George Gordon Byron Byron, 6th Baron (1788-1824), English poet, was born in London at 16 Holles Street, Cavendish Square, on the 22nd of January 1788. The Byrons were of Norman stock, but the founder of the family was Sir John Byron, who entered into possession of the priory and lands of Newstead in the county of Nottingham in 1540. From him it descended (but with a bar-sinister) to a great-grandson, John (1st Baron) Byron (q.v.), a Cavalier general, who was raised to the peerage in 1643. The first Lord Byron died childless, and was succeeded by his brother Richard, the great-grandfather of William, the 5th lord, who outlived son and grandson, and was succeeded by his great-nephew, the poet. Admiral the Hon. John Byron (q.v.) was the poet's grandfather. His eldest son, Captain John Byron, the poet's father, was a libertine by choice and in an eminent degree. He caused to be divorced, and married (1779) as his first wife, the marchioness of Carmarthen (born Amelia D'Arcy), Baroness Conyers in her own right. One child of the marriage survived, the Hon. Augusta Byron (1783-1851), the poet's half-sister, who, in 1807, married her first cousin, Colonel George Leigh. His second marriage to Catherine Gordon (b. 1765) of Gight in Aberdeenshire took place at Bath on the 13th of May 1785. He is said to have squandered the fortunes of both wives.
It is certain that Gight was sold to pay his debts (1786), and that the sole provision for his wife was a settlement of £3000. It was an unhappy marriage. There was an attempt at living together in France, and, when this failed, Mrs Byron returned to Scotland. On her way thither she gave birth to a son, christened George Gordon after his maternal grandfather, who was descended from Sir William Gordon of Gight, grandson of James I. of Scotland. After a while her husband rejoined her, but went back to France and died at Valenciennes on the 2nd of August 1791. His wife was not a bad woman, but she was not a good mother. Vain and capricious, passionate and self-indulgent, she mismanaged her son from his infancy, now provoking him by her foolish fondness, and now exciting his contempt by her paroxysms of impotent rage. She neither looked nor spoke like a gentlewoman; but in the conduct of her affairs she was praiseworthy. She hated and avoided debt, and when relief came (a civil list pension of £300 a year) she spent most of it upon her son. Fairly well educated, she was not without a taste for books, and her letters are sensible and to the point. But the violence of her temper was abnormal.
Her father committed suicide, and it is possible that she inherited a tendency to mental derangement. If Byron owed anything to his parents it was a plea for pardon.
The poet's first years were spent in lodgings at Aberdeen. From 1794 to 1798 he attended the grammar school, "threading all classes" till he reached the fourth. It was a good beginning, a solid foundation, enabling him from the first to keep a hand over his talents and to turn them to a set purpose. He was lame from his birth. His right leg and foot, possibly both feet, were contracted by infantile paralysis, and, to strengthen his muscles, his mother sent him in the summers of 1796, 1797 to a farm house on Deeside. He walked with difficulty, but he wandered at will, soothed and inspired by the grandeur of the scenery. To his Scottish upbringing he owed his love of mountains, his love and knowledge of the Bible, and too much Calvinism for faith or unfaith in Christianity. The death of his great-uncle (May 19, 1798) placed him in possession of the title and estates. Early in the autumn Mrs Byron travelled south with her son and his nurse, and for a time made her home at Newstead Abbey. Byron was old enough to know what had befallen him. "It was a change from a shabby Scotch flat to a palace," a half-ruined palace, indeed, but his very own. It was a proud moment, but in a few weeks he was once more in lodgings.
The shrunken leg did not improve, and acting on bad advice his mother entrusted him to the care of a quack named Lavender, truss-maker to the general hospital at Nottingham. His nurse who was in charge of him maltreated him, and the quack tortured him to no purpose. At his own request he read Virgil and Cicero with a tutor.
In August 1799 he was sent to a preparatory school at Dulwich. The master, Dr Glennie, perceived that the boy liked reading for its own sake and gave him the free run of his library. He read a set of the British Poets from beginning to end more than once. This, too, was an initiation and a preparation. He remained at Dulwich till April 1801, when, on his mother's intervention, he was sent to Harrow. His school days, 1801-1805, were fruitful in two respects. He learned enough Latin and Greek to make him a classic, if not a classical scholar, and he made friends with his equals and superiors. He learned something of his own worth and of the worth of others. "My school-friendships," he says, "were with me passions." Two of his closest friends died young, and from Lord Clare, whom he loved best of all, he was separated by chance and circumstance. He was an odd mixture, now lying dreaming on his favourite tombstone in the churchyard, now the ring-leader in whatever mischief was afoot. He was a "record" swimmer, and, in spite of his lameness, enough of a cricketer to play for his school at Lord's, and yet he found time to read and master standard works of history and biography, and to acquire more general knowledge than boys and masters put together.
In the midsummer of 1803, when he was in his sixteenth year, he fell in love, once for all, with his distant relative, Mary Anne Chaworth, a "minor heiress" of the hall and park of Annesley which marches with Newstead. Two years his senior, she was already engaged to a neighbouring squire. There were meetings half-way between Newstead and Annesley, of which she thought little and he only too much. What was sport to the girl was death to the boy, and when at length he realized the "hopelessness of his attachment," he was "thrown out," as he said, "alone, on a wide, wide sea." She is the subject of at least five of his early poems, including the pathetic stanzas, "Hills of Annesley," and there are allusions to his love story in Childe Harold (c. i s.v.), and in "The Dream" (1816).