There's nothing like a devoted dog to bring out the best in people. Queen Victoria could be chilly and distant with her human subjects, but her dogs always received considerable affection. The poet George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron (1788-1824) was better known more his many lovers than for his faithfulness – except when it came to his dog Boatswain, left.
Byron loved animals. As a student at Cambridge, he famously rebelled against a rule forbidding pet dogs in lodgings by keeping a pet bear instead. Throughout his life, he kept an ever-changing menagerie of pets that included cats, horses, peacocks, a badger, a goat, geese, a heron, a fox, a parrot, and four monkeys.
But Boatswain was his favorite. A black and white Newfoundland (though in paintings he looks more like a modern border collie), Boatswain was equally devoted to Byron. When Boatswain was tragically attacked and bitten by a rabid dog, Byron insisted on nursing Boatswain himself, heedless of the risk, and grieved deeply at the dog's inevitable death. "Boatswain is dead!" he lamented to a friend. "He expired in a state of madness...after suffering much, yet retaining all the gentleness of his nature to the last, never attempting to do the least injury to anyone near him."
Though in dire financial straits, Byron erected a costly marble monument over Boatswain's grave on the grounds of Newstead Abbey, and drew the inscription from his poem Epitaph to a Dog.
Near this Spot Are deposited the Remains of one Who possessed Beauty without Vanity Strength without Insolence Courage without Ferocity And all the virtues of Man without his Vices This praise which would be unmeaning Flattery if inscribed over human Ashes is but a just tribute to the Memory of BOATSWAIN a DOG, Who was born in Newfoundland May 1803 And died at Newstead Nov. 18 1808
It was Byron's great desire to be buried with Boatswain, and he expressed that wish in his will. But by the time he died, Newstead had been sold to another owner, who did not wish his home to become the final resting place of the famed poet, nor have it overrun with his grieving admirers. Byron was instead buried in his family's vault in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Hucknall. One hopes that he and Boatswain are finally joined in spirit, if not in fact.
The romantic painting, right, by Ford Madox Brown was completed long after the deaths of both Byron and Boatswain. Inspired by Byron's semi-autobiographical poem The Dream(1816), it shows Byron with his first lover, Mary Chaworth. While she represents lost love and thwarted dreams, it's ever-faithful Boatswain who stands for loyalty.
Above: Lord Byron's Dog Boatswain (1803-1808) by Clifton Tomson, 1808 Below: Byron's Dream by Ford Madox Brown, 1874
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.