‘Here lie the bones of Castlereagh’ – An Irishman’s Diary on a political colossus
Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh. National Portrait Gallery, London
In Irish historical folk memory, Lord Castlereagh is a hated figure because of his overseeing of the suppression of the 1798 Rebellion and his subsequent ushering in of the Act of Union. Yet a 2013 BBC documentary, entitled Europe’s Forgotten Father, credited him with giving war-torn Europe a century of stability through his role at the Congress of Vienna and described him as a “flawed and forgotten political colossus”.
He was born Robert Stewart, son of the man of the same name who eventually became Marquess of Londonderry, in Dublin 250 years ago on June 18th and grew up in the family seat at Mount Stewart in Co Down. He attended the Royal School, Armagh, and St John’s College, Cambridge, graduating with first-class honours. Remarkably for an aristocrat, he decided to go to France to see the revolution that was happening there for himself.
In 1790, he became a member of the Irish House of Commons for Down and although sitting as an Independent, he supported the Whigs and strongly backed the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger.
With the political situation in Ireland becoming more unsettled and the possibility of a French invasion increasing, Pitt replaced the popular Lord Fitzwilliam with Earl Camden as Lord Lieutenant. Stewart was Earl Camden’s nephew and became his adviser. When martial law was declared, Stewart became acting and then actual chief secretary – the head of government in Ireland.
In this role he presided over the brutal suppression of the 1798 rebellion.
Now convinced that only union between Ireland and Britain could save British rule, he set about, with Pitt’s backing, persuading the Irish parliament to abolish itself. Although bribery and corruption were common political practices at the time, the campaign Viscount Castlereagh (he’d been granted this courtesy title in 1796) undertook was on an uncommon scale.
Both he and Pitt had promised Catholic Emancipation would be part of the Act of Union and when the king opposed this, they both resigned. But a few years later, Pitt was again prime minister and Castlereagh became secretary of state for war and the colonies.
Disputes with the foreign secretary, George Canning, led to a duel and his resignation from government but, in 1812, he was brought back to government as foreign secretary, a role in which he served until his death.
His main preoccupation was the defeat of Napoleon, in pursuit of which he closely cooperated with his friend Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. He played a central role in negotiating the Treaty of Chaumont that led to the quadruple alliance of Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia and the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. Castlereagh also took a leading role in the Congress of Vienna, which established a balance of power among European countries and kept the continent from witnessing another major military conflict for almost 100 years.
But success abroad was not repeated at home, where he became increasingly unpopular because of being associated with the repressive measures of Lord Liverpool’s government and especially its home secretary, Lord Sidmouth, who cracked down harshly on all demands for reform.
This culminated in the 1819 “Peterloo massacre” (an ironic comparison to Waterloo), where cavalry charged into a peaceful crowd of 60,000-80,000, gathered to demand parliamentary reform, killing 18 and injuring hundreds.
In response, Shelley wrote the Masque of Anarchy, which had the lines: “I met Murder on the way, / He had a mask like Castlereagh.”
Posterity will ne’er survey A nobler grave than this. Here lie the bones of Castlereagh: Stop, traveller, and piss
In 1822, Castlereagh suffered a nervous breakdown, worn out by his workload as leader of the House of Commons and the constant diplomacy needed to solve disputes among the European powers.
His father had died the year before and it has been suggested that he felt his loss deeply as he’d been a rock of stability in his life. It has also been suggested that his mental deterioration was caused by syphilis.
He killed himself by cutting his throat on August 12th, leaving a widow, Emily Hobart (whom he married in 1794) but no children and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Lord Byron’s quatrain about his burial place was unsparing: “Posterity will ne’er survey / A nobler grave than this. / Here lie the bones of Castlereagh: / Stop, traveller, and piss.”
The judgement of historian Charles Webster, in The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh (1931), was more measured but nonetheless damning: “There probably never was a statesman whose ideas were so right and whose attitude to public opinion was so wrong. Such disparity between the grasp of ends and the understanding of means amounts to a failure in statesmanship.”