West aspect of Newstead Abbey and upper lake, c. 1838
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The abbey was founded between 1163 and 1173 by Henry II as a priory of Augustinian Canons with the help of a grant from Henry II. Though the monks established a prosperous base in the wood trade, the place never enjoyed much of it's wealth; robberies by outlaws took some of it and King Richard took a slice for the Third Crusade and a further sum contributed to his ransom. A new 'Nottingham castle' was planned in 1194 nearby to deal with the robbers in the Leen Valley but not built until 1205 when, instead of stopping the outlaws, it was attacked by them and eventually abandoned. If Robin Hood ever did meet Richard the Lionheart, it would have been somewhere around here. (The famous painting in Nottingham castle Art Gallery by Daniel Maclise reflects the age in which it was painted in depicting the scene when both men finally met.) The connection with Robin Hood is strong in the immediate local area. There are some caves 1 mile SE of the Abbey known as Robin Hood's stables (no public access) near to the King's Great Way road (originally, they were probably a hermitage that had been dug out over the years), and 1 mile south of Newstead Abbey is Papplewick Church. The location of this is where Alan a' Dale is reputed to have been married. Richard I in late March-April 1194 and King John on several occasions between 1199 and 1215 stayed at Newstead Abbey when out hunting in Sherwood Forest. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, Henry VIII sold the abbey to the Byron Family. Newstead had been the Byron family home since 1540 when Sir John Byron acquired it from Henry VIII. George Gordon Byron (the poet) was born in a London boarding house on 22 January 1788. He was the only child of Captain John Byron by his second wife, the Scottish heiress Catherine Gordon. At the age of ten he became the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale, inheriting his title and the Newstead estate from his great-uncle William, the so-called 'Wicked' Lord, whom he had never met. Between 1803 and 1808 Byron spent time with his mother Catherine in the Nottinghamshire town of Southwell where she had rented Burgage Manor. He then took his degree in 1808 and moved into Newstead Abbey that autumn. There he spent much of his time preparing his satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers for publication in 1809. For economy's sake, they re-decorated and furnished only some of the smaller rooms at Newstead and were obliged to leave the rest semi-derelict. As Byron's friend William Harness later recalled: ...a straggling, gloomy, depressive, partially-inhabited place the Abbey was. Those rooms, however, which had been fitted up for residence were so comfortably appointed, glowing with crimson hangings and cheerful with capacious fires, that one soon lost the melancholy feeling of being domiciled in an extensive ruin. During his brief residence at Newstead Byron established an eccentric household well-suited to his bachelor days. The two largest rooms, the Great Hall and the Great Dining Room, had been cleared out and abandoned since before Byron was born. Lacking the means to restore them to their former glory, the poet used them for sporting activities. There he and his university friends practised fencing, boxing and pistol shooting. From his student rooms at Trinity College he brought his gilded bed and a tame bear. The bear roamed the Abbey in the company of Byron's other pet animals, including several large dogs, tortoises and a wolf. The wine cellar was well-stocked with good claret and the library contained many fine books - for, Byron spent much of his time at Newstead reading and writing. Byron had returned to England in July 1811 and on February 27 1812 made his first speech in the House of Lords. In it he condemned the Frame-Breaking Bill, which made smashing the new mechanical looms a capital offence. Byron defended the many Nottinghamshire workers who had lost their livelihoods to machines and argued for government policies which would help the people and relieve their poverty. He sat on the committee that successfully modified the bill, substituting fines or imprisonment for the death penalty. However, he soon gave up his parliamentary career to concentrate on writing. The poem he wrote during his Mediterranean travels was published in March 1812 under the title Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, and created a sensation, selling out in the first three days. Unlike Byron's earlier poems, which had not attracted much notice, Childe Harold made him a celebrity. His readers were fascinated by this first appearance of the 'Byronic hero', which remained an inspiration for European artists, writers and composers throughout the 19th century. The poet's fame increased with the brilliant success of more verse tales about brooding outlaws and distant lands, published soon after. He lived at Newstead, at various times, until the autumn of 1814, shortly before he married. By this time, financial pressures had forced him to put Newstead up for sale, but it proved difficult to find a buyer. Byron left England in 1816, never to return. In 1818, the estate was purchased for £94,500 by Thomas Wildman, a friend from Byron's school days. Wildman spent a further £100,000, an enormous sum at that time, refurbishing Newstead Abbey and its grounds. Byron settled in Geneva with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont, then moved to Italy. After a long creative period, Byron had come to feel that action was more important than poetry. He armed a brig, the Hercules, and sailed to Greece to aid the Greeks, who had risen against their Ottoman overlords. However, before he saw any serious military action, Byron contracted a fever from which he died in Missolonghi on 19 April 1824. Memorial services were held all over the land. Byron's body was returned to England but was refused (because of his notoriety) by the deans of both Westminster and St Paul's. Finally Byron's coffin was placed in the family vault at Hucknall Torkard, near Newstead Abbey. Since Byron's death in 1824, the Abbey has attracted thousands of visitors from all world who come to see the poet's former ancestral home. Thomas Wildman, the new owner of Newstead, had inherited a fortune from plantations owned by his family in Jamaica. He spent this wealth repairing and restoring Newstead, which was in a very poor state when he bought it. Like the Byrons before him, Wildman preserved the medieval style of the house. He employed the architect John Shaw to carry out alterations which blend well with the oldest parts of the building. Likewise, Wildman filled the house with fine old tapestries, ancient armour and antique furniture in keeping with its long history. In 1861 William Frederick Webb, African explorer and friend of Dr David Livingstone, purchased the Abbey from Thomas Wildman's widow. Under Mr Webb, the chapel was redecorated but the rest of the house remained largely unaltered. After Mr Webb died in 1899, the estate passed to each of his surviving children and finally to his grandson Charles Ian Fraser. Mr Fraser sold Newstead to the Nottinghamshire philanthropist Sir Julien Cahn, who presented it to Nottingham Corporation in 1931.