Byron's Oak at Newstead Abbey

"And ivy thy trunk with its mantle entwine." The Byron Oak today, reduced to a stump - Photo: Tony Shaw

The subject of the latest addition to our series on Historic Oaks may seem an odd choice, for all that remains of the tree is an ivy-covered stump in the grounds of an Abbey in Nottinghamshire, England. This stump, however, merits our attention, for thereby hangs not only a tale, but a poem. The Byron Oak, as it is known, was planted by the young George Byron, later to become one of Britain’s greatest poets, at Newstead Abbey, shortly after he inherited the estate from his great-uncle in 1798 at the age of 10. The oak, and the poem the Byron wrote about in 1807, tell a story that is eloquently relevant to oak collectors and indeed anyone involved with the planting of trees.

Newstead Abbey was built by Henry II as part of his attempt to assuage his guilt for killing Thomas Becket. A few centuries later Henry VIII, not a man to be worried by guilt, dissolved the monasteries in England and presented Newstead to Sir John Byron, for services rendered. Through several generations the estate was maintained and improved, the Abbey becoming a residence, till it came the turn of the 5th Baron Byron. His was not a happy life, and seems to have gone badly wrong after he killed a neighbor in a duel over some boundary dispute. The “Wicked Lord”, as he was known in the area, let everything go to ruin, even chopping down a good section of the Sherwood Forest surrounding the estate, and outlived his son and grandson.[1] On his death, the property was inherited by his great-nephew George Byron, then living in Scotland with his mother. Young George developed a great attachment for the place, even though he did not live there due to sorry state of the building. Shortly after coming to Newstead for the first time, Byron is said to have planted his oak in front of the Abbey, aged about 11.

He was very solicitous of the tree in those first years. According to a guidebook published in 1850[2], he

Byron in 1807, aged 19, at the time he wrote To an Oak at Newstead
Photo: www.pinterest.com

displayed "the greatest regard for its prosperity, actuated, it is said, by an impression or fancy, that as the tree flourished so should he, "as it fares," said he, "so will fare my fortunes." Later his life took him further away, his visits became more infrequent, and for the duration of Byron's minority the property was rented to Lord Grey de Ruthen, who took little care of it - and less of the oak. On returning to Newstead in 1807, Byron was shocked to find the seedling almost choked by weeds, and it was this circumstance that prompted him to write the poem, To an Oak at Newstead, which opens thus:

Young Oak! When I planted thee deep in the ground,
I hoped that thy days would be longer than mine;
That thy dark-waving branches would flourish around,
And ivy thy trunk with its mantle entwine.  

Byron was better at composing anapestic tretrameter than at managing his finances or his private life, and in 1816, following separation from his wife and with creditors hot on his heels, he left Britain, never to return. Newstead was acquired by Byron’s old school friend, Colonel Thomas Wildman, for a princely sum (equivalent to about USD 10 million today). Wildman set up about restoring the estate to its former grandeur, and in the

Plan of the grounds of Newstead Abbey. The arrow marks the location 10-year-old Byron chose to plant his oak, "an improper place" spoiling the view from the house of the lake. (Click on the image to enlarge.) Image: www.nottshistory.org.uk - A.P. Nicholson

process decided to remove an oak that was inexplicably planted smack in front of the Abbey, obscuring the view of the lake situated to the south of the house (landscape design seems to have another field in which Byron was not well-versed). According to the story told in the Victorian guidebook:

Wildman turned to a servant and said: “Here is a fine young oak but it must be cut down, as it grows in an improper place.” “I hope not, sir,” replied the man, “for it is the one that my Lord was so fond of, because he set it himself.” Since that time the Colonel and all around have taken every possible care of it, and strangers inquire for it as the “Byron oak.”

Despite Byron’s concern about the condition of his oak in 1807, when he wrote that the oak’s decay could not be concealed by the weeds growing around it, the tree seems to have prospered, and indeed it outlived him, as was the poet’s wish:

Oh! yet, if maturity's years may be thine,
Though I shall lie low in the cavern of death
On thy leaves yet the day-beam of ages may shine,
Uninjured by time, or the rude winter's breath.

Byron died in 1824, shortly after his 36th birthday, in Greece, where he had gone to support the Greek struggle for independence. In 1850, his oak was reported to be in fine shape: “It has now attained a goodly size, considering the slow growth of the oak, and bids fair to become a lasting memento of the noble bard, and to be

The Byron Oak in its heyday, c. 1905 - Photo: Nottingham City Council and www.picturethepast.org.uk

a shrine to which thousands of pilgrims will resort in future ages to do homage to his mighty genius.”[3], The prophecy turned out to be true, and during the rest of the Victorian era, the oak was the star attraction in a visit to Newstead Abbey. By 1915, however, the tree was decaying and attempts to save it were unsuccessful. It was eventually cut down, but the stump was left in place, in recognition of the tree’s significance. A replacement oak was planted in 1988 by Byron’s direct descendant, Lord  Lytton, to mark the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth.

Here are all ten stanzas of the poem. The verse expresses sentiments that will be familiar to those who collect, plant, or cherish oak trees: the hope that a seedling will prosper, the concern for a plant that has not been properly cared for, the fantasy of how a tree might develop, the musings on the destiny of a tree that will endure on land that may no longer be ours or available to us, or while one is not there—or indeed alive—to see it, and the wonder at the tree’s transcendence of one’s own mortality.

TO AN OAK AT NEWSTEAD

Young Oak! when I planted thee deep in the ground,
I hoped that thy days would be longer than mine;
That thy dark-waving branches would flourish around,
And ivy thy trunk with its mantle entwine.

Such, such was my hope, when in infancy's years,
On the land of my fathers I rear'd thee with pride;
They are past, and I water thy stem with my tears,—    
Thy decay, not the weeds that surround thee can hide.

I left thee, my Oak, and, since that fatal hour,
A stranger has dwelt in the hall of my sire;
Till manhood shall crown me, not mine is the power,
But his, whose neglect may have bade thee expire.

Oh! hardy thou wert—even now little care
Might revive thy young head, and thy wounds gently heal:
But thou wert not fated affection to share—
For who could suppose that a Stranger would feel?

Ah, droop not, my Oak! lift thy head for a while;
Ere twice round yon Glory this planet shall run,
The hand of thy Master will teach thee to smile,
When Infancy's years of probation are done.

Oh, live then, my Oak! tow'r aloft from the weeds,
That clog thy young growth, and assist thy decay,
For still in thy bosom are life's early seeds,
And still may thy branches their beauty display.

Oh! yet, if Maturity's years may be thine,
Though I shall lie low in the cavern of death,
On thy leaves yet the day-beam of ages may shine,
Uninjured by Time, or the rude Winter's breath.

For centuries still may thy boughs lightly wave
O'er the corse of thy Lord in thy canopy laid;
While the branches thus gratefully shelter his grave,
The chief who survives may recline in thy shade.

And as he, with his boys, shall revisit this spot,
He will tell them in whispers more softly to tread.
Oh! surely, by these I shall ne'er be forgot;
Remembrance still hallows the dust of the dead.

And here, will they say, when in life's glowing prime,
Perhaps he has pour'd forth his young simple lay,
And here must he sleep, till the moments of time
Are lost in the hours of Eternity's day.

The oak planted in 1988 by Lord Lytton to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Byron's birth,
a few yards from the remains of the tree planted by the poet in 1798 - Photo: Tony Shaw

[1] For an entertaining account of the colorful history of the Byrons at Newstead, read Washington Irving's "Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey", available on Google Books here.

[2] "A Visit to Sherwood Forest", Anon., Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, London 1850

[3] Ibid.