18 November 2016

Richard Church (1784-1873):
an Irish Anglican in the Greek
Struggle for Independence

Image of Sir Richard Church from his grave in the First Cemetery, Athens. Photograph: Patrick Comerford

Patrick Comerford

The poet Lord Byron and the Philhellenes are often portrayed as English romantics who devoted their lives to the cause of Greek independence in the early 19th century. But there were Irish Philhellenes too, including Sir Richard Church (1784-1873), who has been described as the ‘liege lord of all true Philhellenes.’ This forgotten Irish hero is commemorated in windows and memorials in Saint Paul’s Anglican Church in Athens, where a plaque claims he won the affection of the people of Greece ‘for himself and for England.’ Yet Church was Irish-born and his commitment to Greece was fired by his faith as an Anglican.

Church was born in Cork into a Quaker merchant family. In his youth, he ran away to join the army. His Quaker parents were disowned or excommunicated for buying him a commission and so they became Anglicans. He arrived in Greece in 1800 as a 16-year-old ensign serving under Sir Hudson Lowe from Galway. Lowe, who is remembered as Napoleon’s jailer, was the second-in-command in the expedition to the Ionian Islands.

Church took part in the capture of Kephalonia, Ithaki, Lefkhada, Zakynthos and Kythera. He wrote home: ‘The Greeks, who are slaves to the Turks and are Christians, are ... a brave, honest, open generous people.’ He soon began providing military training for Greek revolutionaries, including Theodoros Kolokotronis, who became the pre-eminent general in the Greek War of Independence. Church recruited the Greeks troops who captured Paxos and the town of Parga on the mainland, and assisted in the negotiations for the surrender of Corfu. By then, he had become ‘more Greek than the Greeks.’

At the Congress of Vienna, he argued for an independent Greece. But he was ordered to disband his Greek regiments, the Ionian Islands became a British colony, and, in an act of treachery, Parga was sold to Ali Pasha (1740-1822). A disappointed Church left Greece for a military career in Austria and Italy. But when the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, Kolokotronis and Edward Blaquière, a Dublin seaman of Huguenot descent, campaigned to bring Church back to lead the armed forces.

Two weeks after Church married Elizabeth Augusta Wilmot, who was sister-in-law of the Earl of Kenmare and related by marriage to Byron, the Greek government invited Church to take command of the army. After an absence of 12 years, he returned to Greece in 1827 to a hero’s welcome. He played a decisive role in uniting the Greek factions and in the election of Ioannis Kapodistrias as President, and Church was sworn into office on Easter Day, 15 April 1827.

One of his first actions was a disastrous attempt to drive off a Turkish force besieging the tiny Greek garrison in the Acropolis in Athens. But he soon rallied his forces and stirred a fresh rebellion across the northern Peloponnese. A major turning point in the War of Independence came at the Battle of Navarino, the last sea battle of the age of sail. Thanks largely to the actions of Church and Gawin Rowan Hamilton, an Irish officer in the British navy, a large Turkish naval force was defeated in a four-hour battle in October 1827. Turkey’s naval power was broken and Church rejoiced at what he called “this signal interposition of divine Providence.”

Church found it increasingly difficult to work with Kapodistrias, resigned and left Greece. But he soon relented, returned to Greece permanently, and became a Greek citizen. In 1834, he and his wife moved into a house in the heart of the Plaka, beneath the Acropolis in Athens.

King Otho (r. 1832-62) restored Church to the rank of general and appointed him Inspector-General of the army. But Otho was a despot, and in 1843 Church played a key role in a coup d’état, presenting the king with an ultimatum that demanded reforms or his abdication. Otho later took his revenge on Church, dismissing him as Inspector-General. But Church remained a life senator and during the Crimean War (1853-56) he was recalled as a general. A popular revolt in 1862 finally forced Otho to abdicate.

When Church died in his ninetieth year on 27 March 1873, he received a public funeral and was buried in the First Cemetery of Athens, close to Kolokotronis and the heroes of the War of Independence. In his oration, the Greek Ambassador to London, Ioannis Gennadios, described Church as ‘the truest Hellene, the most steadfast and most affectionate of the sons of Greece.’

In all, 31 people of Irish birth or with an Irish identity took part in Greek political life during the struggle for the independence and consolidation of the modern Greek state. But, unlike Byron, few of the Irish Philhellenes were romantics: their motivations were often political, and many saw the cause of Greece as the cause of an oppressed and persecuted Christian people. Church, who often travelled with nothing more than his Bible and his sword, believed the Greek struggle was a holy war.

This connection between his faith and action is seen in Saint Paul’s Anglican Church, Athens, where two sets of windows to his memory use Old Testament imagery to represent the Greeks as the chosen people and Greece as the Promised Land. Church is represented as Caleb who helps them capture the land from the Gentiles, and as David who, despite his stature, defeats the Philistines. The inference is that the Turks were Amalekites or the Philistines who deprived the Chosen People of the Promised Land.

The inscription on the brass tablet below the two-light north window was composed by the British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who unveiled the plaque in 1873. The south windows were presented in 1875 by the Church family, including his nephew, Richard Church, Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and a friend of Newman and the Tractarians.

Church’s grave is marked by a tall slender column with his carved profile, and topped with a Greek cross and a laurel wreath. The simple inscription reads: ‘Richard Church General who having given himself and all that he had to rescue a Christian race from oppression and to make Greece a nation lived for her service and died amongst her people rests here in peace and faith.’

Further Reading:

Douglas Dakin, British and American Philhellenes during the Greek War of Independence, 1821–1833 (Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1955). William St Clair, That Greece Might Still be Free: the Philhellenes in the War of Independence (Oxford and London: OUP, 1972).
C.M. Woodhouse, The Philhellenes (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969).

Biographical Note from List of Contributors:

Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy and Church History at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

‘Richard Church (1784–1873): An Irish Anglican in the Greek Struggle for Independence’, was first published in Salvador Ryan (ed), Treasures of Ireland, Vol III, To the Ends of the Earth (Dublin, Veritas, 2015), pp 117–120.

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