William Byron, 5th Baron Byron


William Byron, 5th Baron Byron

William Byron, 5th Baron Byron, (November 5, 1722May 19, 1798), also known as "the Wicked Lord" and "the Devil Byron", was the poet Lord Byron's great-uncle. He was the son of William Byron, 4th Baron Byron and his wife Hon. Frances Berkeley, a descendant of John Berkeley, 1st Baron Berkeley of Stratton.

Lord Byron inherited his title upon the death of his father on August 18 1736. With the title came responsibilities and he became Lieutenant in the Royal Navy at the age of sixteen and at seventeen represented his family as a founding Governor of the Foundling Hospital, a popular charity project to rid the capital of abandoned babies. He went on to marry Elizabeth Shaw, daughter and heiress of Charles Shaw of Besthorpe in Norfolk, on March 28 1747. The following month, he was elected Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge of England, a position he held until March 20 1752. He also served as Master of the Staghounds from 1763 until 1765, when he began a descent into madness and scandal.

On January 26, 1765, Lord Byron killed his cousin and neighbor, William Chaworth, in a duel at the Stars and Garters Tavern in London. The fight resulted from an argument the two had been engaged in, allegedly over the best method in which to hang game. Lord Byron and his cousin retired to a dim room to resolve their disagreement and it was there that Lord Byron thrust his sword through Chaworth's stomach. Chaworth lived until the following day, expressing his disgust that he had not been of sound enough mind to insist they fight in a location outfitted with better lighting before finally succumbing to his injury. Lord Byron was tried for Chaworth's death, but under the statute of Edward VI he was found guilty only of manslaughter and forced to pay a small fine. Upon returning home to Newstead Abbey, he mounted the sword he used to kill Chaworth on the wall in his bedroom. It was at this time in his life that he was nicknamed "the Wicked Lord", a title he very much enjoyed.

Following his trial, Lord Byron's eccentricity further evolved. In one incident, he shot his coachman during a disagreement then heaved the body into the coach on top of his wife and took over the reins himself. He had a miniature castle built in the woods at Newstead and held lavish parties within its walls. He also oversaw the construction of two forts on the property and used them, in conjunction with a small cannon, to stage naval battles. He hesitated to travel away from Newstead Abbey, but when travel became necessary he did so under the alias of Waters. It was during this period that Elizabeth left him. Upon her departure, Byron took one of the servants as his mistress. The woman's name was Hardstaff, but she was known primarily as "Lady Betty".

The ruin of the Byron family wealth and property began when Lord Byron's son and heir (also named William) eloped with Juliana Byron, the daughter of William's younger brother, the naval captain and later Vice-Admiral John Byron. Lord Byron felt that intermarrying would produce children plagued with madness and strongly opposed the union. He also needed his son to marry well in order to escape the debt that had been incurred in the Byron name. When defied by his son, he became enraged and committed himself to ruining his inheritance so that, in the event of his death, his son would receive nothing but debt and worthless property. He laid waste to Newstead Abbey, allowing the house to fall into disrepair, cutting down the great stands of timber surrounding it, and killing over 2000 deer on the estate. He also illegally leased the coalmines in Rochdale, an act that created an enormous financial burden for years to come.

His vicious plan, however, was thwarted when his son died in 1776. William also outlived his grandson, a young man who, at the age of twenty-two, was killed by cannon fire in 1794 while fighting in Corsica. The legacy of misery was then left to his great-nephew, George Gordon Byron, who became the 6th Baron Byron when Lord Byron died on May 21 1798, at the age of seventy-nine. Upon his death, it is said that the great number of crickets he kept at Newstead left the estate in swarms. Lord Byron is buried in the Byron vault at Hucknall Torkard in Nottinghamshire.


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