King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Byron & politics: ‘born for opposition’

Introduction to: Greece: Hellenism & heroism

Photograph of exhibition case 8 showing sculpted portrait bust medallion of Byron, books and manuscripts.Case 8 Revolution against Ottoman Turkish rule broke out in Greece in March 1821. But it was only after the death of Percy Shelley in a boating accident in July 1822, that Byron began to take seriously an idea that had perhaps begun with Shelley – that he should himself take ‘some part’ in the struggle for Greek independence.

The catalyst was an approach, in the spring of 1823, from the newlyformed London Greek Committee. The Committee asked no more of Byron than to lend his name and give moral support to the cause. But when two emissaries from the Committee arrived in Genoa on 5 April 1823, they found Byron already declaring his intention to go to Greece and take an active role. On 16 July 1823, Byron and his entourage sailed from Genoa with letters of introduction addressed to prominent individuals and institutions in Greece from the spiritual leader of the Greeks in Italy, Bishop Ignatios.

After leaving Italy, Byron wrote almost no more poetry. The poem written at Missolonghi on his 36th birthday is the only one that he finished in Greece. In taking up the Greek cause, Byron transformed himself from a Romantic poet into a statesman and man of action. Once in Greece, as we know from the accounts of William Parry and Colonel Leicester Stanhope, he quickly mastered the complex political realities of the revolution and began to promote a coherent programme to create a new kind of political organisation in free Greece, that of the self-governing nation-state.

While he was getting to grips with the politics of Greece, Byron kept his distance from Greece itself. From August to December 1823 he made his headquarters on the island of Cephalonia, at that time part of the British protectorate of the Ionian Islands. It was not until the last days of December that he set off on the hazardous voyage to Missolonghi, the chief town on the north side of the Gulf of Patras. There he made common cause with the foremost of the ‘modernisers’ among the Greek leaders, Alexandros Mavrokordatos, who shared his vision of a future Greece governed by the rule of law.

Photograph of exhibition case 9 showing letter, pamphlet, books and facsimile print.Case 9Byron spent less than four months in Missolonghi. He gave large amounts of money to support the Greek fleet and a brigade of the picturesque Souliot warriors whom he had admired on his first visit to the country. In return, Mavrokordatos assigned the command of these troops to Byron. But soldiering at Missolonghi in winter-time was little more than a diversionary tactic. Byron and Mavrokordatos expected that they would soon move to the capital, at Nafplio in the Peloponnese, once the internal divisions among the Greeks were resolved by the arrival of a huge loan from London that Byron’s fame had helped to raise.

But before this could happen, Byron died of fever, in Missolonghi, on Monday 19 April. A eulogy was spoken over his body by the prominent citizen and future historian of the Revolution, Spiridion Tricoupis. His remains were then embalmed and transported to England for burial in the parish church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.

Two years later, Missolonghi was overwhelmed by the Turks after a year-long siege. Many of the inhabitants blew themselves up rather than surrender; others broke out of the besieged town in a doomed act of desperate defiance, known ever since in Greece as the ‘Exodus’ of Missolonghi. The fate of Missolonghi, and of Lord Byron who had made the town famous, reverberated around the world. It would prove a turning point in the Greek war of independence, and assure the success of the policy that Byron and Mavrokordatos had fought for: to make of Greece a modern European nation-state.

In this exhibition

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