This coming Monday, 27 February 2012, marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the first speech that Lord Byron made in Parliament. Though Byron had first taken his seat in the House of Lords in March of 1809, a few weeks after he turned twenty-one, he did not address that august body at that time. However, records show that he did attend at least seven sessions of Parliament that spring. But that summer, he left England to travel and was away for more than two years.
The Lord Byron who would return to Parliament in 1812 had more self-confidence and much stronger political views than had his younger self of four years previously. However, he was not yet the darling of London that Thursday, 27 February 1812, since those first remarkable cantos of his poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, had not yet been published, due to a printing delay.
There were two reasons why it took Byron four years to make a speech before his peers in the House of Lords. As noted above, he was out of England for about half of that time. He left England on 2 July 1809, to travel with his friend and a commited Whig, John Cam Hobhouse, through southern Europe and the Levant. He did not return to England until 14 July 1811. Byron’s mother died just a few weeks later, before he could reach her, which plunged him into deep mourning and required most of his time and attention in the settlement of the estate. He was not able to take his seat in the House of Lords again until January of 1812. At least partially due to the influence of his great friend, John Cam Hobhouse, Byron allied himself with the liberal faction of the Whigs, who were lead by Lord Holland, nephew of the late Charles James Fox. It was at Holland House that he first met Lady Caroline Lamb.
Byron had not closely followed the current affairs of England during his travels abroad, so he was not aware of much of what had transpired in his homeland during his absence. But six months later, he was very well-informed, particularly about the problems facing his home county of Nottinghamshire. He felt very strongly that he had an obligation to bring these issues to the attention of the government. He believed the most pressing issue was the problem of the Luddites. Byron would only speak three times before the House of Lords. In his first speech, like the others which followed, he was to take unpopular postitions. In this, his maiden speech, he chose to defend those whom most of his peers considered to be dangerous criminals.
Though the stocking weavers in the Nottinghamshire area were breaking the new mechanized weaving frames, most of them were doing so because they had been denied work and many of them had been reduced to near starvation. They blamed these new machines for destroying their livelihood and ruining their lives. Byron spoke against a government-sponsored bill coming before the House of Lords which would make frame-breaking a captial offense, thus carrying the death penalty for conviction. In general, Byron was not fond of industrializaion, and though he agreed that the property damage was in violation of the law, he thought that making such crimes a capital offense was not only heavy-handed and unjust, but also cruel towards people whom he believed had no recourse.
Since this was to be his first speech before the House of Lords, Byron had no intention of speaking extemporaneously, he was afraid he might forget some essential aspect of the issue. It was important to him that he was able to make a solid case for his point of view as this was also to be his first outing for the Whigs. He was eager to prove his worth, particularly to Lord Holland, whom he respected and admired. Byron spent a great deal of time writing and re-writing his speech until he felt it made his position clear. Once he had it exactly as he wanted it, he spent still more time memorising it and then reciting it many times for several of his friends. He even went so far as to alter his voice in order to sound more serious, though some of his friends thought it made him sound rather stilted, since his normal way of speaking was very easy and natural. However, in the end, all his hard work did pay off. Even though some thought his manner overly theatrical and few of his peers agreed with him on the subject of his speech, he recieved many compliments from members of the opposition after he had spoken. One of the friends who met him in the passage after he left the Lords’ chamber said he was glowing with his success. He repeated to his friend several of the compliments he had recieved from the Opposition members and told him that several peers had asked to be introduced to him. His maiden political speech as a peer of the realm was all he could have hoped.
Shortly after his speech, Lord Byron is reported to have said of it:
I spoke very violent sentences with a sort of modest impudence, abused everything and everybody, put the Lord Chancellor very much out of humour, and if I may believe what I hear, have not lost any character in the experiment.
The month of February, 1812, was a period of intense activity for Lord Byron. Not only was he preparing the first speech he would give before the House of Lords, he was also at work correcting the final galley proofs for the first two cantos of his long poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which was to be published by John Murray. In fact, Byron had expected to see those two cantos in print at least a week before he spoke before the Lords, but a problem with the printer delayed publication for several weeks. Thus, his imminent success as a poet was to have no impact on the reception of his maiden political speech. Perhaps that made the success of his speech all the sweeter, since it was not influenced by public opinion regarding his new poem.
On Tuesday, 10 March 1812, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II, hit the book shops of London with a run of 500 copies. They sold out within two days, and by the third day Murray had had another 3,000 copies rushed into print to meet the continuing demand. It was on this occasion that Byron remarked to a friend, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." That fame would change his life, bringing him to the attention of a wide public. In fact, Byron became the first true celebrity in the modern sense, due primarily to the overwhelming success of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Lord Byron would make only two more speeches before the House of Lords. Both in 1812, both unpopular and both while still enjoying notable celebrity status. On 21 April 1812, he made a speech in favor of Catholic Emancipation and on 1 June of that year he put forward Major John Cartwright‘s petition for Parliamentary reform. That was the last time he would ever address Parliament.
Lord Byron did occasionally attend sessions of the House of Lords until he was forced out of England in April of 1816, but he never spoke before that body again. He did not completely forsake politics, as he would continue to include political commentary and observations in his writing for the rest of his life, but he ceased to be a significant voice in British politics by the summer of 1812. He did take an interest in the politics of many of the countries where he lived while in exile. In fact, his commitment to the cause of Greek freedom would ultimately cost him his life, at the quite young age of thirty-six. But for all that, Lord Byron is principally remembered today as a poet rather than a politician.
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Author’s Note: For those of you who would like to read Lord Byron’s maiden speech in its entirety, you can find a transcript of it, included in the Recollections of the Life of Lord Byron, written by his friend, R. C. Dallas, Esq., posted at LordByron.org. Or, if you would prefer to hear his speech spoken aloud, you can download an audio file of David Federman’s reading of it. The audio files can be found as Item #4 of the United Kingdom House of Lords Speeches Collection which are posted at LibriVox.org.