We bowed our heads and held our breath;
He taught us little, but our soul
Had felt him like the thunderís roll"
It was Easter Monday, 12th April 1824. The weather had - like the progress of the Greek struggle for independence - been stormy and unsettled. That evening, a terrific thunderstorm lashed the town of Missolonghi, where Byron lay on his sickbed. As the lightning flashed, superstitious townsfolk took the heavenís fury as an ominous sign, portending that "a great man has died".
He had. At a quarter to six, Byron, who had slept feverishly for twenty four hours, suddenly opened his eyes, then closed them for ever. He was thirty seven years old.
The Greeks, to whom the English lord had become a hero, were devastated. At Missolonghi, Prince Mavrocordato issued a proclamation of general mourning. At dawn on April 20th, a thirty seven gun salute - one for each of Byronís years - was fired from the Grand Battery. Public offices and all shops other than those selling food and medicine, were to stay closed for three days, Easter festivities were cancelled, and Requiem services were arranged in all major towns. On order of the Prince, black was worn for three weeks.
The rain was so torrential that the funeral had to be postponed until the 22nd April, when Byronís coffin was carried by his bodyguard to the church of St. Nicholas, draped in a black cloak, and surmounted by a helmet, a sword and a crown of laurel. Byronís remains then lay in state, before being carried back to his own house the next evening.
There was some debate as to what should be done with the body. The poetís last requests had been ambiguous. William Parry, who had accompanied Byron to Greece, said his compatriot had asked that "If I should die in Greece and you survive me, see that my body is sent to England". But Dr. Millingen, who had attended his deathbed, reported that the poet had requested "Here let my bones moulder - Lay me in the first corner, without pomp or nonsense." Leicester Stanhopeís imaginative suggestion, that Byron be interred at the summit of the Parthenon, were vetoed by the English authorities at Zante, who decided that the remains should be returned to England.
Before the sea journey, the body had to be embalmed, and the opportunity was taken to perform an autopsy. Despite Byronís reported plea before death to Dr. Millingen "Let not my body be hacked", five doctors clumsily did just that. The heart, brains, lungs and intestines were removed, and placed in separate spirit-filled vases, after which the body was spliced back together and packed in a tin coffin. On May 25th, to the sound of more cannons, Byronís body finally left Greece on the ship Florida.
Reports of the poetís death reached England before him, with devastating effect. His old friend John Cam Hobhouse opened the letter containing details of "the fatal event" and fell into "an agony of grief such as I have felt only twice in life."
As the news spread through England, all at once the same newspapers who had savaged both Byronís character and poetry when he was last in England were fulsome in their tributes:
"Thus has perished" announced the Morning Chronicle, "in the flower of his age, in the noblest of causes, one of the greatest poets England ever produced".
"The poetical literature of England" gushed the Morning Herald, "has lost one of its brightest ornaments, and the age decidedly its finest genius."
The news of Byronís death is said to have struck London "Like an earthquake". The poet Tennyson remembered the day he heard the news as, "A day when the whole world seemed to be in darkness for me". In more modern times, we have witnessed the profound sense of public shock etched on the memory of a nation by the deaths of figures such as Kennedy or Princess Diana. A similar kind of numbed disbelief seems to have reverberated through Byronís England at the passing of its most notorious poet.
Once again, the vexed question of burial. Poetís Corner in Westminster Abbey seemed a fitting shrine, but the Dean of Westminster, less forgiving than the newspapers of Byronís former scandals, refused the remains, and the Dean of St. Paulís followed suite. Estranged wife Lady Byron expressed no wishes in the matter, so Byronís half sister Augusta, as chief mourner, made the final decision that the coffin should go into the Byron family vault at the little church of Hucknall Torkard, Nottinghamshire - a few miles from Byronís beloved ancestral home, Newstead Abbey.
The first shock over, by the time of the funeral, Byronís aristocratic peers had regained their sang froid, and there was the embarrassing problem of how to pay ones last respects to the poet and hero of Greek Liberation without appearing to condone his still scandalous reputation. The solution was to send empty carriages, emblazened with their family crest to join the cortege, whilst not actually attending in person. Thus it was that a curious procession set out through London - The hearse with Byronís coffin was followed by a coach drawn by six black horses, bearing the vases containing his internal organs, draped with a black velvet pall. The mourners, amongst them Colonel Leigh (representing the grief stricken Augusta), the faithful Hobhouse, Hanson, the Byron family solicitor, who had known the poet from boyhood, and members of Byronís household, followed in separate coaches. At Hampstead Road the empty carriages turned back, and the cortege began its journey to Nottinghamshire.
Mary Shelley and her step sister Claire Claremont watched the hearse pass up Highgate Hill. Lady Caroline Lamb is said to have passed the cortege in Welwyn, but not to have found out until later that the deceased was her former lover. By the time the cavalcade arrived in Nottingham, the black plumes on the horsesí heads were covered in dust. The body was placed in a room at the Blackamoreís Head in Pelham Street, where for four days people queued to view the coffin. The procession from Nottingham to Hucknall, swelled by civic dignitaries and representatives from Missolonghi, was a quarter of a mile in length. At Hucknall Torkard church, the crowd was so large and unruly that it was difficult to carry the coffin inside. As his masterís remains were lowered into the family vault, below the stone flooring, Byronsí faithful Albania servant Tita staggered, overcome by emotion, and had to clutch the back of a pew to avoid falling. Fletcher, the servant who had accompanied in many of his travels, broke down.
Lord Byron did not, however, rest undisturbed. In 1938, by which time the cult of Byron had made the little church a visiting place for admirers world-wide, the Reverend Canon T.G. Barker, became bothered by rumours circulating that the poetís body did not actually lie at Hucknall, and interested to investigate possible archaeological remains under the chancel, gained permission from the Home Office to open the Byron vault and examine its contents.
To avoid too much public interest, the opening was kept secret. It was witnessed by a historian, a surveyor, a doctor, church officers and a deputation of local worthies - some forty curious people in total. The vicarís account describes in atmospheric detail this somewhat strange ceremony.
"Reverendly, very reverendly, I raised the lid, and before my eyes lay the embalmed body of Byron in as perfect a condition as when it had been placed in the coffin one hundred and fourteen years ago. His features and hair easily recognisable from the portraits with which I was so familiar...The feet and ankles were uncovered, and I was able to establish that his lameness had been that of the right foot".
Less reverend and more prurient was Mr. Houldsworth the churchwarden, who noted that the poetís "sexual organ showed quite abnormal development" and that the malformed foot that had caused the living Byron so much angst, was in fact missing. Inexplicably it was "detached from his leg and lay at the bottom of the coffin".
The vicar and his party were, it transpired, not the first to have disturbed Byronís grave. Examination revealed that the lead shell of Byronís coffin had been damaged by a previous, unrecorded opening, some time before the vault was resealed at his daughter Adaís entombment in 1852.
Someone, evidently, couldnít resist a final peep. And even now, two centuries after Byronís birth, historians, biographers, and all those of us who still feel his fascination continue to sift through his remains - the letters, poems, lore and life-history of the man - searching for some understanding of the enigma that was Byron. Genius or madman? Victim or tyrant? - the juryís still out on Byron, and maybe it always will be. Perhaps George Gordon Byron never will Ďrest in peaceí. But then again, peace and quiet never really were his style...