, the dashing Jack Musters. Two years her junior, and podgy with it, the teenage Byron was no match for "Handsome Jack", but his infatuation with his Newstead neighbour helped to fuel his early dashes into poetry.

It was not until 1808, after graduating from Cambridge, that Byron was finally able to move in, sharing his new residence with a tame bear, a "wolf-dog", and a collection of housemaids selected more for their sex-appeal than their skill with a linen press. He fitted up a (supposedly haunted) room in the former Priors’ lodgings as his bedchamber, and used the roofless refectory as a shooting gallery for pistol practise. One of the cells off the old cloisters, said to have been used as a mortuary by the abbey’s monks, he had flooded and used as a plunge pool. One of the few building works he was able to carry out was a monumental tomb to his beloved Newfoundland dog, Boatswain, who died of rabies.

The dog was interred in a garden vault on the site of the high altar of the ancient abbey church, with instructions that on his own death he should be buried in the same vault, along with the favourite old retainer inherited from the household of the "Wicked Lord", Joe Murray. When taxed on the matter later, however, Joe seemed less enthusiastic, observing that "If I was sure his lordship would come here, I should like it well enough, but I should not like to lie alone there with the dog". As things worked out, Byron's remains never did come to rest at Newstead, but in the family vault of Hucknall Torkard church, the Abbey having passed out of his possession by that time.

For the first time in his life free and independent (though creditors were already beginning to mutter), Byron took the opportunity for some devilment with his Cambridge cronies. A letter by his friend Charles Skinner Matthews (dated 1809) paints a lively picture of their Gothic frolics, which no doubt had local tongues wagging:

"It was frequently past two before the breakfast party broke up...Between seven and eight we dined, and our evening lasted from that time until one, two or three in the morning,..I must not omit the custom of handing round after dinner, on the removal of a cloth, a human skull filled with Burgundy...A set of monkish dresses, which had been provided with all the proper apparatus of crosses, beads, tonsures &c, often gave variety to our appearance and pursuits"...

Byron only actually lived at Newstead for a short time - from 1808 to 1809, before his first tour of the Mediterranean, and from 1811 to 1815, when he married. Yet the place made an impression on his imagination, out of all proportion with the time he actually spent there, as demonstrated by the poetry it inspired:

"Through thy battlements, Newstead, the hollow winds whistle,
Thou, the hall of my father, art gone to decay;
In thy once smiling garden, the hemlock and thistle
have choked up the rose which once bloom’d in the way"...
(Lines on Leaving Newstead Abbey)

"Newstead! What saddening scene of change is thine,
Thy yawning arch betokens sure decay;
The last and youngest of a noble line
Now holds thy mouldering turrets in his sway"...
(Elegy on Newstead Abbey)

The "grey-worn towers" of Newstead were the ideal Gothic backdrop against which Byron could act out his fantasies of lordship and indulge his taste for doomy introspection. Certainly they fired his imagination and fuelled his poetry. The sad and rather ironic reality was that much as he adored the abbey, financially it was a millstone. Whatever else the poet inherited from his Byron ancestors it was a tendency to live beyond his means, and a lifelong flirtation with the bailiffs meant that he never had the funds to do more towards a restoration of the Abbey than the temporary patching up of a few rooms. When Hanson, the family lawyer, urged that sale the of Newstead was the only escape route out of pecuniary ruin, Byron replied, grandiosely "Come what may, Newstead and I stand or fall together. I have now lived on the spot. I have fixed my heart upon it, and no pressure, present or future, shall induce me to barter the last vestige of my inheritance". In 1817, by which time he was up to his neck in unpaid debt, and had left England, a disastrous marriage, and a scandalous reputation behind him, Byron sold the Abbey to an ex-school friend, Colonel Wildman. He never saw Newstead again.