25 August 2019

A palace in Corfu first
built 200 years ago for
honoured British diplomats

The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu was once home to a British order associated with ambassadors and diplomats (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Senior British diplomats are regularly decorated with the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, which was founded on 28 April 1818 by the Prince Regent, later King George IV, while he was acting as regent for his father, King George III.

The three grades of membership carry different initials that have led to in-jokes about their meaning among British diplomats:

● Companion (CMG): Call me god;
● Knight Commander (KCMG) or Dame Commander (DCMG): Kindly call me god;
● Knight Grand Cross or Dame Grand Cross (GCMG): God calls me god.

The purpose of the order was to honour senior British officials in high positions in the Mediterranean territories Britain acquired from France in the Napoleonic Wars. Later, membership was extended to people holding similar posts in other British territories.

The order’s motto is Auspicium melioris ævi (‘Token of a better age’). Its patron saints are Saint Michael the Archangel and Saint George, patron saint of England. One of the symbols shows Saint Michael trampling down Satan.

The Prince Regent founded the order to mark British rule in the Ionian Islands, which came into British hands in 1814 and became the United States of the Ionian Islands in 1817. At first, the order was intended to reward ‘natives of the Ionian Islands and of the island of Malta and its dependencies, and for such other subjects of His Majesty as may hold high and confidential situations in the Mediterranean.’

The order’s original home was the Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu, the residence of the Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands and the seat of the Ionian Senate.

The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu, between the old town of Corfu and the Venetian-era Old Fortress was commissioned 200 years ago by Sir Thomas Maitland as the residence of the British Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands. It was designed in the Greek revival style of neoclassical architecture by Colonel George Whitmore of the Royal Engineers and was built in 1819-1824.

The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu was the first building in the Greek Revival style of neoclassical architecture built on Greek territory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George is also known as the Royal Palace or the City Palace. But to the people of Corfu it is simply the Palaia Anaktora (Παλαιά Ανάκτορα) or ‘Old Palace.’

The palace was the High Commissioner’s residence and the home of the Ionian Senate, but also as the home of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George. The foundation stone was laid on Saint George’s Day, 23 April 1819, and the palace was completed in 1824.

This was the first building in the Greek Revival style of neoclassical architecture built on Greek territory. It was built of limestone imported from Malta, and Maltese workers were employed in its construction. The sculptures in the palace are the work of the Maltese sculptors Vincenzo and Ferdinando Dimech, and the Corfiot sculptor Pavlos Prosalentis.

After Corfu and the Ionian Islands voted to join the modern Greek state in 1864, the palace was a Greek royal residence until World War II.

The palace survived the Italian bombardment of Corfu City during the ‘Corfu Incident’ in 1923. It suffered even greater damage when it was used as temporary housing for refugees from Epirus during the Greek Civil War (1946-1949).

The Greek state was only able to restore the palace interiors in 1954 with the help of a private trust organised by Sir Charles Peake, the then British Ambassador to Greece. Until 1967, the Greek king occasionally used the palace on state occasions while in residence at his nearby villa, Mon Repos.

A view of the harbour of Corfu from a palace balcony (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Today the palace houses the Museum of Asian Art of Corfu. The collection of the museum started in 1927 and consists mostly of donations, the largest being from Gregorios Manos with 10,500 pieces.

The two gateways flanking the palace are the Gate of Saint Michael and the Gate of Saint George. The state rooms consist of a grand staircase, a rotunda in the centre leading to two large rooms, the Throne Room and the state dining room. The Palace was renovated for the EU Summit meeting in 1994.

The palace gardens, complete with old Venetian stone aquariums, exotic trees and flowers, overlook the bay through old Venetian fortifications and turrets. The local sea baths are at the foot of the fortifications surrounding the gardens. The Art Café on the grounds has its own art gallery with exhibitions of local and international artists.

When the Greek monarchy was abolished after the fall of the colonels’ junta, the old Royal Gardens at the palace were renamed the ‘People’s Garden’ (Ο Κήπος του Λαού).

After Corfu and the Ionian Islands voted in 1864 to become part of Greece and the British protectorate ended, the basis of the order was revised in 1868. Membership was granted to those who ‘hold high and confidential offices within Her Majesty’s colonial possessions, and in reward for services rendered to the Crown in relation to the foreign affairs of the Empire.’

Since 1906, the order’s chapel has been in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. New members are installed at religious services in the chapel, and the knights and dames have stalls in the choir of the chapel.

People are appointed to the order rather than awarded it. British Ambassadors are regularly appointed KCMG or CMG, and this is the traditional award for members of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The two gateways flanking the palace are named after Saint Michael and Saint George (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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