Newstead Abbey, as it is commonly called—although in actual monastic rank it was a Priory—was founded about the year 1170 by King Henry II in expiation of the murder of Thomas a Becket. There are some grounds for supposing that a still older monastery of some kind may have occupied the same site. The "Novus locus in Sherwode" (i.e. the new Place, or Stead, in Sherwood Forest) founded by King Henry was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose undamaged statue is still enthroned in the central gable of the west front.

It was a house of the Order popularly known as Black Canons from the black habits they wore. They were Canons Regular of Saint Augustine—the last name being often shortened to St. Austin in common usage. Although founded towards the end of the twelfth century, the Abbey as a building rose chiefly during the thirteenth century and still shows beautiful architecture of that period. Little of the Abbey church now survives, but there is ample evidence in other buildings of the way in which the monks lived, for we can still see the cloisters in which they studied, the great refectory in which they took their meals, the kitchen in which meals were prepared, the "stew pond" in which fish were kept in readiness for use, the venerable yews among which they walked. Newstead, in fact, still presents a tolerably complete picture of monastic life.

Towards the middle of the sixteenth century came the Reformation and the enforced Dissolution of the Monasteries to provide ready cash and negotiable property for King Henry VIII, to whom the Newstead Priory was surrendered in July, 1539.

In the following year Henry granted Newstead to Sir John Byron, the father of "Little Sir John with the Great Beard." Sir John Byron was already established in Nottinghamshire, for he was Constable of Nottingham Castle and Lieutenant of Sherwood Forest. He held Colwick Hall in the near vicinity of Nottingham. His family was an ancient one, for a certain Sir Ralph de Burun or Biron (one of the older spellings of the name) is referred to in the Domesday Survey. His accession to Newstead was the beginning of a long association which culminated in the residence here of George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron, the great poet.

When Sir John Byron entered into possession of Newstead he proceeded to turn the monastic buildings into a mansion, and made drastic architectural alterations in the process; but the destruction of the old buildings was happily less complete than occurred in many other cases.

King Charles II was entertained at Newstead during the regime of the Byrons. A later notability was William, 5th Lord Byron, known as the Wicked Lord, who killed Mr. Chaworth, a neighbouring landowner, in a duel in 1765 arising from a dispute about boundaries and game. Tried for murder, the Wicked Lord was only convicted of manslaughter, then considered so trivial that the conviction "amounted to an acquittal," and the Wicked Lord returned to Newstead. Here he lived until his death in 1798, when he was succeeded by his great-nephew—the Lord Byron of literary fame.

The 6th Lord Byron, who was born in 1788, did not spend a very great part of his life within the walls of Newstead, but the place made such a strong appeal tohis tastes and interests that he left a much deeper mark upon it than would be suggested by the mere length of his residence. In 1824 Lord Byron went out to Greece to give active support to the Revolution there, but died four months after his arrival. His body was brought back to England and reposes in Hucknall Torkard church only a few miles from Newstead.

The century following Lord Byron's death saw many changes at Newstead. The estate passed from Lord Byron to his schoolfellow and friend, Col. Wildman, in 1817. Col. Wildman's executors sold the estate to Mr. W. F. Webb, in 1861, and the estate remained in this family until 1931, when Mr. C. I. Fraser, the grandson of Mr. Webb, sold the portion referred to in these pages to Sir Julien Cahn, who handed it over to the Corporation of Nottingham.

We venture to say that the greatest credit is due to Col. Wildman, to Mr. Webb and his descendants for the magnificent way in which they have maintained the Abbey.

The Pilgrim Oak.
The Pilgrim Oak.

The entrance to Newstead Abbey is reached at a point about nine miles from Nottingham along the main road to Mansfield, the latter town lying about 4½ miles farther north. From the centre of the triangular green in front of the lodge gates rises the well-known Pilgrim Oak, still virile in its old age, with trunk of enormous girth and wide-spreading branches. It is a remarkable thought that this old tree goes on throwing out its fresh foliage year after year, just as it did when the monks were still at Newstead. "Men may come and men may go . . . . " but the old tree survives unchanged through the centuries of drastic change in the world round about it.

From the lodge gates, a beautiful drive of about a mile and a quarter leads to the Abbey, curving first between banks of rhododendrons backed by forest trees, then emerging into the undulating wide-spreading park, dotted with noble trees and, towards evening—"alive" with rabbits that scamper about amid the bracken. Towards the end of the drive, a peep of the Forest Pond—one of the three lakes of Newstead—opens out on the left. The next turn in the road brings us in sight of the Upper Lake, with the splendid architectural grouping of the Abbey itself coming into the picture on the left.

Madonna and child.
Madonna and child.

As we follow the drive round to the house, the lovely west front of the Abbey Church unfolds its graceful form, its lines being seen to all the better advantage because it is the only part of the church now standing, so that its details are clear-cut against the sky. As one writer puts it, "the sky is its roof, and the greensward its floor." The architecture of this precious fragment represents so late a development of the Early English (13th century) style as to show on the whole stronger affinities to the work of the next period, the Decorated (14th century), one of the characteristics of which was the geometric tracery of which we have here such beautiful examples. Byron himself describes it as "a glorious remnant of the Gothic pile." The great west window has lost its tracery and now gives the merest hint of what the original design of it was, but the well-proportioned framework of the window still survives intact, while below it the double doorway is in excellent preservation save that the doors themselves have long since disappeared. Above the west window is a row of smaller windows—curiously set out of centre—and above this again is a niche from which the Madonna and Child still preside over the scene—a gentle smile on the face of Our Lady and a sceptre held in her right hand to indicate her attribute as Queen of Heaven.

Continuing the line of the west front from its southern angle is the west front of the mansion adapted from the monastic buildings. The range of three lofty windows seen here lights the great Dining-Hall which we shall shortly enter. The main entrance for visitors is towards the southern end of this front, close to where, at the south angle, rises the Sussex Tower, added by Colonel Wildman in the 19th century and named after the Duke whom the Colonel served as equerry.

Entering the mansion, we find ourselves in the crypt whose strong piers and vaulting arches help to support the Dining-Room above. A turn to the right brings us to the foot of a broad stone staircase leading up to the first floor by easy stages. This staircase is lighted by a tall oriel window. Upon its south wall hangs a large painting by A. Corbould, showing the late Mr. W. F. Webb—owner of Newstead in the mid-19th century—in a red shirt leaning against his horse at the end of a lion hunt in South Africa, accompanied by Captain W. Codnngton, wearing a white shirt. The incident took place somewhere in the fifties.

At the top of the staircase we enter the Dining-Hall, which is considered to have been the Guestern, or Refectory for Guests (as distinct from the Refectory in which the monks took their meals). In this splendid apartment the Prior of Newstead would entertain distinguished guests with almost royal hospitality. The fine timbered roof, from which old heraldic banners now hang, is considered to be original, at least in parts. The oak panelling of the room, and the elaborately carved Gothic screen supporting a minstrel gallery at the south end, are modern (they were erected by Colonel Wildman); but the panelling has the special interest of having been cut entirely from a single tree grown in Hardwick Park—and a truly noble tree it must have been, considering that it enabled a room 54 feet long and 24 feet wide to be panelled to a height of ten feet. The handsome modern stone fire-place, projecting boldly from the wall, deserves notice. It is said that Byron was accustomed to entertain his guests in this room—as seems likely enough—and that it was also sometimes used in his day for pistol practice !

The three great windows lighting the room contain modern heraldic glass executed by Willement to the order of Colonel Wildman. The first one, starting from the east end, bears shields and commemorative inscriptions relating to the Wildman family; the central window records the military engagements in which Colonel Wildman and his two brothers took part, and includes upon its scrolls such famous battle-names as those of Waterloo, Quatre Bras and Corunna ; the third window appropriately illustrates heraldically something of the monastic history of Newstead.

The Great Hall.
The Great Hall.

Near the south corner of the east wall of the Dining-Hall, an opening in the panelling discloses a curious old doorway of simple Gothic design. It is thought that this doorway led, by some kind of short passage, to the head of the stairway that ascended from the south cloister to the monks' refectory (now the Great Drawing-Room). The walls of the Hall are hung with the late Mr. Webb's trophies of the chase, including heads of rhinoceros and giraffe, and horns of buffalo and antelope of various kinds.*

At the north end of the Dining-Hall, a doorway leads into a smaller apartment which was the Prior's Dining-Room, the private refectory of the ruling head of the monastery. It was also Lord Byron's dining-room for ordinary occasions—small enough to be cosy and intimate in contrast with the great hall we have just left. This room has a richly decorated ceiling and a still more remarkable carved, gilded, and painted mantelpiece, with the Byron arms as the central detail and some quaint figure subjects in the panels, all carved in deep relief; it is dated 1556 and bears the name of Sir John Byron of that period who is said to have brought it here from Colwick Hall, near Nottingham. The furniture and relics in this room were personal to Lord Byron.

* These trophies have now (1938) been removed, and their places have been taken by the paintings formerly hung in the Great Drawing-Room and mentioned on page 13.