Byron, Shelley and how the Georgian proto-jet set turned Grand Tours into lives abroad

For some, The Grand Tour of the 18th and 19th centuries was a one-off trip. For others it became a lifestyle. Carla Passino takes a look at some of the most famous Britons to split their lives between the UK and the Continent.

When Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, embarked on his first trip to Padua, Italy, in 1612, he couldn’t have imagined he’d start a trend that would grip British Society. His experiences in Italy sparked  a wave of interest in European travel, which, over time, evolved into the Grand Tour.

Most British gentlemen (and the odd lady) spent three years abroad to polish their knowledge of art, architecture and the classics, but some made a different choice, settling overseas for longer. Several of these early ‘expats’ had little alternative, perhaps due to scandal or because they were in the service of the kingdom.

But a few craved new horizons or, once abroad, discovered a taste for adventure that led them to remain overseas for the rest of their lives.

Here are some of their extraordinary tales.

 Lord Byron (1788–1824)

Lord Byron in Albanese costume by Thomas Phililips.  Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images

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By April 1816, scandal and debt troubled George Gordon Byron. His marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke had collapsed, rumours of a relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, gripped London and creditors were circling.

For Byron, recently returned from the Grand Tour, heading abroad must have seemed an obvious choice. After a spell in Switzerland, he went to Venice, where he became entranced by Armenian culture and married women.

Byron’s fights with one of his Venetian mistresses, the ‘handsome virago’ Margarita Cogni, became legendary, but it was another (married) woman that would most mark his life: Countess Teresa Guiccioli.

For her, Byron moved first to Ravenna, setting up home in a villa he shared with ‘10 horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon,’ according to Shelley, then, after Teresa separated from her husband, to Pisa, where the couple was at the heart of a vibrant group of British writers and intellectuals.

The Cathedral and Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy. Credit: Alamy

Byron’s adventurous nature reared its head again and, after a time in Genoa, he joined Greece’s rebellion against Ottoman rule. ‘No undertaking could interest him more strongly; the object, the scene, the danger were powerful incentives,’ wrote Teresa’s brother, Pietro Gamba, in his memoirs. Arriving in August in Kefalonia, the poet spent time and money to improve the Greek fleet, garner support for the independence cause among the British and relieve the ‘many unfortunate Greek families’ who had fled to the island.

Savills are selling this villa on Kefalonia at €2.5m, ideal for those dreaming of a Byronic lifestyle.

In January, he met independence leader Alexandros Mavrokordatos in Messolonghi and agreed to lead an attack on the fortress of Lepanto. Before he could set sail, however, his health took a turn for the worse and he died on April 19, 1824, with Greece still firmly in his mind, according to Gamba: ‘I have given her my time, my means, my health — and now  I give her my life. What could I do more?’

Emma, Lady Hamilton (1765–1815)

Lady Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress.

Emma Hamilton did not choose to live abroad. Born Amy Lyon near Neston, Cheshire, she moved to London in search of employment, but became a Society sensation and the mistress of some gentlemen-about-town, including Charles Francis Greville. Unfortunately, Greville was in need of a good marriage and Amy, by then known as Emma Hart, was baggage he could do without — so he unceremoniously shipped her to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy to Naples.

Sir William was delighted; Emma, not so much. But Naples and her host grew on her and she enchanted both with her Attitudes, in which she dressed in neo-Classical style and gave ‘a living spectacle of masterpieces of the most celebrated artists of antiquity,’ according to a French visitor, Joseph, Comte d’Espinchal, who noted that she had ‘a volupté, a grace that would set on fire the coldest and most insensible man’. It certainly worked on Sir William, who married her in 1791.

Gulf of Naples. Credit: Getty

Then, one day, Admiral Nelson arrived. He had briefly met the Hamiltons a few years earlier, but now he was the hero of the Battle of the Nile and poor Sir William didn’t stand a chance. Emma was already pregnant with Horatia by the time she, her husband and Nelson returned to England for good in 1800.

Their menage à trois didn’t last long, however, with Sir William dying in London in 1803 and Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805. Emma ended her glamorous life the way she had started it: with an enforced move abroad. Plagued by creditors, she arrived in Calais in July 1814, only to die six months later, in January 1815.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) and Mary Shelley (1797–1851)

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (nee Godwin: 1797-1851) by Reginald Easton, 1857. Credit: Alamy

Visited by the ‘tyranny, civil and religious’ that clutched England — by which he meant an ongoing battle with the Court of Chancery for the custody of his children — Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary, left England in 1818. The lure of a freer life abroad enticed the Shelleys as much as necessity pushed them towards their ‘contented exile’.

Their stay in ‘serene and golden Italy’ was certainly free, but also chaotic, as they embarked on a cavalcade across towns and cities (Bagni di Lucca, Venice, Este, Rome, Livorno, Florence, Pisa and Lerici) that was often marred by tragedy (the deaths of their daughter, Clara, in 1818 and their eldest son, William, in 1819) and the occasional joy (the birth of their youngest son, Percy Florence, in 1819). At almost every stop, Shelley also found a new love interest, which caused a deepening rift with Mary.

Even so, Italy provided a constant source of inspiration for the poet, who wrote some of his most successful works there, including The Cenci, a dark play set in Renaissance Rome. It also fanned the flames of his political interest. When the Shelleys arrived, Italy was in the throes of a change that would lead to unification. Living in a country gripped by revolutionary winds, Shelley took an active interest in British politics, making plans with Byron and Leigh Hunt to launch a new magazine, The Liberal, to address the English from abroad. But sailing back from Livorno, Shelley’s schooner was hit by a storm and everyone on board drowned in the Gulf of La Spezia — or the Gulf of Poets, as it’s often called.

Lerici village and Portovenere or Porto Venere in the background with the Palmaria Island. In the Golfo dei Poeti (Gulf of poets or Gulf of La Spezia)

With no news, a distraught Mary journeyed to Livorno, asking: ‘Sapete alcuna cosa di Shelley?’ (‘Do you know anything of Shelley’?) to all and sundry.  In 1823, she and Percy Florence returned to England, but about 20 years later, mother and son took one more trip across the Continent: memoirs from that journey, Rambles in Germany and Italy, were her last work.

Lady Hester Stanhope (1776–1838)

William Henry Bartlett’s painting of the travels of Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope. Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The daughter of the eccentric 3rd Earl of Stanhope and the niece of William Pitt the Younger, for whom she ‘kept house’ at Walmer Castle in Kent, Lady Hester Stanhope had no obvious reason to leave Britain. Whether she was bored, was spurred by her brother’s death or, as her doctor and biographer Charles Lewis Meryon suggests, was bothered by ‘the narrowness of her income’, she set sail for Greece on February 1810 to tour the Middle East. After Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, where she excavated an archaeological site at Ashkelon, she settled in Lebanon, first near Sidon, then in a ‘remote, solitary’ house at Joun, where she spent the rest of her life.

Dressed in a Turkish gentleman’s garb — scarlet pantaloons under a crimson robe and keffiyeh and fez on her shaved head — she was an absolute ruler over her own domain, albeit a charitable and generous one: Meryon describes her as a ‘modern Circe’ requiring ‘unqualified submission to her will’ and reveals she had ‘completely intimidated’ her nearest neighbour, the Druze Emir Beshyr, ‘by the unparalleled boldness of her tongue and pen’.

Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope, British socialite, adventurer, archaeologist and traveler. Credit: Alamy

She was so self-assured that, when the British government threatened to take away her pension in 1838, she wrote to the Duke  of Wellington: ‘Your Queen has no business to meddle in my affairs,’ sending a duplicate  of the letter to Victoria for good measure.

By then, the same ‘narrowness of income’ that may have caused her to travel was troubling her again. She died in debt, alone, but unvanquished: ‘I am contented with the violence of my own character,’ she wrote. ‘It draws a line for me between friends and enemies.’

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Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston (1721–88)

The daughter of a former lieutenant governor of Chelsea’s Royal Hospital, the young Elizabeth lacked neither beauty nor an enterprising spirit. While the others on this page are widely known, Elizabeth is less so; that may change as her fascinating life has recently been chronicled by Catherine Ostler in The Duchess Countess.

A maid of honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales, she married Augustus Hervey, a Navy lieutenant and later the Earl of Bristol, in secret, so they could each keep their positions.

After the relationship failed, the crafty Elizabeth persuaded a court to declare that she was ‘free of all matrimonial contracts’, so she could wed Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull in March 1769. The Duke died a few years later, leaving her a fortune, but his family, who hoped to claw back the inheritance, dredged up her past and accused her of bigamy.

Elizabeth Chudleigh / Pierrepont (1721-1788), bigamist Duchess of Kingston-upon-Hull and Countess of Bristol. Vignette shows her trial for bigamy in Westminster Hall in 1776. Credit: Alamy

Found guilty, she promptly removed herself (and much of her late husband’s wealth) to Europe. She lived in several countries, but  it was in Russia, then blossoming under the rule of another enterprising woman, Catherine the Great, that she made her greatest mark.

Having charmed the Empress and the Russian nobility, she decided to create a model estate in Estonia (then part of Russia). She named it Chudleigh, after herself, and embarked on a wild project to distil her own vodka.

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An anonymous detractor ridiculed her for it — ‘What a falling off was here! A candidate for the first honour in a state degenerating into a distiller of spirits!’ — but she pulled off the feat (albeit at astronomical cost) and had Chudleigh vodka served in the estate’s inn and taverns.

However, France beckoned and she eventually left, intending to live at the eye-wateringly expensive Château de Sainte-Assise, outside Paris. The house was a money pit (she never actually moved in, nor finished paying for it) and she died in Paris in August 1788, having planned a return visit to Russia she would never manage to make.