From an early age, Byron had a noted fondness for animals, and his household - wherever he settled - always included a collection of creatures.
Whilst a student at Cambridge, Byron was irked that university rules banned keeping a dog. With characteristic perversity, he installed a tame bear instead. There being no mention of bears in their statutes, the college authorities had no legal basis to complain. In one of his letters, Byron cheekily suggests that his ursine friend "should sit for a fellowship".
When Byron graduated, and took up residence in his ancestral home, the rambling, ruinous Newstead Abbey, the bear went with him. His predecessor at Newstead, the eccentric 5th baron Byron, also seems to have enjoyed unusual pets, for he is said to have kept a tame wolf at the Abbey. Along with Newstead, the poet inherited what must have been a descendant of this animal, a "wolf dog" named Lyon, which he described as "...A cur of mine...(half a wolf on the Ďsheí side) that doted on me at ten years old and very nearly ate me at twenty! He bit away the backside of my breeches and never would consent to any recognition in despite of all kinds of bones which I offered him". Charles Skinner Matthews, Byronís houseguest in 1809, reported that "Playing with the bear or teasing the wolf" was a regular amusement. Byronís mother recorded that the food for the dog cost £20 a year (at a time when a housemaidís wages and lodging was only around £30 per annum). Despite its bad temper and expensive appetite, Byron evidently thought enough of Lyon to commission a painting of him by a Nottingham animal and sporting artist, and the picture can still be seen at Newstead today.
The best known of Byronís animal companions is Boatswain, whose portrait is also displayed at the Abbey. Byron always refers to him as a Newfoundland, but according to animal historian Gerald Pendred, the ears, coat and head-shape of the handsome black and white dog shown in the picture suggest some husky blood. Certainly he was - like his master - a strong swimmer. A tenant farmer told that whilst by the Upper Lake at Newstead he sometimes saw the poet "get into the boat with his two noble Newfoundland dogs, row into the middle of the lake, then dropping the oars tumble over into the middle of the water. The faithful animals would immediately follow, seize him by the coat collar, one on each side, and bear him away to land..."
Perhaps the second dog was "Thunder". Mrs. Francis, a former servant at the Abbey, wrote that two rather battered brass collars still shown at Newstead were damaged through the dogsí scraps with Byronís bear. She recorded that Thunder "though the largest dog, was not so courageous, and could seldom be induced to face the bear".
The same Mrs. Francis tells the sad tale of how Boatswain, being in the habit of following the postboy to Mansfield, was bitten by a rabid dog in the town and fell ill. Moore, Byronís biographer, writes how, as the dog foamed at the mouth, the grief stricken poet gently wiped away the slaver with his own hands. Despite his many debts, Byron commissioned an impressive marble monument for his canine friend, - the only piece of building Byron ever carried out at Newstead - and the dog was buried in a garden vault amongst the old Abbey ruins. The carved epitaph celebrates
"One who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the virtues of Man without his vices..."†
When the American writer Washington Irving visited Newstead in Victorian times, he was greeted by "a memento of Lord Byron, a great black and white Newfoundland dog who accompanied his remains from Greece. He was descended from the famous Boatswain... a cherished inmate of the Abbey...honoured and caressed by every visitor".
In Italy Byron acquired a bulldog called Moretto. Whilst at Livorno, when the close proximity of the Leigh Hunt household and its noisy pack of ill-disciplined offspring was beginning to jar on Byronís nerves, he hit on the novel method of keeping the kids out of his private rooms by training the dog to stand on the stairs and snarl at them.
During his courtship of Theresa Guccioli, Byron rented the upper floor of her husband, Count Guccioliís villa in Ravenna and proceeded to make himself at home by installing a menagerie of "ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon." When the poet Shelley visited the count a few month later, he was met on the staircase by "five peacocks, two guinea hens and an Egyptian crane". In 1819 Byron wrote happily to his friend Francis Hodgson, "I have got two monkeys and a fox - and two new mastiffs - Mutz is still in high old age. The monkeys are charming."
Such was his weakness for animals that when his coach travelled from Pisa to Genoa in 1822, it did so with three cackling geese swinging from cages off the back. On being told that they were being fattened up for Michaelmas, he decided to rescue them from the oven. On his departure for Greece, Byron placed the birds in the care of his Genovese banker, who wrote a bemused letter to Kinnaird, his London counterpart, after the poetís death, asking what was to be done with them.
On Byronís departure to Greece in 1823 the entourage included his bulldog Moretto, and a Newfoundland, Lyon, whose enthusiastic devotion to his master proved him a latter-day Boatswain. By the time the party had reached Missolonghi, Byron was in precarious health, and disillusioned and depressed by the turbulent progress of the war. His only relief from the stress was to romp with Lyon for excercise - "Lyon, thou art an honest fellow, Lyon. Thou art more faithful than men, Lyon; I trust thee more." The faithful Lyonís last duty was to accompany his masterís body home to England on the "Florida"
Lady Byron, no animal lover, wrote superciliously of her estranged husband that "the reason why some tyrannical characters have been fond of animals and humane to them is because they have no exercise of reason and could not condemn the wickedness of their master." Perhaps the real reason was that in the unwavering loyalty and simple affection of his animals Byron found the non- judgemental love he craved, but rarely received, from his human relationships.
Image: Portrait of Boatswain the Newfoundland