Why I Included Lord Byron in my book `Vernon Coleman’s English Heroes’

Vernon Coleman

I have been asked why I included Lord Byron in my book 100 Greatest Englishmen and Englishwomen.

Famously described by one of his many mistresses as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, Lord Byron (aka George Gordon Noel Byron) was a poet and philanderer who sodomised his wife, patronised prostitutes with steadfast enthusiasm and fell in love with a choirboy called Edleston. He insisted that his first mistress, a girl called Caroline, dressed as a boy and he had a scandalous, incestuous affair with his half-sister. He was the sort of fellow who deserved to be horse-whipped at least once a week and twice on Sundays.

Byron’s poetry has been described as irreverent, ironic, impudent, high­spirited, satirical, elegant, contemptuous, humorous, burlesque, unconventional, generous, humane and reckless and the same adjectives apply to his life.

So why the devil include such a foul reprobate in a book of great English heroes?

Well, the problem is that in addition to being a pretty foul human being, Byron happened to be a genius and one of the most gifted writers in the history of the English language.

And my book wasn’t intended to be a book about the 100 nicest, kindest and most decent English people in history but a book about the 100 English people who did most to change the world.

Like him or not he wrote sublimely and is today remembered mostly for two books Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan

He did have some values as a human being.

And, strangely, it was a sense of honour which led to his death.

When he was 36, Byron volunteered as a freedom fighter in Greece, and led troops against the Turks.

He was ‘a wandering outlaw of his own dark mind’ and the Greeks remember him as a national hero.

While fighting for Greek independence he caught a fever and died. His family requested that he be buried in Westminster Abbey but the scandals were too fresh and the request was refused.

The bottom line is that if I had included only men and women who were reliable, honest and decent; good friends and good neighbours, then my list of 100 would have been very different.

I can understand that these days there are many who find Byron so utterly reprehensible that he shouldn’t be remembered at all.

But throughout history there have been many great men and women whose appalling behaviour horrifies and disgusts us.

So, for example, neither Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart nor Oscar Wilde could be described as `good eggs’. Not even as `curate’s eggs’. (No, I know they weren’t English but the point is sound.)

But we don’t have to admire them as people to recognise that their work sets them apart and cannot be ignored or forgotten.

And so Byron, through his work and not his personality, deserves a place in my 100 `greats’.

Vernon Coleman’s English Heroes is available on Amazon as a paperback and an eBook.

Copyright Vernon Coleman April 2nd 2020