The forgotten philhellene: How an eccentric British aristocrat founded the first university in modern Greece

A young Guilford in Rome. Painting by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, 1790

The distinguished writer on Greek affairs, C.M. Woodhouse, once wrote that the two most influential Hellenophiles in Europe were Lords Byron and Guilford. But while Byron, whose life exemplified the golden age of the romantic idealist and roving revolutionary, remains idolised in both Britain and Greece, Guilford has faded into obscurity.

Yet Lord Guilford, the eccentric aristocrat who founded modern Greece’s first university, remains one of the most fascinating and elusive figures of the golden age, unlike anyone else of that era, a rogue among rogues.

Guilford was born Frederick North in 1766, the youngest of three sons of Lord North, who was Prime Minister between 1770 and 1782, during which time he notoriously ‘lost’ the American colonies. Like his father, the young Guilford attended Eton and Oxford after which he travelled aimlessly and took sinecure posts in Ceylon and Corsica.

All this was meant to groom him for a political career like his father.

Instead, while on a visit to Greece, Guilford fell madly in love with the country, mastering the language and converting to Greek Orthodox Christianity, much to the displeasure of his family.

He spent the rest of his life working for the cause of Greek emancipation through education, establishing the first university in modern Greece (in Corfu), providing scholarships for Greek students to study abroad, and embellishing the university with thousands of valuable books from his personal library. During this time, he rubbed shoulders with iconic figures such as Lord Byron, Ali Pasha and Ioannis Kapodistrias – independent Greece’s first President.

Largely disowned by his family back in England, he continued to devote his entire life (and finances) to helping the Greek people until his death, unmarried and childless in 1827.

Portrait of Guilford by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1815

Guilford first visited Greece in 1791, arriving in Corfu and spending the next two years travelling the country, most of which was under Ottoman rule at the time. He quickly fell in love with Greece, mastering the language and absorbing the history. In 1792, Guilford returned to Corfu where, at the age of 25, he converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity, causing him to be shunned by his family.

Incidentally, he became the first Greek Orthodox Christian to sit in the British Parliament – he was MP for Banbury at the time – and perhaps the only one until the election of Bambos Charalambous as MP for Enfield Southgate in 2017. For political reasons the conversion was kept secret from everyone except his family and close friends – this was at a time when Catholics were banned from sitting in Parliament and having to deal with a Greek Orthodox MP would have been too much of a headache for the political establishment.

Although Guilford continued to travel extensively, including a stint as governor of Ceylon, his heart remained in Greece. In 1814, he became president of the Society of the Friends of the Muses in Athens, an organisation that brought together philhellenes and members of the Greek intelligentsia. His time in Athens, still under Ottoman rule, consolidated his desire to do something for the cause of Greek emancipation.

In 1815, he attended the Congress of Vienna where he met Ioannis Kapodistrias – the future President of Greece. They discussed founding an institute of higher education in the Ionian Islands, which had just become a British Protectorate. They reasoned that an autonomous, self-governing Greek university, with Greek professors and Greek students, would be an important step in the emancipation of the Greek people. Guilford was enraptured – he had finally found his calling.

By this time, he had inherited the title of Lord Guilford from his father and began to exploit all his connections to realise his mad project of building a university on Corfu. He convinced Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, to appoint him director of education for the Ionian Islands.

In 1824, the Ionian Academy opened its doors. Its professors numbered some of the finest Greek minds of the day, teaching subjects as diverse as mathematics, botany and English.

Perhaps in protest of Britain, where Catholics were forbidden from attending Oxford or Cambridge, Guilford made sure the Academy was open to any man of any faith. However, as in Britain, only men were eligible for admission.

There was also a strict code of conduct that banned everything from drunkenness to “conduct unworthy of a gentleman”. Rulebreakers were confined to the island’s fort for up to a month. This was to be a place for serious academic study only.

Guilford nearly bankrupted himself by buying rare books to fill the Academy’s library, which had already been embellished with his own collection. At its peak, the library had 30,000 tomes, including “the most complete collection of modern Greek literature in the world.” He paid scholarships for promising Greek students to study abroad, with the expectation that they would return to teach at the Academy. He also financially supported many Greek students from the mainland who could not afford living expenses in Corfu.

The distinct pink building of the Ionian Academy, modern Greece’s first university

Guilford died in 1827, unmarried and childless, having devoted his entire adult life to the cause of Greek emancipation through education. Unfortunately, this would be the beginning of the end for the Ionian Academy. His relatives in Britain fought over his will and managed to reclaim many of his books, decimating the library. Without Guilford’s patronage, the Academy struggled for funding and lost many of its most talented staff. After the union of the Ionian Islands with the Kingdom of Greece in 1864, the Ionian Academy was closed to support the newly established University of Athens. Corfu would be without an institute of higher education until 1984, when the Ionian University was created as the successor to the Academy.

Guilford was certainly eccentric. He dressed in ancient Greek robes like Plato and conversed in an archaic form of Greek with the locals in Corfu. He also insisted on a strict dress code for students at his university, which was based on ancient Greek robes, with different colours for the different tiers of students. On the other hand, he recognised the importance of education to Greek emancipation and was conscious of the need to establish strong, self-governing institutions in Greece in preparation for the country’s eventual independence.

Contemporaries undoubtedly saw the importance of Guildford to the Greek national revival and state-building process, as can be seen by the naming of prominent streets in Corfu and Athens after him. A statue of Guilford stands in a garden not far from today’s Ionian University.

The two Guilford Streets in Corfu (left) and Athens (right). In typical Greek fashion, the spellings of his name are totally different

Despite this, Guilford has largely been forgotten in both Greece and Britain. Byron, the swashbuckling hero, womaniser and poet whose untimely death during the Siege of Missolonghi helped galvanise international support for the Greek War of Independence, fit easily into a narrative of romantic philhellenes giving their life for the noble cause of Greek emancipation.

By comparison, it is difficult to fit Guilford into this narrative. His eccentricity was ridiculed, rather than admired. He was not a self-publicist and his contributions were far less dramatic (though no less important). He had no great affairs, no military exploits, limited contact with key figures in Greece and abroad and largely confined his activities to the academic field. As a result, he was excluded from Greece’s post-independence meta-narrative and largely forgotten.

But today, as Greece celebrates 200 years of independence, there has been a reappraisal of Guilford, rescuing him from the margins of history and restoring his status as one of the most important philhellenes. The Ionian University has recently set up the Guilford Project to research and promote his legacy while plans are afoot to nominate him as Corfu’s “personality” in the centenary celebrations. Meanwhile, this year’s Corfu Literary Festival hosted an event celebrating Guilford and venerating him as a pioneer of British-Corfu friendship, a full century before the Durrells arrived.

Of course Guilford, being the modest man that he was, would find all this fuss over him a bit embarrassing. And yet it’s modest men like him who deserve to live long in the memory.

Statue of Guilford in Corfu