Today marks the 200th anniversary of the wedding of Miss Anna Isabella Milbanke and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Sadly, though we can still mark this anniversary today, the participants themselves did not even celebrate their first anniversary. The couple had become irrevocably estranged before their first year of marriage was out. Even on their wedding day, the groom, at least, had reservations, but forced himself to go through with the ceremony.
The day Lord Byron became ensnared in the parson’s mousetrap . . .
Lord Byron was first introduced to "Annabella" Milbanke on Wednesday, 25 March 1812, when he paid a visit to Melbourne House when she was visiting her cousins. However, the relationship did not immediately prosper, as he was a known philanderer and she was a very proper and religious woman. In particular, he had just embarked on a very public affair with a married woman, her cousin, Lady Caroline Lamb. But Byron had just published the first and second cantos of his poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and was currently basking in public adulation. He was not a little piqued at Miss Milbanke’s cool reception. There was also the fact that Byron was in financial difficulties and Miss Milbanke was believed to be an heiress.
Byron pursued Miss Milbanke for several months and made her an offer of marriage, forwarded to her by her aunt, Lady Melbourne, in October of 1812. Her response was to write a profile of her perception of his character to her aunt, which was not flattering to the poet. She followed that up three days later with her refusal of his proposal. Nevertheless, Annabella found herself strangely attracted to the darkly handsome and amoral poet and she could not put him out of her mind. She cherished hopes of reforming him and probably also fancied herself in love with him. On 22 August 1813, she wrote to him directly for the first time, advising him to resist his momentary impure urges, to occupy his mind with reason and to do good. By this time, Byron had become romantically involved with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and paid little attention to Miss Milbanke’s exhortations.
Augusta first agreed to leave Britain with Byron, but then changed her mind, unwilling to desert her children, or her husband. Byron had sold Newstead Abbey, his family home, in order to raise much needed money. However, the buyer did not make the agreed-upon payments and he was still in financial difficulty. His friend and confidante, Lady Melbourne, had heard rumors of his liaison with his half-sister and warned him of the harm which would be done if his relationship should become public. She was also aware of his financial situation and urged him to consider marriage with her niece, Annabella Milbanke, who was a supposed heiress. When Byron mentioned the conversation to Augusta, she, too urged him to marry, either Miss Milbanke, or some other young heiress who could repair his finances. Augusta was also well aware that such a marriage would help to redirect society’s attention to Byron’s wife and away from his relationship with his half-sister.
Over the course of the next year, Byron continued to correspond intermittently with Annabella, despite the often preaching tone of her letters. She was a well-educated and intelligent woman, who also wrote poetry, much of which he admired. However, during that time he also considered some other young ladies as potential brides, but it became clear that he would not be a welcome to suitor to any of them. Both Lady Melbourne and Augusta encouraged him to consider the bird in the hand and give up the forlorn hope that he might find a more congenial and less priggish bride who would accept him. On 25 April 1814, Annabella’s father, Sir Ralph Milbanke, invited Byron to their family home, Seaham Hall, in County Durham. Byron made multiple excuses for not accepting the invitation, but continued to correspond with Annabella. On Friday, 9 September 1814, Lord Byron wrote to Miss Milbanke with a second proposal of marriage, apparently at Augusta’s urging. He had expected, even hoped, that his second proposal would also be rejected. However, ten days later, Annabella responded with her eager acceptance of his proposal. It seemed to him a powerful omen that his gardener found his mother’s long-lost wedding ring and brought it to him on that same day. Yet later, Byron wrote of this strange coincidence, "I thought it was sent on purpose for the wedding; but my mother’s marriage had not been a fortunate one, and this ring was doomed to be the seal of an unhappier union still."
With the engagement formalized and the marriage settlements in progress, Byron was no longer able to avoid a visit to Seaham Hall to meet Annabella’s parents. He arrived there on the evening of Wednesday, 2 November 1814 and remained for a fortnight. He liked Sir Ralph, Annabella’s father, a typical country squire, but he did not care for her mother, whom he found to be a managing woman with little humor. Byron had thoughtlessly arrived with no betrothal gifts, as was the usual custom. At one point during the visit, Byron suggested that if she had accepted his first marriage proposal, "you would have spared me what I can never get over." (His relationship with Augusta.) Hurt and confused, Annabella assumed he was not in love with her, as she was with him, and offered to terminate the engagement. It is recorded that he fainted dead away at the suggestion, which she took to mean that he was deeply in love with her. Annabella wanted a large, public wedding service in a church. Byron refused on all counts and insisted on a private ceremony. It was agreed that the wedding would take place with just the family, at Seaham Hall the following month.
In early December, the sale of Newstead Abbey had fallen through and he wrote to her suggesting they should delay the marriage until he could sell his property. She refused, saying she would marry him whether he was rich or poor and asked him to set a marriage date. Byron used the excuse of having to procure a special license for a brief delay, but finally, on 24 December 1814, he left London with his good friend, John Cam Hobhouse, who was to be his groomsman. But they initially traveled only to Six Mile Bottom, the home of Augusta Leigh, where they spent Christmas. He wrote another letter to Annabella that day, breaking the engagement. But Augusta, with growing concern for their reputations, was able to dissuade him from posting it. She was eventually able to send him on his way to the home of his affianced bride.
On the afternoon of Monday, 26 December, Byron and Hobhouse finally set out for Durham. Hobhouse noted "Never was lover less in haste." They arrived at Seaham Hall about eight o’clock on the evening of Friday, 30 December 1814. The next day, after dinner, the company amused themselves with a mock marriage in which Hobhouse played the bride and Byron the groom. New Year’s Day, 1815, did not see the jolly frivolity of the previous day, as the marriage settlement documents were signed that morning. Byron was particularly subdued that day and in the evening, he said to Hobhouse in a despondent tone, " … this is our last night; tomorrow I shall be Annabella’s."
On Sunday morning, 2 January 1815, about ten o’clock, Hobhouse went to Byron’s room, where he found his friend already up and dressed. Both were dressed formally, including white gloves. Byron wore a black suit, a white embroidered waistcoat, a frilled white shirt and white kid gloves. They went downstairs to find Sir Ralph and Lady Milbanke in the breakfast room, where Lady Milbanke was unable to make tea, her hands were shaking so much. There, too, was the Reverend Thomas Noel, the illegitimate son of Annabella’s wealthy uncle, Lord Wentworth. Reverend Noel was dressed in his canonicals, in preparation for the ceremony. However, Annabella herself was nowhere in sight. Hobhouse and Byron retreated to Byron’s room for a time.
At 10:30am, Hobhouse and Byron went upstairs to the drawing room. There, in an alcove in front of a bay window, they saw that kneeling cushions had been laid out on the floor for the bride and groom. Byron later recalled the cushions felt as though they were stuffed with peach stones. Both clergymen who would participate in the ceremony were also present, Annabella’s cousin, Rev. Noel and the Reverend Richard Wallis, the vicar of Seaham. Moments later, Annabella entered the room, accompanied by Mrs. Clermont, her former governess. The bride wore a plain white muslin gown which was trimmed with lace only at the hem, and a matching jacket, also in plain white. Her hair was dressed, but she wore nothing on her head. Rev. Noel showed the bride and groom to their places before the cushions, while the others gathered round. Rev. Noel officiated while Rev. Wallis read out the responses. Hobhouse recorded that though Annabella spoke her vows in a strong and steady voice, Byron "hitched at first" when he began to speak his. He also threw Hobhouse a rather ironic smile when he promised to endow his new wife with all his worldly goods. By 11:00am it was over and Lord Byron was a married man.
The new Lady Byron left the room almost immediately, but soon returned to sign the register. Hobhouse noticed that she had tears in her eyes when she looked at her parents. She left the room while the others added their signatures to the marriage register. There was no wedding breakfast and within the hour Annabella came downstairs, dressed in her traveling gown of slate grey satin trimmed with white fur. The couple were to depart immediately on their "treaclemoon" trip to Halnby Hall, her father’s estate in Yorkshire, a journey of about forty miles. Hobhouse handed the bride into the carriage, where he had placed a set of Byron’s complete published poems, bound in yellow morocco, as his wedding gift to the bride. He wished her many years of happiness. She thanked him and replied "If I am not happy, it will be my own fault." Byron then climbed into the carriage, offering Hobhouse his hand through the window. Even as the carriage began to move forward, Byron continued to hold fast to his friend’s hand for as long as he could.
There were intermittent snow flurries as the carriage traveled north, but it was even colder inside between the young couple. Byron maintained a stony silence for some time, then began singing an Albanian dirge he had learned while traveling abroad. According to Annabella’s later recollections, he also taunted and teased her, accusing her of marrying him only because her friends had urged her to do so, despite her affirmations that she loved him. He warned her he would be revenged. When the carriage arrived at Halnby, Byron leapt out and walked away, leaving the Annabella to face the servants alone. Though most of Byron’s memoirs were burned, someone who had seen them claimed that he had written that he had consummated his marriage on the sofa in the drawing room before dinner that night. Others record that Byron had the decency to wait until the couple retired for the night, and put himself out to be more kind to his new wife than he had been on their journey from Seaham Hall.
Sadly, the carriage ride between Seaham and Halnly was not an aberration in the way Byron treated his wife. She was a rather spoiled young woman, the only child of elderly parents, who had developed an inflexible and pious attitude toward life. She had expected to reform him, assuming that would happen naturally once they were married. Unfortunately, Byron deeply resented her efforts to make him a better man, taking great pleasure in doing things to shock and offend her. He also came to distrust her, convinced she was searching through his desk and reading his private papers. By 10 December 1815, when Annabella gave birth to their daughter, Ada, the relationship was beyond redemption. Annabella had come to believe her husband was insane. On 15 January 1816, Annabella left the London home she shared with Byron, taking her infant daughter with her to her parents home. She would never see her husband again, and by the end of the month she agreed to a separation from him. By mid-March, Byron was brought to agree to a private separation from his wife. Before the end of April, he left England, never to return.