"In submitting to the public eye the following collection, I ... may incur the charge of presumption for obtruding myself on the world, when, without doubt, I might be, at my age, more usefully employed." (Lord Byron)

Tales of Newstead

Eternally romantic and beautiful, like a smaller version of the great cathedrals of Wells or Salisbury, the great West front of Newstead Abbey stands as one of the most perfect examples of 13th Century monastic architecture. The Abbey has a long history, but it is the spirit of the 6th Lord Byron which pervades the place today.

Like many an old house, Newstead Abbey has it's fair share of tall stories and ghostly apparitions. Many of these tales would have been known to Lord Byron, and no doubt served to increase his enthusiasm for the gothic pile that he had inherited. Here follows some of the better known of the stories that surround Newstead.

Murder Most Foul

Like many a Gothic novel, the history of Newstead Abbey begins, in a roundabout way, with a murder. King Henry II, after a series of violent disagreements over the powers of Church and State with his one-time friend and archbishop, Thomas A Becket, asked "will no one rid me of this turbulent priest", and four of his knights promptly did, by butchering the churchman in Canterbury cathedral. Becket became a saint and King Henry a penitent, performing several acts of public atonement for his part in the murder. One of them, according to tradition, was the founding in 1170 of Newstead Priory.

The murder by the 5th Lord Byron of his neighbour William Chaworth, was one of the scandals of Regency England. Byron, Chaworth, and a number of other Nottinghamshire landowners were in the habit of meeting weekly for dinner at the Star & Garter tavern in London’s Pall Mall. One week, when drinks and conversation had been flowing freely, and the subject turned to game, a remark by Chaworth about the number of hares on his estate inexplicably aroused The "Wicked Lord’s" notoriously manic temper. Demanding a duel, Byron drew his sword, and a scuffle by candlelight ended with Chaworth mortally wounded. As a peer of the realm, "Devil Byron" claimed the right to be tried by the House of Lords, was found guilty of manslaughter, but evaded any serious penalty by an anachronistic legal loophole called "Benefit of Clergy".

Legend tells that this was not the only occasion when the Wicked lord’s temper proved murderous. A local story relates that annoyed when his coachman disobeyed an order, the irascible Baron promptly shot him dead, threw him into the carriage with the terrified lady Byron, and jumped into his place to drive the carriage himself.

Ghostly Phenomena

Besides the poet Byron, Newstead’s other most famous inhabitants are its ghosts. The American writer, Washington Irving, visiting Newstead in Victorian times, was lodged in a bedroom "haunted by Sir John Byron the Little, with the great beard. The ancient, black looking picture of this family worthy, which hangs over the door of the great saloon, was said to descend occasionally at midnight from its frame and walk the round of the state apartments. A young lady on a visit to the Abbey declared that ...she saw Sir John...seated by the fireplace, reading out of a great black letter book".

Irving, evidently no faint-heart when it came to the supernatural, then tried a night in the so-called ‘Rook Cell’, "For in this chamber Lord Byron declared he had more than once been harassed at midnight by mysterious visitors. A black shapeless form would sit cowering upon his bed, and, after gazing at him for a time with glaring eyes, would roll off and disappear". The poet’s bedchamber was said to be one of the haunts (literally!) of the ghostly Black Friar - made famous as the ‘Goblin Friar’ in the ‘Norman Abbey’ section of ‘Don Juan’.

"His form you may trace but not his face
Tis shadowed by a cowl:
but his eyes may be seen from the folds in between
And they seem of a parted soul."

The appearance of the Friar was believed to portend bad luck for the family who had usurped his monastic home.

A mysterious column of cold white mist has been reported to materialise in a corner of one of the panelled bedrooms. The cloisters, according to Mrs. Fraser, who owned Newstead Abbey in the nineteenth century, was roamed nocturnally by a "Shapeless black mass with glowing eyes", and Nanny Smith, who had worked at the Abbey in the poet’s day, had heard of a lady visitor who "when she was lying in bed, saw a lady all in white, come out of a wall on one side of the room and go into the wall on the other side".

Ghostly noises seem to be a Newstead speciality. The sceptical Nanny Smith was troubled by phantom footsteps whilst cleaning the dining room, low melancholy music is said to emanate occasionally from the poet’s bedroom, and on blustery days out in the park, passers by have been surprised variously by the sound of an invisible troop of riders, the sounds of a ghostly carriage and a woman’s voice crying out "Speak to me, my Lord Byron, only speak to me!" Colonel Wildman, who bought the Abbey from the poet, told Washington Irving how, one moonlit night soon after his moving in, he heard a noise, and deduced that one of the groundsmen must be moving the heavy garden roller over the gravel outside. Quizzed on the matter in the morning, the gardeners maintained that the roller had been locked up all night. Less ghostly but just as intriguing is an eerie acoustic effect said to be occasionally produced by the wind through the huge ruined arch of the West front, as described in one of Byron’s verses,

"- now louder, now fainter,
the gale sweeps through its fretwork...
But in the noontime of the moon, and when
The wind is winged from one point of heaven,
There moans a strange unearthly sound which then
Is musical...
The fact: I’ve heard it - once perhaps too much".

Some of Newstead’s unexplained noises have, however, have proved less sinister. By Edwardian times, the haunted rooms of Newstead were firmly on the tourist itinerary, and one distinguished visitor was Princess Alexandra. During her tour of the house, ghostly rustling noises were heard from behind a wall hanging in the poet’s bedchamber. "And this is the famous ghost I suppose" she declared, with a sceptical trust of her umbrella. It is recorded that two servants, who had been hiding there in hopes of a closer view of Her Highness, promptly made a sharp exit!

Buried Treasure

Whether in, as has variously been suggested, a fit of mania, a spirit of exploration, or increasing desperation over his creditors, around 1814 Byron instructed his butler Joe Murray to have the cloisters dug up in the vain hope of uncovering buried monastic treasure. As Nanny Smith reported to Washington Irving, "Lord Byron took a notion that there was a deal of money buried about the Abbey by the monks in old times, and nothing would serve him but he must have the flagging up in the cloisters" but "they found nothing but stone coffins full of bones". The poet did, at least, get a little gothic entertainment out of the matter by having "one of the coffins put in one end of the great hall, so that the servants were afraid to go there of nights".

Yet treasure of a sort had previously been found at Newstead. During the days of the "Wicked Lord", a fine brass lecturn in the shape of an eagle was dredged up from the pond where, presumably, the monks of Newstead threw it at the Dissolution of the priory in 1539. Inside the hollow pedestal were documents dating from that time. The eagle was sold, and can be seen today in the imposing Nottinghamshire cathedral of Southwell Minster.

A story tells that two large heavy chests were also found, but had to be left in the water, after a peremptory order came from the 5th Lord Byron to refill the pond as he was on his way to Newstead with a party of friends. A later owner of Newstead, Colonel Wildman, attempted to trace the mysterious chests, but the search came to an unfortunate end after one of the workmen involved suffocated in the mud. The "Eagle Pond" behind the Abbey was drained again in 1966, but the the mud retains its secrets.

One of the most notorious of Newstead’s hidden treasures is the celebrated "Skull Cup", a drinking vessal which the poet had made from a monk’s skull dug up in the Abbey ruins. Mounted by a Nottingham jeweller, the gruesome cup was the centrepiece of Byron’s youthful drinking parties. It was evidently less to the tastes of the Webb family, Newstead’s Victorian owners, who some time after 1863 buried it "with all possible care and reverence"at a secret location. Its whereabouts remain a mystery to this day. 

Mad and Bad?

According to one of his mistresses, Lady Caroline Lamb (not herself noted as a paragon of sanity), George Gordon Byron was "Mad, bad & dangerous to know". Certainly, there was evidence of mental instability on both sides of his family. His handsome, fortune-hunting father was known as "Mad Jack" on account of his excesses, and the manic eccentricities of Byron’s predecessor to the baronetcy, the "Wicked Lord" were legendary. His mother, noted for her volatile temper, was descended from the Gordons, with their wild, bloodsoaked highland history. From his maternal grandfather, Laird of Gight, came a strong depressive streak: both Catherine’s father and her grandfather died by drowning. In each case, what contemporary newspapers politely referred to as bathing accidents were generally acknowledged as suicides.

One modern theorist, on the basis of Byron’s notorious mood swings, have seen in his excesses the classic symptoms of manic depression. Others have blamed his erratic personality on his disability (a deformed foot), sexual abuse during childhood (by naughty nurse May Grey), or suppressed homosexuality - a dangerous secret in an era so fiercely homophobic that sodomy merited the death penalty. Some of the eccentricities of the poet cited by his wife in her divorce case suggest obsession or paranoia: A ritual about checking under the bed before retiring, loaded pistols and a dagger kept on his bedside table, and a rope ladder dangling out of the window in case of fire.

Undoubtedly, during the breakdown of his ill-matched marriage to Annabella Millbanke, Byron seems to have suffered some form of personality meltdown. Drink, laudanum and frantic anxiety over his debts doubtless played their part, but Lady Byron even went so far as to consult a doctor, Mr. Le Mann, as to her husbands possible insanity. The medic, however, reported inflammation of the liver, but no "settled lunacy" 

Superstions

When the infant Byron was born, he was found to have a caul over his head. Superstition dictates that this indicates either second sight, good luck, or a person of distinction. The caul itself was believed to convey to its owner protection from drowning. The caul was sold to a naval officer, the brother of Hanson, the family lawyer. It proved an ineffectual talisman, as twelve years later he drowned at sea.

Byron’s mother was informed by a fortune teller that something terrible would befall him in 1815 - the year of his disasterous marriage to Annabella Millbanke. Another diviner, at Cheltenham Spa, told Catherine that her son would marry twice, the second time to a foreign lady. After Byron’s divorce from Annabella Millbanke, his last and most enduring relationship was with the Italian Countess Teresa Guccioli.

Catherine Gordon embarked on her luckless marriage to "Mad Jack Byron", the poet’s father, on - in defiance of custom - the thirteenth of May. The first house her son rented for his own ill-fated marriage was no. 13, Piccadilly Terrace.

The "Black Friar" of Newstead, whose appearance was supposed to portend bad luck for the family ever since the eviction of the monks from the abbey, was said to have been sighted by Byron a month before his wedding. The ring which he presented to his bride had been his mothers’. Having been lost in the grounds of Newstead Abbey, a gardener found it there shortly after Byron’s engagement. It proved too large for Annabella’s slim finger, and to prevent it slipping, she tied a black ribbon around it. Horrified by the bad omen, her husband ordered her to take it off. The following year they were separated.