Wednesday 15 November 2017

Newstead Abbey: Lords Behaving Badly

Confession: I've never read anything by Lord Byron - but (in the immortal words of Captain Jack Sparrow) I have heard of him. As I read an awful lot of historical romances, it's actually hard to avoid hearing about him. And after visiting his ancestral home, and reading about his life, I'm starting to see how his exploits (and those of his ancestors) have probably inspired generations of romance writers - and those exploits certainly sound very entertaining! Unfortunately the guidebook was a bit sketchy on the juiciest stories...

Bryon was the first modern celebrity. Or, as he supposedly said himself, 'I woke up one morning and found myself famous'. One of his exes, Caroline Lamb, thought he was 'Mad, bad, and dangerous to know', but from my 21st century viewpoint he did seem a little too 'try hard'. Skull drinking goblets? Really? But I did love his house!

Lord Byron spent very little time here at Newstead Abbey. He inherited both the estate and his title from his great-uncle, the fifth Lord Byron - who was nicknamed 'The Wicked Lord' and sounds perfectly horrible. The Wicked Lord spent both his own inheritance and that of his wife, and then let the house fall into ruin just to spite his son, who had married against his wishes. It was a waste of time, because he ended up outliving both his son and grandson, and the estate passed to his great-nephew instead. 

Newstead Abbey

The house was originally an Augustinian priory, founded in the late 12th century by Henry II. In 1540 the estate was bought by Lord Byron's ancestor, Sir John Byron of Colwick, following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Sir John dismantled much of the church and re-used the stone, but left the very dramatic-looking 13th century west front.

Newstead Abbey - the ruined church.

George Gordon, the sixth Lord Byron (1788-1824), inherited the title and estate at the age of ten but did not move in until shortly before his twenty-first birthday. His great-uncle, 'The Wicked Lord' (I do love writing that), had long since sold off the contents - furniture, silver and a famous collection of paintings - and the house was virtually a ruin.

Newstead Abbey, the East side

Byron didn't have the money to renovate the whole building, so he only redecorated a few rooms, such as his bedroom and study, and left the others empty. He used the Great Hall (below) for pistol practise and the Salon for boxing and fencing. (The hunting trophies are from a later date - see below.)

The Great Hall

This bed (below) actually did belong to Byron. He brought it with him from his student rooms at Cambridge. 

Byron's Bed!

Like his great-uncle before him, Bryon excavated the grounds of the Abbey hoping to find the rumoured buried gold belonging to the monks who'd lived here before him. Unfortunately (also like his great-uncle) he only found bones. He decorated his rooms with some of the skulls (the ones on show now are replicas) and sent one off to a Nottingham jeweller to be turned into a silver goblet. This goblet held an entire bottle of claret and was very popular with his guests! (The one shown on the table below is a replica.) The original goblet was laid to rest at a secret location a century later. The screen in his study (below) also belonged to Byron, and shows boxing scenes on one side and theatrical scenes on the other.

Byron's Study

As well as his dogs (there is a monument in the garden to his favourite, Boatswain), Byron kept a tame bear and a wolf. When his friends arrived for parties, he'd get them to wear monks' cowls. They'd all get drunk, release the bear into the garden - and then have a great time trying to find it in the dark!

In the cabinets are copies of his books and many of his original belongings, including his boxing gloves, a silver toothpick in the shape of a sword and scabbard, and the sabretache (cavalry officer's satchel) he used while in Greece. I liked this inkstand, made of brass, with amethyst glass bottles.

Byron's Inkstand

Byron only lived at Newstead Abbey until 1814, before selling it to his old schoolfriend, Colonel Thomas Wildman for £94,000.

Colonel Wildman (1787-1859) spent over £100,00 renovating the abbey, and much of what can be seen now is due to him. He took the medieval theme and ran with it, decorating the rooms with stained glass and ancient armour, and buying tapestries and furniture.

The Salon

Because so much money had been spent in renovations, after Wildman died his widow was forced to sell the Abbey. The new owner was William Frederick Webb (1829-1899), a wealthy landowner. He installed gas lighting and central heating, and was responsible for the redecoration of the chapel. His many African hunting expeditions provided the 'trophies' on display in the Great Hall. There were once animal skins too, and a enormous rhinoceros head over the fireplace that would be decorated with a wreath of holly at Christmas.

It is believed the walled gardens at Newstead Abbey were originally created by the fourth Lord Byron. Like the rest of the Abbey, they were renovated by Colonel Wilding.

Small Walled Garden

After William Frederick Webb's death, the estate passed onto his children. The Japanese Garden was laid out for Ethel Webb in 1907 by a Japanese landscape architect. Many of the stone ornaments and plants were brought from Japan.

The Japanese Garden

The estate was finally inherited by Webb's grandson, Charles Ian Fraser, who put it up for sale. The Abbey was bought by a local philanthropist, Sir Julien Cahn, who presented it to Nottingham Corporation in 1931.

Detail from the Small Walled Garden

Newstead Abbey is open to the public and houses a collection of Byron memorabilia. There's even a gift shop, where you can buy any amount of merchandise illustrated with Byron's likeness.

What would he have thought about it, I wonder? To know he was still famous, after all these years...


Newstead Abbey Guidebook (Nottingham City Council)


Newstead Abbey

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