Newstead Abbey is a former priory and home of poet Lord Byron, inhabited by several ghosts. Newstead Abbey, located in Nottinghamshire, England, was built in 1170 as a priory for Canons of the Order of St. Augustine, or Black Canons. In 1540, Sir John Byron acquired it and turned it into a mansion. It remained the Byron family home for nearly 300 years. According to superstition, ill luck comes to those who turn religious houses into personal or secular use. So it was with the Byron family, who suffered generations of bad luck, including declining fortunes.
The last Lord Byron to occupy the home was the famous Romantic poet, whose given name was George Gordon (1788–1824). When he inherited the estate, it was in terrible shape. His mother was too poor to live on the property, and his father, known as “Devil Byron” and “the Wicked Lord,” was living in the scullery, the only room with a roof intact against water. Devil Byron died there alone.
The poet Lord Byron was a handsome, colorful and eccentric figure. Club-footed, he nonetheless attracted many female admirers but was contemptuous of women. He was notorious for his love affairs, carried on both during and after his ill-fated marriage to Anne Milbanke. His most famous paramours were Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of Viscount Melbourne, and Claire Clairmont, the sisterin- law of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In 1817 Byron went to live in Venice. He sold Newstead Abbey in 1818 for 95,000 pounds. Far more money had to be devoted to repairing it. The curse stuck, for successive owners also were plagued with bad luck. Byron, meanwhile, wandered about Europe. He was working for Greek independence when he died in 1824.
The most famous Ghost at Newstead is the Black Friar or Goblin Friar. The appearance of this spectral figure was considered a portent of disaster by the Byron family. Byron himself saw the Black Friar on the eve of his wedding in 1815, a union which he later described as the single most unhappy event of his life. The marriage lasted a year.
The White Lady is believed to be the ghost of Sophia Hyett, the daughter of a bookseller, who was infatuated with and obsessed by the dashing lord. She wanders about crying, “Alas, my Lord Byron!”
Byron’s Newfoundland dog, Boatswain, also haunts Newstead. Byron described his beloved pet as his only friend and left instructions that he was to be buried alongside the dog on the site of the Black Canons’ high altar. Byron buried the dog there, but his wishes for his own burial were ignored. Some believe that is why the restless ghost of Boatswain wanders about, looking for his master.
Another ghost, now seldom seen, is Little Sir John Byron, who lived in the 16th century. He was fond of appearing under his portrait, reading.
The ghost of the poet Lord Byron himself is not present at Newstead.
- Coxe, Anthony D. Hippisley. Haunted Britain. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.
- Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. London: Reader’s Digest Assoc., 1977.
- Marsden, Simon. The Haunted Realm: Echoes from Beyond the Tomb. London: Little, Brown and Co., 1998.
Newstead Abbey was originally an Augustinian priory founded between 1165 and 1173. In 1539, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the abbey was closed down, and its land and buildings were sold the following year to Sir John Byron of Colwick. It became the seat of the Byron family, and eventually came down to the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824).
The inheritance was a mixed blessing: Byron loved Newstead and its medieval atmosphere (and asked to be buried there beside the monument to his Newfoundland dog, Boatswain, though this request was ignored). However, by his time, the house was almost in ruins, its gardens overgrown, and the estate run down, its woods having been felled for the price of their timber. Without the means to save it himself, Byron sold it to his old schoolfellow, Colonel Thomas Wildman, in 1818 for £95,000.
Like other ancient houses, Newstead had its legends. A carved chimney piece in a bedroom was traditionally explained as showing a Saracen lady who had been rescued by a crusading Byron from her kinsfolk. There was a similar carving in the dining room, thought to depict the same scene.
Byron’s immediate predecessor was known as ‘Devil Byron’, and among wild tales about him was the rumour that he was haunted by the ghost of a sister to whom he had refused to speak for many years on account of a family scandal. Despite her heart-rending appeals of ‘Speak to me, my lord! Do speak to me, my lord!’ they were still unreconciled when she died.
The ‘Corn Law Rhymer’ Ebenezer Elliott (1781–1849), in a ballad on this legend, has the spectres of both ‘Devil Byron’ and his sister sallying forth together in wild weather, he in his coach and she on horseback:
On mighty winds, in spectre coach,
Fast speeds the Heart of iron;
On spectre-steed, the spectre-dame –
Side by side with Byron. …
On winds, on clouds, they ride, they drive –
Oh, hark, thou Heart of iron!
The thunder whispers mournfully,
‘Speak to her, Lord Byron!’
Another ghost said to haunt the abbey was that of its first owner, remembered as ‘Sir John Byron the Little, with the Great Beard’. An old portrait of him that was still hanging over the door of the great saloon ‘some few years since’, according to John Ingram writing in the 1880s, allegedly sometimes at midnight stepped out of its frame and walked around the state apartments. Indeed, one young lady visiting Newstead some years before Ingram’s time insisted that she had seen Sir John the Little in broad daylight, sitting by the fireplace reading an old book.
Newstead Abbey was also credited with possessing a White Lady. The American writer Washington Irving (1783–1859) mentions that a young woman, Lord Byron’s cousin, staying at the abbey, one night when she was in bed saw a White Lady come out of the wall on one side of the room and pass into the one opposite. In 1877, John Potter Briscoe recorded something of her history, saying that old inhabitants of the neighbourhood of Hucknall used to relate that the Honourable William Byron of Bulwell Wood Hall had a daughter who clandestinely married one of her father’s dog-keepers. She had several children by him, and ‘it was further added that the mysterious “White Lady,” who some years ago haunted the grounds of Newstead Abbey, sprang from this ill-assorted match.’
Byron himself had a taste for Gothic fantasy: while he lived at Newstead, a skull was found of large size and unusual whiteness. Byron supposed it had belonged to one of the friars buried there, and sent it to London to be converted to a goblet. When it came back, he instituted a new order at the abbey, with himself as grand master or abbot. The members, twelve in number, were provided with black robes and, when at certain times they assembled, the skull was filled with claret and passed round. The skull is said to be buried at Newstead under the chapel floor.
It is consequently uncertain how seriously one should take the assertion of his biographer, Thomas Moore, that Byron believed his fortunes to be bound up with the life of an oak he had planted on first coming to Newstead, having an idea ‘that as it flourished so should he’. Debatable, too, is Moore’s note on a letter written to him by Byron on 13 August 1814:
It was, if I mistake not, during his recent visit to Newstead, that he himself actually fancied he saw the ghost of the Black Friar, which was supposed to have haunted the Abbey from the time of the dissolution of the monasteries … It is said, that the Newstead ghost appeared, also, to Lord Byron’s cousin, Miss Fanny Parkins, and that she made a sketch of him from memory.
This Black Friar is described by Byron in Don Juan, canto 16:
[… 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.
The ghost served as a hereditary omen, its appearance portending misfortune to the Byrons:
By the marriage-bed of their lords, ’tis said,
He flits on the bridal eve;
And ’tis held as faith, to their bed of death
He comes – but not to grieve.
When an heir is born, he is heard to mourn,
And when aught is to befall
That ancient line, in the pale moonshine,
He walks from hall to hall.
Byron says nothing directly about whether or not he believed in, much less saw, this spectre, or if this was just his fantasy. According to later authors, however, the ghost appeared in ‘the Haunted Chamber’ adjoining Byron’s bedroom, though at night he walked the cloisters and other parts of the old abbey, and Byron claimed to have seen him shortly before his ill-fated marriage to the heiress Anne Millbanke in 1815. All this may have been deduced from Don Juan combined with Thomas Moore’s note.
If authentic, however, the ‘Goblin Friar’ tradition was probably connected with a belief that grew up in the course of the seventeenth century that the descendants of those who had been granted possession of monastic buildings and estates at the Reformation would be punished for this sacrilege, and would never prosper. The idea was strongly argued by Sir Henry Spelman in his History and Fate of Sacrilege (written in the 1640s and posthumously published in 1698), and remained influential even in Victorian times, recurrent misfortunes in landowning families whose seat had once been monastic property being readily interpreted as the result of a curse.