Saturday, 25 February 2012

Article - Why Byron's first speech in House is now the only one for which he is remembered

IN 1798, Byron succeeded to the Barony of Byron on the death of his great-uncle, the fifth Lord Byron. He also inherited the Newstead estate.

At the time, Byron was only ten, but once he reached 21 in January 1809, he was entitled to take his seat in the House of Lords as the 6th Baron Byron.

Byron formally took his seat in March 1809, but he played no direct political role until he returned from his grand European tour, which lasted from 1809-11.

On his return to England, Byron had to sort out his estate at Newstead, and to deal with other matters, but he spent three weeks over Christmas and New Year 1811-12 at Newstead.

Part of his time was devoted to reading history and political memoirs to prepare him for a career in the House of Lords.

We have to remember that at this time he was a young peer with a small landed estate, and not all that many alternative prospects, so a political career must have looked enticing.

In January 1812, he returned to London, and began preparing a speech on one of the great political issues of the day, Roman Catholic Emancipation.

He was intending to vote with the radical Whigs, in opposition to the ruling Tories.

But on February 4, he learnt that the government was going to introduce a bill which would make the breaking of a stocking frame punishable by hanging.

As he had been in Nottinghamshire during some of the worst Luddite troubles that winter, Byron considered himself an ideal person to oppose the bill.

Newstead was quite close to some of the worst of the frame-breaking troubles at Basford, Bulwell and Hucknall.

Byron worked with his political mentor, Lord Holland (who held the largely honorary position of Recorder of Nottingham) to make sure that on the crucial second reading of the bill on February 27, he would be the lead opposition speaker.

Byron probably knew very little more about Luddite activities than anyone else who was able to read the local papers, and he had to rely on Holland to provide him with some background information.

This took the form of a letter to Holland from George Coldham, the town clerk of Nottingham.

Byron then had the temerity to tell Holland he did not really agree with Coldham's thoughts about the disturbances.

On February 27, Byron arrived at the House of Lords ready to speak. He was clearly nervous, and had written and re-written his speech several times, as well as trying it out on his friend Robert Dallas.

The arrangement was that the bill would be introduced by the Tory leader of the House, Lord Liverpool.
The Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon, then called on Byron to address the House, which he proceeded to do.
Byron told his fellow peers that he felt justified in opposing the frame-breaking bill on the grounds that he was a person "in some degree connected with that suffering county", and had heard a great deal about the disturbances during his recent visit to Newstead.

His view was that the government needed to listen to the legitimate claims of the framework knitters rather than trying to overawe them with threats of capital punishment.

Byron went on to complain about the military presence in Nottinghamshire, and to ask questions about how the legislation would be put into practice if it passed through Parliament.

Then he sat down, but no one from the government front bench answered him, which suggested to other politicians that although they had listened attentively, they had not found the speech convincing.

After he had finished, Byron left the Chamber and met Dallas, who found him in a state of great agitation, an adrenaline rush as we would see it.

For several days, he received all sorts of messages saying what a wonderful speech it had been and he enjoyed every one of them.

The debate itself continued after Byron had sat down.

In due course, a vote was called and the Tories won, as everyone expected. The bill then had a third reading and became law on March 1, 1812.

In fact, no one was executed for Luddite activities in Nottinghamshire, and so the Whigs had enjoyed a moral victory even if they had been unable to prevent the legislation from passing.

Byron continued to attend the Lords through 1812 and 1813 and spoke on a number of issues, but eventually he lost interest in politics as his fame as a poet spread.

From 1816 until his death in 1824, he lived abroad and could take no direct role in politics.

His first speech is now the only one for which he is remembered.

It can be read on the internet, and there is even a YouTube video clip showing a young man of about Byron's age delivering the words.

On the anniversary of the speech, members of various Byron Societies, including the Newstead Abbey Byron Society, the London Byron Society and the Irish Byron Society, are to celebrate the occasion in the Cholmondeley Room, House of Lords, with a buffet.

The Earl of Lytton, who is a descendant of Lord Byron, will repeat the speech.


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