Bears, badgers and Boatswain: Lord Byron and his animals

By Tiffany Francis
I remember discussing Byron with my fellow undergrads in the Students’ Union one morning; we were immersed in a module on Romanticism, and had just retired from a lecture on Don Juan. Several coffees later, we had arrived at two conclusions. Firstly, we were desperately in love with him; secondly, we were all rather jealous of the vibrant, aristocratic excesses he enjoyed. I’m not sure which aspect of his life seemed most deliciously scandalous to our student minds. Perhaps the mountains of debt he racked up that we could so easily relate to? Perhaps his obsession with unhealthy food and alcohol? Perhaps his numerous affairs with men and women, or his suspicious relations with his half-sister? Either way we loved him, even if his peers were a little judgemental.

Our lecturer was keen to tell us about the fame he gained for his eccentric hobbies. He was a strong sea-swimmer, once splashing across the Dardanelles from Europe to Asia in honour of Leander, who in Greek mythology would swim nightly across the strait to reach his lover Hero. An admirer of the natural world, he was also known for his remarkable fondness for animals, and his enormous menagerie is remembered just as vividly today. His collection included numerous dogs and horses, a fox, a parrot, a crocodile, a honey badger, three geese, a heron and a goat with a broken leg. Unwilling to expose his beloved creatures to the cruel outdoors, they were often kept inside the home at his properties in England, Switzerland, Italy and Greece.

Upon visiting Byron’s Italy home in 1821, Percy Shelley witnessed first hand Byron’s eccentricities, and later noted in his diary:

 Lord Byron gets up at two. I get up, quite contrary to my usual custom…at 12. After breakfast we sit talking till six. From six to eight we gallop through the pine forests which divide Ravenna from the sea; we then come home and dine, and sit up gossiping till six in the morning. I don’t suppose this will kill me in a week or fortnight, but I shall not try it longer. Lord B’s establishment consists, besides servants, of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it…

P.S. I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective…I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane.

During his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, Byron was resentful of the fact that the rules forbade him to keep dogs on the premises. Instead, he kept a tame bear, as there was no mention of bears in the rules and the authorities had no legal basis to complain; he even suggested that his ursine friend could sit for a fellowship. Upon graduating, he took the bear with him to his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, where it joined a tame wolf to roam the grounds with.
But it wasn’t only wolves and bears that immortalised Byron among animal-lovers; perhaps his most beloved and famous pet was the great Newfoundland dog, Boatswain. When Boatswain contracted rabies, Byron nursed him devotedly, without fear of catching the disease himself. Upon his demise, Byron commissioned a magnificent monument in the grounds of Newstead Abbey; etched upon the tombstone is one of his best-known poems,

Epitaph to a Dog

Near this Spot are deposited the Remains of one

who possessed Beauty without Vanity,

Strength without Insolence,

Courage without Ferocity,

and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.

This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery

if inscribed over human Ashes,

is but a just tribute to the Memory of

Boatswain, a Dog

who was born in Newfoundland May 1803

and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,

Unknown to Glory, but upheld by Birth,

The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,

And storied urns record who rests below.

When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,

Not what he was, but what he should have been.

But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,

The first to welcome, foremost to defend,

Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,

Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,

Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,

Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –

While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,

And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,

Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –

Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,

Degraded mass of animated dust!

Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,

Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!

By nature vile, ennobled but by name,

Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.

Ye, who behold perchance this simple urn,

Pass on – it honours none you wish to mourn.

To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;

I never knew but one – and here he lies.

 Boatswainmonument
Byron has never been able to shake off his unsavoury reputation; he was denied a final resting place in Westminster Abbey due to his shady past. He never knew his daughter Ada Lovelace, who incidentally grew up to be the world’s first computer programmer, and he had at least one illegitimate child with rumours of others. He might have been unconventional in his attitude to sex and relationships, and rather eccentric in his life choices, but perhaps it makes sense when we read how he was shunned by the more ‘regular’ members of society. It can be argued that his adoration for non-human creatures arose out of a need for acceptance; his animals gave him the simple love and approval that he craved in his fellow man, clouded with neither judgement nor scorn. Perhaps it is best reflected in a line from his short poem, There is Pleasure in the Pathless Woods: ‘I love not man the less, but Nature more.’

Tiffany is a blogger, wildlife artist and aspiring naturalist at www.tiffanyimogen.com. She dwells in the chalky hills of tTiffany Francishe South Downs, and is currently studying for her Masters in English Literature at UCL. After this, she hopes to write and illustrate her own novels whilst eating fruit cake in a cottage somewhere.