Lord Byron was called “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” by Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his many in a string of mistresses, for good reason. He became one of the most celebrated British poets in his lifetime with long narrative poems, such as Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and shorter works, such as “She Walks in Beauty” and “Maid of Athens, ere we part,” but he was also a leading playboy and blackguard. Many of his adventures—or misadventures, depending on how you look at it—have captivated the public, both in his lifetime and today. Here’s 10 times Lord Byron was more than a little “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”:
1. Lord Byron was bisexual. One biographer, Louis Crompton, states, “What was not understood in Byron’s own century (except by a tiny circle of his associates) was that Byron was bisexual.” While attending Trinity College, Lord Byron had a close friendship with a choirboy named John Edleston. Edleston gifted Lord Byron a cornelian brooch pin shaped like a heart in 1806 as a sign of his love. Byron refers to this gift in his poem “The Adieu.”
Byron left England in 1809 for Greece and Turkey. He found a companion in Nicolo Giraud in 1810, who is speculated to have been another lover. Byron returned to England in 1811 to news that Edleston had died from consumption. In a letter to Francis Hodgson, written October 10th, 2011, Byron said of Edleston:
“I heard of a death the other day that shocked me more than any of the preceding, of one whom I once loved more than I ever loved a living thing, & one who I believe loved me to the last, yet I had not a tear left for an event which five years ago would have bowed me to the dust; still it sits heavy on my heart & calls back what I wish to forget, in many a feverish dream.”
Byron wrote many other passion-infused letters regarding Edleston, and his devastation led to him writing several poems dedicated to his boyhood love. Byron referred to Edleston as “Thyrza” in his poems to avoid any whiff of homosexuality in a time when it was a crime under British law.
2. Lord Byron had a highly publicized affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, wife to the future Prime Minister William Lamb. Lady Caroline would dress up as a pageboy, scandalous in the time of higher morality, and visit Lord Byron’s lodgings in London. Their affair was heady and intoxicating but fizzled out after several months.
Lord Byron pulled away from Lady Caroline, particularly as he tried courting her cousin, Annabelle Milbanke. This caused Lady Caroline to go batshit crazy, sending Byron her bloody pubic hair, forging his handwriting to get her hands on a painting of him hanging in his publisher’s offices, and threatening to stab herself. Lady Caroline never recovered from the affair, embarking on a writing career of her own with her romantic obsession for Lord Byron fueling her novels, most famously Glenarvon. Unfortunately for Lady Caroline, her fictitious depictions in Glenarvon of other high-ranking aristocrats caused her to be ostracized by polite society, while Lord Byron continued writing and loving new mistresses.
3. Depending on what sources you read, many of Lord Byron’s contemporaries believe he had an incestuous affair with his married half-sister, the Hon. Augusta Byron Leigh. Much of the evidence against him is hearsay or circumstantial, but it’s tempting to believe when one reads of the other scandals Lord Byron certainly committed. There was speculation that Augusta visited him in London in the summer of 1813 and gave birth to his daughter in April 1814. Lord Byron visited his half-sister shortly after the child was born. The child was named Elizabeth Medora. Many believed a character in one of Byron’s poems published in 1814, named Medora, gave credence to Byron naming the child.
Byron also wrote a letter on April 24th, 1814 to his friend and confidante, Lady Melbourne, “Oh! but it is ‘worth while’ – I can’t tell you why – and it is not an Ape and if it is – that must be my fault.” Many historians believe the term “ape” refers to a child born with deformities due to an incestuous relationship. Byron writing that if the child had been an ape, and it being his fault if the child had been born as such, makes it very tempting to believe he did the hanky panky with his half-sister. However, those who believe this evidence supports the claim of an incestuous relationship skate on very thin ice. After all, August Byron Leigh’s husband, George Leigh, was legally Elizabeth Medora’s father and strongly believed himself to be.
4. Lord Byron married the cousin of one of his lovers—and it ended with a formal separation a year after the wedding. Lord Byron married a wealthy heiress, Annabella Millbanke, to escape rumors of incest with his half-sister and insistent creditors. Annabella was also the cousin to Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his previous mistresses. They married on January 2, 1815. They had a child together, Ada Lovelace, who is considered by many to be the world’s first computer programmer, but Byron’s affairs with actresses and other women caused the marriage to crumble. Annabella also came to believe Byron had indeed had an affair with his half-sister and that he was plagued with madness. Spousal abuse in the relationship did little to foster love between the pair.
Annabella left Byron in January 1816 with their daughter. She filed for a legal separation, which was granted hastily in a private settlement in March 1816. Byron possibly settled the separation so quickly to avoid his scandals and personal life from being aired to the public. Shortly after, Byron would flee from England with creditors at his heels. Annabella must be credited as a strong woman in the situation, dedicating herself to raising their daughter and also offering financial support to August, Byron’s half-sister, in the raising of her daughter, Elizabeth Medora.
5. Lord Byron fathered a child with Mary Shelley’s step sister. Lord Byron had had an affair with Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s step sister, in London before he’d gone abroad to escape his debts. Before leaving England, Byron had made it clear he didn’t want to continue his affair with Claire, but she was persistent in her pursuit of him. Claire convinced Mary Shelley and her lover, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, to pay Byron a visit in the summer of 1816 at his villa in Geneva, Switzerland. Byron was staying there with his personal physician, John William Polidori.
At first, Byron refused Claire’s advances. He wanted to only be present with her when Mary and Percy were nearby, but overtime, they resumed their affair. In a letter written on January 20, 1817 to Douglas Kinnaird, Byron wrote of Claire:
“You know – & I believe saw once that odd-headed girl – who introduced herself to me shortly before I left England – but you do not know – that I found her with Shelley and her sister at Geneva – I never loved her nor pretended to love her – but a man is a man – & if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night – there is but one way – the suite of all this is that she was with child – & returned to England to assist in peopling that desolate island…”
Byron never professed to loving her, but during that summer when Mary Shelley conceived the idea for the infamous Frankenstein and John William Polidori wrote ‘The Vampyre” (the story that inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula), it became obvious that Claire was pregnant with Byron’s child. She’d likely conceived when their affair began in England. Claire gave birth to their daughter, Allegra, on January 12, 1817.
6. Lord Byron caused a 19 year-old Italian countess to leave her husband days after her marriage. In 1818, Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli met Byron a few days after marrying Count Alessandro Guiccioli, fifty years her senior, while he was in Ravenna in northern Italy writing the first five cantos of Don Juan. Count Alessandro Guiccioli was a cold man who’d served Napoleon and arranged possibly arranged the murder of another nobleman suing him in 1816. An affair with Count Alessandro Guiccioli’s third wife, Teresa, was a chancy one, but nonetheless, Byron went forward with the relationship, once writing Teresa, “you sometimes tell me I have been your first real love-and I assure that you shall be my last Passion.” Teresa lived with Byron as his mistress Ravenna and Genoa until 1823.
7. Lord Byron was a revolutionary in the Greek War of Independence. The Greek War of Independence, Alexandros and Demetrios Ypsilantis, began in 1821. Many European intellectuals and romantics saw the war as poetic in its pursuit for freedom from the Ottoman Empire. Shortly after breaking off his affair with Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli, Lord Byron volunteered to join the fight, which meshed with his liberal views and support of national independence.
Byron sold his home in England, Rochdale Manor, to support the cause. He trained troops in Missolonghi and led a campaign during the war. However, he contracted malaria and died in April 1824 at the young age of 36. He’s a celebrated war hero in Greece to this day.
Lord Byron is a dynamic character that continues to fascinate. On the one hand, he’s remembered for his romantic poetry, string of lovers and affairs, and scandalous behavior. He’s portrayed as a rebel and bad boy in films and literature. Even in this blog post, he’s remembered more for his scandals and affairs. On the other, he was also a war hero with liberal views that often go unacknowledged. No matter how you view him, Byron undoubtedly led a life filled with passion, excitement, and adventures.
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Byron, George Gordon, Lord (1788-1824) by Louis Crompton
The Cornelian: The Gay Love Letters of Lord Byron, Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton
Fact or Fiction: The Scandal of Lord Byron by Linore Rose Burkard
The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England, book by Emily Brand
Lady Caroline Lamb: A Biography, book by Paul Douglass
Lord Byron’s Darkest Secrets and Greatest Poetry by Evan Mantyk and Kathy Brellan
Lord Byron in the Greek War for Independence by Victor Verney
Lord Byron’s Life in Italy, book by Teresa Guiccioli, translated by Michael Rees, edited by Peter Cochran
Lord Byron: The Romantic Poet Who Died for Greece by Philip Chrysopoulos
Lord Byron: Selected Letters and Journals, book edited by Leslie A. Marchand