12 August 1822: The death by suicide of Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh on this day. Born in Dublin in 1769 to a political family of wealthy Presbyterian stock, Castlereagh’s sympathies – in an era of awakening nationalisms – were for the Irish patriot cause. But a visit to revolutionary France in the early 1790s tempered his thinking. He now warned of the dangers for any nation to be placed “in the hands of experimental philosophers”. Castlereagh was not initially a counter-revolutionary, but a reformist keen on political progress (not least Catholic emancipation). However ambition meant he could never rise in politics with such an approach and the further he rose the more reactionary he became.
As Chief Secretary of Ireland during the 1798 Rising he oversaw its brutal repression and in 1800 was instrumental in ensuring that the old Parliament of Ireland voted itself out of existence by the use of threats, bribery and the use of Government placement to get the result needed. Even 20 years later, political cartoons would depict Castlereagh lurking around Westminster with a cat o’ nine tails behind his back.
But while a cold and calculating man there was no doubting Castlereagh’s great skills of diplomacy and the ability to form alliances against Napoleonic Rule on the European Continent. As chief secretary for Ireland from 1796 to 1800, colonial secretary from 1802 to 1805, war secretary from 1806 to 1809 and foreign secretary from 1812 to 1822 he was on top of his game dealing with those who he viewed as a threat to the established order.
While he took criticism of his politics with aplomb it eventually started to effect his internal stability and that combined with his ‘workaholic’ character led to a gradual and then noticeable decline of his mental faculties. Friends, political colleagues and his own family became ever more concerned for his well being.
He began suffering from paranoia, which could be attributed to the years of abuse by an angry citizenry and press, overwork, or even gout or VD. He imagined himself persecuted from every quarter and became irrational and incoherent. His devoted wife continued sleeping with him but removed pistols and razors from his reach and kept in close contact with her husband's physician, Dr. Bankhead, who had cupped him.
Three days before his death he met with King George IV, who became upset over Castlereagh's mental state, as did the Duke of Wellington, with whom he was close. Knowing that he was losing his mind, Castlereagh left London for Loring Hall, his country estate in Kent. The morning of his death he became intemperate with his wife Emily, accusing her of being in a conspiracy against him. She had already hidden his razors. But unbeknownst to her he had small knife which he had managed to hide.
On the morning of the day he did away with himself he asked to see Bankhead his Doctor. He told his wife to stay in the bedroom and was escorted to the dressing room by his long standing domestic servant Mrs Robinson who he promptly dismissed . It was 3 or 4 minutes before Bankhead arrived where he saw Castlereagh with his back to him and both arms raised he cried out :
For God’s sake my lord what are you doing, what is the matter? Castlereagh gasped I have done for myself I have opened my neck. Bankhead rushed forward to catch him but it was too late, as Castlereagh sank to the floor with blood running from his neck and a small pen knife in his hand with which he had cut the the carotid artery in his neck.
Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny
by John Bew
An enigma to some degree though there is no doubt he was the most influential Irishman in the corridors of power in London for over 20 years where he helped to shape Britain’s foreign policy towards making her a formidable nation in the World. He also materially influenced and helped to defeat the Napoleonic Empire and restore the Balance of Power in Europe after its collapse.
A cold character overall he was feared and loathed by many who did not share his political philosophy. Not many liked him and indeed many hated him including some of England’s greatest poets.
I met Murder on the way
He had a mask like Castlereagh
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him… one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew.
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed the human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
The Masque of Anarchy
Percy Bysshe Shelley