I thought my dear Augusta that your opinion of my meek mamma would coincide with mine… But she flies into a fit of phrenzy, upbraids me as if I was the most undutiful wretch in existence, rakes up the ashes of my father, abuses him, says I shall be a true Byrrone, which is the worst epiphet she can invent.
Am I call to this woman mother?
In the hagiography which often passes for the writing of Byron’s life, Catherine Gordon Byron is something of a Marmite figure – for you will either love her or you’ll hate her!
However, my hatred of Marmite is equal to the fondness that I have for the story of this most ‘Amiable Mamma’ who Byron once described as ‘A tender and peremptory parent who indulged me sometimes with holidays and now and then with a box on the ear.’
Catherine Gordon was born in 1764 in the Castle of Gight, in the shire of Aberdeen to Katherine Innes and George Gordon, the 12th Laird of Gight and her ancestry could lay a proud claim to the descent from the sister of King James II ; a wild race noted for their ferocious battles, treacherous deeds, suicide and murder.
In 1820 while living in Europe and in a letter to his publisher John Murray, Byron alluding to his mother’s ‘haughty’ pride in her Gordon ancestry, described her as:
being precise upon points of genealogy like all the Aristocratical Scots – She had a long list of ancestors like Sir Lucius O’Triggers most of whom are to be found in the Old Scotch Chronicles – Spalding – & in arms & doing mischief…
For it was with the suicide of her father who had been found drowned in the Avon Canal in Bath on January 9 1779 that the ‘romping good-humoured girl of sixteen, inclined to corpulency’ became the 13th and final Laird of Gight and with a passion for dancing and with a temper to match, the wealthy, outspoken and superstitious Miss Gordon was introduced to Bath society in 1785.
Her presence was to be quickly noted by John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron who despite his grief for the death of his wife Amelia, Baroness Conyers and the plight of his motherless daughter Augusta; was in desperate need of a wife who could continue to support him in the manner to which he had become accustomed.
The naive and romantic Catherine was united in Holy Matrimony to the feckless and charming John Byron on Friday May 13 1785 at St Michael’s Church in Bath and with no marriage settlement in place, all Byron had to do was to agree to take the name of Gordon and then he could make free with his wife’s money – all £22,580 of it.
O where are ye gaein’, bonny Miss Gordon,
O where are ye gaein’ sae bonnie and braw.
Ye’ve married, ye’ve married wi’ Jonny Byron,
To squander the lands of Gight awa‘
For not only had Catherine married an upstart Englishman but by the winter of 1787 and with the lands of Gight squandered ‘awa’ Catherine now ‘big with bairn’ could now only follow her cruel and dissipated husband to Chantilly in France in an effort to escape his creditors.
As the birth of her child approached, Catherine returned to England and having surrendered the care of the five year old Augusta to the girl’s pious grandmother Lady Holderness; the impoverished young mother-to-be moved into a furnished room at 16 Holles Street to await her lonely confinement.
And it was here that on Tuesday January 22 1788 she gave birth to a boy who was born with a caul over his head, a deformity of the right leg and with the prosaic names of George Gordon in honour of her father.
Catherine would return to her homeland of Aberdeen with her ‘dear son George’ as a toddler and after the death of ‘Mad Jack’ on August 2 1791 in Valenciennes, she devoted herself to the well being of her ‘ill-deedie laddie’ denying him nothing despite his mischievous nature, her tightened purse strings and short temper.
Their provincial and happy life in Aberdeen came to an end in August 1798 as Catherine and her son, now the 6th Lord Byron would leave Scotland to take possession of Newstead Abbey in Nottingham, the ancestral abode of the Byron family since the Reformation.
And by all accounts their first season at Newstead was an idyllic one despite the dilapidated mansion with a leaky roof and the bare grounds stripped of all woodland and Byron would plant an oak tree in the garden which he would later celebrate in verse:
when I planted thee deep in the ground,
I hoped that thy days would be longer than mine;
That thy dark-waving branches would flourish around,
And ivy thy trunk with its mantle entwine.
And as he, with his boys, shall revisit this spot,
He will tell them in whispers more softly to tread.
Oh! surely, by these I shall ne’er be forgot;
Remembrance still hallows the dust of the dead.
With Byron now a Peer of the Realm, Catherine would be increasingly marginalised over time as the decisions concerning the health and education of her son were the responsibilities of his guardian Lord Carlisle and the attorney John Hanson and with maternal pride and fond concern frequently mistaken for ignorance, fickleness and tedious embarrassment as Dr Glennie attested:
Mrs Byron was a total stranger to English society and English manners… a mind almost wholly without cultivation… and not endowed with powers to retrieve the fortune and form the character and manners of a young nobleman, her son.
There is no doubt that Catherine as a woman of volatile opinion and expansive feeling was probably her own worst enemy, but then life had been hard for her and without the benefit of a supportive network and financial security, who are we to judge?
As Byron moved through adolescence frequently bored of school, in need of cash and always willing to challenge authority; the relationship with his mother was to become ever more explosive and unpredictable and in a series of letters to his ‘dearest Augusta’, he lets forth with invective, which although amusing, suggests a cruel attitude which affords him little credit.
I have at last succeeded, my dearest Augusta, in a pacifying the dowager, and mollifying that piece of flint which the good Lady denominates her heart.
She now has condescended to send you her love, although with many comments on the occasion, and many compliments to herself.
But to me she still continues to be a torment, and I doubt not would continue so till the end of my life… It is a happy thing that she is my mother and not my wife, so that I can rid myself of her when I please…
And with Byron full of teenage angst and pockets full of ready cash obtained by dubious means; the ‘good Lady’ was far from pleased:
That Boy will be the death of me and drive me mad! I never will consent to his going Abroad. Where can he get Hundreds? Has he got into the hands of money lenders? He has no feeling, no Heart.
This I have long known he has behaved as ill as possible to me for years back, this bitter Truth I can no longer conceal, it is wrung from me by heart-rending agony.
I am well rewarded, I came to Nottinghamshire to please him and now he hates it.
He knows that I am doing everything in my power to pay his Debts and he writes to me about hiring Servants and the last time he wrote to me was to desire that I would send him £25.0.0 to pay his Harrow Bills which I would have done if I had had as much as he has – three hundred – I am glad I did not, but it shows what he is, God knows what is to be done with him, I much fear he is already ruined at eighteen!!!
Great God I am distracted I can say no more.
As Byron made plans to travel abroad with his friend John Cam Hobhouse, he was also planning to uproot his mother from her cosy home at Burgage Manor in Southwell to Newstead Abbey, a cold, damp ruin which promised social isolation and more than one visit from the bailiffs.
However, despite the acrimony in which they had parted, Catherine was also to be the recipient of Byron’s most beautifully witty and picturesque letters that were written as he travelled throughout the East.
If I wed I will bring you home a sultana with half a score of cities for a dowry, and reconcile you to an Ottoman daughter in law with a bushel of pearls not larger than ostrich eggs or smaller than walnuts.
Her reply is equally witty in return and there are delicious hints that mother and son would surely have enjoyed some lighthearted times together.
A thousand thanks for your long letter which amused me much. I see you are quite charmed with the Spanish Ladies. For Heavens sake have nothing to do with them. They make nothing of poisoning both Husbands and Lovers if they are jealous of them or offend them. The Italian ladies do the same.
I will however agree to your marrying a very pretty very sensible rich Sultana, with half a Million to her fortune not less, and also a Bushel of Pearls and diamonds. No other is worthy of you nor will she be received by me.
Despite her ill-health, she valiantly tried to maintain the upkeep of the Abbey throughout the long winter of 1810 and 1811 and continued to juggle her son’s debts while in constant fear of a bailiff removing her belongings.
Hutton the Bailiff and two of his men arrived from Nottingham. How is this? I thought this business would have been settled… I did not think you would let this come on me… They say the things must be sold immediately.
P.S. For God(s) sake do not let me live in this state…
Catherine died at the age of forty six on Wednesday August 1 1811 at Newstead Abbey surrounded by her devoted servants and as her son was travelling from London poste haste to be by her side after borrowing ‘forty pounds’ from John Hanson as he didn’t have the funds to undertake the journey from London.
My poor mother died yesterday! I heard one day of her illness, the next of her death – Thank God her last moments were most tranquil… I now feel the truth of Mr Gray’s observation, ‘That we can only have one mother.’ Peace be with her!
Every thing is doing that can now be done plainly yet decently for the internment..
On Friday August 9 , her remains were interred to the Byron family vault in the Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire and thirteen years later in 1824, she would be reunited with her ‘Dear son George’ and granddaughter Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace in November 1852.
Byron’s biographer John Galt was moved to write charitably of Catherine some years after her death:
Notwithstanding her violent temper and other unseemly conduct, her affection for him had been so fond and dear, that he undoubtedly returned it with unaffected sincerity and from many casual and incidental expressions which I have heard him employ concerning her, I am persuaded that his filial love was not at any time even of the ordinary kind.
Byron and His World, Derek Parker (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd 1968)
Byron’s Letters and Journals Volume One, Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1973)
My Amiable Mamma A Biography of Mrs. Catherine Gordon Byron, Megan Boyes (J.M. Tatler & Son Ltd 1991)