The Dilettante Society on William Byron

Words: Lady M and F Dashwood
Illustrations: Christine Dilks
Friday 17 June 2016
reading time: min, words

"He heaved the body into the carriage, onto the lap of his wife, and took the reins. Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth left him soon after this particular incident"


William Byron’s early life and career had all the hallmarks of a grand gentleman on the rise. At just fourteen he inherited the grand title of 5th Baron Byron and the ancestral home of Newstead Abbey, and just two years later in 1738 he was made a navy lieutenant. As is so often the case with these noble types, he rose swiftly through the military and into respectable society, bestowed with all kinds of titles and ranks, which are truthfully much too boring to mention.

He married well to wealthy heiress Elizabeth Shaw, who dutifully ensured his bloodline would survive through the all-important son-and-heir, and allowed a more lavish lifestyle than he could afford while keeping his family seat at Newstead. A conventional start to the story of a frightfully important man, but such propriety was not to last. As the Baron Byron drifted into middle age, he began to earn the most enduring of all his fancy titles: The Wicked Lord.

It was a January evening in 1765 when the first event which was to affiliate the baron with such a foreboding moniker occurred: the days in which a good old duel could be relied on to sort out any manner of petty argument. He was busy consuming copious amounts of wine in a London tavern, in the company of his cousin and neighbour William Chaworth. As the night went along the two gentlemen began to squabble over the terribly serious matter of whose estate contained more game, and retired to a small, dimly lit room to bicker it out.

The disagreement became increasingly heated, until at one point William decided the most reasonable way to prove his position and end the quarrel was to stab Chaworth in the gut with his sword. Chaworth died from his injuries the next day, his last comment reportedly being that he wished the tavern had been better lit for the spectacle of his demise. William was tried for murder by his peers in the House of Lords and, being of such a highly regarded ilk, was, of course, let off with manslaughter and a small fine. Upon returning to Newstead Abbey, the culpable weapon that killed his cousin was said to have been displayed above his bed in pride. Indeed, many of the vexatious baron’s ‘eccentricities’, as they are so often dubbed, were not the mischievous and frivolous kind we most enjoy, and perhaps should be more accurately described as plain criminality, for this was not the only violent act William would become known for.

The ‘Right Honorable’ baron was evidently a disagreeable soul whose temper often led him too far, particularly after a drinking session, of which he was exceptionally fond. He was known to be violent and cantankerous towards his staff, even going so far as to shoot one of his coachmen over a dispute while travelling. He then heaved the body into the carriage, onto the lap of his wife, and took the reins himself. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth left him soon after this particular incident.

The baron delighted in the whirlwind of rumour which had begun to defile his reputation, but soon drifted into reclusiveness and instead chose to spend more of his time at Newstead indulging in his architectural whims. In this way, he did indeed display the curious folly of a classic eccentric, doing the kind of things we’d like our insanely rich to achieve a little more often. He saw to the construction of a miniature castle within the abbey’s grounds in which to hold lavish parties, along with two forts which were used, in conjunction with a cannon, to play what was perhaps the world’s most extravagant game of battleships across the lake.


Clearly a man accustomed to getting his way and going to extreme lengths to ensure it, William was outraged when his only son and heir became enamoured with a second cousin in the Byron family itself. It would have been wise of course, considering the baron’s violent outbursts and the fact the Byron family had intermarried several times previously, for the pair not to marry. But, ignoring the Baron’s conviction that an incestuous coupling was a quick route to a bloodline corrupted by madness, the young pair eloped.

Any hopes of restoring the family fortune through an opportune marriage were dashed, and William, angered by their disobedience, plotted a vengeful plan against his son and all future heirs. The once grand Newstead Abbey was stripped of fine furniture and family treasure and left to crumble into disrepair as he set out to squander his son’s inheritance, ensuring all he would receive upon his father’s death was a mountain of debt and a worthless property. The family art collection was sold, the grounds deforested and, most bizarrely, the valuable game he had once so earnestly argued about were slaughtered in their thousands. In a great twist of ironic fate this retribution was ultimately rather unnecessary. The wicked lord would in fact outlive his son and grandson, and was left to reside at the derelict abbey himself until his death in 1798.

It is not easy, unless you are impressed by status and prestigious titles, to find much to admire about William Byron. By all accounts he seemed quite atrocious in every respect, leaving nothing to history but a few dead bodies and a dramatically dark nickname. Perhaps the sole asset he did bequeath, however, was his family estate and title to his great nephew, George Gordon, who, despite his vanity and tendency for dramatics, was able to channel the bloodline’s destructive drive to create something meaningful, beautiful and lasting.

While our modern aristocrats tend to prefer being photographed in Tatler rather than starting duels and delighting in cannon fire, the mould has still not quite broken. Alas, history has a habit of redefining the lawlessness of the rich and powerful. Perhaps the passage of time lessens the moral implication to mere storytelling fodder, but then again, matters are not so terribly different today. Corruption and unjust social hierarchy are still entwined with a sense of prestige towards the upper echelons of society and thus they are still able to sweep their crooked secrets under their plush carpets and be pardoned. But as the Byron family has taught us: whether it is money, madness or magnetism one inherits, it is what you do with it that counts.

The Dilettante Society Meeting, The Chameleon Arts Cafe, Monday 20 June, 7.30pm, free. All welcome, the more the merrier.

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