Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire

Augustinian Monks

Henry II founded the Priory at Newstead for the Augustinian Order in 1170 as part of his extensive penance for the death of Thomas Becket. Over the following centuries it grew to a medium sized Abbey with an annual income of around £170. It seemed to be one of the Abbeys which did not stray too far from the true path, it annually gave money on Maundy Thursday and gave 60 shillings worth of food and drink every year to the local poor.

When the Dissolution began Newstead escaped being in the first round of properties seized (those with an annual income of less than £200) by buying off the Crown for £233 in 1537. However, this did not save it and two years later the Abbey was closed down and the Prior was pensioned off.

The buildings were left in a ruinous state and remained empty until the 18th Century when the land was sold to the Fourth Lord Byron who built the house attached to the ruined Abbey and began to landscape the grounds.

The Fifth Lord Byron was responsible for adding the follies which dot the grounds. However, he would turn out to be bad news for Newstead. He has gone down in history as “The Wicked Lord”. Problems started when his son, William, eloped with his cousin, Juliana. Lord Byron had already run up considerable debts and needed his son to marry well to help pay for his extravagances – he was also worried about interbreeding. William, however, was having none of it and defied his father who then vowed to ruin his inheritance so that his son would receive nothing but debt and a worthless property. This he did very effectively – the grounds were ruined, the house was allowed to fall to pieces and over 2,000 deer were shot on the estate.

Ironically William died before his father, and William’s son also died before the Fifth Lord Byron – so the estate passed to his great-nephew, George Gordon, in 1798 who became the Sixth Lord Byron at age 9. This is the famous Lord Byron, the poet, statesman, soldier and adventurer who became one of the most important figures of the English “Romantic” period.

Byron loved Newstead, the ramshackle ruin of the Abbey suited his temperament and character. As he reached maturity he began to try to renovate the property, but was no architect. Most of his work was purely aesthetic and did not last long once the rain and damp began to get in. There is a famous monument to his dog, Boatswain, in the grounds of the Abbey (the dog died in 1808 of rabies) which is larger than the monument to Byron himself in Hucknall Church.

Byron was keen to keep Newstead, but his constant debt problems forced him to sell. However, the sale was a serious issue and it took him around 12 years to do so, including a particularly acrimonious series of negotiations with Thomas Claughton which eventually came to nothing after accusations of theft and impropriety from both sides. Finally, in 1817 whilst Byron was exiled in Italy a sale went through to Thomas Wildman for £94,500 which eased Byron’s money problems considerably. Byron would eventually die a hero in 1824 and although he wished to be buried alongside his beloved dog Boatswain he was interred instead in the family vault at Hucknall.

Wildman finally had Newstead Abbey restored to something approaching its former glory. He employed John Shaw Sr. to design new parts to the house and the existing structure and the ruins of the Priory Church were made good. In 1931 the Abbey was presented to Nottingham Corporation who run it as a stately home today. It is one of Nottinghamshire’s most visited tourist attractions.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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