The Corpse of Lord Byron

lord byron, poet and nobleman (b.1788, d.1824)

Lord Byron was struck by a convulsion on 15 Februari 1824. He recovered slowly, but unexpectedly died on 19 April of the same year. Allthough discussions raged on for a long time, medical experts never reached full agreement on the exact cause of death.  

Certain is, however, that it took some time before he was put to rest. On 25 April the coffin containing his embalmed body was sealed. On 2 May it was taken aboard of a ship to be transported to England. On 4 May the ship reached the harbour of Zante (now Zakynthos). By this time the sad news had reached England, and Mary Shelley, the young widow of fellow poet Shelley who had died in 1822 in Italy, wrote in her diary

Can I forget his attentions & consolations to me during my deepest misery?  
- Never.  
Beauty sat on his countenance and power beamed from his eye - his faults being for the most part weaknesses induced one readily to pardon them. Albe - the dear capricious fascinating Albe has left this desart world. 

There was some speculation that Byron would be buried in Athens instead of in England, but on May 24 the body was brought to another ship, the Florida. The Florida reached the downs of the Thames on 29 June, and on 5 July the corpse arrived in London. A burial at Westminster Abbey was refused, so it became clear that the journey hadn't come to an end yet.  

The corpse was visited on 9 July by Mary Shelley. On 11 July Byron's old companion Hobhouse also paid his respects to his dead friend.  

On 12 July the Londoners saw the funeral procession begin its four day journey to Hucknall (Nottinghamshire). Mary Shelley saw the procession when it passed her house and Byron's former lover Lady Caroline Lamb broke down once more when she saw it too. Byron's fame ascertained that not only his aquaintances, but also those who had never known him personally were impressed. The poet John Clare wrote:  

While I was in London, the melancholy death of Lord Byron was announced in the public papers, and I saw his remains borne away out of the city on its last journey to that place where fame never comes... I happened to see it by chance as I was wandering up Oxford Street... when the train of funeral suddenly appeared, on which a young girl that stood beside me gave a deep sigh and uttered 'Poor Lord Byron.' ... I looked up at the young girl's face. It was dark and beautiful, and I could almost feel in love with her for the sigh she had uttered for the poet... The common people felt his merits and his power, and the common people of a country are the best feelings of a prophecy of futurity. 

On 16 July Byron's coffin was finally placed in the family vault at Hucknall Parish Church. In later years, however, doubts were expressed regarding the presence of the body at Hucknall. Finally, in June 1938, the church was closed to the public and the family vault of the Byrons was opened. Byron's coffin was quickly located, as well as that of his daughter Augusta Ada. Byron's coffin was opened and it was observed that there was still hair on his head. Parts of the body where skeletized and the embalming process had clearly left it's marks. The tomb was photographed, but the body was not. It was seen by only a few people who are all dead now. One more person saw Byron's body the next day, just before the vault was sealed. It was the writer Cecil Roberts and he wondered who 'desecrated and opened' Byron's coffin. If Roberts was right and some deed of vandalism had taken place before 1938, the 'who and when' remains obscure. There seem to have been only two possible occasions, the death of Augusta Ada in 1852 and the lengthening of the chancel in 1888.

(Picture by Androom, 13 Aug 1997)
Allthough his body was refused there in July 1824, in later years
Westminster Abbey allowed a memorial for the poet.

(Picture by Androom, 10 Aug 1997)

The inscription on Lady Byron's grave reads:

Ann Isabella Noel Byron
Born at Seaham
In the County of Durham
17th May 1792
16th May 1860

Byron's estranged wife Annabella Milbanke survived the poet for 36 years. She died of 'bronchitis and pleurisy' on 16 May 1860, just one day before her sixty-eighth birthday.

Lady Byron was buried in the beautiful Kensal Green Cemetery in London. Near her rest Amalia, Mary and Sophia Lushington, the sisters of her solicitor.

Also quite near are Byron's friend John Hobhouse, his publisher John Murray and his servant 'Tita'. Even Byron's beloved half sister Augusta (possibly Byron was the father of one of her children) is not far away. She was interred in the catacombs of the same cemetery.

  • Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, The Journals of Mary Shelley, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1987
  • Paddy Kitchen, Poets' London, Longman, New York, 1980  
  • Elizabeth Longford, The Life of Byron, Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1972  
  • Leslie A. Marchand, Byron: a Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957
  • Joan Pierson, The Real Lady Byron, Hale, London, 1992

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Copyright by Androom, 1999