Lord Byron: The final journey
Local history by Bryan Waites
However, one link which is rarely mentioned or known about is that between the famous poet, Lord Byron, and the Crown Inn, Oakham – and this link is true. How did this come about?
Of course, Lord Byron’s ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, is only about 40 miles from Oakham, but that is not the connection. It all began at Easter, 1824, many miles away in Greece.
The Greeks were engaged in a struggle for independence from the Turks and Byron went to join the crusade ‘I mean to return to Greece, and shall in all probability die there’. He received a great reception on his arrival at Missolonghi in January, 1824.
Missolonghi is situated in western Greece close to the Ionian Islands and about 150 miles from Athens. It lies alongside a shallow lagoon and it was a fishing town of about 800 people. Its location near to marshy swamps made it unhealthy. Byron lived in squalor but did not complain. He ate the same rations as his Greek troops. He preferred such hardship to London Society ‘I am thankful that I am now clear of that, and my resolution to remain clear of it for the rest of my life is immutable’.
Now the poet had to be soldier and Byron, despite his scandalous earlier life rose to the test. In good and bad weather he trained his troops at his own expense and they were devoted to him.
Some of his comrades expressed the view that he was neglecting his poetry but on his 36th birthday, January 22, he read them a long poem of which this stanza was prophetic:
‘If thou regrett’st thy youth why live?
‘The land of honourable death
‘Is here:-up to the field and give
‘Away thy breath.’
It was his last poem. The strain of preparations began to tell and the tribal rivalries he faced were too much. On February 1 Byron collapsed. Although he bravely carried on, his companions saw that he was desperately ill. Later, whilst out riding, a terrible storm soaked him through and he arrived back in a violent fever.
He did not improve and on April 18, Easter Day, his condition was so grave that four doctors were called, but it was beyond them. ‘Your efforts to preserve my life will be in vain. Die I must: I feel it. Its loss I do not lament, for to terminate my wearisome existence I came to Greece. My wealth, my abilities, I devoted to her cause. Well: there is my life to her……’
Despite a few lucid moments, he was mainly delirious ‘I want to go to sleep’, he said, and he fell into a deep coma. At 6.15 pm on April 19, as thunder and lightening raged outside, he died.
The news was electrifying. The town shut down in respect. Easter celebrations were cancelled. A 37 gun salute was fired from the Grand Battery and a Requiem held in all churches – ‘a silence like that of the grave, prevailed over the whole town’.
Where should he be buried? The Greeks wanted this symbol of their liberty buried in Athens. However, on his deathbed there was confusion as to whether he wished for a Greek burial ‘without pomp and nonsense’ or ‘do you see that my body is sent to England’. Five years before in a letter to a friend Byron wrote ‘I am sure my bones would not rest in an English grave, or my clay mix with the earth of that country. I believe the thought would drive me mad on my deathbed, could I suppose that any of my friends would be base enough to convey my carcass back to your soil’.
Despite this doubt, and perhaps against his wishes, his body was opened and embalmed, placed in a tin-lined coffin and the heart, brains, etc. also preserved and despatched together on the brig Florida to England on May 2. The legend that his heart was buried under a tree in Greece appears to be untrue.
News of Byron’s death did not reach England for over three weeks. By May 14 most knew of his death and there was lavish praise ‘Byron must without doubt be regarded as the greatest genius of the age’ (Goethe). Newspapers described him as ‘one of the greatest poets England ever produced’ and ‘its finest genius’. Tennyson felt ‘the whole world seemed in darkness for me’.
The voyage took from May 2 to July 1 when the Florida reached Stangate Creek – eight weeks – a journey which today by air would take about four hours.
The body was taken to 20 Great George Street in Westminster where, on July 9 and 10 it lay in state to be visited by many people. It was reported that he looked much the same in death as in life and was very peaceful.
Since Westminster Abbey refused to take him arrangements were made for interment in the family vault at Hucknall Torkard church in Nottinghamshire, only a few miles from Newstead Abbey.
At 10.45 am, on July 12, the coffin was placed in a hearse drawn by six horses, followed by three mourning coaches one carrying the urn containing Byron’s heart, brains, etc. The whole was preceded by eight horsemen. The procession consisted of many other carriages which followed on as far as St James’s Chapel, Hampstead, where the hearse and coach went on alone.
The cortege stayed at Welwyn for the first night (July 12), resting in the White Hart. The second night (July 13), the cortege rested in Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire, probably at the Green Dragon, then on through Uppingham on Wednesday, July 14, reaching Oakham that night. The Stamford Mercury for July 16 reported this event fully describing how the body ‘lay in state’ in the Crown Inn. It is not reported whether many people visited.
The cortege reached Nottingham at 5am on Friday, July 16 when the hearse drew up at the Blackmoor’s Head Inn in Pelham Street. Until 10am people were allowed to file past the coffin. Afterwards the procession (about a quarter of a mile in length) reformed and proceeded to St Mary Magdalene, Hucknall Torkard, via the Mansfield Road, arriving about 4 pm where the poet’s remains were lowered into the family vault.
The church was completely full and it was evident that the congregation were deeply moved. The stone slabs which had covered the entrance to the vault for nearly two hundred years were closed; the congregation quietly drifted away.
In June, 1938, the vault was reopened with great secrecy to avoid public interest. The Vicar, the Revd T G Barber, described the scene in his book Byron and Where He Is Buried (Hucknall, 1939). Plans were drawn and photographs taken. It appeared that Byron’s coffin had been opened and the Vicar, fearful that it might be empty looked inside: ‘I raised the lid, and before my eyes there lay the embalmed body of Byron in as perfect a condition as when it was placed in the coffin one hundred and fourteen years ago; his features and hair easily recognisable from the portraits with which I was so familiar. The serene, almost happy expression on his face made a profound impression on me’
Since Byron’s death, pilgrims have flocked to Newstead Abbey and St Mary Magdalene. Byron became a legend and it is satisfying to know that Oakham played a small part in this great story.