The first time I came across Newstead Abbey was when I received my second-hand copy of Leslie Marchand‘s “Byron: A Portrait”. In the middle of the biography, as usual, there is a section with pictures and portraits, one of them, of a beautiful building, with a footnote that read “Newstead Priory, Nottinghamshire”. I didn’t know how, or when, but I knew that I would, eventually, visit it. Several years after, last month, I finally stood in front of it, and I was even able to wander its rooms! The following is a brief account of the history of Newstead Abbey and Byron.
First of all, Newstead Abbey was never an Abbey. As Marchand noted, it was a Priory. So, what is the difference between the two? Well, an abbey is a catholic convent managed by an abbess or an abbot, whereas a priory is managed by a prior or a prioress -a lower rank than abbess or abbot-, and it is a subsidiary of an abbey. That being clarified, let us get into some historical background. Newstead was founded by Henry II in 1163 as an Augustinian Priory, and dissolved 400 years later by another Henry (VIII) in 1539 during the English Reformation. The king granted the building to Sir John Byron, who had to demolish the church, but was given permission to keep the façade, which turned into the iconic image we now know.
Now, Sir John Byron left the state to his son, also John, who left it to his son, named, in a creative strike, also John. This third John, who was an MP and a Royalist commander, was granted the title of Baron Byron of Rochdale for the first time in 1643. Flash forward to 1798, when, -after a Richard and two more Williams- William Byron (The Wicked Lord), uncle of our Byron‘s father , dies. George Gordon, fatherless and a student at Harrow at the time, inherits the title and the state and becomes Lord Byron the sixth. Marchand explains that the news caused Byron much embarrassment in school and that at one point he burst into tears in class. After all, he was ten years old.
When Byron, accompanied by his mother and her maid, arrived at Newstead, he was confronted with a reality far from what he probably had expected. The Wicked Lord had sold most of the contents of the house, including structural parts of the building. The result was that Newstead was in ruins when it became Byron‘s. However, the poet decided to move there and invest in repairing part of it, enough to make it habitable.
In a letter from November 2nd, 1808, Byron writes to his mother about the repairs at Newstead:
I am furnishing the house more for you than for myself, and I shall establish you in it before I sail for India […] I am now fitting the green drawing room, the red (as a bedroom) and the rooms over as sleeping rooms, they will be soon completed, at least I hope so.
Indeed, if you book a tour of the house, you will be able to visit the aforementioned rooms, which contain the furniture that Byron himself used, including his bed in Cambridge, his writing table, and even his coffee machine and his famous cranium-cup (see below). There are also most of the most well-known paintings of the poet and his relatives, a couple of busts (see above), several first editions of his works and other curiosities, such as the helmet he was to wear in Greece, his jacket (which is very beautiful, so much that I would totally wear it every day), his ring, his fencing and boxing equipment or his shoes and pistols.
The gardens are another of the elements of the state. They are divided into sixteen zones and occupy the enormous extension behind the house and next to the Garden Lake. Although there has always been gardening activity in Newstead, each family added a new zone, with new kinds of flora. As for the Byrons, they were responsible for the Great Garden and the ornamental ponds, canals, waterfalls and cascades. There is a field between the Garden Lake and the house, where Byron planted an oak in 1798, the protagonist of his poem To an Oak at Newstead, written ten years later. The oak became a tourist attraction after Byron’s death. The tree had to be cut down in 1915, and its remains are now an ivy-covered stump. In 1988, the Earl of Lytton planted another oak next to the original one to commemorate Byron‘s 200th anniversary. Another curiosity is that behind the façade of the church there is a monument, placed where Byron thought the altar would have been. This monument is the tomb of his dog, Boatswain, and it was intended to eventually become the poet’s resting place as well. Sadly, Byron‘s wish was not fulfilled, and he is buried in the family vault in Hucknall.
Due to money issues, Byron had to sell Newstead in 1818. It was purchased by Thomas Wildman, who devoted time and money to the restoration of the place. After his death, William Frederick Webb bought it, and it was during that time when his friend Dr Livingstone spent time in the state in the 1860s. When Webb died, he left it to his children, and eventually his grandchild, Charles Ian Fraser, sold it to Julien Cahn, who gave it to the Nottingham Corporation in 1931 and became Sir Julien Cahn.
A final anecdote: the remains of the first Byrons can be found in the house’s gift shop. For real.
If you are interested in visiting the house and/or gardens, you can book a private tour in Newstead Abbey’s official website.
- Lansdown, Richard. A New Selection: Byron’s Letters and Journals. Oxford: OUP. 2015.
- Marchand, Leslie A. Byron: A Portrait. London: Random House. 1993.
- “Newstead Abbey: Historic House and Gardens. A Tour of the House” Nottingham City Council.
- “Newstead Abbey: A Tour of the Garden” Nottingham City Council.