« PreviousContinue »
The ancestry of the noble Poet, a complete edition of whose works is now for the first time presented to the public, forms a very trifting element in that character which he has left behind him; but as every thing relative to such a man has a certain degree of interest, it may not be amiss to take a line through the family-succession since the Conquest. At that time there were two powerful Barons of the name,—Ernest, who had extensive domains in the Counties of York and Lincoln, and Ralph, whose possessions lay in Nottingham and Derby, and who was the direct ancestor of the subject of the present memoir. The two successors of Ralph were both named Hugh; they were great benefactors of the Church, and the last of them retired from the world, and led a monastic life. Roger succeeded to the second Hugh, and was in his turn succeeded by Robert, who enriched the family by marrying Cecilia, only daughter of Sir Richard Clayton, of Clayton in the County of Lancaster. This happened in the reign of Henry the Second; and from that period, till the time of Henry the Eighth, Clayton continued to be the family-residence of the Byrons. The fortunate Sir Robert was succeeded by a son of the same name, whose two sons again were eminently distinguished for bravery in the wars carried on by Edward the First. Sir John, the elder of these warriors, became governor of the castle of York; and his son, also Sir John, distinguished himself in the wars in France under Edward the Third, by whom he was knighted at the siege of Calais. This Sir John dying without issue, was succeeded by Sir Richard, and he again by another Sir John, who fought under Henry the Fifth, and received the honour of knighthood as a reward for his valour. His youngest son succeeded him, and was succeeded by another Sir John, who, dissatisfied at the conduct of Richard the Third, was among the first that joined Richmond upon his landing at Milford. He displayed great bravery at the decisive battle of Bosworth. His prowess was not unrewarded, for Henry bestowed upon him the offices of Constable of the castle of Nottingham, and steward and warden of Sherwood Forest. Having no family, the lands descended to his brother Nicholas. It had been through barons or knights of the name of John, that the family had hitherto been chiefly enriched and ennobled; and in the reign of Henry the Eighth, another Sir John was made steward of Manchester and Rochdale, and lieutenant of the Forest of Sherwood. This Sir John was a great favourite with Henry, supporting him warmly in all his measures, and entering fully into all his views, both in his change of religion and his changes of queens. In return for this, when the lands of the church came to be divided, he was not forgotten. The church and abbey of Newstead, with the manor of Papelham, and the rectory, with the adjoining lands, were given to him. Newstead Abbey was a foundation for regular canons of the Augustine order; its situation was beautiful, and its riches considerable. Sir John, the son of this expeller of the canons, and regainer back from the church of a good deal more than his ancestors had ever bestowed upon it, was high in favour with Elizabeth; and his son, Sir Nicholas, having gained much military skill in the wars in the Netherlands, was, if not of ultimate service to Charles, at least one of the first, firmest and boldest supporters of the royal cause, upon the breaking out of the civil war. In consideration of his services at the battle of Edgehill
, he was made governor of Chester; and he defended that city against the Parliament-army for a considerable time. Sir John, son of the younger brother of this Sir Nicholas, was also a zealous royalist. He had been knighted by James at his coronation, and was appointed governor of the Tower, after the Commons had denounced Colonel Lunsford ; in this situation he showed a great deal of firmness. Ile afterwards became an equally zealous and more fortunate partisan than his uncle Sir Nicholas. After the battle of Newbury, in which he played a very conspicuous part, he was, on the 24th of October 1643, created Baron Byron, of Rochdale, and appointed field-marshal of all the king's troops in Worcester, Salop, Cheshire, and North Wales. His uncle having been taken by the Parliament forces, he was appointed governor of Chester; and having defeated Sir Thomas Fairfax, and performed some other services of importance, he was so hated by the Parliament, that they passed a special act, exempting him from pardon, and confiscating his property. The king, however, in the meantime appointed him governor to the Duke of York (afterwards James the Second), with whom he effected his escape to Holland. From Holland he passed into Flanders, with his royal pupil, and was in the army of Marshal Turenne. He died at Paris, in 1652, without issue, and was succeeded in his titles and estates by his brother Richard. This second Lord died in 1679, and was succeeded by William, the third Lord. William, the fourth Lord, was thrice married, but his first lady died of the small pox, soon after their marriage; and the three sons and daughters which he had by his second lady all died before him. William, his eldest son, by a third marriage, was born in 1722, and succeeded him in 1736. He had been in the navy in his younger years, and was man of considerable influence at court; but being a man of ungovernable passions, he was, in 1765, sent to the Tower, under a charge of having killed his relation, Mr. Chaworth, in a duel, which took place under very peculiar circumstances, at the Star and Garter Tavern, in Pall-Mall. The dispute which led to this fatal catastrophe was begun and ended in the same room, and at the same meeting, Lord Byron insisting that they should instantly settle it by the sword, and with such light as one glimmering candle afforded. Being the more expert swordsman of the two, his friend and neighbour received a mortal wound, although he lived long enough to settle his own affairs, and supply such information as led the Coroner's jury to return a verdict of wilful murder against his lordship. The trial, which excited an immense degree of public interest at the time, came on at Westminster-Hall, before the peers. It lasted two days, and ended by an unanimous sentence of manslaughter, pronounced by upwards of two hundred and fifty members of the upper house. Upon being brought up for judgment, he pleaded
his privilege as a peer, and was in consequence discharged. He died at Newstead, in 1798. John, the next brother to Lord William, and born in the year after him, that is, in 1723, was a man of a very different disposition, although his career in life was almost one succession of misfortunes. The hardships which he met with, while accompanying Commodore Anson in his expedition to the South Seas, are well known, from his own highly popular and affecting narrative; and his grandson, the poet, is supposed to have had some of the sufferings of the honourable Jolin, afterwards Commodore and Adiniral Byron, in his mind, when he gave some of the most exquisite touches to his admirably painted picture of the storm and shipwreck, in Don Juan. So unfortunate was he, in regard to weather, that he was known throughout the fleet by the name of “foul weather Jack,” and the sailors had great reluctance to go to sea under his command. Against the enemy he had equally bad success ; not that he was deficient either in bravery or in skill, but the weather was always between him and the enemy. Still he was man who deserved and enjoyed the esteem of all about him, and was reckoned one of the best naval officers of his time. His only son, born in 1751, was known by the name of "mad Jack Byron.” He was one of the handsomest men of the time; but his character was so notorious, that his father, who had procured for him a commission in the guards, was soon obliged to desert him; to be but seen in his company was considered a stain. In his twentyseventh year he found means to seduce Amelia marchioness of Carmarthen, who had been but a few years married to a husband with whom she had lived in the most happy state until she formed this most unfortunate connexion. The noise which this faux pas occasioned was very great, as well on account of its own enormity, as of the perfect happiness which had previously subsisted between the husband and the wife, and of the great reluctance which the husband had to believe in her guilt. That, however, was ultimately proved in a manner but too convincing; and after one fruitless attempt at reclaiming the lady, she was divorced by her husband and abandoned to her fate. That fate was both hasty and hard. The friends brought about a marriage between her and her seducer, which after the most brutal conduct on his part, and the greatest misery and the keenest remorse on hers, was dissolved in two years by her sinking to the grave of a broken heart. In about three years after, Captain Byron sought to patch up his broken fortunes by matrimony; and having made a conquest of Miss Gordon, an Aberdeenshire heiress, he spent her fortune in a few years, and left her and her only child, the subject of this memoir, in a destitute and defenceless state. He went to France, to avoid his creditors, and died at Valenciennes in 1791, little more than three years after the birth of his son, to whom, in the meantime, was given his mother's name of Gordon.
George GORDON was born on his mother's estate in Aberdeenshire, on the 22d day of January 1788. As his mother and himself were soon afterwards deserted by his father, the whole care of his infant years devolved upon the mother; and considering the state in which she was left, it is but natural to suppose that she treated the boy with every indulgence within her power. Tenderness and indulgence in his early years were rendered the more necessary, as, besides having one of his feet deformed, he was of a very weakly constitution. For these reasons he was not quite so early sent to school as is sometimes the case, but allowed to expand his lungs and strengthen his limbs upon the mountains of the North. This period of his life passed unheeded; but we find trace
of its influence in many parts of his works. The grandeur of nature around him; the idea that he was upon mountains which had never been permanently trod by the foot of a conqueror; the conversation of a people whose amusements at that time consisted in a great measure of the recital of heroic exploits against invaders, feats of strength, and demonstrations of independence, mingled with all the wild goblin-stories usual among such a people and in such a place; and, above all, the being left at leisure and without dictation, to contemplate those scenes and listen to those recitals, afforded an initiatory education for Byron, far more poetical than that which he could have obtained, had he been nursed at the Abbey of Newstead, and nurtured after the fashion of its lords, in the proudest times of that high spirited, but latterly wild and wayward family. It may be true, that the licence of his infant years may have given to Byron some of those faults of which he has been accused, as well as many of those peculiarities which dulness, to say nothing worse, has considered as faults; but it is equally true, that to the same origin must be attributed those transcendent qualities which must throw all the blamed peculiarities of his character into the shade. The sublime rock, the dark lake, the dim forest, and the dashing stream which the infant-bard was allowed to contemplate, without the foolery of man's accompaniment, have in each of them a lyre strung by the hand of Nature herself; and how well he found out their tones, and thought of modulating their sweetness, was well proved by the event.
When a few years' bracing upon the mountains had removed the symptoms of weakness with which George Gordon was born, he was sent to school, and there, though still an infant, he showed that he would one day form a character for himself. A school-fellow says, that he was naturally kindhearted and generous, though at the same time dignified and reserved. The class used to jeer him, as boys are often in the habit of doing, upon the natural deformity of his foot; but though it was obvious that he felt keenly upon these occasions, and had spirit sufficient to chastise, when he chose, the impertinence of boys much older and stronger than himself, his feeling toward them had more of contempt than of anger or peevishness. During play-hours he was often apart, and seemed to be following trains of speculation which had no connexion either with the class or the school-exercises ; although, when he pleased, he entered into their sports with an ardour and a zest far surpassing any of his fellows. As a scholar, there was nothing remarkable about him excepting that, though he sought no assistance from his teacher or his class-fellows, and seemed to derive as little from the ordinary modes and means of study, he was not in the least deficient in his tasks, especially those parts of them that depended more upon perception and judgment than upon mere memory.
While George Gordon was occupied in this, William, the fifth Lord Byron, departed, at Newstead Abbey, that life which had for so many years been rendered disagreeable by his want of temper. As the son of Lord William had died in the same year in which George Gordon was born, and as the descent both of the titles and the estates was to heirs male, George Gordon succeeded to the titles and estates of his granduncle. The old Lord died on the 17th of May 1798; and thus the state and prospects of the heir were completely changed, when he was little more than ten years old. Upon this change in his fortune, Byron was removed from the immediate care of his mother, and placed as a ward under the guardianship of the Earl of Carlisle, who had married Isabella,