It was hot and dusty in the crypt, and it had been hard work breaking into it. Now the vicar had gone, along with his invited guests, to take his supper. The churchwarden and two workmen armed with spades were left to wait for their return, loitering by the grave they had come to examine – the tomb of Lord Byron the poet.
We didn’t take too kindly to that,” said Arnold Houldsworth. “I mean, we’d done the work. And Jim Bettridge suddenly says, ‘Let’s have a look on him.’ ‘You can’t do that,’ I says. ‘Just you watch me,’ says Jim. He put his spade in, there was a layer of wood, then one of lead, and I think another one of wood. And there he was, old Byron.”
“Good God, what did he look like?” I said.
“Just like in the portraits. He was bone from the elbows to his hands and from the knees down, but the rest was perfect. Good-looking man putting on a bit of weight, he’d gone bald. He was quite naked, you know,” and then he stopped, listening for something that must have been a clatter of china in the kitchen, where his wife was making tea for us, for he went on very quickly, “Look, I’ve been in the Army, I’ve been in bathhouses, I’ve seen men. But I never saw nothing like him.” He stopped again, and nodding his head, meaningfully, as novelists say, began to tap a spot just above his knee. “He was built like a pony.”
“How many of you take sugar?” said Mrs Houldsworth, coming with the tea.
We need to rewind a little at this point in order to explain not only why Mr Houldsworth and his friends were taking a spade to the coffin of one of Britain’s greatest lyric poets, but also how Lord Byron himself came to be entombed in a church in the little Nottinghamshire town of Hucknall Torkard (nowadays known simply as Hucknall). To do that, we have to go back to the early nineteenth century and to the tumultuous personal life of the sixth Baron Byron, of whom the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says simply: “No English writer except Shakespeare acquired greater fame or exercised more world influence.”
George Gordon Noel Byron (1788-1824) was born in London, the grandson of a legendary admiral popularly known as ‘Foulweather Jack’, and the son of a Royal Navy captain (and chronic debtor) known even more evocatively as ‘Mad Jack’ Byron. His distant ancestors had been gifted possession of Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, for services rendered to Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries – which, at least in part, explains the poet’s posthumous residence in Hucknall – and despite the disadvantage of being born with a club foot, and the death of his feckless father when he was aged just four, the future poet enjoyed a privileged upbringing. He was schooled at Harrow and at Trinity College, Cambridge (where, famously, he kept a tame bear as a pet). After going down he became renowned, in almost equal measure, for his extraordinary poetry – Childe Harold made his name, and Don Juan practically ruined it – his scandalous affairs with a succession of unsuitable women, and his ever-mounting debts. So notorious did these excesses make him that it has been suggested that Byron was the world’s first celebrity, in the modern meaning of the term – an 1820s bad boy with all the dangerous charisma and the smouldering sexuality of the louchest modern rock star.
The affairs and the debts, anyway, forced Byron to flee to the continent in 1816, where he became a member of the celebrated houseparty at the Villa Diodati, in Geneva, that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein during the infamous “year without a summer.” After a lengthy residence in Italy, the poet was drawn, in 1823, to Greece, where that nation’s successful struggle for independence from the Ottoman Turks was getting underway, and it was there he died of fever – probably malaria – in April 1824, still aged only 36.
The Greeks (for whom Byron was and remains a major national hero) would have been more than happy to have buried him where he fell – perhaps on the Acropolis, they hinted – but the British authorities insisted on the repatriation of the body. [Webb] This, at a time when news of Byron’s death took several weeks to reach Britain (where it caused so profound a shock its effects have been likened to the hysterical mourning that followed the death of Princess Diana), and when word of the family’s decision on repatriation took weeks more to be sent to Greece, inevitably caused significant problems for those charged with preserving the body. The poet’s cadaver was autopsied, and despite Byron’s reported plea, before death, “let not my body be hacked,” five doctors crawled over it, removing heart, brains, lungs and intestines, pumping everything chock full of embalming fluid, and despatching the mangled remains to London in a tin coffin and a collection of spirit-filled vases reminiscent of Egyptian canopic jars.
The body did not reach London, on the ship Florida, until the beginning of July, more than two months after Byron’s death [Galt pp.305-06; Marchant III, 1234], and when it did there were unseemly wrangles over where to bury it. Both St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey flatly declined to inter so scandalous a character within their walls, and it is for this reason that the poet was eventually put to rest in the family vault at Hucknell, some two miles from his former estate at Newstead Abbey. There he remained, in a crypt beneath the church, for more than a hundred years – not entirely undisturbed, for the tomb was opened again in 1852 for the burial of his daughter, the celebrated mathematician Ada Lovelace – but home and apparently at peace.
Enter the Reverend Canon T. G. Barber. Barber – who was born in Nottingham in 1876 and returned to the district as a curate in 1904 – was both a passionate admirer of Byron and a determined controversialist: a dangerous combination, it transpired, in a man placed in charge of the church where the poet had been buried. Over the years, Barber became increasingly exercised by the desire to enter Byron’s tomb – or, as he put it, to lay the rumour, which he claimed was put to him by numerous visitors, that the poet was not in fact interred in the vault. After some years – it was by now the summer of 1938 – Barber was able to obtain permission from both Byron’s family and the Home Office to have the vault opened. He appears to have obtained the necessary permits on the back of the promise that he would merely examine the church crypt to ascertain that the poet’s coffin was still there; there was no mention, it seems clear, of anything so controversial as an actual exhumation. [Barber pp.132-7] All of which leads us to a warm evening in the middle of June, the excavations of churchwarden Houldsworth and the Bettridge brothers, and Canon Barber’s eventual return to the freshly opened tomb.
Barber, it seems safe to say, remained blissfully unaware of Houldsworth’s unauthorised exhumation. For one thing, the Byron vault had turned out to be far smaller than expected, “not being able to hold more than three coffins abreast on the floor,” [Nottingham Journal, 24 May 1824; Barber pp.132-3, 136] and far more disordered, too; as well as containing nine coffins, in various stages of decay, and the poet’s canopic jars, there was so much debris and detritus littered about that, in hacking the coffin open, the churchwarden and his men had done little but add slightly to the mess [see photo right. Byron's coffin lies with a baron's coronet on it to the left of the crowded image. Directly beneath it, in the bottom left corner, is the case containing the jars of his brains and entrails. In the centre of the image is the coffin of his daughter, Ada Lovelace]. For another, Barber – who for some reason seems to have felt that he had “a personal appointment with Byron” – deliberately delayed his return to the tomb until midnight, and, in order to access the vault without attracting the attention of his parishoners, he entered with only a small lantern to light his way. What Barber originally intended to do when he got into the vault we don’t know; he never properly explained himself. Nominally his commission was to do nothing but tidy around and confirm that the poet’s coffin really was present. But, given the extraordinary circumstances under which the clergyman returned, it may very well be that he secretly planned exactly what Houldsworth had already done: to open Byron’s coffin and examine his remains.
What we can say with some certainty is that Barber clambered down a ladder into the crypt and soon discovered that the poet’s coffin had been prised open. Fortunately for Arnold Houldsworth, both the Canon and almost all those experts in Byronic poetry who have written on the exhumation subsequently have been content to attribute the desecration to an unknown tomb-robber of the nineteenth century. [Barber p.132; Longford p.218n; Books and Bookmen v.21 (1975) p.21] It further seems that the rector’s outrage was tempered with relief that the dirty work had been done for him, for he did not agonise over the state of the coffin for very long.
Barber’s published description of what happened next inevitably lacks the pungency of Arnold Houldsworth’s.
Dare I look within? Yes, the world should know the truth – that the body of the great poet was there – or that the coffin was empty. Reverently, very reverently, I raised the lid, and before my eyes lay the embalmed body of Byron in as perfect a condition as when it had been 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… But enough – I gently lowered the lid of his coffin – and as I did so, breathed a prayer for the peace of his soul.”
The Canon, like Houldsworth, did note some damage to the body: most obviously, he wrote, Byron’s right foot, his lame one, had become detached from the remainder of the body and lay in the bottom of the coffin. [Longford pp.207, 218] But Barber made no explicit comment on the state of the remainder of the poet’s body, although the decomposition of the arms and legs mentioned by his churchwarden was actually a typical effect of over-hasty and inadequate embalming. No mention was made – naturally, given the date and Barber’s calling – of either the poet’s nakedness or the abnormal genital development that had so awed Mr Houldsworth. And we have no photographs; a Mr Bullock, who had been brought along as a sort of official photographer to record the condition of the tomb, “refused on moral grounds” to take any pictures of the corpse. [Ellis] Thus when the rector published an account of his investigations, entitled Byron And Where He Is Buried, in book form in 1939, it contained a pretty sanitised version of events.
All this is understandable enough, because even Barber’s bowdlerised memoir caused outrage. The mere fact that Byron’s tomb had been desecrated – albeit with the sort-of permission of the poet’s family and the British government – was enough to spark a scandal, and the awkward fact that the exhumation had occurred at all went on to be studiously ignored by a succession of Byron’s biographers, including Leslie Marchand, author of the standard door-stopping three volume authorised study (1957), and his successor Doris Langley Moore, whose biography (1961) references Barber’s book in its bibliography but fails to mention its contents even obliquely in the text. [Barton]
Indeed it was not until much later, in the middle 1960s, that churchwarden Houldsworth’s recollections were finally sought and the peculiar tale of Byron’s curiously well-preserved body at last entered limited circulation. The man who put it into print was Byron Rogers, now a renowned colour journalist, who was then just beginning his career as a feature writer on the Sheffield Star – where his exotic West Wales accent caused him to be mistaken for a Hungarian. In his autobiography, Rogers explains how the interview and his scoop came to pass:
I was sitting in the Star‘s offices one morning, reading the papers, when I came upon a story about a Russian scientist who had dug up Tsar Ivan the Terrible, and, working from the skull, had reassembled his face. Staring at those grim features, I remembered that I had read somewhere that in the late 1930s someone had opened Lord Byron’s coffin in his family vault in Hucknall, just down the road from Sheffield. I rang the vicar, who confirmed that this had indeed happened, and that one man among his parishoners had been there at the time.”
Pausing only to collect a friendly University of Sheffield academic to add a little respectability to his coverage, Rogers hurried down to Hucknall, located the local library’s copy of Canon Barber’s memoir, and interviewed Arnold Houldsworth. Published in the mass-circulation Star, the former churchwarden’s confession – and hence the strange story of Byron’s “quite abnormal development” – began making the rounds, worming its way gradually into the public consciousness in the course of the next decade. [Dean; Wallace p.1215; Longford p.217; Stabler p.132; Harvey; Dawes] By the first years of the new century, it was no longer quite so scandalous, and was well enough known to be used to open The Kindness of Sisters, David Crane’s 2003 study of Byron’s wife and half-sister.
In all those years (it may be added in conclusion), Houldsworth’s tale has become a curiosity, a prurient bit of literary gossip, and, finally, the subject of some fairly heavyweight feminist analysis. [McDayter pp.183-4] Yet its fundamental truth remains unquestioned; no one, it seems, has ever critically analysed the churchwarden’s account. From this perspective, it should be left to Byron Rogers to deliver a coda to the story he first put into print. Writing nearly 50 years later, the Welshman concluded his account of his 1960s feature with a telling observation.
And there the story would have rested, sinking into myth, except… One night at Sheffield University for a poetry reading, I was desperately trying to find a lavatory, having stopped in the pub on my way, when I opened a door into a pitch-black room, and, groping for a light switch, touched what felt like a big glass jar. The light came on, and I saw at eye level, about a foot from me, penises cut from corpses. My hand had clearly disturbed them, for they were dancing in a stately sort of way, and each, having been injected with embalming fluid, was the size of a rolling pin.”
Thomas Gerrard Barber. Byron And Where He Is Buried. Hucknall: Henry Morley & Sons, 1939.
Anne Barton. ‘Byron: the poetry of it all.’ New York Review of Books, 19 December 2002.
Martin Dawes. ‘Poet’s privates and an odd cock and bull story.’ Sheffield Star, 16 July 2009.
Paul Dean. ‘Hail, Muse! etc.’ The New Criterion, June 2003.
Mavis Ellis. ‘The poet, Lord Byron.’ In Claves Regni [St Peter's, Nottingham online parish magazine] nd [?c.2004]. Accessed 15 October 2010.
John Galt. Life of Lord Byron. London: Colburn & Bentley, 1830.
Oliver Harvey. ‘Lord Byron’s life of bling, booze and groupie sex.’ The Sun, 15 August 2008.
Elizabeth Longford. Byron. London: Hutchinson, 1976.
Ghislaine McDayter. Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Jerome McGann. ‘Byron, George Gordon Noel.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Leslie Marchand. Byron: A Biography. London, 3 vols.: John Murray, 1957.
Byron Rogers. Me: The Authorised Biography. London: Aurum, 2009.
Jane Stabler. Palgrave Advances in Byron Studies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Irving Wallace et al [eds], The People’s Alamanac 2. New York: William Morrow, 1978.
L.J. Webb. ‘Requiesit in pax: the death of Lord Byron.’ In Crede Byron, a website devoted to Byron’s childhood home at Newstead Abbey. Accessed 15 October 2010.