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The Byronic Ghosts

The Victorians are notorious for their on-going debates over the existence of the supernatural (this, of course, amongst other things). The way these debates are also noticeable is through the history of buildings. Such is the case with Newstead Abbey, located in Nottinghamshire, England. The abbey was built in 1163 by King Henry II and functioned as an Augustinian priory until the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541). After, it was sold to Sir John Byron of Colwick. The name Byron may sound familiar, and yes, this is indeed the great ancestor of the nineteenth-century poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824). Byron’s family home, however, carried a couple of secrets with it. Some tales, mystical and creepy, that have never been proven, but there are more than enough eyewitnesses to acclaim them.

Usually, a building as ancient as Newstead abbey has one or two ghost stories to go along with it. Newstead settles for no less than six hauntings. A variety circulates regarding the origin of stories, but out of all of them there are a number of elements that match. Incidentally, none of the ghosts reported to make their living around the abbey are from before the time that Sir John Byron bought the abbey. Apparently, all the deceased monks before 1536 did not bother to stick around and scare inhabitants.

Right before Lord Byron inherited the house, it was kept by his relative known as ‘Devil Byron’. As his nickname may suggest, the fifth Baron Byron was anything but a pleasant fellow. In a dual on 26 January, 1765, Devil Byron killed his cousin and neighbour. He was tried for manslaughter and found guilty (though all he had to do was pay a small fine). This is however not why Newstead is haunted. Rather, ‘Devil’ was haunted whilst living there by his long dead sister. He was reported to “have refused to speak [to her] for many years on account of a family scandal” (293). It was rumoured that she would haunt him whilst pleading “speak to me, my lord! Do speak to me, my lord!” because she had died before ‘Devil’ had reconciled with her.

The second ghost making himself at home in the abbey is the man who actually bought it in the first place. ‘Sir John Byron the Little, with the Great Beard’ as he was known, was infamous with the guests in the late nineteenth century. According to the poet John Kells Ingram (1823-1907) there was an old portrait of Sir John hanging over the door of the great saloon. At midnight (yes, always the midnight…) Sir John would step out of the portrait’s frame to walk around the state apartments. A little contradictory is the report of a lady who visited Newstead well before Ingram’s time. She reported she had seen Sir John in broad daylight, sitting by the fireplace reading an old book.

Ghost number three is the ‘Goblin Friar’. This ghost is described by Lord Byron in his Don Juan, canto 16 as follows “…a monk arrayed / In cowl, and beads and dusky garb, appeared, / Now in the moonlight, and now lapsed in shade, / With steps that trod as heavy, yet unheard”. Perhaps then is this the one ghost that relates to the original use of the Abbey? Yes and no. The appearance of the Goblin Friar has to do with the purpose for which the building was built, but not so much with the monks who lived there. The ’Goblin Monk’ tradition was established in the seventeenth century. It went as follows: “the descendants from those who had been granted possession of monastic buildings and estates at the Reformation (1649-1660) would be punished for this sacrilege, and [they] would never prosper”. The Goblin Friar was just the omen, showing how the inevitable was about to happen. The inevitable, though, was not accurate as to when it would happen. At Newstead, the Goblin Friar became known as the “hereditary omen”. For approximately 275 years the Byron family had done well enough for themselves. It is true that when Lord Byron saw it roaming the grounds quite innocently with his silently heavy steps, it was because bad things were about to happen. First, Lord Byron married Anne Millbanke in 1815 and the marriage turned out to be a very bad one indeed. In the course of their marriage, Byron began to take to liquor to escape his troubled mind. He would not accept the sums of money offered for his work (he deemed them insufficient) and so had no alternative to settle his debts. His anger and desperation he often took out on Anne, who during this time was pregnant with their only child, Ada. Hereupon following, Anne believed her husband had gone temporarily insane. She documented his mood-swings and odd (sometimes violent) behaviour. In 1816, Byron sent her and their child to stay with Anne’s parents. The two would not see each other again. Second, he had to sell his family home Newstead Abbey in 1818 to his college friend Thomas Wildman for a shabby £95,000. Strangely, there have been no more sightings of the Goblin Friar.

Ghost number four is another lady though she has never been seen. This ghost has only been smelled, at one spot (underneath one of the staircases of the Abbey), the scent is said to vanish as quickly as it appears. She is known as the “Rose Lady” because she apparently smells like a typical Victorian lady. The strong smell of roses and lavender has astounded visitors of the Abbey ever since it has been opened for public (and it has been organising ghost tours…). Story number five is the weakest of all, but should you be around the Abbey one day and you smell the Rose Lady, be sure to say hello.

Ghost number five is another vague story about another Friar. This one is known as the Black Friar, and once you know the tale, it is difficult to believe he is actually still seen on the grounds of the Abbey. The Black Friar is dressed entirely in black (as his name would suggest). He has a bit of a strange and funny purpose at Newstead. Allegedly, he points lost doctors in the direction of pregnant women about to give birth. The most recent sighting in which he actually did this was in 1930. All the other sightings reported happened when there was not a single doctor or pregnant woman in the vicinity. This story is therefore dubious, but it is also the only one in which it is made explicit that the ghost does not talk, he just points in the right direction.

Last but not least, a ghost, or apparition, that is more commonly found in the category of ghost stories. Newstead abbey, too, has a White Lady. As to what these White Ladies actually do, nobody knows. The most common legend is that a White Lady is seen in a big, rural house (or in the area of such a house, they are not very precise as to where they appear) when a family member is soon to die. This theory assumes the White Lady is a deceased ancestress. More exciting are the theories that the White Lady is a vengeful spirit seeking to find unfaithful men. She herself was betrayed by her love and killed herself as a result, and so she kills any unfaithful men she can find. Mostly, the legends talk of a woman murdered or killed whilst in her wedding dress (usually on the night of her wedding) who then either laments, yearns, avenges, weeps, deposits flowers everywhere, and so on, and so forth. A White Lady in this respect can indeed be anything. The one at Newstead Abbey is said to do absolutely nothing. Lord Byron’s cousin said she saw a White Lady “come out of the wall on one side of the room and pass into the opposite one” (294). On this front, Newstead is rather disappointing. The White Lady is one that passes through bedroom walls. Also, the story as to who she might be is obscure to say the least. But, the daughter of Honourable William Byron of Bulwell Wood Hall (around 1660) married one of the dog-keepers. The Honourable Byron was not happy with the match that was so “ill-assorted”. Supposedly, this marriage with such a difference in social status led to the daughter becoming the White Lady of Newstead Abbey upon her death.

The Victorians are notorious for their superstitions and on-going debates about the supernatural. Some of the very best supernatural classics have been written during the period (think of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, or Frankenstein by Marry Shelley). It is therefore unsurprising that it was not until this time that any alleged ghost stories regarding the Abbey became told. Especially with the great poet George Gordon, Lord Byron as its inhabitant.

by Rena Bood



Bibliography


BBC, Nottingham Citylife: Ghosts and Legends. Accessed through: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nottingham/citylife/ghostsandlegends/newstead_index.shtml

Haining, Peter (ed.). The Mammoth Book of Modern Ghost Stories. London: Constable and Robinson Ltd., 2007.

McGann, Jerome. ‘Byron, George Gordon Noel, sixth Baron Byron (1788–1824)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2013. Accessed through: http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.leidenuniv.nl:2048/view/article/4279?docPos=2

Pierson, Joan. ‘Noel , Anne Isabella , suo jure Baroness Wentworth, and Lady Byron (1792–1860)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006. Accessed through: http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.leidenuniv.nl:2048/view/article/45789?docPos=12

Westwood, Jennifer and Simpson, Jacqueline. Haunted England, the Penguin Book of Ghosts. London: Penguin, 2010. p. 292-296.