Published: September 1911
Until the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo three years ago, I was only vaguely aware of Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh. Then I discovered that he was a friend of Wellington’s, was Foreign Secretary at the time of Waterloo and was one of those responsible for the shape of Europe during the nineteenth century.
He was born in Dublin in 1769 and took his own life in 1822. As a member of the Irish Parliament from 1790, he was a supporter of Pitt and was offered an English seat in 1794 so that he could sit in the House of Commons where he remained for the rest of his life. He was Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1799 to 1801, Secretary of State for War from 1805 to 1809, Leader of the House of Commons from 1812 until his death and Foreign Secretary from 1812 until his death.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that everyone hated him. Believing that Ireland needed the support of the rest of Britain to protect them from French Revolutionary armies, he was in favour of union with Britain. By background, he had more in common with those who opposed the union, but it was part of his role as Chief Secretary for Ireland to put down the rebellion. Both sides complained about his actions in doing so.
He supported Catholic emancipation, which displeased George III and much of Britain, but he was also unloved by Catholics who thought it was merely a facade. Emancipation did not finally take place until after his death. When he was Secretary of State for War he was accused both of spending too much money on the war against Napoleonic France and not spending enough; of being too bold and too reticent. And so it went on.
Castlereagh is best known for his role at the Congress of Vienna, pressing for a united front among the European monarchs against Napoleon, but aiming for an agreed non-interventionist stance between them which more or less kept the peace in Europe for another century. He positioned himself as the man everyone could trust and, for the most part, the ministers of the other great powers did.
John Bew takes the view that Castlereagh was a great statesman, who was guided by the political beliefs of Pitt long after Pitt’s death. The biography is not a whitewash, but I do wonder about some of the things that are not said. Whether he was more corrupt than other politicians (as he was accused of being) or not, it’s clear from this biography that he was equally as corrupt as them. He was no more above nepotism than anyone else, sending his very undiplomatic younger brother on various missions to the courts of Europe.
As well as explaining Castlereagh’s positions on various issues, Bew is also good at sketching the background to those positions. At the beginning of one chapter he mentioned in passing something that was happening in France. I’d barely had time to think that I had no idea what he was talking about before he provided a summary of the circumstances. All was clear and we proceded together.
The picture of Castlereagh presented by Bew is that of a man with very little ego and less ambition who wore himself out in public service. Not all of his decisions were wise and not everyone he trusted was worthy of that trust. For Bew, and for me now, Castlereagh was a great politician whose support for Wellington in the face of much opposition, and whose negotiations during and after the Congress of Vienna did much to aid the security of the country he served until long after his death.
It’s a good book to read if you’re interested in the politics of the Regency period. It’s not a good book if you’re interested in the details of Castlereagh’s private life. The suggestion that syphilis or the fear of being accused of being a homosexual were possible reasons for his suicide came as bolts from the blue.
Ultimately, Bew suggests, Castlereagh and his career have still to find their proper place in British history, with historians not quite sure what to make of him.