George Gordon, or Lord Byron, one of the first and best-known philhellenes, actively participated in battles in Greece’s War of Independence, eventually losing his life in Missolonghi on April 19, 1824.
Born in 1788, Gordon, who had 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 aspect and died young for a cause he was passionate about, which turned him into greater 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, Λόρδος Βύρωνας, as he is called, epitomized the concept of Philhellenism because he died at the age of 36 for the freedom of a homeland that was not even his own.
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.”
Early years in the life of Lord Byron
George Gordon, the 6th Lord Byron, was born on January 22, 1788 in London into an aristocratic family. At the age of ten, he inherited the English Barony of the Byron of Rochdale from his uncle, thereby becoming Lord Byron.
He was born with a problem in his right leg which left him with a life-long limp that 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.
Horseback riding, boxing, and 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 throughout the country and visited all the monuments of Greek civilization.
At the same time, Byron fell in love with the daughter of the British consul, Theodoros Makris and dedicated his famous poem “Daughter of Athens,” written in 1809, to her.
He remained 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 in even more money for him, which he spent profusely on distractions and further 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 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, the writer of “Frankenstein.”
In Italy, Byron continued his erotic adventures, which were captured in his collection “Don Juan.” When in Italy, he actively supported the liberation movement which had broken out there.
Sometime during 1823, Byron received an invitation to actively support the Greek struggle for independence from Ottoman rule.
He spent a tremendous amount of his personal fortune to repair ships in the Greek fleet, and he even set up his own military squad composed of fighters from Souli.
After remaining for six months in Cephalonia, he 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 personal fortune for the furthering of the Greek Revolution.
Lord Byron simultaneously 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.
Lord Byron remembered as a great philhellene
Along with his concern for the military course of the Greek Revolution, the English aristocrat assumed the role of the 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 incredibly 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 hero of their own people but also from England, where the distinguished romantic poet was greatly 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 certainly was one of the greatest admirers the nation of Greece has ever had.