Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Surprising Greek Hero: The Very English Lord Byron

George Gordon Byron, the 6th Baron Byron, was one of the more colorful characters of the late Georgian period. Many remember him to this day for his poetry and his many, many scandalous love affairs. After all, this was a man at one point was declared (albeit by an ex-lover) as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know."

There was another side to this man, though. This practical and political side would lead this English poet to have a small role in the history of labor and the history of another nation: Greece.

For Lord Byron, one artifact of his birthright was a seat on the House of Lords--a fortunate convenience for a man very critical of the status quo. Byron's poetry was often full of scathing critique and satire of both domestic and international political issues, and he made many impassioned speeches in Parliament to champion the causes he felt just. His first period in Parliament (March to June 1809) was brought to an end by a trip to Europe. He would later return to Parliament in 1812 though his permanent departure from England in 1816, forced both by rumors about his behavior and heavy debt, would end his domestic political career.

During his time in Parliament, Lord Byron championed many reformist causes, or by some people's reckoning, revolutionary causes. For example, he supported Irish independence both in poetry and political speeches:

"Thus has Great Britain swallowed up the Parliament—the constitution—the independence of Ireland, and refuses to disgorge even a single privilege, although for the relief of her swollen and distempered body politic."

He later would even pen poetry suggesting some support for the independence of India. These were not exactly popular positions at the time.

He also supported the Luddites. They were an anti-industrialization movement centered around textile workers whose jobs were being eliminated by new technologies. Protests turned to a campaign against mills in the north of England. The destruction of mills combined with attacks on magistrates lead to the deployment of thousands of troops against the Luddites.

As one can surmise, the Luddites were not some genteel opposition movement. They were a near revolutionary force that conservative aristocrats viewed with disgust and trepidation. In contrast, Lord Byron, who viewed the Luddite cause as arising from social justice concerns by people being harmed and destroyed by dubious automation that benefited others more than the workers, supported the movement both in Parliament and in his poetry. Whether one thinks him a fool or praises him for that, it definitely was a very radical position.

Even after leaving England, he would continue to contribute to political newspapers and discussions, generally supporting causes that placed him firmly in opposition to many landed, aristocratic interests. A lot of this was heavily influenced by his Romantic worldview.

Byron later became involved with the Greek independence movement. At the time, the Greeks were under the heel of the Ottoman Empire. He'd spoken and written of his belief in Greek independence for some time, but the start of open insurgency in 1821 further crystallized his support. While some of this support was just part of his natural tendency to support most independence movements,  Greece also held a special place in the hearts of many Western intellectuals of the period due to its ancient contributions to Western thought.

Generous financial and literary support by Byron gave way to more direct military aid in 1823, including his formation, using his own money, of the Byron Brigade (including refitting warships). Besides his equipment, he ended up in command of Greek rebel soldiers.

Despite his literary talents, he had no military experience at all, but it seems the Greeks weren't going to risk offending a man who was giving them a considerable amount of money and for whom they had a great deal of respect anyway. He was to take part in a major assault on a Turkish fortress, Lepanto, but before the force could depart toward the objective, he fell ill. Over the next few months he fought disease, incompetent  doctors, and infection until finally succumbing to his aliments at Missolonghi, Greece on April 19, 1824 at the not so ripe age of 36.

Despite his very minimal involvement in the actual fighting, years of financial, political, and literary support garnered him a large amount of Greek respect. In Greece, many still consider him, despite his non-Greek background, a hero of the Greek War of Independence. There was even a three-day period of mourning following his death there and a city northeast of Athens still named after him, Vyronas (Βύρωνας). His death in Greece helped focus even more international attention on the conflict and arguably helped to contribute to the entry of other Western powers on the Greek side.
Pretty good for a man who was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know."


  1. Such a romantic figure! I visited his one-time home in Nottinghamshire with its man-made lake and huge reflecting pond on a gray and misty day. It was all so very, very Regency England. Loved it!

  2. Ah, I definitely would like to check that out some day.

  3. The Byron Brigade ... who knew? Thank heaven for artists, the progressives throughout the centuries. And thank you, J.A. Beard, for this most informative post.

  4. I knew about his involvement in Greece...but not his support for Ireland and the Luddites! Very interesting article! Thanks.

    1. Indeed--we'd have to see the details of Luddite support to know if he was actually wrong (right on most politics), or expressing that there was a very serious problem driving these people to so act.

  5. I was the opposite. For a long time I knew about him in regards to the Luddites and Irish but not the Greek matter until relatively recently.

  6. Flawless summary of what motivated Byron on a deeper level!

    I've been working for many years on a book about Byron’s celebrity period and eventual return to what he loved most--politics. I don't think he ever forgot that he might have been one of the working poor except for the canon ball that killed the heir putting Byron in line to inherit. Sticking up for the little guy was deeply rooted in his psyche. As a young boy in school, Byron stepped in to protect others from being bullied even though he was crippled himself. For all his faults, he was still a great man in history. The Greeks recognize him each year on April 19th, the date he passed.

    Wonderful tribute, A.J.

  7. I'm a keen fan of Byron's poetry, (very keen) but not so fond of the man. I've read his few speeches to the House of Lords. They were nothing great--and it was an age of rather superlative speakers. Byron wasn't a great orator and he didn't cause the political stir that he believed should have been his right. Nor did he do much other than to espouse the usual Whig causes. Should you wish to read some great speeches of the era, turn to Charles James Fox, Samuel Whitbread, Spencer Perceval, George Canning...

    Byron's publisher (a close friend) was firm in his conviction that Byron did not have an affaire with Caroline Lamb--she wasn't his type--though he certainly was one of her mother-in-law's many lovers.

    His debts were legendary, but even those were far-outstripped by his amoral behaviour. Had he been alive today, I am convinced he would be spending much of his time behind bars for GBH (his favourite early hours of the morning pastime of "boxing the watch" would have seen to that), his pursuit of underage boys(and indeed, at least one 13 year old girl)and drug abuse.

    There's also his very bizarre affaire with that Albanian warlord--can't think of his name (but the fellow was so nasty that even Napoleon didn't want to take him on)--the one who liked to murder pregnant women in his dungeon...Equally, it's pretty certain that at the time of his death, he was already seriously ill with syphilis.

    So maybe not such a Romantic hero after all.

  8. Diana,

    Well, this wasn't, on my end, intended as a tribute per se, as much as an illumination of an aspect of his life that sometimes get shoft shift.

    I find him an interesting man in many ways, but I've written in detail at other locations about his rather scandalous personal life.


    Well, he did in the end, have to leave England for, in general, being considered a dirt bag. So, it's not like he was getting that much of a pass even then.

    As for the Albanian, are you talking about Ali Pasha? Pasha certainly was a nasty character. Though it was always my understanding that the evidence for Byron having a relationship with him was pretty thin. Granted, Byron slept with soooo many people, it's certainly plausible. It's just in the context of him being accused of sleeping with half of England (regardless of whether or not they were related to him), I tend to go with only the better-sourced quarter of England, he slept with.

    That being said, as far as I recall, this Greek trip was definitely punctuated with him having sexual adventures that would get him a long prison sentence these days, as I remember seeing several letters from the period that were basically about him hunting for Greek boys (all poetically coded and what not), but I forget the details.

    So, yeah, he's no Spencer Perceval for sure (someone I can almost admire unreservedly with my modern political standards except for a few niggling issues).

    I summed up his exit from England in an entry elsewhere as:

    "Stepping back to Lord Byron, the various accusations and rumors floating about him basically forced his exit from England in 1816. There also was the small matter of his not insignificant debt. Live like a rock star, pay like a rock star, I suppose."

    As for Caroline Lamb, I'm dubious of discounting their relationship because of the statement of one person, no matter how close. History is littered with rakish gentleman who go after women who aren't normally their type.

    It's not like he was otherwise known for his sexual restraint.

    And why bother with something like Glenarvon, then? Under this interpretation then, is the idea she was just some deluded stalker then?

    I mean the evidence is a lot stronger there, I'd argue, than with Ali Pasha.

  9. I wonder if Thomas Cochrane's Greek naval appointment had anything to do with him? Apparently he was a huge admirer.

  10. M.M.
    You sound as if you’ve read a few modern biographies and not very good ones. Some of what you say is true, but much of it is what I like to think of as the echo of his celebrity. The tale gets taller on down the line. To the politics:
    “I've read his few speeches to the House of Lords. They were nothing great--and it was an age of rather superlative speakers.”

    His Frame Breaker’s speech is regarded to have been an excellent speech by both parties. And it was only his first at the age of twenty-four, if memory serves.

    “Nor did he do much other than to espouse the usual Whig causes.”

    Byron’s willingness to bring a petition from Major Cartwright to the attention of the HOL is an example of him going outside the Whig mainstream and support.

    “There's also his very bizarre affaire with that Albanian warlord--can't think of his name”

    Byron was acquainted with Ali Pasha on his grand tour. From Byron’s letters it’s clear that Ali liked Byron very much, even thought he was a girl--but haven’t seen any evidence that it went the other way. Byron did give up the last year of his life, his own money, and guidance to build an army to defeat the Ottomans. And he was very serious about what he was doing there in Greece. While Stanhope (military adviser sent from the London Greek Committee) fiddled around with a printing press, Byron was keeping difficult bands of Souli warriors together long enough to set out and attack Lepanto; the Turkish stronghold in Western Greece. Had he lived and fulfilled this objective, all of Western Greece might have been liberated because it was believed that the smaller outposts for the Ottomans would not have been able to hold without Lepanto. Byron was also involved in a Pan-Hellenic conference that would have brought the western and eastern revolutionary armies together.

    Did he have faults? Yes, his relationship with his half-sister, Augusta being just one of those. The young boys or young men on his grand tour—(those letters don’t detail the ages) are another of his downfalls. To Lady Oxford’s daughter, the thirteen year old, I assume? There is such scant evidence that he abused her it’s not worth mentioning. And it was actually John Hobhouse who had a real crush on the young girl. Something about his wanting to marry her when she was older.

    John Murray is not what I would have considered a "close friend" of Byron's. The affair with Lady Caroline was/is very well documented. The other thing with Lady Melbourne-not so much.

    Sorry, I’m ranting now.

    1. Four years later, your rant is appreciated.
      I'd like to know when the history shifted so much that Byron's death (the death of, during his life probably the most famous, influential, loved, and hated artistic figure...of any of his age, or any other--while they were alive; the English were shocked. The French were shocked, the Germans and Russians and Bohemians and Italians were all deeply shocked--the version of this tale I've always heard (and which is celebrated by Greece and Britain every year on the date of his death, with his image and Gladstone's representing Briish positive aspirations in the world...mostly SE Europe) involved England as well as France only taking much interest in the Greek War [which parliament disliked because, you know, Metternich] after Byron arrived, and that there was no question at all that the expedition sent to force a negotiated peace did so under popular pressure after Byron's death--re-emphasized by the capture of Misolonghi. I have never found doubt that his death carrying out war duties (back then half of fatalities came of disease) rallying troops on a rainy night before fever--has ever been questioned as the quite clear motivating factor in shifting parliamentary policy to help Greece. I've seen first sources. ...Yet, now, accounts of the Greek War contain falsehoods such as implying he merely paid the grenadiers some money and spent his time in Albania (Ottoman power center--real plausible), when it's established copiously that Byron spent his last four months at Missolonghi funding, equipping and training the greeks' only Artillery brigade out of his own pocket.
      He's being written out of history. Why?

  11. Such a short life, yet nearly two centuries later, he still evokes so much passion.

    How many poets from our time will be remembered two centuries from now?

  12. Enjoyed the post - and enjoying the post- post debate even more!
    Learning heaps.
    G x

  13. There have been a number of documentaries that have examined the alleged affaire with Ali Pasha. And all have concluded it happened--as much as anything because Ali Pasha just wasn't a guy you said no to. Not if you wanted to live.

    There are the letters from the Greek monastery where he was staying with his 16-year old Greek boy-lover about whom he was blissful. The amount of sex he claimed to be having struck me as hyperbolic, so I actually asked a gay friend about it and said, "Wouldn't this much sex lead to rectal bleeding, even if it were possible to fit it in with 6-8 hours sleep a night?" And he said that it wasn't possible, nor was it likely. So, since then, I've been questioning the veracity of Byron's enormous sexual appetite and list of conquests.

    His uncontrollable violent behaviour is also well-documented. He was a champion pugilist--a very strong man--and he was well-taught in the art and practised a lot. So when he went out for the purpose of boxing the watch, more often than not, that encounter left the elderly man (the watchman) in a coma. And that Byron deemed a good laugh.

    The curious thing about Byron today though is that for all that people talk about him being handsome and admiring him and how they lurve his poetry, very few people have actually read much of it beyond a snippet here and there, and what they do read, they find prolix and over-complicated--partly, I suppose, because his rather fine classical education shines out of his poetry and we aren't that familiar with classical poetic structure and style--it's a far cry from Robert Frost or Wilfrid Owen...

    His politics are also very curiously second-rate Radical. Certainly, politically he was influenced by Shelley. But his denunciations of the British following Waterloo are very strange--and speak of a personal vendetta against the British establishment who threw him out for this lack of morals rather than any appreciation of what happened there or why. And it's also curious that people today take his word for these matters, or indeed as a barometer of public opinion about the public figures of that era, since his opinions were so far from the general consensus at the time. He was completely out of touch with the post-Waterloo mood across Europe...

    And finally, he was a drug-addict. Laudanum and chloral (Dante Gabriel Rossetti was also a fan of chloral) were his drugs of choice. And whilst there are those who believe that drug-use leads of heightened creativity and even genius, probably most of us would agree that it does not lead to sound or even sane political or personal judgement.

    If he did have syphilis, as is alleged--and given his stay in Venice more than likely--he was almost certainly using mercury as well. And the side-effects of that are truly terrifying.

    I understand that some may take my comments about Byron as a stand against the fellow and may infer that I don't like their hero. I admire his poetry. Very much so. And I have read it all. I think he's an utterly brilliant poet. Staggeringly gifted. But I do not believe in whitewashing historic figures just because I *like* them or their works.

  14. Let's end this with the couple of things I do agree with you on -- :-)

    "very few people have actually read much of it beyond a snippet here and there, and what they do read, they find prolix and over-complicated--partly, I suppose, because his rather fine classical education shines out of his poetry and we aren't that familiar with classical poetic structure and style"

    I didn't come by my interest through his poetry and am no expert on the romantics, but I will agree that without any of the pop culture references of Byron's time or his education in the classics some of his pieces are hard to decipher. The way he changes from one narrator's voice to the next makes it challenging to follow some of his longer epics.

    "his opinions were so far from the general consensus at the time. He was completely out of touch with the post-Waterloo mood across Europe..."

    I do know that he disagreed with the campaign against Napoleon from the beginning. Something about a starving populace being more important than the preservation of monarchs. It's true that his popularity waned as a rising tide of nationalism swept across Britain. Everyone loves a war that's won and done.

    Byron was simply a man before his time as it concerns his liberal politics. In this area of his life, he was a progressive thinker, and a man who demonstrated true compassion for the “little guy.”

  15. Lord Byron was NOT 'very English', thank you very much. While England has some claim to him, he was certainly more Scottish than English. I suggest reading his Dark Lochnagar for HIS view of his nationality. The English tendency to claim that which belongs to others is not an attractive one.


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