On January 2, 1815, Lord Byron is married in a private ceremony to Annabella Milbanke at Seaham Hall. There are two clergymen present to perform the ceremony. One was Annabella’s illegitimate cousin, the Reverend Thomas Noel of Kirkby Mallory, son of her uncle, Lord Wentworth. Benita Eisler describes Byron’s marriage to Annabella Milbanke in Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame:
Well before ten o’clock on Monday, January 2, the day of the wedding, Hobhouse, dressed even to his white gloves, went to awaken Byron but found him fully clothed. They greeted the others, excepting the bride, who had not yet appeared. Then Byron and Hobhouse together walked upstairs to the drawing room. In an alcove formed by a large bay window and separated from the rest of the room by a proscenium arch, kneeling cushions had been placed for the bridal pair (“hard as though filled with peach stones,” Byron recalled). Two clergymen officiated: the Rev. Richard Wallis, vicar of Seaham, and the Rev. Thomas Noel, vicar of Kirkby Mallory, who, as Lord Wentworth’s illegitimate son, was also the bride’s cousin. Annabella was attended by her former governess, Mrs. Clermont.
The bride wore a simple white muslin gown, lace-trimmed only at the hem, and a short matching jacket called a curricle—“very plain indeed, with nothing on her head,” Hobhouse reported. In her responses she was “firm as a rock.” It was Byron who stumbled as he repeated, “I, George Gordon,” and when he came to the line “With all my worldly goods I thee endow,” he looked over at Hobhouse “with a faint smile.” At eleven o’clock the ceremony was over. Wallis shook Annabella’s hand first, followed by Hobhouse, who then embraced Byron. Lady Milbanke kissed her son-in-law. After signing the register with Hobhouse and Wallis as witnesses, Annabella quickly left the room, her eyes full of tears. She had, Hobhouse observed, “compleated her conquest—her innocent conquest.” To his best man Byron appeared “calm and as usual.” When she reappeared, Annabella was wearing her going-away outfit, a gray satin pelisse* trimmed with a narrow band of white fur worn over the wedding dress. Discreetly, Hobhouse placed his wedding gift to the bride, a set of Byron’s complete works bound in yellow morocco, in the carriage. Handing in the new Lady Byron, he wished her many years of happiness. “If I am not happy, it will be my own fault,” she said. Through the window, Byron grasped his friend’s hand; he was still holding tight as the carriage pulled away. At Six Mile Bottom, Augusta’s tension mounted through the morning. At eleven o’clock, the hour when she knew the vows were to be exchanged in Seaham, her surge of feelings, she said, “were as the sea trembles when the earth quakes.”
SOON AS we got into the carriage, his countenance changed to gloom and defiance,” Annabella recalled fourteen months after the wedding day.1 When their coach passed through Durham and the “joy bells” pealed in their honor, Byron began singing and ranting: By refusing his offer of marriage two years earlier, Annabella had doomed him to nameless tragedy; he had only married her now “to outwit” her and exact his revenge. He then reviled her mother, retailing unflattering instances of her behavior as reported by Lady Melbourne, bemoaned Annabella’s meager dowry, and expressed impatience for her relations to die so she could inherit. Worse than these accusations was Byron’s “relentless pitying,” Annabella recalled, when his regrets were all for her: that she had not married a better man. Even if we concede a certain gothic exaggeration of Byron’s behavior by his shocked wife (“Now that I’ve got you in my power, I can make you feel it,” she recalled him saying), other evidence, including his own, points to his suffering a severe panic attack immediately after the ceremony. The finality of the step he had taken, the physical and emotional claustrophobia of finding himself alone at close quarters with a wife he scarcely knew, triggered a hysterical reaction. Byron’s own recollection is the most telling: He always insisted that Mrs. Clermont, Annabella’s governess, had “stuck” herself between them in the cramped carriage —a memory disputed by Hobhouse and everyone else who saw them off. At Halnaby the grounds were covered by deep snow, but the Milbanke servants and tenants, many of whom had known Annabella from birth, were waiting outside to greet the newlyweds. As she emerged from the carriage, the new Lady Byron made a very different impression on two witnesses: The old butler recalled Annabella coming up the steps alone, “with a countenance and frame agonized and listless with evident horror and despair.” But the maid who had accompanied them remembered her mistress as “buoyant and cheerful as a bride should be.”
There was no disagreement, however, about Byron’s strange behavior. He did not hand his wife from the carriage but “jumped out … and walked away.” Byron lashed out at Annabella as the cause of his despair. “It’s too late now,” “it’s done,” “it cannot be undone”—these were his blasting words, constantly repeated, from the first day, “and continually, in the first week of our marriage,” she recalled. He told her he was more “accursed” in marrying than in any other act of his life, adding, “I am a villain—I could convince you of it in three words.” He harped on the issue of taint. Describing incidences of derangement among the Gordons and Byrons—the probable suicide of his grandfather and father, along with a case of arson in the family—he taunted her for writing, in a “Character” of the man she would marry, sent two years earlier to her Aunt Melbourne, that family insanity would be the only disqualifying factor in a future husband. (Thus he also revealed that Lady M had shown him Annabella’s letters but not that he had reciprocated in kind.) As though the required act of sexual possession must be gotten over and done with, he “had Lady Byron on the sofa before dinner,” he reported in his memoirs. That same night, Annabella recalled, he inquired “with an appearance of aversion, if I meant to sleep in the same bed with him, said that he hated sleeping with any woman, but that I might do as I chose.” She chose to remain with him. But Annabella omitted the only recorded incident of their wedding night. Samuel Rogers remembered from reading Byron’s destroyed memoirs that the poet, startled out of his sleep and seeing the crimson bedcurtains illumined by flickering candlelight in the room, screamed, “Good God, I am surely in hell.” It was the next morning that Annabella felt “perhaps the deadliest chill that ever fell on my heart.” Meeting her in the library, Byron coldly repeated his litany of remorse, now blaming his wife for her failure to avert the tragedy of their marriage. The “desolation of that first day” would be burned into her memory forever.