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Newstead Abbey


HE name of Newstead is associated with one that is immortal as a poet - and whose fate as a man was almost tragic. But it has, also, a claim to be mentioned as the most beautiful ruin in Nottinghamshire.

In the lovely woodlands of this county, within the Forest of Sherwood, I priory of Black or Austin Canons was founded by Henry II., in 1170. He endowed it with the church and town of Papelwick, and a park of ten acres near the town of Mansfield, celebrated as a hunting place of the Plantagenet kings, who visited it to enjoy the pleasures of the chase in Sherwood Forest. We may imagine that Robin Hood and his merry men were anything but pleasant neighbours to the monks of Newstead.

At the dissolution of the monasteries Newstead Priory passed into the possession of the Byrons, an ancient family, holding several manors in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, their chief seat being Horistan Castle, in Derbyshire.

Newstead was granted to Sir John Byron in 1540, "with the manor of Papelwick, a rectory of the same, and all the closes about the priory, etc., etc." He fitted up a portion of the monastic buildings as a residence, but the church was let go to decay. Its front is a most beautiful specimen of Early English; the south aisle of the church was built into the mansion, "the western front remained a picturesque ruin," and ranges with the front of the house. The cloisters are quite perfect, and stand nearly in the middle of the building, which is large but irregular. Over the cloisters is a range of galleries, which connect all the rooms, and in these corridors are some perfect suits of armour. The drawingroom is on the upper floor; it is 72 feet long, and has a Gothic roof and plaster compartments, the work, in 1633, Of Italian artists.

On the floor below is a grand dining-hall furnished in the olden style. But a prose description is very inadequate in comparison with the poetical picture that Byron has drawn so vividly himself, and which is so accurate that Sir Richard Phillips walked through and round the abbey with the poem in his hand in 1828, and found the description as correct as one by the dullest architect or antiquary would have been. We give it here:-

To Norman Abbey whirled the noble pair,
An old, old monastery once, and now
Still older mansion - of a rich and rare
Mixed Gothic, such as artists all allow,
Few specimens yet left us can compare
Withal: it lies perhaps a little low
Because the monks preferred a hill behind
To shelter their devotion from the wind.

It stood embosomed in a happy valley
Crowned by high woodlands, where the Druid oak
Stood like Caractacus in act to rally
His host, with broad arms 'gainst the thunder stroke.
And from beneath his boughs were seen to sally
The dappled foresters: as day awoke,
The branching stag swept down with all his herd,
To quaff a brook which murmured like a bird.

Before the mansion lay a lucid lake,
Broad as transparent, deep, and freshly fed
By a river, which its softened way did take
In currents through the calmer water spread
Around: the wild fowl nestled in the brake
And sedges, brooding in their liquid bed:
The woods sloped downwards to in brink, and stood
With their green faces fixed upon the flood.

Its outlet dashed into a deep cascade,
Sparkling with foam, until, again subsiding,
Its shriller echoes - like an infant made
Quiet - sank into softer ripples, gliding
Into a rivulet, and thus allayed,
Pursued its course, now gleaming, and now hiding
Its windings through the woods: now clear, now blue,
According as the skies their shadows threw.

A glorious remnant of the Gothic pile
(While yet the church was Rome's) stood hall apart,
In a grand arch, which once screened many an aisle.
These last had disappeared - a loss to art:
The first yet frowned superbly o'er the roil.
And kindled feelings in the roughest heart,
Which mourned the power of time or tempest's march,
In gazing on that venerable arch.

Within a niche, nigh to its pinnacle,
Twelve saints had once stood sanctified in stone;
But these had fallen, not when the friars fell,
But in the war which struck Charles from his throne,
When each house was a fortalice - as tell
The annals of full many a line undone-
The gallant Cavaliers, who fought in vain
For those who knew not to resign or reign

But in a higher niche alone, but crowned,
The Virgin Mother of the God-born Child,
With her Son in her blessed arms, looked round,
Spared by some chance, when all beside was spoiled:
She made the earth below seem holy ground.
This may be superstition, weak or wild;
But even the faintest relies of a shrine
Of any worship, wake some thoughts divine.

A mighty window, hollow in the centre,
Shorn of its glass of thousand colourings,
Through which the deepened glories once could
Streaming from off the sun, like seraph's wings,
Now yawns ail desolate: now loud, now fainter,
The gale sweeps through its fretwork, and oft
The owl his anthem where the silenced quire
Lie with their hallelujahs quenched like fire.

But in the noontide of the moon, and when
The wind is winged from one point of heaven,
There moans a strange unearthly sound which then
Is musical - a dying accent driven
Through the huge arch which soars and sinks again.
Some deem it hut the distant echo given
Back to the nightwind by the water-fall,
And harmonised by the old choral wail:

Others, that some original shape or form,
Shaped by decay, perchance, both given the power
(Though less than that of Memnon's statue, warm
In Egypt's rays, to harp at a fixed hour)
To this grey ruin with a voice to charm.
Sad, but serene, it sweeps o'er tree or tower:
The cause I know not, nor can solve; but such
The fact: I've heard it - once perhaps too much.

Amidst the court a Gothic fountain played,
Symmetrical, but decked with carvings quaint-
Strange faces, like to men in masquerade,
And here perhaps a monster, there a saint:
The spring gushed through grim mouths of granite made,
And sparkled into basins, where it spent
Its little torrent in a thousand babbles,
Like man's vain glory and his vainer troubles.

The mansion's self was vast and venerable,
With more of the monastic than has been
Elsewhere preserved : the cloisters still were stable:
The cells, too, and refectory, I ween:
An exquisite small chapel had been able,
Still unimpaired, to decorate the scene
The rest had been reformd, replaced, or sunk,
And spoke more of the baron than the monk.

Huge halls, long galleries, spacious chambers joined
By no quite lawful marriage of the arts,
Might shock a connoisseur: but; when combined,
Formed a whole which, irregular in parts,
Yet left a grand impression on the mind,
At least of those whose eyes are in their hearts.
We gaze upon a giant, for his stature;
Nor judge, at first, if all be true to nature.

Newstead Abbey

The poet-lord became possessor of Newstead at the age of six years by the death of his uncle. His predecessor had been a man of a haughty and impetuous spirit; and in a duel, which from a dispute between their gamekeepers, he killed his antagonist, Mr. Chaworth, the possessor of the adjoining manor. His youthful successor gave his boyish love to the last descendant of the Chaworth family - the Mary of his poems. "The Dream" contains their history, and the scenery of Newstead is again traceable in the poem. The lady became the wife of Mr. Musters; the poet wedded, was separated, as we know, from his wife, and died at Missolonghi, when about to fight for the liberty of Greece.

Circumstances had compelled him to sell his longdescended inheritance, but happily the purchaser was one who knew and loved the poet. Colonel Wildman was a schoolfellow on the same form as Lord Byron at Harrow, and had an enthusiastic admiration for his gifted acquaintance.

"The house," says Sir Richard Phillips, "is, as it now exists" (1828), "everything that could delight a lover of Byron, an admirer of taste and elegance, and a devotee of antiquity, in close association with our national history and ancient religion. It was an abbey founded by Henry 11., as one of many peace-offerings to the enraged Church, for adding a martyr to its calender, by the sacrifice of the imperious and wily Becket. It was magnificently built in the spirit of the age, and was intended in its structure and endowments to prove the repentance of the politic king. What it was, thanks to Colonel Wildman, it still is; and in Newstead we behold a veritable abbey of the twelfth century, nearly as it was six hundred years ago."

Lord Byron's body was brought to England and buried in Hucknall village church; in the same vault lies his daughter, Lady Lovelace; but his name and fame will always be associated with Newstead Abbey.

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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004