I received a most kind and affectionate letter from Lady Byron, and money, with offers of protection for myself and my child, and the power of quitting a neighbourhood which was most painful to me.
This was in August 1840. I willingly and joyfully accepted these offers….
Lady Byron, proposed that I should accompany her to Paris, and remain with her for a time I did so…..at Fontainebleau…. Lady Byron informed me of the cause of the deep interest she felt and must ever feel, for me. Her husband had been my father…
The author of this missive is one Elizabeth Medora Leigh writing about the kindness of her aunt Lady Byron who had just informed her that her father was none other than the celebrated poet and also her uncle, Lord Byron.
Born on this day April 15 in 1814, her mother was the Hon. Augusta Mary Byron who had married her cousin Colonel George Leigh and Elizabeth Medora as she was baptised was their fourth child and arguably the most notorious.
In Augusta’s Bible which had been gifted to the ‘Miss Byron from her affectionate Friend M. Elgin’ in 1782, she recorded the births, marriages and deaths of her seven children:
Elizabeth Medora Leigh born at the Six Mile Bottom April 15th 1814. Christened there, May 20th 1814 by the Revd. C. Wedge. Sponsors – The Dss. of Rutland Mrs. Wilmot & Lord Byron.
Six Mile Bottom was the Leigh family home in Newmarket and from 1813 until March 1815, Byron had enjoyed regular visits with his sister and her children as the colonel, an indiscriminate gambler and crony of the Prince Regent had been frequently absent from his family for long periods of time as he was more often to be found at one of the many racetracks dotted throughout England.
Like her reputed and famous father, Medora was to be a woman known by many names.
In a letter to Byron written when Medora was nearly nine months old Augusta had written:
My dearest B +
As usual I have but a short allowance of time to reply to your tendresses + …..
La Dame did talk so – oh my stars! but at least it saved me a world of trouble – oh! but she found out a likeness in your picture to Mignonne who is of course very good humoured in consequence +
As ‘Mignonne’ is a reference to Medora, this letter is often cited as one piece of evidence of Byron’s paternity and the other is that Medora had been named after his heroine in the The Corsair, a poem that had been published with great success in February 1814.
However, Medora was also the name given to a very successful horse and owned by none other than the Duke of Rutland and whose spouse was the godparent to the infant Medora.
Whatever the inspiration for her name, Byron’s attitude towards the reputed daughter by the woman he ‘most loved’ remains obscure; for throughout the winter of 1815 until April 1816 and as his marriage rapidly imploded, Augusta had also been living at Piccadilly Terrace in London and it would appear that she had brought only her eldest child and the favourite niece Georgiana with her.
Presumably, little Medora at just a year old was left in the care of her nurse along with her two siblings.
And after the brother and sister had said their farewells on Easter Sunday prior to his departure from England in 1816, he penned the following note:
P.S. – I can’t bear to send you a short letter – & my heart is too full for a long one – – don’t think me unkind or ungrateful – dearest A – – & tell me how is Georgey & Do – & you & tip – & all the tips on four legs or two – ever & again – & for ever thine
‘Do’ is yet another name for Medora and as Tip was Augusta’s dog, we can but hope that the poor creature was known only by that particular name otherwise this may offer the most reasonable explanation yet for Augusta’s seemingly chaotic home!
After Byron’s death in Greece in April 1824, it is not until Medora is twelve years old that her story really begins for in 1826 she and her mother were the only guests present at the marriage of Georgiana to her third cousin Henry Trevanion at St James’ Palace in London.
However, by the time that Medora was sixteen years old she was pregnant with Henry’s child and rather than risk disgrace, the Trevanions along with Medora left for Calais and it was here that she gave birth to a boy who was born prematurely and later removed from her care.
Although Georgiana had blamed herself for Henry’s seduction of her sister, Medora continued to live with the Trevanions and in 1831 with Medora pregnant once more by Henry, she was finally removed from her sister’s care by their father Colonel Leigh and taken to Lisson Grove in London which she later recalled:
At 12 o’clock at night we were driven I know not whither until we arrived at a house where I was given into the charge of a lady.
The windows of the room into which I was put were securely nailed and fastened down, and there were outside chains and bolts, and other fastenings to the door.
There was a show and ostentation of a prison…
Incredibly, Medora was to flee to the Continent with Henry Trevanion shortly after and while living in an old chateau in great poverty she gave birth to their daughter Marie and after Henry had been forced to return to England for money and upon his return to her some six weeks later; Medora had a change of heart:
Then I saw remains of what I had thought wholly extinguished – his passionate attachment to me. But I was no longer a child – I was twenty one; and two years’ experience had enabled me to know how to resist…
With the onset of tuberculosis and with no means to support herself or her daughter, Medora sought the assistance of a ‘Mr C’, one Victor Carrel in order to free herself from Henry:
I asked his aid to free me from the cruelty of one whom I had never really loved, and who by his conduct every day convinced me more and more of his worthlessness.
My greatest wish was to die away from him.
Through Carrel’s intervention, Medora was able to eventually leave the worthless albeit passionate Henry Trevanion but was unable to secure from her mother the £125 a year that she believed was needed to live on; unfortunately however, Augusta’s life appears to have been one financial struggle after another as she was to write to the pompous Mr Wilmot:
I was born to be a “souffre douleurs” of that I have long been convinced and an illustration of the Fable of the Miller and his Ass!
The Leigh family had settled a Deed of £3000 on Medora’s daughter Marie as a provision and although Augusta was to send what little money she could afford to, Medora believed that her mother could do more and now sought to have the Deed reversed in her favour and enlisted the help of Lady Chicester: “begging her influence to obtain the Deed for me”
In August 1840 Annabella now made a welcome reappearance with offers of kindness and financial support and and she was also now informed of the true identity of her reputed and illustrious father.
She implored and sought my affection by every means…. I so sincerely felt to repay my affection for any pain she must have felt for circumstances connected with my birth and her separation from Lord Byron…
They had met in Paris and after assuming the guardianship for the care of Medora and Marie; Annabella sent the following letter to Augusta:
Since last August I am to be considered responsible for the safety and comfort of your daughter Elizabeth Medora..
If it should become known, I am prepared in justice to Elizabeth and myself, to explain fully the reasons for my thus interesting myself in her welfare…
Could I have believed that you had a mother’s affection for her, you would not have had to ask for information concerning your child…
I would save you, if it not too late, from adding the guilt of her death to that of her birth. Leave her in peace!
One can only imagine the reaction of Augusta from this letter!
Medora was impatient for the financial independence that the Deed would provide her and although she was known as ‘Ada’s sister in all things, as I was really,’ she was becoming increasingly resentful that she was not afforded the status due to her.
In the Spring of 1842, a suit was filed at Chancery that sought to obtain the Deed from the control of Augusta and by the end of May and before the case was to be heard in Chancery, Augusta relinquished the Deed to Medora with no explanation offered.
If Medora had hoped that the hearing in Chancery would expose her mother to the scandal of her alleged paternity – she was to be bitterly disappointed and having failed in her endeavour, she now turned upon her aunt and told her that ‘I was her bitterest enemy and threatened every kind of revenge…’
Eventually, an agreement was reached which would allow Medora to live a quiet life in the South of France with an annual allowance of £150 from Annabella.
However, upon her arrival and no longer willing to accede to Annabella’s demands that she resign the care and control of her life and that of her daughter to the aunt who had warned her of the necessity that she ‘should be a devoted child to her’; she refused to live within her means, began to drink heavily and to Annabella’s distress was reportedly receiving ‘rather entertaining company‘.
Having failed all attempts at compromise, Medora now returned to England to retrieve the Deed she had left with Ada’s husband the Earl of Lovelace and as the means in which to secure the annuity Annabella had previously offered.
Having threatened Lovelace with ‘recourse to such measure as will place me in possession of it’, Annabella now cancelled Medora’s annuity and ended all communication with her niece.
Accused of being ‘Unreasonable – most excited – most irritated – changing however from storm to sunshine at every moment… ‘ Medora had finally succeeded in alienating herself from all who could now offer her protection – including her own mother:
My Mother Since I was made to understand you could never love me, the child of your guilt, in whom you have seen but a means to satisfy your ambitions, a sacrifice to be made to those you feared, then to throw on the world, destitute, homeless and friendless….
I once more remind you I am your child….
I can only beg you by the memory of my father, the brother to whom you, & the children you love and enrich by my destitution owe all – no longer to forget and neglect what you still owe
Your child Elizabeth Medora Leigh
After finally obtaining the Deed from Lovelace, Medora managed to raise £500 and returned to France in the summer of 1844 and a year later she fell in love with a French Cavalry soldier Jean-Louis Taillefer.
Having given birth to their son Jean-Marie Elie in January 1847, she and Taillefer married in the following year but in a typically Byronic fashion, their domestic happiness was to be short-lived with her death at the age of thirty five on August 28 in 1849 reportedly from Smallpox.
Augusta Leigh Byron’s Half-Sister – A Biography Michael & Melissa Bakewell (London: Pimlico 2002)
Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 5 Ed: Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1976)
Lord Byron’s Wife Malcolm Elwin (London: John Murray 1962)
Medora Leigh; A History and an Autobiography Charles Mackay (General Books 2009)
The Uninhibited Byron An Account of His Sexual Confusion Bernard Grebanier (London: Peter Owen 1971)