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Bygone Byrons: The Weird and Wonderful Characters from Lord Byron's Family Tree

21 March 20 illustrations: Ali Taylor-Perry

In the complex, meandering maze of English history, few people that aren’t members of the Royal family are able to trace their ancestry all the way back to the Battle of Hastings. But luckily for Notts’ own Lord Byron, his family tree has roots that go all the way back to 1066, and branches that were every bit as weird and wonderful as he was...

Ralph de Burun (birthdate unknown – 1107)
As the first in his lineage to set foot in the country, Ralph de Burun came to England with William the Conqueror either before his success at the Battle of Hastings, or shortly thereafter. If you happened to pay attention to Year 7 History, you might remember that Big Willy was successful in 1066 (his name is a bit of a giveaway), putting the Stormin’ Normans in charge of England for the next century. This was music to the ears of Ralph, who was rewarded with the title of Lord of Horertan Castle and granted lands in Derbyshire, Nottingham and Lancaster, creating a male line that lasted over eight centuries. 

Sir John Byron (1526 – 1600)
Affectionately known as Little Sir John with the Great Beard, Byron’s great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather was a landowner and politician who was knighted by Elizabeth I in 1579. After inheriting Newstead Abbey, Sir John even blagged himself the job of High Sheriff of Nottingham in 1596. As great as his beard was, it had nothing on his libido; after marrying Alice Strelley, the pair had no less than nine kids. If rocking the original hipster beard, sireing almost an entire football team and getting knighted wasn’t enough of a legacy for Sir John, he’s also said to have haunted Newstead Abbey for years after his death, with the likes of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow author Washington Irving claiming to have been spooked by him during a visit in the 1830s. 

Richard Byron (1606 – 1679)
When the time came to pick sides during the Civil War, Richard knew which side his bread was buttered. A fierce royalist, he remained loyal to Charles I, fighting as a Valiant Colonel at the Battle of Edgehill - the first major battle of the conflict. He was knighted for his trouble, and went on to become the Governor of Newark. Keeping up with the Byron family tradition, Richard didn’t mess about when it came to passing on his genes, with he and his wife Elizabeth having six children.

John “Foulweather Jack” Byron (1723 – 1786)
If it wasn’t for bad luck, poor John Byron wouldn’t have had any luck at all. Something of a Jonah, he picked up the nickname ‘Foulweather Jack’ after constantly encountering terrible conditions at sea during an otherwise illustrious naval career. Chief among his misfortunes was his role in the infamous HMS Wager saga. Having set off as part of George Anson’s eight-ship flotilla charged with sailing around the world, the Wager, crewed by 300 men, became separated and, after the death of its captain, sank off the coast of modern-day Chile. A mutiny soon followed, and Byron was forced to try and make his way to safety with just nineteen men. After encountering an endless stream of perilous situations, including drowning, disease and imprisonment, John finally made it back to England in late 1746 - over five years after leaving. He was one of only ten of the original 300 to make it back alive. You’d think that would be enough to keep a man on dry land for good, but Foulweather Jack was back at sea that same year, and went on to fight in the American War of Independence, eventually rising to the rank of Vice Admiral. 

John “Mad Jack” Byron (1756 – 1791)
Lord Byron’s father is definitive proof that the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree. After eloping to Europe with Amelia Osborne, Marchioneess of Carmarthen, John persuaded his new love to divorce from her husband, which she duly did. After Amelia died in 1784, John, who was a Captain in the Coldstream Guards, married Catherine Gordon, a wealthy heiress whose estates were worth £23,500, taking her surname in order to be eligible for her fortune. After blowing his way through her money, John abandoned poor Catherine and their young son George, leaving them with an annual stipend of less than £150. John - unaffectionately known as ‘Mad Jack’ died in Northern France at 35, either of an overdose, tuberculosis or, as his son would tell people, by cutting his own throat. 

William “the Devil” Byron (1722 – 1798)

Byron’s old man might have been a bad egg, but he was nothing compared to his great uncle. In 1765, William killed his cousin and neighbour William Chaworth in a duel in London, after the pair had become engaged in a heated debate over whose estate contained the most game. After retiring to a private room, the pair continued to quarrel when a drunken Byron thrust his sword into Chaworth’s stomach. WIlliam was only charged with manslaughter and forced to pay a small fine, spending the rest of his days revelling in his newfound reputation and nicknames, which included ‘The Devil Byron’ and ‘The Wicked Lord’. While the stories are most likely exaggerated, he also claimed to have shot his own coachman, built a miniature castle for lavish sex-fuelled parties, built two forts in order to stage mock-battles with real cannons and mounted the sword used to kill Chaworth on the wall of Newstead Abbey. Geez Louise. 

Ada Lovelace (1815 - 1852)
Despite not being the “glorious boy” Lord Byron hoped for, Ada Lovelace arguably made a greater contribution to the world than any of her forefathers. She was a mathematician and writer who is mostly remembered for her work on Charles Babbage’s mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. History rightly remembers her as the first person to recognize the potential of computing machines, as well as one of the world’s first computer programmers. 

PLUS: 

Hugh de Burun (1112 – 1166)
Hugh Byron (1130 – 1166)
Sir Robert de Byron (circa 1196 – 1221)
John de Byron (circa 1217 – 1279)
Sir John de Byron (circa 1253 – 1339)
Sir Richard de Byron (1274 – 1346)
Sir James Byron (1300 – 1351)
Richard Byron (circa 1329 – 1397)
John Byron (1386 – 1450) 
Nicholas Byron (1416 – 1503)
Sir John Byron (1488 – 1567)
Sir John Byron (1562 – 1623)
John Byron (circa 1583 – 1625)
John Byron (1599 – 1652)
William Byron (1636 – 1695)
William Byron (1669 – 1736)

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