When Lord Byron began a scandalous affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, centred around her home of Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, it was the latest in a long line of scandalous behaviour which the Romantics were to become famous for.

Romanticism was a movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was a time of great change, with numerous revolutions in Europe creating widespread fear that the status quo was about to be overthrown. Romantics celebrated the notion of freedom and were often supportive of revolution.

Romanticism was a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. Instead of praising science and rationalism, they focused on individuality and imagination, and were known for shunning traditional conventions.

Many Romantic artists and writers became involved in scandals that would make their names synonymous with immorality.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, was known to be a regular user of opium.

One of his most famous poems, Kubla Khan, was apparently written under the drug’s influence.

He attempted to keep his addiction hidden, but it became public knowledge when his friend, Thomas de Quincey, published an autobiographical account entitled Confessions of an English Opium Eater. This text painted a negative picture of Coleridge and he subsequently suffered a dip in popularity.

In 1816, Coleridge met Dr James Gillman, who welcomed the poet into his home and attempted to help him with his addiction.

Gillman was never able to entirely cure Coleridge of his opium habit, but he did manage to bring it under control.

Coleridge was far from the only Romantic writer whose actions led to notoriety.

When the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin, future author of Frankenstein, fell in love, their affair would lead to years of ostracism and isolation.

In 1814, Shelley abandoned his pregnant wife, Harriet, and ran away to Switzerland with Mary, who was then just 16 years old.

They were forced to return home six weeks later when they ran out of money. Upon their return to England they realised the damage they had each done to their reputations. They were ostracised from polite society and ignored in public. Even Mary’s own father refused to see them.

The situation worsened when the body of Shelley’s estranged wife, Harriet, was found in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, London. The evidence suggested that she had drowned herself.

Barely three weeks later, Shelley and Mary were married. Though they were both publicly against the institution of marriage, they hoped that it would help Shelley gain custody of his and Harriet’s children.

However, the courts awarded custody of the children to foster parents, on the grounds that Shelley was an atheist.

Less than a month before his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned while sailing a boat in Italy. Despite the fact that he could not swim, he had been a keen sailor.

The day after the news of his death reached England, the newspaper The Courier gloated: ‘Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned; now he knows whether there is God or no.’

His body was cremated on a bonfire on a beach in Viareggio. It is claimed that Shelley’s close friend, Edward Trelawny, snatched Shelley’s whole heart from the bonfire and kept it as a gruesome souvenir.

The painting (above) shows Byron at Shelley’s funeral, and the two were indeed close friends. They travelled around Europe together with Mary Shelley and Mary’s half-sister (and Byron’s lover) Claire Clairmont. Their actions were much frowned upon at the time; so much so that they were known as ‘the League of Incest’.

Lord Byron is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable figures of the Romantic period. During his lifetime he was both adored and condemned for his supposedly immoral lifestyle. He was known to have numerous affairs with women, many of whom were married, but rumours persisted that he was homosexual.

Homosexuality was a crime in the nineteenth century that still carried the death penalty.

Lady Caroline Lamb herself was responsible for some of the rumours that spread about Byron.

His half-sister, Augusta, alarmed by the rumours she was hearing, wrote to Byron’s wife to let her know of the terrible things being said about her husband. She quoted Byron as admitting, ‘Even to have such a thing said is utter destruction and ruin to a man from which he can never recover.’

Perhaps fleeing from such rumours, Byron left England and travelled through Europe.

But gossip followed him and everywhere he went it seemed that people had heard of his supposed crime.

Rather than try to hide from the world, however, Byron became even more reckless in his writing and had to be cautioned by several of his friends, in case the sexual explicitness of his work should get him into trouble.

Byron died of a fever, aged 36, but his legend lives on in the continued use of the term ‘Byronic hero’, which describes a character who is proud, moody and possessed of strong emotions.