Castlereagh: Biography of a Statesman – A Review


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.


End of Week Twenty-four

Ambassadors 2

The Ambassadors trundles on, covering me in confusion. It’s now a wonder to me that I’ve made my way through anything by Henry James. I always assumed that Washington Square and The Turn of the Screw were deliberately ambiguous, not knowing that James couldn’t, apparently, write in any other way.  I’m over halfway through the novel and I’m still not sure what it’s about. Is it about the middle-aged man sent to Paris, a town he knew in his happier youth, to retrieve the errant son of his fiancée? Is it about the son and his love for a married woman? Is it about the woman’s daughter? It could be about all of these and more.

I’m on the home straight with Castlereagh.  The Prince Regent is now George IV and England is suffering from riots and mobs. Castlereagh himself has just escaped an attempt on his life and on those of other cabinet members. I’m as guilty as the next person of thinking that Regency England was more or less as peaceful as Jane Austen presented it, but it was the time of the Peterloo Massacre, Luddites and the assassination of a prime minister in the lobby of the House of Commons. The roots of Victorian morality and repression are becoming much clearer.

I decided that I could do with something light and frothy, so I’m reading Elizabeth Bailey’s The Gilded Shroud,  which is a historical romance set in the late eighteenth century.  Although it is light and frothy, it begins with the discovery of a murder victim, which is a rather serious matter. It is, however, fun to read something where every sentence means just what it says.


Books read in 2018: 27

Books read in challenge: 6

End of Week Twenty-Three

Ambassadors 2

It’s been a slow week for reading and little progress has been made with The Ambassadors. The writing is very dense and I have to read some sentences twice to make sure I’ve understood them. Sometimes I’m not even sure then and I’ll get to the end of a paragraph and wonder what actually happened. Very little is made clear to the reader and, since I’m not a reader from the early twentieth century, I don’t know if I’m making the correct interpretive leaps from the bare bones that James has left for me. Actually, describing the writing as dense whilst complaining about bare bones is not as contradictory as it sounds. The sentences are long and wandering, yet communicate very little.

Castlereagh continues to enlighten.  The explanations of Britain’s strategy in post-Napoleonic Europe are fascinating as are the various complaints against Castlereagh.  I don’t understand how he continued to serve in government in the teeth of such violent opposition. Come to that, I don’t really understand why there was such opposition. I accept that John Bew is partisan and presents the Foreign Secretary in the best light possible, and can only conclude that Castlereagh’s talents are only able to be appreciated two hundred years after the event.

I’ve made it to the end of the third book of Troilus and Criseyde. The two lovers have been meeting secretly and all is well. There’s another two books to go, so I suspect that Fortune’s Wheel will turn.


Books read in challenge: 6

Books read in 2018: 26

The End of Week Twenty-Three

Ambassadors 2

The Ambassadors was first published as a serial in the monthly magazine The North American Review in 1903. I learned this from a 17-page preface written by James, which seems to assume that the reader of the current edition has already read either the original serialisation or an earlier edition. I’m therefore going to finish reading the Preface when I’ve finished the book. The same thing applies to Christopher Butler’s Introduction.

The few pages of the preface that I read were quite hard to follow. At first I thought this was because I was drinking a glass of wine as I was reading, but, no, it turns out that this is the style of the book. The sentences are long and unwieldy and the paragraphs seem interminable.

My edition ((World’s Classics 1991) also has notes. So far, these consist of telling me how clever James is and saying that I’ll notice for myself how clever he is when I read the book for a second time.  Reading the book is not without joy, but it is hard work and I suspect that James expected the reader to work as hard as the writer had.

In other reading I’m still working my way through Castlereagh by John Bew. We’ve got to the Congress of Vienna and Napoleon has just escaped from Elba. This book is doing a very good job of filling in the many gaps in my understanding of what was going on during the Regency. Despite that, I would have preferred to know a bit more about Castlereagh’s private life. Since the subtitle is Biography of a Statesman, however, I should not have expected it. Despite its length (750 pages) and its subject matter, it’s proving to be a very easy book to read.


Books read in Challenge: 6

Books read in 2018: 25

End of Week Eighteen

Ovid Erotic Poems

I’ve almost finished Mansfield Park and will be giving my opinion of it next week.

The Erotic Poems continue to be hard work.  I’m convinced that this is the fault of the translator, rather than Ovid. Here are a few lines from the poem I’ve just read:

… I just wish the goddess
Of Pathos and sea-girt Cythera would cool it off
In her dealings with me…

… none but you shall be sung
In my verses, you and only you shall give my creative
Impulse its shape and theme.

Even if you accept that it’s a prose translation of poetry, it doesn’t flow well. I could have taken such an example of leaden writing from almost any poem in the book. I don’t believe that you should have to keep reminding yourself that you’re reading poetry when you’re reading translated poetry. The truly irritating thing is that the translator’s notes show that he writes well.


Castlereagh is a very different biography to the one I read recently about Rupert Brooke. Whereas Brooke’s biographer took 100 pages of closely printed text to get Brooke into the sixth form at Rugby, John Bew has taken fewer than 80 to get Castlereagh into parliament and marriage.

To my shame, I know very little about British politics during the 1790s, except that there was generally a fear of invasion by republican France, with whom Britain was at war from 1793.  The biography begins with such an invasion almost taking place on the south-west coast of Ireland.  As happened surprisingly frequently, bad weather prevented the soldiers landing and the threat of invasion receded. Castlereagh was there as an officer of the militia sent to repel the invasion. This event, and first-hand experience of revolutionary France, had a great effect on his politics.


Books read in challenge: 5

Books read in 2018: 20

End of Week Seventeen

Ovid Erotic Poems

I’ve reached the end of the second book of Troilus and Criseyde and they’ve met for the first time. Troilus is in his brother’s house pretending to be sick and Criseyde is visiting in the pretence of obtaining help in a lawsuit. A sneaky kiss has been exchanged.

It’s getting easier to read the Middle English, although there are still far too many new words to make me stumble and grind to a halt.

Ovid’s Erotic Poems are turning out to be very funny, although the translation is more than a bit laboured. To give you an idea of his sense of humour here is his introduction to The Amores, translated by Peter Green.

We are our author’s book. Before, we comprised three sections,
Now we’re cut down to three. The decision was his.
You still may derive no pleasure from reading us – but remember,
With two of us gone, your labour is that much less.

Whilst I’m not keen on the translation, Ovid’s wit overcomes it.

In other reading I’ve started John Bew’s Castlereagh. I mentioned it when I was reading the biography of Rupert Brooke, because it has been sitting on a bookshelf somewhat reproachfully since I bought it when it was first published.

It’s a biography of the man who was Secretary of Foreign Affairs at the time of the defeat of Napoleon. He was a close friend of the Duke of Wellington and one of the great movers and shakers at the Congress of Vienna.  The only other things I knew about him before I started reading was that he committed suicide and that very few people had (or have) a good thing to say for him.

One interesting thing I’ve learned in the first few pages is that the three men who probably had the most influence on the shape of Europe in the early nineteenth century were born within 6 weeks of one another. These were Castlereagh himself, Wellington and Napoleon.  Castlereagh and Wellington were born a few streets away from one another in Dublin.


Books read in the challenge: 5

Books read in 2018: 20