Haunted and Historic Newstead Abbey, home to Lord Byron

"Newstead! fast-falling, once-resplendent dome!
Religion's shrine! repentant Henry's pride!
Of warriors, monks, and dames the cloister'd tomb,
Whose pensive shades around thy ruins glide

One holy Henry rear'd the Gothic walls,
And bade the pious inmates rest in peace;
Another Henry the kind gift recalls,
And bids devotion’s hallowed echoes cease"

- Lord Byron (from Elegy on Newstead Abbey)

When Lord Byron penned the lines above, Newstead Abbey was in desolate decline. Its former glory stripped by Henry VIII when he dissolved the monasteries, it had come into the Byron family in 1540, and when the young poet came into his inheritance and saw the house for the first time in 1798, his words spoke of the lost glory of this once-proud building.

The History

The Abbey's history dates back to 1170, with the building of a priory at Newstead, Nottinghamshire in the heart of Sherwood Forest. Said to have been built as part of Henry II's penance for his part in the murder of Thomas A Becket, it was a piece of architecture which he must have put great store by. Removed from the turmoil of the city, the monks (of the Order of St. Augustine) carried on their work and worship. The land and buildings they had originally, grew over time, sponsored both by royal patronage (King John was a regular visitor) and many other nobles (notably Robert Lord Lexington). Big and beautiful it certainly was, "built in the form of the west end of a cathedral", and the abbey house was no less grand, "above the cloisters are the corridors or galleries which connected all the rooms of the house, and the windows open into a quadrangular court, in the midst of which is a lofty and fantastic fountain".

Situated in the Forest, it was surrounded by excellent hunting, and became a favourite place for royalty to visit. Edward I paid four such visits to Newstead, and the monks must have suffered some financial strain, as part of the responsibility of a priory was to provide hospitality to travellers, and Newstead became something of a royal tourist attraction.

Other visitors were even less welcome, and considerably more expensive. In the 16th century, Henry VIII sought to reduce the power and wealth of the monasteries, and in 1539 the monks were given their marching orders. The prior was pensioned off, and the house was passed to the Lieutenant of Sherwood, one Sir John Byron. He recognised a good thing when he saw it, and bought the whole estate from the Crown for £810 (a bargain price for the time). From this time forth, the history of Newstead Abbey was to be connected with the Byron family.

The Byron Centuries

That this ancient house should come to the Byron family is quite fitting, as the family came over with William I (aka William the Conqueror). The first Byron to own the house bequeathed it to his son John (who was known as "Little Sir John with the Great Beard" to distinguish him from his less-than-imaginative father). Little Sir John's ghost is one of many said to haunt the Abbey today. Yet another Sir John Byron was exiled to Paris as a traitor at the end of the English Civil War, and the Abbey was confiscated by the Roundheads. To add insult to injury, one of his own cousins, Colonel John Hutchinson, approved the plunder of the Abbey in 1644, and Sir Richard Byron was obliged to buy back his own inheritance.

The Byron family did a good deal with the house and grounds over the centuries, carrying out landscaping and building works, but the 5th Baron had severely neglected the house, the roof of the East wing being almost totally destroyed. He had also gutted the surrounding park, cutting down timber and killing off the resident deer, an act of spite against his son, who had married against his wishes. According to one of the 6th Lord's friends, "Of the Abbey Church, one end only remains; and the old kitchen is reduced to a heap of rubbish". The only room with a dry roof was the scullery, where the eccentric 5th Baron is supposed to have spent his last years.

When the most famous Byron (George, the 6th Baron and notorious poet) took the estate over, it was in a grave state indeed. On his arrival from Scotland, Lord Byron initially lodged in Nottingham and Southwell, letting the property out, as it was heavily mortgaged and he and his mother could not afford the upkeep. In 1808, having graduated from Cambridge, he finally moved in, living in a refurbished room in the old prior's house. His financial circumstances did not permit him to do much in the way of repair, and beyond patching up some of the rooms and carrying out some repair work on the roof, one of his few building endeavours was a monumental tomb for his dog, Boatswain.

Newstead! what saddening change of scene is thine!
Thy yawning arch betokens slow decay;
The last and youngest of a noble line
Now holds thy mouldering turrets in his sway.

(from Elegy on Newstead Abbey)
Although he loved Newstead, and gaining inspiration from it, in 1817, bowed down with debt and with a notorious reputation, he had no option but to sell the estate to an old schoolmate, Thomas Wildman, and left the Abbey behind for ever.

The Abbey Today

Wildman did much work to repair the house and grounds, employing the architect John Shaw to ensure that any alterations were in keeping with the medieval style. In 1861, after Wildman's death, the house was sold to William Webb, the African explorer, who arranged for the chapel to be renovated. The house remained in his family until his grandson sold it to the philanthropist Sir Julien Cahn.

In 1931 Cahn bequeathed the house and grounds to the Nottingham Corporation, since when much restoration work has been carried out, and the house and gardens are now open to the public. The Abbey itself is a ruin, although the magnificent West Front remains, as do the foundations of the cloisters.

Many historic figures have stayed here, and the Council have preserved Edward III’s bedroom, Henry VII’s lodgings and a tapestry room, once occupied by Charles II. Lord Byron’s own bedroom is also preserved, and the museum has many of his personal possessions on display, along with relics of the explorer Dr. David Livingstone, a good friend of William Webb.

The gardens are beautiful in any season - from the huge Upper Lake through the Spanish Gardens and a huge fishpond into which the River Leen is diverted down a waterfall. Terraces and wooded walks, walled gardens and bowers make a visit to the Abbey a feast for all the senses. Peacocks and deer roam in the grounds and a wide variety of shrubs and trees complete the picture.

The lake also has its own attractions in the form of two small forts, which the odd 5th Lord Byron used to stage mock naval battles, involving a fleet of vessels including a miniature 20-gun ship.

Legends of a Haunted House

Like any great English house, Newstead Abbey is said to be haunted. The writer Washington Irving stayed in a bedroom "haunted by Sir John Byron the Little, with the great beard. Another visitor claimed that "she saw Sir John...seated by the fireplace, reading out of a great black letter book". Irving also stayed in the ‘Rook Cell’, "For in this chamber Lord Byron declared he had more than once been harassed at midnight by mysterious visitors. A black shapeless form would sit cowering upon his bed, and, after gazing at him for a time with glaring eyes, would roll off and disappear". Lord Byron's own bedroom was said to be visited by the ghostly Black Friar (the 'Goblin Friar' of 'Don Juan'):

"His form you may trace but not his face
Tis shadowed by a cowl:
but his eyes may be seen from the folds in between
And they seem of a parted soul"
Further, column of cold white mist has been seen in one of the other bedrooms, and the cloisters was allegedly the haunt of a night-time "Shapeless black mass with glowing eyes", and Nanny Smith, who worked for the poet Lord, told of a visiting woman who said that "when she was lying in bed, saw a lady all in white, come out of a wall on one side of the room and go into the wall on the other side". Nanny Smith also heard phantom footsteps and ghostly music, and other visitors reported the sounds of a carriage and a woman’s voice crying out "Speak to me, my Lord Byron, only speak to me!."

The White Lady is yet another apparition said to appear here. Sophie Hyatt, a deaf woman, came to live nearby on a pension provided by a member of her family. She was a big fan of Byron's poetry, and would often visit the grounds with the permission of the then owner, Thomas Wildman, a close friend of Byrson's.

The Wildmans became close to her, but she decided to leave for America after her pension dried up, and left a note for the family to tell them she was taking a stagecoach to London. The Wildmans dispatched a rider to catch up with her to offer her a permanent place in their household. The rider found her in Nottingham, having been run over by a drayman, who had called out to her. Being deaf, she failed to hear him, was struck and killed. Her ghost is said to walk the grounds to this day.

A Good Day Out

Travelling north from Nottingham along the A60, following signs to Mansfield, Newstead Abbey is about 10 miles out, and is well signposted. From the M1 motorway, visitors should leave at junction 27 and follow signs for Annesley, passing through the village on the A611 heading north to the B6020, then heading east to the A60 near Ravenshead, before turning south for a mile, and turning right into the grounds.

I used to live in Ravenshead as a child, and would spend a great deal of time here. The many beautiful walks and well-preserved architecture were magical to me, the fountains and waterfall, the woodlands and formal gardens still delight me, and draw me back time and again. The Abbey is one stop on the Robin Hood Way, a recreational walk through Nottinghamshire, and it is my ambition to see this magnificent estate the next time whilst engaged on that walk.

Quotes from Cornelius Brown's History of Nottinghamshire at:
53:05:22N, 1:10:49W - A Place for Everything (and Everything in its Place)

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