Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Byron, John (d.1652)
BYRON, JOHN, first Lord Byron (d. 1652), was descended from Sir John Byron of Clayton, Lancashire, who obtained the abbey of Newstead, Nottinghamshire, at the dissolution of the monasteries. He was the eldest son of Sir John Byron, K.B., by Anne, daughter of Sir Richard Molineux of Sefton, Lancashire. He sat in the last parliament of James I and in the first of Charles I for the borough, and in the parliament of 1627–8 for the county of Nottingham. He had been knighted in the interval. He was high sheriff of Nottinghamshire in 1634. His name is not in the list of either the Short or the Long parliament of 1640. In that year he brought his military experience and reputation, acquired in the Low Country wars, to the expedition against the Scots. On its failure, he looked eagerly to the projected great council of the peers at York (August 1640). Writing on the very day of meeting, he expresses his confident hope that ‘the vipers we have been too ready to entertain will be driven out,’ and that the Scotch general Leslie's exaction of 350l. a day from Durham ‘will prove a fruitful precedent for the king's service, that hereafter ship-money may be thought a toy’ (State Papers, Dom., 24 Sept. 1640).
Byron was appointed to the lieutenancy of the Tower after Lunsford's dismissal (26 Dec. 1641). He was sent for as a delinquent by the lords (12 Jan. 1641–2), and examined as to the stores lately conveyed into the fortress. ‘He gave so full answers to all the questions asked of him, that they could not but dismiss him’ (Clarendon Rebellion, 154 a), but he refused to leave the Tower without the king's order. The peers refused to concur in the address for his removal, and it was therefore presented by the commons alone (27 Jan.). The king at first declined to comply, but Byron himself begged to be set free ‘from the vexation and agony of that place.’ On 11 Feb. 1641–2 Charles sent a message to the House of Lords consenting to the appointment of Sir John Conyers in Byron's place.
When the war broke out, Byron was among the first to join the king at York, and marched with him to summon Coventry (20 Aug. 1642, Dugdale, Diary, p. 17). Thence he was despatched by Charles to protect Oxford. At Brackley (28 Aug.), while refreshing his troop after a long march, he was surprised, and forced to make a speedy retreat to the heath. In the confusion a box containing money, apparel, and other things of value was left in a field of standing corn. He wrote to a Mr. Clarke of Croughton for its restitution, which he said he would represent to the king as an acceptable service; if not, he continued, ‘assure yourself I will find a time to repay myself with advantage out of your estate.’ The houses took notice of this letter, in a joint declaration, retorting on Byron ‘the odious crime and title of traitor’ (Declaration of the Lords and Commons, 11 Sept. 1642). In a contemporary tract (Brit. M. E. 117, 11) the value of the spoil taken is estimated at not less than 6,000l. or 8,000l., and the prisoners taken by the parliamentarians are said to have been searched, despoiled, and thrown into the Tower, where they might have starved but for charity (cf. Bailey, Nottinghamshire, ii. 669, 672).
Byron reached Oxford 28 Aug., and remained there till 10 Sept. After leaving Oxford he arrived at Worcester about 17 Sept. He had been pursued by Lord Say, and had to fight on the road. He gained a victory over the parliamentarians at Powick Bridge (22 Sept.), but found it necessary to evacuate Worcester, which he had not fortified, on the following day.
At Edgehill (23 Oct. 1642), when Rupert's charge had scattered the enemy, Byron joined in the chase with the reserve of the right wing—his own regiment of horse. When Rupert returned he ‘found a great alteration in the field, and the hope of so glorious a day quite vanished’ (Clarendon, 309 a). For Byron had left the foot, whom he had been posted to protect, to be taken in rear by the enemy.
After Edgehill, Byron's regiment quartered a while at Fawley Court. His orders against plunder were disregarded, and the owner, Bulstrode Whitelocke, laments the wanton destruction of property, the writings of his estates, and many excellent manuscripts (Memorials, p. 65). Byron's regiment of horse was quartered at Reading in December 1642 (Hist. MSS. Comm. 9th Rep. pt. ii. 433 b), and he probably commanded the horse of the garrison there. Reading not long after (26 April 1643) capitulated to Essex, but Byron was in Oxfordshire during the spring of this year. On 6 May he defeated a party of roundheads at Bicester, and on 12 July was sent west with Prince Maurice to relieve Devizes. The great victory of Roundway Down, near Devizes, on 13 July, was chiefly the work of Byron, whose charge turned to flight the ‘impenetrable regiment’ of Haslerig's cuirassiers. But his men were always ready to desert or to mutiny for plunder's sake, and on the day of the surrender of Bristol to Rupert, Byron writes in haste to beg the prince to give them assurance that they shall have their share—‘some benefit from your highness's great victory.’ On 20 Sept. Byron commanded the horse of the right wing at the first battle of Newbury, and Lord Falkland fell fighting in the front rank of Byron's regiment. Byron wrote a full account of this battle for Lord Clarendon's use, and long extracts from his original manuscript are given by Mr. Money in his ‘Battles of Newbury’ (pp. 44, 51, 56). He himself received what reward the king had to bestow, being created Baron Byron of Rochdale (24 Oct. 1643), with limitation of the title, after his own issue, to his six loyal brothers, Richard, William, Thomas, Robert, Gilbert, and Philip. He willingly accepted Rupert's offer of the sole command in Lancashire, if the county would agree thereto (7 Nov.), but wished first to make sure of the appointment of governor to the Prince of Wales, ‘an employment likely to continue to my advantage when this war is ended’ (Add. MS. 18980, f. 147; Warburton, Prince Rupert, ii. 329).
By the cessation of arms granted by Ormonde, the troops raised for the king's service against the Irish rebels were set free for other employment, and detachments came over at intervals to join the force under the command of Byron, whose whole army is described as ‘rolling like a flood’ up to the walls of Nantwich, the only parliament garrison left in Cheshire. Byron defeated Brereton at Middlewick, and captured Crewe House. But the tide soon turned. Byron failed in an assault on Nantwich 18 Jan. 1643–4; the besiegers confidently awaited the approach of Fairfax with his Yorkshire horse and Manchester foot, soon to be joined by the Staffordshire and Derbyshire levies of Sir William Brereton. A sudden thaw, swelling a little river that ran between the divisions of the royal army, gave the signal of disaster. The part under Byron's command had to march four or five miles before it could join the other, which had meanwhile been broken by Fairfax (28 Jan.) The chief officers, 1,500 soldiers, and all their artillery were taken, and Byron sadly retired to Chester. Prince Rupert now took separate command of the royal forces in Cheshire and the adjacent counties, with Byron as his lieutenant. Sir Abraham Shipman was made governor of Chester. Lands belonging to roundhead ‘delinquents’ were to be sold, and the administration of this fund was vested in Byron, who not long after was made governor by special commission from Rupert (Harl. MS. 2135, f. 30). It was a slippery and thankless post. There had been talk of appointing one Alderman Gamul, and Byron had successfully fought off the proposal on the ground that ‘if he be admitted the like will be attempted by all the corporations in England’ (Add. MS. 18981, f. 51). In October 1644 he complains that he has not as heretofore the sole command in Rupert's absence, ‘but there are independent commissions granted without any relation to me’ (ib. 287). He disclaims any envy at the power Rupert had given William Legge, who appears to have superseded him for a while as governor of the city, but demurs to command being also given him over the counties of Cheshire, Flint, and Denbigh. Though Legge has ‘ever been his good friend,’ Byron feels the slight so keenly that he begs to be recalled ‘if I be not worthy of the command I formerly had.’
Chester was in a sad condition. The merchants had been impoverished. To improve the fortifications the suburbs had been burnt, and their inhabitants were forced into the already crowded city. The soldiers lived at free quarters, and their hosts often fled from their houses, for the men (against orders) wore their weapons at all times. They plundered the houses of citizens when the owners were at church, and pawned the goods. They robbed in the highway, killed cattle in the fields, and wantonly ripped open the corn sacks on their way to market (Harl. MS. 2135). The troops sent by Ormonde had an evil reputation. Impressment was another grievance. Notwithstanding the claim (allowed by Rupert) of exemption from all service outside the city by special privilege granted by Henry VIII, ‘the garrison was divers times drawn forth, and threatened to be hanged if they did not go, though most of them were sworn citizens.’
In July 1644 Byron repeated his error of Edgehill at Marston Moor. He was in the front rank of Prince Rupert's division on the right wing. Stationed by a ditch, he charged across it, instead of waiting for the enemy to reach his own position (Sanford, Studies, 599; Markham, Fairfax, 163–7). ‘By the improper charge of Lord Byron much harm was done’ is the comment in Prince Rupert's diary.
In August Byron had his share in the defeat of Sir Marmaduke Langdale's northern horse, near Ormskirk, on their march southward. He had come from Liverpool ‘on a pacing nag, and thinking of nothing less than fighting that day.’ He had narrowly escaped capture as he tried to rally the flying rout. He lays the blame on the brigade of Lord Molyneux, which fled at the first charge, and fell foul with such fury on his regiment that they utterly routed it. Legge, however, writes (22 Aug. 1644) that ‘my Lord Byron engaged the enemy when he needed not,’ and gives Langdale credit for saving Byron, bringing off his own men, and retreating without the least disturbance’ (Warburton, Prince Rupert, iii. 21). Both agree that the fatal selfishness of the Lancashire men in resolutely diverting the war from themselves had lost the north. After the surrender (in September 1644) of Montgomery Castle by Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Byron tried to help Sir Michael Ernly to regain it. But Sir William Brereton came to its relief, and the governor of Chester returned thither. Byron was defeated by Brereton at Montgomery 18 Sept. 1644 (Rushworth, v. 747). Byron now found that many who heretofore were thought loyal upon this success of the rebels had either turned neuter or had wholly revolted to them. Liverpool was threatened. The officers were ready to endure all extremities rather than yield, but the soldiers, for want of pay, ‘are grown extreme mutinous, and run away daily’—the old story.
In May 1645 the king marched to the relief of Chester; Byron met him at Stone, Staffordshire, with the news that the rebels had retired, and Charles turned back and took Leicester, his last success. That summer came Naseby, and the autumn brought Rupert's loss of Bristol (10 Sept.) and Montrose's defeat at Philiphaugh (23 Sept.) The king again made his way into Chester with some provision and ammunition, but from the Phœnix tower of the city wall he beheld the rout of his forces by Poyntz (24 Sept. 1645). He wandered back to Oxford, bidding Byron keep Chester for eight days longer (Walker, Hist. Discourses, p. 140). It was actually kept for some twenty weeks. The enemy was closing round. Byron's appeal to Rupert for help (6 Oct.) was published with virulent comments on the writer's supposed leanings to popery and the Irish rebels. Booth, fresh from the capture of Lathom, had joined the besiegers. Byron's brother was taken while marching to his rescue. A relief party from Oxford had been forced to return. The citizens urged surrender. Byron invited the chief malcontents to dine with him, and gave them his own fare of boiled wheat and spring water. Brereton repeatedly urged Byron to surrender, but the cavalier insisted on terms ‘granted by greater commanders than yourself—no disparagement to you.’
Chester at last surrendered (6 Feb. 1646). The citizens were not to be plundered, the sick and wounded were cared for, and Byron, with his whole army, were to march under safe-conduct to Conway (Phillips, Civil War in Wales, p. 354). He fared better in Cheshire than in London, where the commons resolved to exclude him from pardon—a vote in which the lords refused to concur.
He had meanwhile taken the command of Carnarvon Castle, which he held till May 1646, when the king ordered all his fortresses to be given up. It was surrendered upon articles dated 4 June (Whitelocke, p. 208).
Byron joined the queen's court at Paris, and was appointed superintendent-general of the house and family of the Duke of York (30 April 1651). In 1648 he lent his assistance to the royalist invasion of England by Hamilton and the Scotch (cf. two letters from Byron to the Earl of Lanerick in the Hamilton Papers, Camd. Soc.; Byron's own relation of his actions in the summer of 1648 appears in Cal. Clarendon Papers, ii. 418). His main task was to seize Anglesea and to raise North Wales for the king. [For his failure and its causes see Bulkeley, Richard.] In January 1648–9 Ormonde sent Byron to Charles II with a copy of the treaty he had made with the Irish confederates in behalf of the royalists, and a pressing invitation to the prince to come to Ireland (Carte, Ormonde, bk. v. § 98; Carte, Orig. Letters, i. passim). He was now included by the houses among the seven persons who were to expect no pardon.
Byron's after life was passed in exile. He returned to Paris to find himself supplanted in the confidence of his pupil, who arranged a visit to Brussels without his knowledge or the permission of the queen. At her request, nevertheless, Byron attended on the duke during that journey, and another to the Hague to see the Princess of Orange, as well as in James's first campaign under Turenne.
Byron differed from Hyde, the king's oldest adviser, on such critical matters as the acceptance by Charles of the invitation of the Scotch (1650). Byron wished the prince to accept it (Carte, Orig. Letters, i. 338). Hyde wrote, ‘If Lord Byron has become a presbyterian, he will be sorry for it.’ But Hyde did full justice to his opponent's fidelity, writing to Nicholas of Byron's death as ‘an irreparable loss’ (23 Aug. 1652).
Byron died childless, though twice married: (1) to Cecilia, daughter of the Earl of Delaware, and widow of Sir Francis Bindloss, knt.; and (2) to Eleanor, daughter of Robert Needham, viscount Kilmurrey, Ireland, and widow of Peter Warburton of Arley, Cheshire. Byron's second wife was, according to Pepys (Diary, 26 April 1676), ‘the king's seventeenth mistress abroad.’ A portrait of Byron by Cornelius Jansen was in the National Portrait Exhibition of 1866 (No. 688).
Byron's title was inherited by his brother Richard (1605–1679), whose exploits as governor of Newark are recorded in Hutchinson's ‘Memoirs.’ He held the office from the spring of 1643 till about January 1645. In September 1643 he surprised the town of Nottingham and held it for five days; and on 27 Nov. 1643 surprised the committee of Leicestershire at Melton Mowbray (Mercurius Aulicus, p. 690). He resided in England during the protectorate, and in 1659 rose to support Sir George Booth. He died on 4 Oct. 1679, aged 74, having married (1) Elizabeth, daughter of George Rossel; and (2) Elizabeth, daughter of Sir George Booth. Four other brothers served in the civil wars on the royalist side. William was drowned at sea. Robert commanded a regiment at Naseby, served in Ireland, and was for a time imprisoned for sharing in a royalist plot in Dublin (Gilbert, Contemporary History, ii. 158–60); he was alive in 1664 (Hutchinson, Memoirs, ii. 310). Gilbert was commander of Rhuddlan Castle, North Wales, in 1645 (Symonds, Diary, p. 247); he was taken prisoner at Willoughby Field on 5 July 1648, and died on 16 March 1656. Philip was killed in defending York on 16 June 1644; a curious character of him is in Lloyd's ‘Memoirs of Excellent Personages’ (p. 489).
Much of Byron's correspondence remains. It has no literary charm; but it exhibits persistent cheerfulness in the face of gathering disaster, unwearied effort to conquer untoward toward circumstance with patience and contrivance, and dogged pathetic loyalty.[Information kindly supplied by Mr. C. H. Firth of Oxford; authorities as above; Warburton's Prince Rupert; Clarendon State Papers; Carte's Collection of Original Letters and Papers.]