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Newstead Abbey

Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, England, originally an Augustinian priory, is now best known as the ancestral home of Lord Byron.

The Monastic Foundation

The priory of St. Mary of Newstead, a house of Augustinian Canons, was founded by King Henry II of England about the year 1170, as one of many penances he paid following the murder of Thomas Becket.

The Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1534 gave the clear annual value of this priory as £167 16s. 11½d. The considerable deductions included 20s. given to the poor on Maundy Thursday in commemoration of Henry II, the founder, and a portion of food and drink similar to that of a canon given to some poor person every day, valued at 60s. a year.

Despite the clear annual value of Newstead being below the £200 assigned as the limit for the suppression of the lesser monasteries, this priory obtained the doubtful privilege of exemption, on payment to the Crown of the heavy fine of £233 6s. 8d in 1537. The surrender of the house was accomplished on 21 July 1539. The signatures attached were those of John Blake, prior, Richard Kychun, sub-prior, John Bredon, cellarer, and nine other canons, Robert Sisson, John Derfelde, William Dotton, William Bathley, Christopher Motheram, Geoffrey Acryth, Richard Hardwyke, Henry Tingker, and Leonard Alynson.

The prior obtained a pension of £26 13s. 4d., the sub-prior £6, and the rest of the ten canons who signed the surrender sums varying from £5 6s. 8d. to £3 6s. 8d.

The lake was dredged in the late eighteenth century and the lectern, thrown into the Abbey fishpond by the monks to save it during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, was discovered. In 1805 it was given to Southwell Minster by Archdeacon Kaye where it still resides.

Priors of Newstead

  • Eustace, 1216
  • Richard, 1216
  • Robert, 1234
  • William (late cellarer), 1241
  • William, 1267
  • John de Lexinton, resigned 1288
  • Richard de Hallam, 1288

  • Richard de Grange, 1293
  • William de Thurgarton, 1324
  • Hugh de Colingham, 1349
  • William de Colingham, resigned 1356
  • John de Wylesthorp, resigned 1366
  • William de Allerton, 1366
  • John de Hucknall, 1406

  • William Bakewell, 1417
  • Thomas Carleton, resigned 1424
  • Robert Cutwolfe, resigned 1424
  • William Misterton, 1455
  • John Durham, 1461
  • Thomas Gunthorp, 1467
  • William Sandale, 1504
  • John Blake, 1526

The early Barons Byron

Many additions were made to the original building. The 13th century ecclesiastical buildings are largely ruined during the dissolution of the monasteries. Early in the 18th century, the 4th Lord Byron landscaped the gardens extensively, to which William Byron, 5th Baron Byron added Gothic follies. It became a stately and glamorous estate. William Byron, known as "the Wicked Lord", was eccentric and violent and ruined the estate. Lord Byron's son and heir (also named William) eloped with Juliana Byron, the daughter of William's brother John Byron. Lord Byron felt that intermarrying would produce children plagued with madness and strongly opposed the union. He also needed his son to marry well in order to escape the debt that had been incurred in the Byron name. When defied by his son, he became enraged and committed himself to ruining his inheritance so that, in the event of his death, his son would receive nothing but debt and worthless property. He laid waste to Newstead Abbey, allowing the house to fall into disrepair, cutting down the great stands of timber surrounding it, and killing over 2,000 deer on the estate.

His vicious plan, however, was thwarted when his son died in 1776. William also outlived his grandson, a young man who, at the age of twenty-two, was killed by cannon fire in 1794 while fighting in Corsica. The title and Newstead Abbey was then left to his great-nephew, George Gordon, who became the 6th Baron Byron when the 5th Lord died on 21 May, 1798, at the age of seventy-nine. Upon his death, it is said that the great number of crickets he kept at Newstead left the estate in swarms.

Lord Byron

The young Lord Byron soon arrived at Newstead and was greatly impressed by the estate. The scale of the estate contributed to Byron's extravagant taste and sense of his own importance. However, no less impressive was the scale of problems at Newstead, where the yearly income had fallen to just £800 and many repairs were needed. He and his mother soon moved to Nottingham and neither lived permanently at Newstead for any extended period. His view of the decayed Newstead became one of the romantic ruin, a metaphor for his family's fall:

Thro' thy battlements, Newstead, the hollow winds whistle;
Thou, the hall of my fathers, art gone to decay.

The estate was leased to the 23-year-old Henry Edward Yelverton, 19th Baron Grey de Ruthyn, from January 1803. The lease was for £50 a year for the Abbey and Park for five years, until Byron came of age. Byron stayed for some time in 1803 with Lord Grey, before they fell out badly.

In 1808, Lord Grey left at the end of his lease and Byron returned to live at Newstead and began extensive and expensive renovations. His works were mainly decorative, however, rather than structural, so that rain and damp obscured his changes within just a few years.

Byron had a beloved Newfoundland dog named Boatswain, who died of rabies in 1808. Boatswain was buried at Newstead Abbey and has a monument larger than his master's. The inscription, from Byron's poem Epitaph to a Dog, has become one of his best-known works:

NEAR this spot
Are deposited the Remains
of one
Who possessed Beauty
Without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the Virtues of Man
Without his Vices.
This Praise, which would be unmeaning flattery
If inscribed over Human Ashes,
Is but a just tribute to the Memory of
"Boatswain," a Dog
Who was born at Newfoundland,
May, 1803,
And died at Newstead Abbey
Nov. 18, 1808.

Byron had wanted to be buried with Boatswain, although he would ultimately be buried in the family vault at the nearby church in Hucknall.

He was determined to stay at Newstead—"Newstead and I stand or fall together"—and he hoped to raise a mortgage on the property, but his advisor John Hanson urged a sale. This would be a preoccupation for many years and was certainly not resolved when Byron left for his Mediterranean travels in 1809. Upon his return to England in 1811, Byron stayed in London, not returning to see his mother who had been living in Newstead. She died, leaving him distraught at his own negligence of her. He lived again at the Abbey for a time but was soon drawn to life in London.

For the next few years, Byron made several attempts to sell the Abbey. It was put up at auction in 1812 but failed to reach a satisfactory price. A buyer was found, however, who offered £140,000, which was accepted. By spring 1813, though, the buyer, Thomas Claughton, had only paid £5,000 of the agreed down-payment. Byron was in debt and had continued to spend money on the expectation that the house would be sold. Negotiations began to degenerate and Byron accused Claughton of robbing the wine cellar. By August 1814, it was clear that the sale had fallen through, and Claughton forfeited what he had paid of the deposit. Byron was now without settled financial means and proposed marriage to the heiress Anne Isabella Milbanke. Claughton did return with new proposals involving a reduced price and further delays. Byron turned him down.

Sale and donation to the public

In July 1815, Newstead was once again put up for auction but failed to reach its reserve, bought in at 95,000 guineas. It was only during Byron's exile in Italy, in November 1817, that a buyer was found. Thomas Wildman, who had been at Harrow School with Byron and was heir to Jamaican plantations, paid £94,500, easing Byron's financial troubles considerably.

Wildman too spent a great deal of money on the Abbey and its contents, restoring it to some greatness. The architect John Shaw Sr. designed new parts of the abbey for Wildman In 1861, William Frederick Webb, African explorer, bought the Abbey from Wildman's widow. Under Webb, the chapel was redecorated, but the rest of the house remained largely unaltered. After his death in 1899, the estate passed to each of his surviving children and finally to his grandson Charles Ian Fraser. Fraser sold Newstead to local philanthropist, Sir Julien Cahn, who presented it to Nottingham Corporation in 1931.

The Abbey is now publicly owned, by Nottingham City Council, and houses a museum containing Byron memorabilia.

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