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Literary Locations #75: Newstead Abbey

John Baird
Sat 19 Sep, 2020

Newstead Abbey, arguably the finest of Nottinghamshire’s literary locations.

In the rolling acres of Robin Hood country, along a mile and a quarter of tree-lined road, is Newstead Abbey, surrounded by woodland, lakes, waterfalls and walled gardens.

The Augustinian priory was built by Henry II, between 1163 and 1173, to atone for the murder of Thomas Becket. Tales of Robin Hood associate themselves with the Abbey as King John stayed here and outlaws ransacked its riches. It was hoped that the then new 'Nottingham Castle' would curtail the thieving but, after it opened, that too came under attack. A small number of Black Canons – so named for their black cape and hood - lived there until 1539, and it’s thought that the character Friar Tuck is based on a Canon from Newstead. Somewhat rebellious, some of the Canons drank excessively and didn’t stick to their strict order, leading the Archdeacon of Canterbury having to travel to Newstead Abbey to admonish them.

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, Henry VIII presented Newstead Abbey to Sir John Byron of Colwick Hall, father of ‘Little Sir John with the great beard’. Sir John, who was Constable of Nottingham Castle and Lieutenant of Sherwood Forest, turned the monastic buildings into a mansion.

As instructed by Henry VIII, Sir John pulled down the Priory’s church, using the rubble to extend the accommodation.

It was during the English Civil War that the grandson of the first lay owner of Newstead was created a peer and the Abbey was looted by Parliamentarians. By the early 18th century it was among the most admired aristocratic homes in England. Then the so-called ‘Wicked’ 5th Lord Byron got his hands on it; a man who killed his cousin, abducted a teenage actress, and dined with loaded pistols upon his table. The ‘Wicked’ Lord sold most of the Abbey’s contents in 1778, including statues, pictures and a marble fireplace; and many trees were felled, their timber sold to ease his mounting debts. It’s said that the misanthrope enabled the Abbey’s deterioration in order to spite the son he assumed would inherit it, but this, and the claim that he trained ‘racing’ crickets, may be nothing more than a myth.

George Gordon - the poet Lord Byron - was a small, ten-year-old boy from Aberdeen when he inherited the estate and title in 1798. He’d never laid eyes on his great-uncle, the ‘Wicked’ Lord.

A poem entitled ‘On Leaving Newstead’ appeared in Byron’s first volume of poetry, ‘Fugitive Pieces’ (1806). The poem begins:

“Through thy battlements, Newstead, the hollow winds whistle;

Thou, the hall of my fathers, art gone to decay.”

A more polished version of the poem appeared in future volumes.

Until the summer of 1808, Byron’s new home had been leased. Its final lodger, Lord Grey, kept the place in a “beastly state”, according to Mrs Byron, the poet’s mother. Byron himself moved to Newstead Abbey later that year, a few months before his coming of age. He kept his quarrelsome mother in Burgage Manor, Southwell, preventing her from visiting by continually repairing the Abbey.

“Newstead and I stand or fall together,” he said to his mother. “I have now lived on the spot, I have fixed my heart upon it, and no pressure, present or future, shall induce me to barter the last vestige of our inheritance. I have that pride within me which will enable me to support difficulties. I can endure privations, but could I exchange Newstead for the first fortune in the country, I would reject the proposition.”

His intended “thorough repair” of the mansion began with the rooms that were for his own use, behind the hall in the north-west angle of the Abbey, private apartments that were separated from those in the south-east wing, intended for guests. Using borrowed money, Byron could only make part of the Abbey habitable, so whilst smaller rooms were furnished with velvet curtains and new carpets, the rest of the building remained in a semi-ruinous state.

The damaged, rain-affected roof was not repaired, but Byron at least had rooms in which to entertain several of his friends who, after finishing their education, had joined him at Newstead. Dressed as monks, they would stay up late, emptying the wine cellar of its claret, burgundy and champagne, Byron supping from a skull found in the grounds. The abandoned Great Hall witnessed some of their high jinks, including pistol shooting, with empty bottles as a target, and the Great Dining Room was used for reading, fencing, boxing, singlestick and shuttlecock. It was also here that Byron kept his bear. You were lucky if you could walk from one end to the other without being mauled, bitten by a dog or shot by a pistol.

From his digs at Trinity College, Byron had brought with him his tame bear, which would roam the estate with his other animals, including a docile wolf. His favourite - and most famous - pet was Boatswain, a Newfoundland dog “who possessed Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity, and all the virtues of Man without his Vices,” as reads his impressive monument in the Abbey’s grounds, built after Boatswain died of rabies. Also etched upon it is the poem, ‘Epitaph to a Dog’, which contains the words:

‘…the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,

The first to welcome, foremost to defend,

Whose honest heart is still his Masters own,

Who labors, fights, lives, breathes for him alone…’

Byron had wanted to be buried with Boatswain’s remains, as his original will requested:

“I Desire that my body be buried in the Vault of the Garden of Newstead without any ceremony or burial service whatever and that no Inscription save my name and age shall be written on the Tomb or Tablet and it is my Will that my faithful Dog may not be removed from the said Vault…”

The access to Boatswain’s vault was opened in 1987. Beneath his memorial was enough space to house a coffin large enough for a small human. But, despite Byron’s wishes, his own remains are not there. Denied burial at Westminster Abbey, most of him is buried in the family vault in Hucknall.

Newstead Abbey had a library that Byron would make use of as he spent much of his time reading. He also wrote his satire ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’ at Newstead, produced in response to the adverse criticism generated by his early poetry.

In June 1809, Byron left for a foreign tour, returning to England from Greece in 1811, when he learned of his mother’s ill-health. She had been living in the Abbey, having moved there from Burgage House, Southwell, when she suffered a heart attack, perhaps brought on from the stress of a Nottingham upholsterer fixing a notice to the gate, demanding payment of debt. Mrs Byron had had little money and, knowing that her son had left a mountain of unpaid bills, she had been scared to death of the bailiffs turning up.

Byron had already written to his mother, saying he’d be visiting her at Newstead Abbey. On hearing of her illness, he returned home immediately, only to arrive too late to see her alive. He refused to attend her funeral. Instead, as the procession left the Abbey, he put on his boxing gloves and began sparring.

Several of Byron’s friends had also died that year, leading him to write, “Some curse hangs over me and mine. My mother lies a corpse in this house: one of my best friends is drowned in a ditch. What can I say, or think, or do?”

Byron’s final visit to Newstead was in the September of 1814, accompanied by his half-sister Augusta, perhaps the only woman he truly loved. It was at this time that Byron proposed to Annabella Milbanke, who accepted. In a letter to her aunt, Byron wrote, “…if she has nothing I had better sell N[ewstead] again…” Byron had decided to barter his inheritance, needing the money to ease his financial woes.

For Byron, Newstead had also become a symbol and a reminder of his family’s fate and misfortune. By 1816, he was, reluctantly, seeking a buyer for his, “Newstead! fast-falling, once resplendent dome!”

It was in this year that Caroline Lamb’s scandalous first book, 'Glenarvon’, was published, a Gothic novel that caricaturised her friend Jane Harley, Countess of Oxford, whom Byron had had an affair with in 1812-1813. Lamb, who famously called Byron, “Mad, bad and dangerous to know”, had previously engaged in her own very public affair with Byron. Her husband, William Lamb, later became the British Prime Minister.

Newstead Abbey was not sold until after Byron and his wife had separated and he had gone to Italy. It took an old school friend, Colonel Thomas Wildman (1787–1859), to agree to take it. In 1818, Wildman paid £94,500 for the estate (£5,659,977 in today’s money), spending double that amount over the next 34 years on restoring and rebuilding the house and gardens. It was Wildman that introduced peacocks to the estate. The Abbey had been in the Byron family for the best part of 300 years.

Wildman had wanted to chop down a lone tree that seemed out of place, until a servant, who had worked for Byron, informed him that his Lord had been especially fond of it, the poet having planted it himself. Wildman spared the tree, now known as ‘Byron’s Oak’. Its stump remains in situ on the south lawn, marked by a plaque.

As a boy, Byron had written about the tree, “As it fares, so will fare my fortunes.” Revisiting the Abbey, in 1807, his tree was not faring well, prompting him to write a poem which begins:

“Young oak, when I planted thee deep in the ground,

I hoped that thy days would be longer than mine…”

Wildman gave the author Washington Irving (1783-1859) a guided tour of Newstead on his visit to England. Irving spent three weeks at the Abbey and wrote about it in his book ‘Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey’ (1835), in which Irving tells of the infamous Byron family – contributing to the notoriety - and Newstead’s connections to Robin Hood.

“Newstead Abbey is one of the finest specimens in existence of those quaint and romantic piles, half castle, half convent, which remain as monuments of the olden times of England. It stands, too, in the midst of a legendary neighborhood; being in the heart of Sherwood Forest, and surrounded by the haunts of Robin Hood and his band of outlaws, so famous in ancient ballad and nursery tale.”

(‘From ‘Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey’ by Washington Irving)

Washington Irving was the first American writer to gain fame in Europe. Known for ‘Rip Van Winkle’ (1819) and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ (1810), it was Washington that gave the nickname ‘Gotham’ to New York City.

Colonel Wildman died childless and, in 1861, his widow sold the Abbey to William Frederick Webb for £147,000 (£12,233,495 in today’s money). At the time it was stated that the Prince of Wales was in treaty for the estate, with Queen Victoria being interested in buying it until Webb outbid her. Known in Africa as ‘the Giraffe’ on account of his height, Webb was an African explorer and big-game hunter. Ten years earlier he had fallen ill and been assisted by Dr David Livingstone, the famous Victorian missionary and explorer, most remembered for being found by H. M. Stanley who uttered, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

Webb came to know Livingstone well and the doctor made several trips to Newstead to stay with the Webbs. It was at the Abbey, in 1864-5, that Livingstone wrote part of his book ‘Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries’ (1865). The room in the Sussex tower, in which Livingstone wrote the book, is named after him. Livingstone’s days at Newstead were some of his happiest, as it was here that he got to know his daughters, Agnes and Anna May.

In 1865, Webb became High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire. By this time his wife had amounted a fine collection of Byron artifacts, that included a rare copy of his first volume of poetry. After her husband’s death, the estate passed through their surviving children, before their grandson, Charles Ian Fraser, took ownership, inheriting the Abbey from his mother’s side of the family. Living in Scotland, he had little interest in it, and sold off much of the land to the Nottingham Corporation (City Council) during the 1920s. He also had part of the Abbey converted into flats. But what to do with the historic, public rooms? This problem was given to an associate, Harry German, to solve, and he asked his friend, Sir Julien Cahn, for help.

Sir Julien Cahn was an eccentric who, having built the largest furniture empire in England, used his wealth to fund his extraordinary hobbies (read ‘The Eccentric Entrepreneur’, a biography of Sir Julien Cahn, by Miranda Rijks). “The opportunity of a life time should be seized in the life-time of the opportunity,” said Cahn, and Newstead Abbey presented an opportunity he had been looking for. He had been wanting to erect some sort of dedication to Byron, and was considering a statue, when the Nottingham writer Cecil Roberts suggested to Sir Julien that he bought Newstead Abbey and presented it to the Nottingham public. Sir Julien was persuaded to buy all the outstanding land from Frazer too, 12 acres and the lakes.

Sir Julien Cahn was a known wealthy benefactor, who also paid for the lions outside the Council House, and agreed to buy the property in 1930. Having offered it to the National Trust who were indifferent to the idea, he decided that the Nottingham Corporation could have it, if they agreed to take care of it, forever. Fraser also agreed to donate many invaluable relics including Byron’s furniture. A grand handover ceremony was arranged, with the Prime Minister of Greece, Eleftherios Venizelos, a guest of honour (Byron being a national hero in Greece, having fought for their independence). The Greek PM was met at Hucknall market by 750 pupils from the local National School. He said he had “come to bring to Byron the deep and sincere homage and the gratitude and remembrance of his whole nation. Nobody, could think of a free Greece, without thinking at the same time of Lord Byron.”

Venizelos' impressive speech, given at the handover ceremony in front of Newstead Abbey, expressed what Byron meant to the people of Greece:

"Byron laboured for Greece, but died for Europe. Childe Harold dies as a crusader, and his death had been a precious and an unforgettable contribution to the struggles by which the holy places of human ideals should be restored to the sacred role of freedom. You realise, therefore, how deep and rich are the sources from which the devotion of Greeks to the memory of such a man sprouts and sparkles. His name spreads round on the lips of millions of Greeks, men, women and children, as that of a most cherished person, and it became a Christian name for hundreds of Greek boys. The statue of the poet adorns more than one Greek city. A new town built near Athens has been named after him - Byronia."

It was in this decade that the popular author Dorothy Whipple and her husband rented one of the cottages in the grounds of Newstead Abbey, spending weekends there. In her novel, ‘The Priory’ (1939), Whipple used the abbey as inspiration for her decaying country house, Saunby. Copies of her novel are available from the shop at Newstead Abbey.

The old priory’s original façade and medieval cloisters stand to this day, surviving earthquakes and a civil war. Visitors can see the poet’s furniture, letters, handwritten manuscripts and portraits, and also his gilt wood bed, his pistol and his writing desk, plus the circular table on which a portion of ‘Childe Harold’ was composed. Boatswain's portrait by the famous Nottingham animal artist Thomas Sanders can also be seen.

Even if the building itself is closed, it’s worth visiting Newstead to explore the wonderful grounds.

A ‘Writers’ Garden’ has recently been added. The plinths and busts on display represent six of our writers, taken from the eight that were previously at the entrance to Nottingham Castle. They are Henry Kirke White (1785-1806), William & Mary Howitt (1792-1879 & 1799-1888), D H Lawrence (1885-1930), Philip James Bailey and Lord Byron (1788-1824).

In his supreme poem, ‘Don Juan’, written a few months before his death, Lord Byron was thinking of Newstead Abbey. In Canto 13, Byron has his Spanish hero and other guests visit an unnamed Norman Abbey for a house party. “Before the mansion lay a lucid lake, Broad as transparent”, wrote Byron from Genoa, his mind back at Newstead Abbey.

In the epic poem, Don Juan encounters a phantom. In writing this, the most famous poet in the world was recalling his own meeting with a ‘ghost’, the Black Friar of Newstead Abbey, also known as the Goblin Friar. Byron had seen the Friar shortly before his disastrous marriage to Anne Milbanke.

Byron’s memory of, “my own county of Nottingham”, was never far from his thoughts.

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