Sir John, Lord Byron, c.1599-1652
Fiercely loyal Cavalier, honoured by the King, but notorious as the "Bloody Braggadoccio" to the Roundheads
The eldest of seven sons of Sir John Byron (d. 1625), a member of an old Lancashire family that had settled at Newstead Abbey, near Nottingham. After attending Trinity College, Cambridge, Byron was knighted in the coronation honours of Charles I, and sat as MP for Nottinghamshire in the parliaments of 1624 and 1628. He gained his first military experience in the Bishops' Wars (1639-40). During December 1641, as the political confrontation between the King and Parliament intensified, King Charles appointed Byron lieutenant of the Tower of London. The House of Commons objected to the appointment and ordered the City militia to blockade the Tower. Byron was forced to resign early in 1642.
He was active in the King's cause from the very beginning of the First Civil War. Appointed colonel of a cavalry regiment In August 1642, Byron was sent to secure the city of Oxford in the King's name. At the approach of superior Parliamentarian forces, Byron gathered a quantity of college silver and plate and withdrew to Worcester en route to Shrewsbury, where the King's army was mustering. Prince Rupert covered Byron's withdrawal from Worcester, resulting in the first significant skirmish of the English Civil War at Powick Bridge. The following month, Byron's regiment took part in the battle of Edgehill, at which all seven of the Byron brothers are said to have been present fighting for the King. Against orders, Byron joined the pursuit of the fleeing Parliamentarian horse which Prince Rupert and Commissary-General Wilmot scattered in the opening stages, thus leaving the Royalists with no cavalry in the field for most of the battle.
During 1643, Byron established a reputation as a tough cavalry commander. On 1 January, his regiment drove the Parliamentarians out of Burford in Oxfordshire. Byron was left with a prominent scar on his left cheek after being struck with a halberd during the fight. In May, he captured Bicester in Oxfordshire. In July, he rode with Prince Maurice and Lord Wilmot to relieve Sir Ralph Hopton's beleaguered army at the battle of Roundway Down. Byron commanded the cavalry on the Royalist right wing; his charge shattered the Parliamentarian cavalry and greatly contributed to Sir William Waller's "dismal defeat". Byron also distinguished himself at the first battle of Newbury in September 1643, where his cavalry succeeded in gaining the summit of the Parliamentarian position on Round Hill before being driven back through lack of infantry support. In recognition of his services, King Charles created him Baron Byron of Rochdale in October 1643.
In December 1643, on the recommendation of Prince Rupert, Byron was commissioned Field-Marshal of Royalist forces in Cheshire, Lancashire and north Wales, thus effectively taking over command in the region from the discredited Lord Capel. Byron's special responsibility was to secure the route into England for troops released from service in Ireland to fight for the King. Reinforced with some of the first regiments to return from Ireland, Byron defeated Sir William Brereton, Parliament's commander in Cheshire, at Middlewich on 26 December 1643. He gained a reputation as the "Bloody Braggadoccio" after boasting in an intercepted letter to the Marquis of Newcastle about the massacre of local Parliamentarian supporters at Barthomley Church. Early in 1644, Byron besieged Nantwich, Parliament's last remaining stronghold in Cheshire, but Sir Thomas Fairfax crossed the Pennines and joined forces with Brereton to raise the siege and inflict a decisive defeat on Byron at the battle of Nantwich (25 January 1644).
After the defeat at Nantwich, Byron withdrew to Chester where he was blockaded as the Parliamentarians reconquered most of Cheshire and Lancashire. In February 1644, however, Prince Rupert arrived at Shrewsbury with a commission as President of Wales. Rupert set about reforming the administration of the region and building a new army, enabling Byron and his officers to venture out and occupy parts of Cheshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire. In May 1644, Byron joined Rupert on the "York March" which culminated in the relief of York and the decisive battle of Marston Moor (July 1644). Byron commanded the cavalry on the Royalist right wing at Marston Moor, but his forces were routed by Cromwell's Ironsides. Rupert later claimed that Byron's faulty implementation of his orders was a major factor in the Royalist defeat.
Once again, Byron withdrew to Chester. After Prince Rupert's withdrawal from the region, Byron was defeated at the battle of Montgomery in September 1644, which ended Royalist power in north Wales. He steadily lost control of Cheshire to Brereton and was blockaded in Chester, where he and his officers dominated and bullied the civilian administration. Following the King's defeat at Naseby, Chester was subjected to a full siege (September 1645). The King's attempt to lift the siege was defeated at the battle of Rowton Heath, after which Byron conducted a determined defence of the city, repulsing all attempts to take it by storm. When the Parliamentarians settled down to starve him out, Byron mounted frequent attacks and sorties against them. He finally surrendered Chester in February 1646 and retreated through north Wales to Caernarfon. Byron's undisguised contempt for civilians had made him extremely unpopular and an attempt was made to assassinate him when he tried to enforce his authority on Angelsey. He sailed away into exile in June 1646.
When the Second Civil War broke out in the spring of 1648, the Prince of Wales (later Charles II) commissioned Byron to return to north Wales and raise Royalist forces to support the Scottish Engager invasion to be led by the Duke of Hamilton. Receiving no support from the Welsh gentry, however, Byron was unable to join Hamilton. He withdrew to Dublin and could only watch helplessly as the planned Royalist insurgency failed to ignite and the Scottish invaders were decisively defeated at the battle of Preston. In Ireland, Byron worked closely with the Marquis of Ormond as he negotiated with the Irish Confederates. When the Second Ormond Peace was concluded in January 1649, Byron carried the treaty to Charles II in exile at The Hague. Royalist hopes for an Irish army were dashed, however, when Cromwell and the New Model Army invaded Ireland in the summer of 1649.
Byron supported Charles II in his unprincipled alliance with the Scottish Covenanters in 1650, but did not accompany him to Scotland. Instead he joined the household of the Duke of York (later King James II) and served with him on his first campaigns with the French army.
Byron died suddenly at Paris in August 1652. The cause of his death is not known.
Although twice married, Byron left no children and the title passed to his brother Richard (1605-1679), who had been governor of Newark in 1643-5. Richard's descendant the sixth Lord Byron (1788-1824) was the great romantic poet, "mad, bad and dangerous to know."
John Barratt, Cavaliers: the Royalist Army at War 1642-46 (Stroud 2000)
A.H. Burne & P. Young, The Great Civil War (London 1958)
Ronald Hutton, The Royalist War Effort 1642-46, (London 1999)
Ronald Hutton, John Byron, first Baron Byron, Oxford DNB, 2004
Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies (Staplehurst 1998)