On this day in 1824, British poet Lord Byron died while fighting in the Greek War of Independence from Ottoman Turkey (books by this author). Byron was a leading figure of Romanic poetry, at once handsome, brooding, and coltish. He was known for his flamboyant affairs with women (and men) and his exotic travels, many of which he immortalized in his best-known poem, the epic Don Juan (1816). He said, “I am such a strange mélange of good and evil that it would be difficult to describe me.” Byron wore curling papers in his hair at night and was a strict vegetarian, often surviving for days on only biscuits and white wine.
Byron was forced to flee England in 1816 amid rumors of an incestuous affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. He first settled with Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary, in Geneva. They spent a cold season trading scary stories, one of which grew into Mary’s classic novel, Frankenstein. But he also had an affair with Mary’s half-sister, Claire, who bore him a daughter named Allegra. Byron, not suited to domestic life, fled once more.
He was invited to join the cause for freedom in Greece. Byron had served in the House of Lords and was a keen purveyor of social justice. In Canto VII of Don Juan, he wrote, “Revolution / Alone can save the earth from hell’s pollution.” He spent 4,000 pounds of his own money to refit the Greek naval fleet and spent his first six months as a rebel fighter miserable and cold in the rainy weather. His plan was to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, but he suffered a fever and pains. Byron was bled, according to the custom of the times, but it’s likely the lancet used was not sterilized and he developed sepsis. At his deathbed, he reportedly said: “I have given [Greece] my time, my means, my health — and now I give her my life! What could I do more?”
Upon his death, Greece proclaimed Byron a national hero. And to this day, Byron is still a revered figure in that country. “Vyron,” the Greek form of “Byron,” is a popular name for boys in Greece, and a town near Athens is named “Vyronas” in his honor.
Byron’s body was taken back to England, where he lay in state for two days in London, attracting huge, mournful crowds. It was the custom that individuals of great stature be buried at Westminster Abbey, but the clergy there refused to allow him burial, citing his “questionable morality.” Instead, he was laid to rest in the family vault at Newstead. A marble slab given by the King of Greece was laid directly over his grave.
Not until 1969, after considerable effort, was a memorial to Byron finally placed on the floor of Westminster Abbey, 145 years after his death.