The Fifth Baron Byron was NOT the grandfather of our poet as purported by Alexander Larman in his sloppily researched tome Byron’s Women which was published to enormous fanfare in 2016 but rather THE great-uncle and it was upon his demise that Byron became a Lord and inherited land and titles which included the glorious ancestral abode of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire.
William Byron had inherited his title of the ‘Wicked Lord’ for a life that had included the illegal selling of family estates and ruining what little was left in revenge against his only son and heir William who having decided on his own love match and in true Byron style promptly married his cousin!
He was also said to have pushed Lady Byron into a pond, attempted the abduction of an actress before his marriage, ordered the slaughtering of a thousand deer, ran up enormous debts for horse racing and cock-fights, shot his coachman to death, threw the corpse into the carriage where his wife was sitting and mounting the box himself, rode off.
However, what is certain about THIS Lord Byron is that he stripped Newstead Park of all of it’s parkland, auctioned off a prize collection of family portraits, sold a fabulous brass Eagle to Southwell Minster and on Saturday January 26 1765 he murdered his neighbour and friend William Chaworth of Annesley.
The two Williams as gentlemen of the Nottinghamshire Club had been enjoying a weekly tradition of dinner at the Star and Garter Tavern in Pall Mall, London when they began to bicker about the best way of preserving game.
Wagers were set, the quarrel became serious, a challenge was offered and in an empty room lit only by a “poor little tallow candle” the two Williams drew their swords to which Byron promptly ran him through.
William Chaworth died the following day, naming his mistress as the beneficiary of his hastily dictated Will and Byron was sent to the Tower of London and brought to trial before his peers at the House of Lords on Tuefday, April the 16th, 1765.
‘Your Lordfhip is unhappily brought to this Bar to anfwer a heavy and dreadful Accufation, for you are charged with the Murder of a Fellow Subject.
The Solemnity and awful Appearance of this Judicature, mulft naturally embarrafs and discomofe your Lordfhip’s Spirits, whatever internal Refource you may have in Conscience to fupport you in your Defence.
How fay you, William Lord Byron, Are you guilty of the Felony and Murder whereof you ftand indicted, or not guilty?
Upon Byron’s reply of “Not guilty”, Sir Fletcher Norton for the prosecution alleged that:
It ftates, that Mr Chaworth faid, the noble Prifoner’s Sword was half-drawn when he turned from the Door, that, knowing his Man, he immediately whipped out his own, and had the firft Lunge at his Lordfhip, when Lord Byron fhortened his Sword, and run him through, and than faid, with an Oath, I have as much Courage as any Man in England…
Byron was to question several of the witnesses over the two days of testimony that had been heard at Westminster Hall and addressed the Court in his own defense:
My Lords, this is my melancholy Story. I cannot pretend to call any Witneffes in Support of thofe Parts of it, which relate to what paffed during the few Minutes whilft we were in private. But as the Declarations of the Deceafed are admitted as Evidence, your Lordfhips will compare the broken Accounts collected by thofe Gentlemen who difcourfed with him, with fuch Circumftances as my Memory and Knowledge tell me are exactly true.
After the Houfe had adjourned to the Chamber of Parliament, Byron was was declared “Not Guilty of Murder but Guilty of Manslaughter” and after payment of the fees was duly released.
Despite his disgrace, Byron would eventually return to society, accrue large debts, became a figure of hatred for his tenants, outlived his son William, his daughter Caroline who in her Will of 1784 stipulated that her legacy to her “dear Mother” was not to be subjected to the “debts, receipts, control or intermeddling of Lord Byron” and William his grandson – whose death ensured that “the little boy in Aberdeen” would become the next heir.
Many years later when our poet lived at Newstead Abbey, his neighbour Mary Ann Chaworth of Annesley Hall became his ‘Morning Star of Annesley’
Tis fifty years, and three to boot,
Since, hand to hand, and foot to foot,
And heart to heart, and sword to sword,
One of our Ancestors was gored.
I’ve seen the sword that slew him; he,
The slain, stood in a like degree
To thee, as he, the Slayer stood
(Oh had it been but other blood!)
In kin and Chieftainship to me.
Thus came the heritage to thee
The Duel 1818
I have also seen the ‘sword that slew him’!
Byron was to write to J. J. Coulman from Genoa in July 1823 in response to some inaccurate reports about Byron’s history and he was to share some thoughts about ‘The Wicked Lord’:
As to Lord Byron, who killed Mr. Chaworth in a duel, so far from retiring from the world, he made the tour of Europe, and was appointed Master of the Stag-hounds after that event, and did not give up society until his son had offended him by marrying in a manner contrary to his duty.
So far from feeling any remorse for having killed Mr. Chaworth, who was a fire-eater (spadassin), and celebrated for his quarrelsome disposition, he always kept the sword which he used upon that occasion in his bed-chamber, where it still was when he died.
It is singular enough, that when very young, I formed a strong attachment for the grand-niece and heiress of Mr. Chaworth, who stood in the same degree of relationship as myself to Lord Byron; and at one time it was thought that the two families would have been united in us….
Byron’s Letters and Journals, Ed. Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray, 1973-97)
The Trial of William Lord Byron of Rochdale for the Murder of William Chaworth (Initial Gale ECCO Print Edition)