On April 19th 1824, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, died in what is now Greece, where he had travelled to support the Greek struggle for independence from Turkey. Even today, he is considered a Greek national hero. Byron’s scandalous history, exotic travels, and flamboyant life made such an impression on the world that the term “Byronic” was coined to mean romantic, arrogant, dark, and cynical.
Byron was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, on January 22nd 1788. His clubfoot and his impoverished environment made his childhood difficult, but at age 10 he inherited his great uncle’s title. He attended Harrow, then Trinity College, Cambridge, where he ran up enormous debts and pursued passionate relationships with women and men. His first published volume of poetry, Hours of Idleness (1807), was savaged by critics, especially in Scotland, and his second published work, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), attacked the English literary establishment.
After getting his master’s degree in 1809, he travelled in Portugal, Spain, and the Near East for two years. His experiences fed into his later works, including Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), which brought him almost instant acclaim in England. As he said at the time, he “awoke one morning and found myself famous.” His poetry, manners, fashion, and tastes were widely imitated.
In 1815, he married Anne Isabella Milbanke, and the couple had a daughter, August Ada, the following year. Ada proved to be a mathematical prodigy and is considered by some to be the first computer programmer, thanks to her work on Charles Babbage’s computing machine.
The marriage quickly foundered, and the couple legally separated. By this time, scandal had broken out over Byron’s suspected incest with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and he was ostracised from society and forced to flee England in 1816. He settled in Geneva, near Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. There, he became intimately involved with Mary’s half-sister, Claire Clairmont, who bore his daughter Allegra in January 1817.
Byron moved to Venice that year and entered a period of wild debauchery. In 1819, he began an affair with the Countess Teresa Guiccioli, the young wife of an elderly count, and the two remained attached for many years. Byron, always an avid supporter of liberal causes and national independence, supported the Greek war for independence. He joined the cause in Greece, training troops in the town of Missolonghi, where he died just after his 36th birthday.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson would later recall the shocked reaction in Britain when word was received of Byron’s death. The Greeks mourned Lord Byron deeply, and he became a hero. The national poet of Greece, Dionysios Solomos, wrote a poem about the unexpected loss, named To the Death of Lord Byron. Vyron, the Greek form of Byron, continues in popularity as a masculine name in Greece, and a suburb of Athens is called Vyronas in his honour.
Byron’s body was embalmed, but the Greeks wanted some part of their hero to stay with them. According to some sources, his heart remained at Missolonghi. According to others, it was his lungs, which were placed in an urn that was later lost when the city was sacked. His other remains were sent to England for burial in Westminster Abbey, but the Abbey refused for reason of “questionable morality”. Huge crowds viewed his body as he lay in state for two days in London. Lord Byron is buried at the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.