It was a sultry July evening in Lisbon when outside the theatre Lord Byron was castigated by an irate husband. The man was not the first and would not be the last to be cuckolded by the young and passionate poet.
Fortunately for Byron, he and his travelling companion John Hobhouse had already planned to leave the city for the countryside retreat of Sintra.
They were booked to stay at Lawrence’s Inn, a popular hotel still open to guests today. At that time it was frequented by British visitors, many of them like Byron on a Grand Tour of Europe. It was run by Mrs Dyson who was pleased to settle her titled guest into his first-floor bedroom. Declaring his immediate admiration of the sweeping views across the hilltops and the valleys, Byron declared:
Oh Christ! It is a goodly sight to see.
What heaven hath done for this delicious land!
He included these lines in his epic poem, ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, about a young nobleman on the Grand Tour of Europe. Captivated by an idealised natural world that could only be appreciated by men of sensibility, Childe Harold is a true romantic, awe-struck to find he has unlocked “Elysium’s gates”.
The poem was published three years after Byron stayed in Cintra (old spelling of Sintra) and it catapulted him to literary stardom. When the first 500 books sold out in three days, a new print run was immediately instated.
Mrs Dyson exaggerated when she said Byron had composed the entire poem whilst staying with her. Being an avid letter writer, he probably spent more time sitting at the desk beside his window penning letters to his friends.
In one he sent to Reverend Francis Hodgson, he states: “I must just observe, that the village of Cintra is the most beautiful, perhaps, in the world.”
As Byron’s fame spread across Europe, Mrs Dyson and her inn attracted many guests. Visitors – both then and now – long to see the Serra de Sintra and to wander through the beauty of the landscapes that the poem describes.
Then slowly climb the many-winding way,
And frequent turn to linger as you go,
From loftier rocks new lovliness survey
Byron was inspired by high places, the lofty mountains, blue hills, clear streams and waterfalls. Brought up until the age of eight in Aberdeen by his Scottish mother, he referred fondly to his Celtic memories. He wrote a letter telling her: “The village of Cintra, about 15 miles from the capital, contains palaces and gardens rising in the middle of rocks, cataracts, and precipices; convents on stupendous heights – a distant view of the sea and Tagus River…it unites in itself all the wildness of the western highlands, with the verdure of the south of France.”
A more personal message to his half sister, Augusta Leigh, was inscribed inside a first edition of ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’:
“To Augusta, my dearest sister and my best friend, who has ever loved me much better than I deserved, this volume is presented by her father’s son and most affectionate brother. B”
Rumors circulated that Augusta, who was a married woman, and Byron were lovers. Although it was never proved, their relationship is said to have resulted in the birth of a daughter. The baby was born in 1814, two years after ‘Childe Harold’ was published. She was named Medora after Byron’s heroine in ‘The Corsair,’ a poem he had composed during Augusta’s pregnancy.
A superstition at the time maintained that a child born of incest would be an ape and another letter written to his friend Lady Melbourne refers to this: “Oh! But it is ‘worth while’ – I can’t tell you why – and it is not an Ape and if it is – that must be my fault.”
This letter seems to confirm suspicions about the child’s paternity. Byron’s handsome appearance, his celebrity, his reputation as a talented but wayward author, helped to increase sales.
Women especially identified Childe Harold as being Byron’s alter-ego; they swooned over his pastoral descriptions, his lamentations about a misspent youth and his desire to reform.
Resting at a hillside church, Childe Harold responds attentively to the sincerity of Sintra’s monks.
And rest ye at ‘Our Lady’s house of woe’;
Where frugal monks their little relics show
And sundry legends to the stranger tell
Byron’s various opinions about religious orders and wealthy men, as well as British and Portuguese soldiers, are aired in the next episode.
Of monks, men and the military.
A Series by Carolyn Kain