He seduced hundreds of women (as well as a few men) and had a child with his half sister amid a haze of drink and drugs. Now a racy new book reveals what turned Lord Byron into a sex addict…

Their relationship was the talk of the town, both scandalising and thrilling 19th Century London. For months, the beautiful (and married) Lady Caroline Lamb and the celebrated Lord Byron had made no attempt to hide their passion for each other, flaunting their affair in the theatres, balls and drawing rooms where high society gathered.

When, after five months, Lady Caroline sensed that her lover was tiring of her, she decided on a daring strategy to try to reel him in again. She sent Byron a gold locket. When he opened it, he found nestled inside a clipping of her pubic hair along with a note declaring: ‘I will kneel and be torn from your feet before I will give you up’, signing herself ‘your wild antelope’.

You may think today’s oversexed, flashy and tawdry celebrities are a very 21st Century phenomenon, but their bad behaviour pales by comparison to that of Lord Byron, the brilliant poet who would nowadays be classed as a full-blown sex addict. Sexually fluid, his countless lovers even included his own half-sister, with whom he had a child.

Byron’s charm, good looks and notoriety meant he effortlessly seduced any attractive woman or man he came across, from married aristocrats to innocent serving girls.

In just a three-year period he claimed to have slept with 200 people and often alluded to his sexual adventures in his poetry. In a compelling new biography to mark 200 years since his death, American Professor Andrew Stauffer suggests that Byron even invented the ‘tell-all’ confessional – now used by modern celebrities including WAGs, Love Island contestants and soap stars.

Richard Chamberlain as Lord Byron and Silvia Monti as Annabella in 1972 film Lady Caroline Lamb

What was it that made Byron so ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, as Lady Caroline Lamb described him? His compulsive sexual behaviour probably stemmed from the sexual abuse he suffered as a young boy at the hands of his nursemaid May Gray, which began when he was nine and carried on for two years, until she was found out and dismissed. When she was not forcing herself on him, Gray supervised his Bible studies and beat him if he misbehaved.

Given all that, it’s no wonder that Byron grew up with no understanding of boundaries.

His friends saw a different side to Byron; not a brooding, satanic figure but a convivial and high-spirited man, often witty and playful.

One of his deepest and most important friendships was with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary.

Byron’s suggestion that ‘we will each write a ghost story’ was the impetus for Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, the novel regarded as the first ever work of science-fiction and a powerful parable on the dangers of playing God.

There is no doubt Byron exploited and cruelly discarded many women, especially during his years in Venice when he was at his most promiscuous and his behaviour was, to modern eyes, like that of a sex tourist. Yet for all his chaotic private life, Byron also produced some of the 19th Century’s most admired poetry, including the gorgeously romantic poem that begins: ‘She walks in beauty, like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies.’

And near the end of his life he did fall deeply in love with a woman to whom he was, finally, faithful.

George Gordon Byron was born in January 1788, in rented lodgings in London’s West End. His Scottish mother, Catherine, had, like a heroine from a Jane Austen novel, fallen madly in love with a dashing man she had met at the fashionable Assembly Rooms in Bath.

John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron, who was on the lookout for an heiress to marry, had no trouble sweeping the plump, orphaned Catherine, heiress of an Abedeenshire estate, off her feet. Within a few years he had worked his way through her entire fortune, before he died in France in 1791. Byron would later comment that his father ‘seemed born for his own ruin, and that of the other sex’.

To add to Catherine’s troubles, her son was born with a deformed right foot which, despite various painful braces and boots that he was made to wear, could never be fixed. Aged ten, Byron unexpectedly inherited the title and estates of his great uncle, becoming the sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale.

A portrait of Lord Byron by Richard Westall, 1813. While at Cambridge, and no longer under his mother¿s watchful eye, Byron embarked on a heady romance with a young man, describing it as ¿violent, though pure, love and passion¿

A portrait of Lord Byron by Richard Westall, 1813. While at Cambridge, and no longer under his mother’s watchful eye, Byron embarked on a heady romance with a young man, describing it as ‘violent, though pure, love and passion’

While at Cambridge, and no longer under his mother’s watchful eye, Byron embarked on a heady romance with a young man, describing it as ‘violent, though pure, love and passion’. There were also plenty of women, so many that he wrote to a friend: ‘I am buried in an abyss of sensuality.’ After university, Byron travelled to Greece, a country he came to love passionately.

Although he wrote one of his most famous poems, Maid Of Athens, about a beautiful 12-year-old whom he had met there, he was mostly consumed with homosexual affairs, including one with a handsome young man ‘with ambrosial curls hanging down his amiable back’.

The first part of Byron’s narrative poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, was published to wild acclaim when he was 24. The reflections of a world-weary young nobleman travelling through the Mediterranean, disillusioned with his pleasure-seeking life, it brilliantly succeeded in capturing the prevailing mood of disaffection and melancholy.

Byron, who had always felt himself something of an outsider, suddenly found himself being invited to all the grandest houses.

The Duchess of Devonshire remarked that his poem was on every table and that he was ‘courted, visited, flattered and praised whenever he appears’.

Byron soon became involved in scandalous affairs with two married women. The first was with the mercurial, unpredictable Lady Caroline Lamb, who wrote after meeting him for the first time: ‘That pale, beautiful face is my fate.’

Their relationship was full of violent rows and histrionic arguments, many carried out in public, and those around them thought they thrived on the drama. When Byron snubbed her at a party, she deliberately sliced her hand open in front of the assembled guests.

Initially, Byron was equally besotted with her, even though he was sleeping with several other women at the same time. When Caroline refused to swear that she loved him more than her husband, he exploded: ‘My God, you shall pay for this. I’ll wring that obstinate little heart.’

But his ardour cooled and – as he tired of her increasingly desperate attempts to win him back, including the golden locket filled with pubic hair – Caroline retaliated by trying to stab him. An even more complicated and dangerous entanglement was Byron’s affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, the daughter of his father from his first marriage.

Byron, depicted here in the film Lady Caroline Lamb, became involved in scandalous affairs with two married women

Byron, depicted here in the film Lady Caroline Lamb, became involved in scandalous affairs with two married women

The British poet was painted in Albanian dress by Thomas Phillips in 1813. Byron¿s charm, good looks and notoriety meant he effortlessly seduced any attractive woman or man he came across, from married aristocrats to innocent serving girls

The British poet was painted in Albanian dress by Thomas Phillips in 1813. Byron’s charm, good looks and notoriety meant he effortlessly seduced any attractive woman or man he came across, from married aristocrats to innocent serving girls

Augusta was five years older and a mother of three. Byron loved her gentle manner but was also thrilled by the shockingly illicit nature of their relationship, which fed into his writing.

The Giaour, the poem he was writing at the time, was full of barely disguised references to their incestuous affair: ‘My good, my guilt, my weal, my woe… the cherished madness of my heart!’ The poet William Wordsworth commented: ‘Let me say one word upon Lord B. The man is insane.’

Juggling numerous women, weary of all the society gossip about him and struggling with his attraction to men, Byron decided the answer to all his problems was to get married.

His chosen bride was Annabella Milbanke – well-born, eligible and a talented mathematician, Byron jokingly referred to her as ‘the Princess of Parallelograms’.

‘I never saw a woman whom I esteemed so much,’ he said.

He had first proposed to her in 1812 but Annabella had sensibly turned him down. Two years later, she accepted him. What she didn’t know was that at the same time that he was planning to marry her, he was also seriously thinking of running away with his half-sister, Augusta, even though doing this would have ruined them both in the eyes of society. That year, Augusta had given birth to a daughter, Elizabeth Medora – it is generally believed Byron was her father.

Annabella and Byron married in January 1815, and, as they drove away from their wedding ceremony to their honeymoon, she was horrified by the sudden change in Byron’s manner.

Cooped up together in a carriage, he ranted that she was a fool to have married him, told her that he had inherited the Byron family madness and that he pitied her. Despite this terrible start, the honeymoon was a partial success, at least in the bedroom, as Annabella had discovered ‘a ruling passion for mischief in private’, as she put it.

At other times they were miserable together. The main problem was the presence in their lives of Byron’s half-sister. When Augusta was staying with them, she and Byron would sit up late, laughing and whispering together, while Annabella was dismissed by her husband with the cruel words: ‘Now I have her, you will find I can do without you – in all ways.’

Their affair fed Byron’s addiction to self-destructive, forbidden sex, and when Augusta was around he seemed determined to humiliate his wife. He would lie on the couch and order the two women to take turns embracing him, comparing their displays of affection.

At other times he boasted to Annabella of his ‘adulteries and indecencies with loose women’, giving jewellery to his mistresses and providing his wife with a list of the gifts.

Annabella was pregnant and, as the baby’s birth grew nearer, the terrified servants kept her locked in her room for her own safety, refusing to let Byron be alone with her. Often high on laudanum and brandy, he roamed the house smashing furniture, demanding sex with his wife, firing pistols and threatening suicide.

In the midst of this turmoil, Annabella gave birth to a healthy baby, Ada. ‘The child of love –though born in bitterness/And nurtured in convulsion’, Byron wrote in the second part of Childe Harold.

A month later, Annabella left Byron for good, taking the baby with her. Amazingly, Byron was shocked by her departure and pleaded with her to come back, but she refused, although she still loved him.

Lady Caroline Lamb, painted here by Eliza H Trotter, famously described Byron as ¿mad, bad and dangerous to know'

Lady Caroline Lamb, painted here by Eliza H Trotter, famously described Byron as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’

‘Remember that you believed yourself most miserable when I was yours,’ she wrote to him.

She never saw Byron again. Their daughter, Ada Lovelace, who inherited her mother’s mathematical talent, worked with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine and is often referred to as ‘the world’s first computer programmer’.

As stories of Byron’s abuse, madness, incest and homosexual affairs spread, public opinion turned against him. When he and Augusta went to a party a few months after Annabella’s departure, they were treated as pariahs, with scores of people pointedly leaving the room as they appeared. Byron decided his only option was to leave England.

Sailing across the North Sea, he landed at Ostend, Belgium, and went to an inn where, according to the friend who was travelling with him, he ‘fell like a thunderbolt upon the chambermaid’.

Travelling on to Switzerland in July 1816, he met up with the poet Shelley, his soon-to-be wife Mary Godwin, and Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, who had engineered the meeting between the two men.

Jealous of Mary and her relationship with Shelley, she had decided she wanted a poet of her own. Just as Byron’s separation with Annabella was being finalised, Claire had written to him out of the blue.

Byron usually ignored the scores of fan letters he received from amorous women but Claire’s caught his eye, and he agreed to meet her at an inn outside London.

With all the indifference of a rock star being pursued by a groupie, he wrote to a friend: ‘I never loved nor pretended to love her – but a man is a man – and if a girl of 18 comes prancing to you at all hours – there is but one way.’

Claire swiftly became pregnant and, knowing that Byron was going to Geneva, she was determined to follow him.

Shelley and Byron had never met before but soon formed a close friendship. Although he briefly resumed his relationship with Claire, Byron was far keener to spend time with Shelley and Mary.

Byron suggested they should each write a ghost story.

His was about a vampire; Mary, a quietly brilliant woman, imagined a reanimated corpse – the story becoming the basis for her great novel, Frankenstein.

Meanwhile, Byron was keeping the unfortunate Claire at arm’s length, but eventually Shelley brokered an agreement: she would return to England to have the baby in secret and Byron would adopt the child, allowing Claire visiting rights. A daughter, Allegra, was born in 1817.

In November 1816, Byron arrived in Venice. He loved the city, ‘the gloomy gaiety of their gondolas, and the silence of their canals’. Above all, he relished Venice’s air of decadence and the number of available women, and he organised his life there around his sexual pursuits.

He told a friend that his first three years there resembled a non-stop orgy, with ‘more women than I can count or recount’. He estimated the number of women he had slept with at 200, from all social classes.

This period of frantic sexual activity was the inspiration for his unfinished masterpiece, the epic poem Don Juan.

The poem veered between comedy and tragedy with dizzying speed and was considered deeply immoral by many readers. ‘There is a great outcry, but everybody reads it,’ his publisher reported gleefully.

One of Byron’s more extraordinary lovers was Margarita Cogni, the illiterate wife of a Venetian baker. She knew about all his other women, declaring: ‘He may have five hundred – but he will always come back to me.’

Tall and dark, with a striking figure and ‘very fine black eyes’, Margarita would walk in on Byron whenever she felt like it, and if another woman was with him, she would simply knock her down.

She was, Byron said, ‘wild as a witch and fierce as a demon’. Their affair continued for two years but eventually he tired of her overbearing ways and the relationship ended messily.

In May 1818, between this frenetic womanising, Byron took charge of Allegra, his daughter by Claire Clairmont. The toddler charmed everyone but, with Byron’s lifestyle in Venice so unsuited to bringing up a child, she was farmed out to various other families.

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When she was four, Byron placed her in a convent school against the wishes of her mother. Allegra pleaded with her ‘dear Papa’ to visit her but he never did. In April 1822, she died of typhoid fever. Byron was filled with grief and remorse: ‘When she lived, her existence never seemed necessary to my happiness, but no sooner did I lose her, than it appeared to me as if I could not live without her.’

By this time Byron had met the woman who would be his last and perhaps greatest love, Countess Teresa Guiccioli. When they met, she was just 19 and had been married for a year to a much older and very wealthy man.

Byron recognised straight away that the intelligent and spirited Teresa would not be just another fling, writing to her: ‘You sometimes tell me that I have been your first real love, and I assure you that you shall be my last passion.’

For once, it seems, he was true to his word.

As their affair became public knowledge, Teresa’s family persuaded her to return to her husband. Byron accepted the decision and was on the point of going back to England when he got word that she was ill, and realised he couldn’t bear to be separated from her.

‘I shall love you, alas, forever,’ he wrote to her. Teresa eventually obtained a decree of separation from the Pope and was able to live with Byron.

In 1823, with the Greek War of Independence underway, Byron was determined to go and support the country’s attempt to free itself from the Ottoman empire.

Ever since he had travelled there as a young man, Greece had represented youthfulness and optimism to him.

Teresa begged to be allowed to go with him, but Byron refused, promising they would soon be reunited, ‘and then nothing could keep us apart’.

In Greece, he used his considerable wealth to help the victims of the war, though his usefulness on the military front was limited.

He died in April 1824, in the western Greek town of Messolonghi, probably from the effects of malaria or rheumatic fever, aged 36.

His final words at the end of his short, yet intensely turbulent, life were: ‘I want to sleep now.’

Adapted from Byron: A Life In Ten Letters by Andrew Stauffer (Cambridge University Press, £25). © Andrew Stauffer 2024. To order a copy for £22.50 (offer valid to 16/03/24; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.

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