Friday, November 18, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 9: Lord Byron--Luddite lover and Greek Insurgent

Welcome to my ninth post on late Georgian/Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.

This is the last part of a three part series on Lord Bryon. I've already discussed Lord Byron's scandalous personal life along with his contributions to English literature and poetry in preceding posts.


Poet. Lover. Baron. That last one in particular had implications back in the Regency. In a future post I'll delve a bit deeper into what it fully meant to be a hereditary peer, but I think most people have at least a general handle on the concept of titled nobility.

For Lord Byron, one artifact of his birthright was a seat on the House of Lords--a fortunate convenience for a man very critical of the status quo. Byron's poetry was often full of scathing critique and satire of both domestic and international political issues, and he made many impassioned speeches in Parliament to champion the causes he felt just. His first period in Parliament (March to June 1809) was brought to an end by a trip to Europe. He would later return to Parliament in 1812 though his permanent departure from England in 1816 that I discussed in part one of this series would take with him any further chance of direct political work.

During his time in Parliament, Lord Byron would champion many causes that would set him firmly in a reform, or by some people's reckoning,  a  revolutionary camp. For example, he supported Irish independence both in poetry and political speeches:

"Thus has Great Britain swallowed up the Parliament—the constitution—the independence of Ireland, and refuses to disgorge even a single privilege, although for the relief of her swollen and distempered body politic."

He later would even pen poetry suggesting some support for the independence of India. 

He also supported the Luddites. Though I'll be discussing them in a full entry in the future, they were mostly an anti-industrialization movement centered around textile workers whose jobs were being eliminated by new technologies. Protests turned to a campaign against mills in the north of England.  The destruction of mills combined with attacks on magistrates lead to the deployment of thousands of troops against the Luddites. 

As one can surmise, they was not some genteel opposition movement. They were a near revolutionary force that conservative aristocrats viewed with disgust and trepidation. In contrast, Lord Byron, who viewed the Luddite cause as arising from social justice concerns by people being harmed and destroyed by dubious automation that benefited others more than the workers, supported the movement both in Parliament and in his poetry. Whether one thinks him a fool or praises him for that, it is important to realize this was a very radical position for him to take at the time.

Even after leaving England, he would continue to contribute to political newspapers and discussions, generally supporting causes that placed him firmly in opposition to many landed, aristocratic interests. A lot of this was heavily influenced by his Romantic worldview.

Now, skipping ahead a bit, Byron became involved with the Greek independence movement. At the time, the Greeks were under the heel of the Ottoman Empire. He'd spoken and written of his belief in Greek independence for some time, but the start of open insurgency in 1821 further crystallized his support. While some of this support was just part of his natural tendency to support many independence movements, it's important to realize that Greece held a special place in the hearts of many Western intellectuals of the period due to its ancient contributions to Western thought.

Generous financial and literary support gave way to more direct military aid in 1823 including his formation, using his own wealth, of the Byron Brigade (including refitting warships). Besides his equipment, he ended up in command of Greek rebel soldiers.

 I should note that whatever his literary talents, he had no military experience at all, but I'm doubtful the Greeks were going to risk offending a man who was giving them a considerable amount of money and for whom they had a great deal of respect anyway. He was to take part in a major assault on a Turkish fortress, Lepanto, but before the force could depart toward the objective, he fell ill. Over the next few months he fought disease, incompetent period doctors, and infection until finally succumbing to his aliments at Missolonghi, Greece on April 19, 1824 at the age of 36.

Despite his very minimal involvement in the actual fighting, years of financial, political, and literary support garnered him a large amount of Greek respect where many still consider him, despite his non-Greek background, a hero of the Greek War of Independence. There was a three day period of mourning following his death. There is even a city northeast of Athens still named after him, Vyronas (Βύρωνας). His death in Greece helped focus even more international attention on the conflict and arguably helped to contribute to the entry of other Western powers on the Greek side. 

Thank you for joining me these last three weeks as I discussed the life of Lord Byron. Whatever one thinks of him or whatever strange rumors one choose to believe, it's hard to deny he's a fascinating historical character. I've only barely scratched the surface of the details defining his life, but I don't want this to become Mr. Beard's Byron Tour instead of Mr. Beard's Regency Tour. Due to Thanksgiving and my trip to visit family, there will be no Regency entry next Friday, but I will return the following week with a more in-depth discussion of the Luddites.


Sophia Rose said...

I was unaware of Byron's debates in the House. I knew about the political leanings, but that he was active in politics seemed to have slipped past my radar.

Thanks for the post!

Happy Thanksgiving!

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks for stopping by. Happy Thanksgiving.

Maggi Andersen said...

I wasn't aware that his supported the Luddites. Thanks very interesting.

J.A. Beard said...

Yeah, he stood behind some pretty radical stances at the time.

E. P. Beaumont said...

The text of Byron's speech in defense of the Luddites is cited in full in David F. Noble. Progress Without People; In Defence of Luddism, (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1993). I also found it in a 19th century edition of Byron's (then) complete works (printed in the USA, probably pirated--I don't have the citation to hand.)

For your reading list: Noble (d. 2010) was an historian of technology who took an interdisciplinary and critical approach to the usual notion of "technological progress." His major works include Forces of Production, America By Design, and A World Without Women.

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks for the recommendations.