King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Byron & politics: ‘born for opposition’

Introduction to: Britannia: Parliament, party & the Prince

‘I am a little apprehensive that your Lordship will think me too lenient towards these men, and half a frame-breaker myself.’
Letter from Byron to Lord Holland, 25 February 1812

Photograph of exhibition case 2 showing manuscripts.Case 2A parliamentary career was a natural aspiration for an early 19th-century aristocrat, who as a member of the House of Lords was entitled to act as an hereditary legislator. Byron attended the House 48 times, speaking on three occasions. His maiden speech on 27 February 1812, on the Frame Work Bill, opposed the death penalty for industrial sabotage. The Luddite movement began in Byron’s home county of Nottinghamshire, and he was one of the Luddites’ few prominent defenders.

Byron’s second speech supported Roman Catholic emancipation, and his third defended Major Cartwright, who was being persecuted for agitating for parliamentary reform. These speeches failed, however, to establish him in a parliamentary career. Byron’s style of oratory was criticised, but it was principally his inability to conform to party politics that thwarted his parliamentary ambitions.

The Tories maintained control over Parliament throughout Byron’s lifetime, with the Whigs in opposition. Although at Cambridge University Byron was a member of the Whig Club, he was proud of his independence. His political opinions (which were too radical to be comfortable even in Whig circles) and his animosity towards prominent Whigs such as Henry Brougham, made a career within the Whig party impossible.

Photograph of exhibition case 3 showing books, manuscripts and facsimiles.Case 3Despite his ideological opposition to Tory politics, Byron sustained a number of important literary friendships with Tory supporters, including Sir Walter Scott, his publisher John Murray II and the editor and critic William Gifford. In June 1812 he was flattered to meet the Prince Regent, the future George IV, and to discuss poetry and literature with him. However, the Prince’s abandonment of his Whig supporters in favour of the Tories had, earlier in 1812, led to Byron’s attack on him in ‘Lines to a Lady Weeping’.

Byron’s parliamentary disillusionment coincided with the beginning of the unprecedented publishing success of his poetry, starting with Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Cantos I and II in 1812. However, some of his political poems of this period, including ‘An Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill’ (1812), were published anonymously in newspapers and therefore had less impact than if they had been published with his other poetical works.

Whilst expressing his preference for a life of action over writing poetry, Byron actively pursued both, especially after 1816, when the scandals over his marital separation, his amorous affairs and his growing debts drove him into self-imposed exile on the Continent.

In this exhibition

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