‘Proudly majestic frowns thy vaulted hall,
Scowling defiance on the blasts of fate.
An old, old monastery once, and now.
Still older mansion of a rich and rare
These are lines with which Lord Byron described Newstead Abbey.
As to their accuracy, well Newstead certainly has vaulted halls and could be described as “mixed gothic” in its architecture, but it was never a monastery. In fact, it wasn’t even an Abbey. It actually started life as an Augustinian Priory. In 1163, Henry II commissioned its building as a tribute to his grandfather, Fulk, Count of Anjou and King of Jerusalem and for 400 years it was the home of a number (up to a dozen) of Black Austins who were canons not monks. Canons are ordained priests and would have spent their time preaching and teaching in the locality around Newstead. In 1539, Henry VIII ordered the destruction of various religious buildings, including the Priory of St. Mary at Newstead (the building which we now know as Newstead Abbey). After the destruction of a number of religious statues from the West Front of the building and the expulsion of the canons, the building and its lands were sold to Sir John Byron for £850.
Sir John took down the church leaving only the West Front and used the stone to create a family home. The Byron family then occupied the building until the poet Lord Byron sold the property to Colonel Thomas Wildman in 1817. During their time at the Abbey, the Byrons extended and altered the building extensively. However, the 5th Lord Byron who was known as “the Wicked Lord” ran out of money and sold off so much of the material of the house that the Newstead Abbey that the poet inherited was a virtual ruin. He, in turn, could only afford to refurbish a few small rooms within the Abbey, and it fell to Colonel Wildman to spend a substantial sum on the building in 1818.
Most of the building which now remains was therefore restored and altered by Colonel Wildman using money that came from his family’s sugar plantations in Jamaica. After his death in 1859, his wife put the Abbey up for sale. Various people were interested in buying the property, including the Prince of Wales who attempted to purchase it on behalf of Queen Victoria. However, the property was eventually bought by Mr W. F. Webb.
Mr Webb was an exceedingly rich man having inherited two fortunes; one from his father and another from a close relative who had named him in her will. His main interest was big game hunting and it was through his friendship with Dr. Livingstone that the missionary came to write some of his books while staying at the Abbey. The Webbs were very proud of the Abbey’s connections with the poet and kept many of his artefacts which they would proudly exhibit to interested members of the public for the price of a ticket.
The Abbey remained in the Webb family until 1931 when Charles Ian Fraser one of the Webb sister’s grandsons sold it to Sir Julien Cahn. Sir Julien was a wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist who made his fortune through the introduction of higher purchase in his furniture shops. The Abbey and its gardens were then given to Nottingham City Corporation in that same year by Sir Julien and have been managed by the City ever since.
The house and grounds are now a very popular destination for the public. The grounds which are open every day of the year include a number of formal gardens, a Victorian fernery, the fascinating Japanese garden, and ‘Venetia’s’ garden inspired by Disraeli’s famous novel. The house which includes a collection of important paintings, Byron artefacts, and sumptuous furniture (much of which was owned by the poet) is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays; it is also available for private tours during the week. Newstead Abbey is also a favourite setting for weddings and other celebrations, and ideal for business meetings and courses.