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Bad Lord Byron and the Milbanke family of Seaham

Writer, historian and broadcaster Miriam Bibby explores the relationship between the divisive Romantic Lord Byron and our region, where the coalfields gifted a new frontier for landed families.


The poet Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) achieved fame not only for his poetry, but also for his rakish lifestyle. He is still recognised as a hero in Greece because of his support for the Greeks in their struggle against Turkish rule in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Fewer people are aware of his northeast connections, and why they matter. However, had it not been for North East England and its coal, the Byron legend would not have developed as it did.

Byron married Anne Isabella Milbanke (1792-1860) in 1815. Anne Isabella, always known as Annabella, was the daughter and only child of Sir Ralph Milbanke (1747-1825) and Lady Judith Milbanke (1751-1822, née Noel) of Halnaby Hall and Seaham Hall in Co. Durham. The Byron-Milbanke match lasted only a year, and it was one of the greatest scandals and cause celèbres of the nineteenth century. The one child of the marriage was Ada Lovelace, who has now achieved fame as a scientist and pioneering computer programmer.

Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1832. ( Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty )

The Milbanke family is an interesting one, and deserves to be better known. The Milbankes were originally from Scotland, and were said to be cupbearers to the Stuart family, achieving their greatest prominence in the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. They subsequently moved to northeast England, and achieved a great deal of power and wealth in the turbulent years of the seventeenth century.

The first of the family to receive civic recognition in Newcastle-upon-Tyne was Mark Milbanke, who was an alderman of the city in the mid-seventeenth century. The family began to amass wealth as merchants and were involved in various trades in Newcastle, Co. Durham, and Northumberland. The first baronet was Sir Mark Milbanke his son, who gained his baronetcy in 1661, on the Restoration of Charles II. When the 2nd baronet, also named Mark, died in 1698, his wealth and estates were so extensive and so complex that it required an Act of Parliament to ensure they were distributed correctly. These estates were mainly in northeast England.

Like many influential families of the time, certain names recur. In the case of the Milbankes, the eldest sons are a succession of Marks and Ralphs, which can prove quite confusing. When the 3rd baronet Sir Mark Milbanke died in 1705, the title passed to his brother Sir Ralph (1689-1748) the 4th baronet, who was first married to Elizabeth d’Arcy, and after her death, to Anne Delaval. Their marriages and links to other local families reveal a wealth of familiar names from the Georgian North East: Hedworths, Rouths, Lambtons, Delavals, and Jolliffes, for instance.

Coal and horses, particularly racehorses, were two of the most important threads of Milbanke history. Sir Ralph the 4th baronet, by marrying Elizabeth D’Arcy, gained access to one of the most famous horse breeding operations in the whole of Britain. The important D’Arcy stud was situated at Halnaby Hall on the border between Co. Durham and Yorkshire. The D’Arcy family had links to royalty. On the restoration of Charles II to the throne, since all the horses in the royal studs had been dispersed during the period of the Commonwealth, James D’Arcy offered to provide horses from his own stables and land in Yorkshire in return for a sum of money, and Charles II agreed.

The D’Arcy horses, like many horses bred in Yorkshire and Durham, were fast and famous. Likely to be a genetic mix of Hobby, Galloway, and some Barb and Turk (but not Arab or Arabian, since there were very few Arabian horses imported until very late in the seventeenth century), the northern horses formed the foundation of the Thoroughbred racehorse breed.

It was during the lifetime of Annabella’s father, Sir Ralph the 6th baronet, that coal mining entered the picture in a substantial way. Coal became the family’s main source of income.

The Milbanke collieries were located in the Wear valley, at Ouston, Waldridge and other sites. Later, a mine would be called the Byron mine after Annabella – not Byron – when she married. Sir Ralph was a mine-owner, but he was also very conscious of his social responsibilities. He was a Whig politician, active in welfare and safety projects for the miners, and a consistent supporter in parliament of the abolition of slavery. Annabella too would become a staunch supporter of social causes and an anti-slavery campaigner, and later created work for formerly enslaved people in the schools she founded.

Annabella grew up in an influential family at a crucial point in British history. It was a time of imperial expansion and the beginning of the industrial revolution in which England’s North East would play so prominent a role. She received an excellent education at home, and as a child born late in the marriage to ageing parents (Judith was over forty when Annabella was born) she was unsurprisingly indulged by Ralph and Judith.

Many of the coal pits around Washington were part owned by the Milbanke's

The marriage of Ralph and Judith appears to have been a very happy one, which was not always the case among Georgian aristocracy and gentry. Not far away at Gibside in Co. Durham, the marriage of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, became a by-word for all the viciousness and degradation that could befall a woman after marriage even in the highest levels of society.

As a member of a family with mining interests, it’s perhaps not surprising that Annabella became an excellent mathematician. Before the marriage, Byron called her his “Princess of Parallelograms”. After the marriage ended he described his wife, mother-in-law, and Annabella’s governess companion Mrs Clermont in venomous language.

Judith was sister to the 2nd Viscount Wentworth, Thomas Noel, and inherited his title and lands when he died. Ralph’s sister was Elizabeth Milbanke, who married Viscount Melbourne and was a prominent individual at the Georgian court. She was mother-in-law to Lady Caroline Lamb, who was married to her son William Lamb. Caroline Lamb was famously Byron’s lover for a time and created the phrase about him: “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”.

Some biographers argued that Lady Melbourne was responsible for bringing her niece Annabella and Byron together in an attempt to deflect gossip away from her own son and daughter-in-law. The correspondence between Lady Melbourne and Byron at this stage does suggest a great deal of cynicism on Byron’s side. It was also rumoured that Lady Melbourne was one of Byron’s numerous lovers. Byron was bisexual and was also in a sexual relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh.

In contrast, Annabella was intelligent and aware, but certainly not worldly. She probably had a naïve self-confidence in her ability to relate to Byron through a combination of those qualities satirised by Jane Austen. In other words, she would bring both sense and sensibility to the marriage to temper Byron’s wild reputation. Like many a woman before and after, she doubtless believed that the bad boy celebrity would settle down once he married the right woman.

Byron had no real wish to marry anyone, but he had a particularly pressing problem: money, or rather lack of it. His debts were rising, due to his spendthrift ways and desire to live up to his title. The Grand Tour, coaches, trips to the races, drinking, lovers, and above all attempting to maintain revels at his ancestral home of Newstead Abbey all required a vast amount of money. His poetic works sold well, to an enthusiastic public, but he did not want to make money from them. Money-making did not sit comfortably with the poetic soul, yet he felt he had a right, as an aristocrat, to the wealth that would support his lifestyle.

Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips

What he needed was, in his own words inherited from his father, a “Golden Dolly”. In other words, an heiress, who would bring him the much-needed cash injection to pay off his debts and also provide a regular income. This was exactly what his own father had done through marrying Catherine Gordon of Gight, who was laird to a Scottish estate in her own right. That did not last long in the hands of Byron’s father, and Byron and his mother lived a chaotic and often poverty-stricken existence in Scotland when he was a child.

But there was always Newstead, the Byron family home. Much of Byron’s early life was spent in trying to sell or lease Newstead. Ironically, given that the Milbanke money was made from coal, Byron’s family had also owned coal seams at Rochdale in Lancashire, but an earlier ancestor had ensured that they could not make money from them as they were subject to legal dispute. Byron visited Rochdale, but could not be bothered dealing with the legal side of this, and so the coal seams that could have provided an income to him remained inaccessible.

If he must marry, then it was clear that Annabella “would do” as a Golden Dolly. Correspondence between Byron and Lady Melbourne reveals the cynicism on his side: “You ask ‘am I sure of myself?’ & I answer, no, but you are, which take to be a much better thing. Miss. M. I admire because she is a clever woman, an amiable woman & of high blood, for I have still a few Norman and Scotch inherited prejudices on the last score, were I to marry. As to Love, that is done in a week, (provided the Lady has a reasonable share) besides marriage goes on better with esteem & confidence than romance, and she is quite pretty enough to be loved by her husband, without being so glaringly beautiful as to attract too many rivals.”

He went on to say that she was too silent, which he disliked in a woman because it meant she thought too much. Annabella’s letters were rational and controlled, but occasionally hint that she really was in love with him, or wanted to be: “Dad & Mam are quite disconsolate without you…I am in ‘dim eclipse’. Even Billy Hoar told his wife you were ‘fascinating’. Wilt thou take me to thy heart? my home “till death us do part” – and don’t turn me out of doors in revenge as you threatened. Ever thine AIM.”

When Byron, after much delaying, had finally visited the Milbankes, they had welcomed him warmly. In his letters to friends and acquaintances he mocked northeast England, the long stories told by his dull “papa, Sir Ralpho”, the miners who danced their traditional dances for the couple, and the high number of shipwrecks on the Durham coast. He even complained about the coal that would provide the wealth for him and his descendants. The too great heat in his rooms at Seaham Hall, provided by coal from Sir Ralph’s collieries, caused him to pass out.

Although he gained a reputation as a radical for his support of the Nottingham weavers, he only made one militant speech in parliament and showed no sympathy towards those who produced the wealth from his marriage – in other words, the Durham miners. The Milbankes offered Halnaby Hall to the couple, but Byron simply wanted to get away, back to London, or to Augusta Leigh’s house near Newmarket.

Domestic abuse towards Annabella began almost as soon as they were married. Her own parents’ happy marriage could never have prepared her for what was in store. Byron sarcastically described their honeymoon as a “treaclemoon”. He said that he had her in his power and that he hated sharing a bed with a woman – that “any animal” of that kind would be as good as another. He had shown one face in public to her parents, and an entirely different one emerged in private. Byron as a husband was bullying, threatening, and sarcastic.

Annabella struggled on with the relationship, becoming pregnant and being forced to listen to Byron and Augusta as they flirted – and more - downstairs. The night of Ada’s birth at their London house, Byron drank in the room below until he was heavily inebriated, and incessantly crashed soda bottles – or their tops - off the ceiling like gunfire. He smashed the furniture against the walls in a fury. On being told that he had a daughter, he said “Oh! What an implement of torture have I acquired in you.”

The insults and threats continued, and now he had Ada through whom he could control Annabella. Soon he was threatening to throw Annabella out, while she felt that she wanted to lie down at his door like a dog. In truth, Byron treated the many animals of his famous menagerie better than he treated Annabella Milbanke. In the end, she left him, but she was also simply obeying his instructions to leave.

Annabella’s decision to formally and legally separate from Byron was, in the context of the times, a bold one. Only men could divorce their wives, not wives their husbands. Annabella’s parents supported her, and with the advice and action of a good legal team, the separation was completed. This was despite numerous apparently conciliatory approaches by Byron, and attempts to get Annabella and Ada back. Also within the context of the time, and the scandal that would inevitably surround divorce or separation, the support of her family is notable, and commendable.

Under the terms of the marriage, Byron had not only the right to interest on the dowry – wealth from the collieries of the Milbankes – but also the right to a substantial portion of the wealth that Judith Milbanke would inherit on the death of her brother, once she too died. Yet Byron’s words about his mother-in-law were vicious. Those directed at Annabella’s governess-companion, Mrs Clermont, were overflowing with vitriol and couched in terms that revealed the full force of his aristocratic rage against this commoner who had stood up to him to protect Annabella.

Concerned that Byron would get access to her daughter, or, worse still in Annabella’s mind, Ada would show “Byronic traits”, Ada and her father were never to meet. However, after her death at the young age of 36 – the same age as Lord Byron – Ada requested to be interred in the same tomb with him at Newstead Abbey. Her wishes were fulfilled by her mother and her husband, Lord Lovelace.

Byron’s reputation as a radical and freethinker does not stand up well in regard to his attitude towards the source of his wealth – the collieries and miners of England’s North East. He was a reactionary husband to Annabella Milbanke. His granddaughter Anne Noel-King would go on to marry an equally “Byronic” character, Wilfrid Blunt. And the miners would carry on working for the benefit of the family, and other mine owners, until nationalisation in the middle of the twentieth century. In contrast to her husband’s wild course through life, Annabella Milbanke continued to fulfil her social welfare obligations until she died in 1860.


Miriam was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and is a historian, author, editor, and broadcaster. She specializes in equine history and is the co-editor-in-chief of Cheiron, the International Journal of Equine and Equestrian History. She has edited equestrian and archaeology magazines, and was a tutor and course developer for the University of Manchester’s networked learning course in Egyptology for twelve years. Her PhD was on the topic of the Galloway horse, and a monograph is forthcoming. She is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.


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