Two hundred years ago, this coming Sunday, Lord Byron boarded a ship and sailed away from England for the Continent, leaving behind his wife and baby daughter. He would never see either of them, or England, ever again. It took a combination of events over the course of more than a year to finally drive Byron from England, a kind of perfect storm of issues which made him believe he had no choice but to flee his homeland.
When Byron left England for good . . .
One could argue that the problems which would drive Byron from England began on the second day of January the previous year, when he married Miss Anna Isabella Milbanke at her family home in Durham. He had not wanted to marry "Annabella" because he did not love her, his affections were engaged elsewhere. However, he was deeply in debt and she was the only heiress who would have him. Certainly, they were not soul-mates, for Byron seemed determined to offend against propriety at every opportunity, while Annabella was a very pious young woman who believed she could reform him. The marriage got off to a rocky start and relations between the couple never really improved, even after they moved to London and settled into a life together.
Perhaps because he felt trapped in his marriage, Byron gradually began spending less and less time with his new wife and more time with his London friends. He was convinced she was going through his personal papers and finding other ways to spy on him. Byron deeply resented both her spying and her determined and ongoing efforts to reform him. To demonstrate his independence of her, he pursued his own interests with little regard for his wife and took every opportunity to behave badly in order to shock her. Though he continued to pursue his intellectual and literary interests, he also engaged in several affairs after his marriage. Soon after their marriage, Byron told Annabella that he did not want children, since he was certain a baby would divert his wife’s attention from him. Once Annabella became pregnant and he became a member of the management committee of the Drury Lane Theatre, he took a young actress, Susan Boyce, as his mistress.
Assuming his financial problems, at least, were solved by his marriage, Byron made no effort to economize when he settled in London with Annabella. But the marriage portion was not even enough to pay the annual rent on their townhouse on Piccadilly Terrace. Byron also had expectations when Annabella’s wealthy uncle, Lord Wentworth died in the spring. However, Wentworth left the bulk of his estate to Annabella’s parents rather than to her, dashing Byron’s hopes of a paying off his many debts. Bailiffs began haunting the Byron’s Piccadilly Terrace home, dunning the couple for a host of unpaid debts, soon after the passing of Lord Wentworth, also assuming funds had become available to the young couple. Despite their dire financial straits, that November, Byron refused an advance of £1,500 from his publisher, John Murray, feeling it was beneath him to take money for his poetry.
Byron seemed to have come to terms with his incipient fatherhood during Annabella’s pregnancy. But he had come to the conclusion that he wanted a "glorious boy" to carry on the Gordon family name. The birth of a daughter on 10 December, seemed to infuriate him and he began treating Annabella even worse than he had at any time since their wedding day. He ordered Annabella to wean the child by February (since it was then believed that nursing would prevent pregnancy), because he was determined to use her to father a legitimate male heir, his "glorious boy." Based on his behavior and remarks, both Annabella and her half-sister-in-law, Augusta, were convinced that Byron was becoming mentally unstable.
By the time the Byron’s celebrated their first wedding anniversary, several bailiffs were lurking outside their Piccadilly Terrace home every day. Since Byron had been threatening his wife that once he impregnated her again, he was going abroad, she came to the conclusion that she must leave the Piccadilly Terrace townhouse soon. When she received an invitation from her parents to visit them at their new country home in Kirkby Mallory, she accepted with alacrity based on advice from several friends. Annabella left the house with the baby early on 15 January 1816, while Byron was still asleep. She did not know that would be the last time they would live together as a family. In fact, she believed that given some time on his own, Byron would come to his senses and they could reconcile.
Once she learned about how her daughter had been treated by her husband, Lady Noel, Annabella’s mother sought out a lawyer in order to secure a legal separation. Initially, Annabella was against such a drastic step, but gradually, her family persuaded her that she had no choice, for both her own safety and that of her baby daughter. The lawyer, Stephen Lushington, realized that Annabella’s case was weak under the laws which pertained at the time. But he was eventually able to ferret out Byron’s relationship with Susan Boyce, who was believed to have venereal disease, and had given it to Byron. Thus, being forced to resume her marital responsibilities would put Annabella at risk of getting the same disease. By mid-February, veiled rumors were being circulated about Byron’s incest with his half-sister, Augusta. On the other hand, by March, rumors prejudicial to Annabella were being circulated by some of Byron’s friends. Nevertheless, at that time, Byron still believed a reconciliation was possible. What he did not know was that Lady Noel, who despised him, was not only determined to separate him from her daughter and grand-daughter, but that she was determined to completely destroy his reputation, by any means.
By early April, the situation had further degenerated as ugly rumors, particularly against Byron and Augusta, continued to circulate more and more publicly. It was then that Byron came to the conclusion that not only would there be no reconciliation with Annabella, but that his reputation was so damaged and his finances so bad that he had no choice but to flee to the Continent. His friends tried to convince him that the situation was not as bad had he believed, the scandal would die down and he would be able to remain in England. Unbeknownst to them, Byron’s servant, William Fletcher, was quietly packing their trunks in mid-April. At that same time, his master, finally accepting that he would be separated from his wife, was waiting to sign the documents pertaining to the separation before he went abroad. Desperately in need of funds, Byron decided he must sell his beloved library as well as some of his furniture. In order to get the most for his possessions, particularly his book, he had them sold at auction. They were listed as the property of " Nobleman, about to leave England on a tour." He was very disappointed when the sale realized barely £800.
As part of the separation agreement, Byron had given his carriage to Lady Byron. However, he believed he needed a sturdy coach for his own upcoming journey. Napoleon’s travelling coach, which had been captured after Waterloo, had been put on display in London, at William Bullock’s great Egyptian Hall, only a few steps from the Byron’s townhouse in Piccadilly Terrace. Byron admired Napoleon Bonaparte and went to see his coach several times while it was on display. In the spring of 1816, Byron commissioned the prominent coach-maker, Charles Baxter of Long Acre, to build him a replica of Napoleon’s coach. Such a coach would cost in excess of £500, Byron already owned Baxter money, and the coach-maker must have known Byron was deeply in debt, yet he did build the coach, as requested.
Though Napoleon’s coach was blue, Byron’s copy was painted dark green and had his initials, "N. B.," painted on the doors. (After the death of Annabella’s uncle, Lord Wentworth, the Milbankes added his family name of Noel to theirs. Byron had also claimed the name of Noel, perhaps in hopes of getting more money from the family). It was not lost on Byron that his new carriage was not only a duplicate of that of his hero, Napoleon, but that it also bore his initials. The spacious interior of the coach was fitted out for extended travelling, as was Napoleon’s. In Byron’s coach, there was a bed, a small library and a chest which contained all the necessary implements for dining in style.
On Sunday, 21 April 1816, the new travelling coach was finished, Byron’s trunks were packed and ready to go. It was also on that day that he got word that the separation documents were complete and ready for his signature. John Cam Hobhouse, who had also been his witness at his wedding, served as his witness when he signed the documents which ended his brief marriage. Two days later, on 23 April, in the very early morning, there was much uproar at the Byron house in Piccadilly Terrace as the poet was preparing to depart before the arrival of the bailiffs who had become a fixture on his doorstep. In the end, the departure was made only steps ahead of the bailiffs, who quickly seized everything they could from the house, including Byron’s pets.
Byron had engaged Dr. John William Polidori to accompany him to the Continent. On that Tuesday morning, Byron was also accompanied by his servants and some of his close friends, who would see him off at Dover. John Cam Hobhouse and Dr. Polidori traveled in Scrope Davies’ chaise, while Davies traveled with Byron in the Napoleonic coach. They stopped at Canterbury to admire the great cathedral before stopping at an inn in Dover for the night. Hobhouse, fully aware that the bailiffs were probably in pursuit, had the coach loaded onto the packet soon after the arrived in Dover. The winds made it impossible to sail that night, so the friends remained in the city for another day. The next day, they strolled around Dover, and located the grave of Charles Churchill, an eighteenth-century poet and satirist. Byron laid down upon the grave, then gave the sextant of the churchyard a crown to lay fresh turf over the grave.
During that final night with his friends, the drinking went on into the wee hours. Byron had become so inebriated that Hobhouse had to rouse him the next day in order to get him on board the ship, warning him the captain was threatening to sail without him. Unsteady on his feet, Byron had to take Hobhouse’s arm as he walked down to the dock. Though Byron had been exhibiting artificially high spirits for the previous couple of days, as he walked toward the ship his demeanor noticeable changed. His manner became very quiet and somber. Once on board the packet, he took off his hat and waved it to his friends until they could no longer make him out in the roughening seas. Thus, Lord Byron sailed away from England, never to see his homeland again. In the eight years remaining to him, he traveled the Continent until he died of fever in Greece, at the age of thirty-six. It was only then that his body was returned to England, where he was laid to rest in a small church in Nottinghamshire.