April 19, which coincides with Orthodox Easter Sunday in 2020, marks 196 years since Lord Byron, the most famous British Philhellene, died in Messolonghi in 1824.
George Gordon, Lord Byron is one of the first and best-known personalities who loved Greece so much that he was willing to fight to the death for its independence.
Byron actively participated in Greece’s War of Independence, eventually losing his life in Messolonghi on April 19, 1824.
Born in 1788, George Gordon, who held the title of Lord Byron, became the leading figure of British Romanticism at the beginning of the 19th century.
He lived a full life in every possible aspect and died at a young age for a cause he loved, which made him into even more of a romantic legend than he had been while a living poet.
Young, handsome and aristocratic, Byron lived exuberantly and had innumerable romances and scandalous relationships — although his acts of selfless heroism became part of a wider historic struggle.
For Greeks, Lordos Byronas, as he is called, epitomized the concept of philhellenism.
He died at the age of 36 for the freedom of a homeland that was not even his own, yet somehow managed to become an enormous part of his short life.
Byron was also a bitter opponent of Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon sculptures, denouncing the “theft” in the poem “The Curse of Minerva.”
George Gordon, the sixth Lord Byron, was born on Jan. 22, 1788 into an aristocratic family in London. At the age of ten, he inherited the English barony of Byron of Rochdale from his uncle, thereby becoming Lord Byron.
He was born with a problem with his right leg which left him with a limp that followed him throughout his life and affected his character and work. His life changed drastically when he became a peer of the realm.
In 1803, Byron fell in love with his cousin Mary Chaworth. This unfulfilled love found creative expression in his first love poems. From 1805 until 1808, Byron attended Cambridge University, with sexual scandals and excesses becoming a prominent part of his student years.
Horseriding, boxing, and profligate gambling were also added to his pastimes and addictions.
At the age of 21, Byron entered the House of Lords, and in the following year he began his long journey to the Mediterranean, where he would write one of his most famous poems, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” which described the impressions of a young man traveling in unfamiliar lands.
During his tour of the Mediterranean in 1809, Byron visited Greece for the first time and immediately fell in love with the country after meeting Ali Pasha, the Ottoman ruler at the time. The poet traveled all over the country and visited all the monuments of Greek civilization.
At the same time, Byron found himself falling in love with the daughter of the British consul Theodoros Makris, and he dedicated his famous poem “Daughter of Athens,” written in 1809, to her. He stayed in Greece for another ten months, following various adventures such as swimming in the Straits of the Hellespont (better known as the Dardanelles), imitating the feat of the ancient Greek hero Leander.
In 1811, while suffering from malaria, Byron decided to return to Britain. He lost his mother as well during that year, but the publication and success of “The Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” along with a series of new sex scandals and stormy romances, helped him overcome his grief.
His subsequent poetry collections brought him even more money, which he spent profusely on distractions and sexual adventures, with his debts accumulating accordingly once more.
As a way of escaping ephemeral relationships, he married Ana (Annabella) Isabella Milbank, a highly educated and cultivated woman, in January of 1815, and in December of that year their daughter, Augusta Ada, was born.
The marriage did not last long, however, as in January of the following year, the union ended, with Anabella leaving Byron. The once-dissolute poet soon returned again to a life of debauchery, epitomizing the quintessential “troubled romantic poet.”
Self-exile, and selflessness, in Greece’s War of Independence
In April of 1816, in a particularly hostile atmosphere caused by his nonstop scandals, which forced him to avoid appearing in public, Byron left England, never to return. He traveled to Geneva, where he befriended the writer Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary.
In Italy, Byron continued his erotic adventures, which were captured in his collection “Don Juan.” Being in Italy, he actively supported the liberation movement which had broken out there.
Sometime during 1823, Byron received an invitation to lend his support to the Greek struggle for independence from Ottoman rule. He spent a tremendous amount of his fortune to repair ships in the Greek fleet and he even set up his own military squad, composed of fighters from Souli.
After staying for six months in Cephalonia, Byron decided to move to Morias in the Peloponnese, but he finally stayed in Missolonghi. While there, he contacted Alexandros Mavrokordatos, to whom he donated another large installment of his fortune for the furthering of the Greek revolution.
At the same time, Lord Byron acted as a channel of communication between Greek fighters and British philhellenes in the creation of the first revolutionary loan, as a member of the London Philhellenic Committee.
Seeing the political controversies which had already erupted among the leaders of the Greek rebels, Byron called for the exclusive use of money for the liberation of the nation, instead of being used for political purposes.
Along with his concern for the military course of the Greek Revolution, the English aristocrat also assumed the role of a bridge between the chieftains. He points out in one of his letters: “As I come here to support not a faction, but a nation and to work with honest people rather than speculators or abusers (charges that are exchanged daily among the Greeks), it will take much effort to avoid and I understand that this will be very difficult, because I have already received invitations from more than one of the parties fighting, always on the grounds that they are the true representatives of the nation.”
In a letter to a trusted friend in September 1823, Byron further complained: “The Greeks seem to be at a greater danger among them, rather than from the enemy’s attacks.”
After attempting for so long to mediate the infighting among the leaders of the Greek Revolution, Byron suddenly fell ill in February of 1824. The great philhellene, perhaps the greatest there ever was, died on April 19, 1824, in Missolonghi, at the young age of 36.
The lamentations after the great poet’s death came not only from among the Greek freedom fighters who saw him as a hero of their people but also in England, where the distinguished romantic poet was mourned publicly.
Dionysios Solomos – Greece’s national poet, who also wrote the National Anthem – eventually composed a long ode to the memory of Lord Byron, who undoubtedly was one of the greatest admirers the nation Greece has ever had.