Andrew Rylah, of Codicote Local History Society, looks at the life and times of Knebworth House's Edward Bulwer Lytton.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Knebworth House in Hertfordshire.Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. (Image: Alan Davies)

"The pen is mightier than the sword."

Famous around the world, this well-known phrase stems from Hertfordshire.

Its writer was Edward Bulwer Lytton, a well-known Victorian novelist, playwright and politician, whose family home was at Knebworth House.

Perhaps not a familiar name today, but back then he led a multi-faceted, public life. Such was his renown that he was even offered the crown of Greece in 1862, but declined.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Edward Bulwer Lytton, 1862Edward Bulwer Lytton, 1862 (Image: Knebworth House)

Bulwer Lytton was born into wealth on 25 May 1803. He showed early literary promise, publishing his first book aged 15. Its text included a love poem to ‘C’, (reputedly Lady Caroline Lamb, who depicted Byron as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’).

Sadly, his juvenile infatuation went unrequited, but his writing skills and reputation grew. At Cambridge University he won the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for English verse.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Edward Bulwer LyttonEdward Bulwer Lytton (Image: Knebworth House)

And in 1826 he printed a small volume of poems, ‘Weeds and Wild Flowers’, for his friends and family.

Public success was just a matter of time, coming in 1828 with his novel ‘Pelham’ about a pre-Victorian dandy.

This was followed by ‘The Disowned’, a novel that drew on the life of a real-life forger, Henry Fauntleroy, who was hanged in front of 100,000 people.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: ‘Harold - The Last of the Saxon Kings’ by Edward Bulwer Lytton.‘Harold - The Last of the Saxon Kings’ by Edward Bulwer Lytton. (Image: Andrew Rylah)

His literary fame peaked in the 1830s and 1840s with melodramatic novels of historical fiction, romance, the supernatural (allegedly influencing Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’) and science fiction (popularising ‘Hollow Earth’ theories in a novel about a subterranean race rising up to reclaim the earth).

Charles Dickens was a great friend and frequently took part in amateur theatricals at Knebworth. Some of those programmes still survive, as do over 100 letters from Dickens.

One letter included a new happy ending to ‘Great Expectations’ that Bulwer Lytton persuaded Dickens to adopt.

Is that an improvement on the original text where Pip and Estella don’t get back together? You decide.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Edward Bulwer Lytton portrait by Ward, 1854Edward Bulwer Lytton portrait by Ward, 1854 (Image: Knebworth House)




Welwyn Hatfield Times: Edward Bulwer LyttonEdward Bulwer Lytton (Image: Knebworth House)

Bulwer Lytton’s pen produced other well-known phrases including "the pursuit of the mighty dollar" and the disparaging term "the great unwashed", spoken by one of his characters.

In the 1960s, Snoopy (of ‘Peanuts’ comic strip fame) was often shown starting his novel with ‘It was a dark and stormy night’.

Disparagingly, this has led to an annual contest for the worst opening lines to an imaginary novel, which seems somewhat harsh.

Bulwer Lytton also had a successful political career. He was first elected to Parliament as a Whig (the predecessor of the Lib Dems) in 1831.

He spoke in favour of the Reform Bill, the important act that extended the right to vote and rid the country of ‘rotten boroughs’ where a mere handful of voters decided who was MP.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Edward Bulwer LyttonEdward Bulwer Lytton (Image: Knebworth House)

He left Parliament in 1841, returning as a Conservative for Hertfordshire from 1852 to 1866, when he entered the House of Lords.

During the 1850s he served as Secretary of State for the Colonies, alongside his friend and future Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. His successes included setting up the new Australian colony of ‘Queen’s Land’, and British Columbia in Canada.

Domestically, life was much more troubled. In August 1827 he married Rosina Wheeler, a novelist and advocate for women’s rights and social reform. Edward’s mother disapproved and withdrew financial support, leaving them short of money.

Although the couple had two children, Emily and Edward, the marriage itself was disastrous. Bulwer Lytton’s long working hours, his absences, and his infidelity led to a formal separation in 1836.

That was just the start of mutual disdain over many years. Matters came to a head in 1858 when Rosina denounced him at an election meeting.



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He retaliated by cutting off her allowance, denying her access to the children, and even getting her incarcerated in a mental asylum – until a public outcry got her released. Tragically his daughter, Emily, died aged just 19.

As he grew old Bulwer Lytton increasingly suffered from hearing problems. After a failed operation to cure deafness, he developed a painful abscess which burst. It’s suspected that the infection caused a fit which killed him on 18 January 1873 - 150 years ago. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Bulwer Lytton was a prolific writer who inspired operas and plays, and his works were translated into various languages. And his political influence led to places in Australia, Canada, the US and New Zealand being named ‘Lytton’ after him – just as they are locally around Knebworth.


Everyone is welcome at Codicote Local History Society’s monthly talks. For details, contact Nicholas Maddex - email - or check

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  • Knebworth House brochure
  • Wikipedia – Edward Bulwer-Lytton et al.