Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh

Stewart, Robert, Viscount Castlereagh, 2nd Marquis of Londonderry, was born, probably at Mount-Stewart, in the County of Down, 18th June 1769. [His father, Robert Stewart, represented the County of Down in two Parliaments, was elevated to the peerage as Baron Stewart in 1789, advanced to be Viscount Castlereagh in 1795, Earl of Londonderry in 1796, and Marquis of Londonderry in 1816.]

Robert Stewart is said to have inherited all his father’s benevolence of heart and sweetness of disposition, united to a firmness and resolution of character which nothing could ruffle or intimidate.

He received his early education at the Royal School of Armagh, and at seventeen entered St. John’s College, Cambridge. He there devoted himself assiduously to study, taking good places at the half-yearly examinations; but left after that in December, 1787, when he was first in the first class.

In the two following years he made the grand tour, visiting the principal cities of Europe.

Evincing an ardent desire to engage in politics, in 1790 he was put in nomination by his father for a vacancy in the representation of Down, and was elected after a struggle of two months’ duration, and an outlay of £60,000.

This enormous expense obliged his father to abandon the intention of building a family mansion, and to reside for the remainder of his life in “an old barn, with a few rooms added.”

In 1793 he was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel of the Londonderry militia, and in the following year married the youngest daughter of the Earl of Buckingham, “a lady whose congenial disposition, amiability, and talents made her his constant partner in every act of kindness or bountiful charity to which his generous nature incessantly prompted him.”

His career in the House of Commons was successful from the first. He sided with the popular party, and advocated, among other liberal measures, that which gave Catholics the vote in 1793.

His opinions were so radical that he once presided at a public dinner where the toast, “Our sovereign lord, the people,” was drunk.

Gradually, however, his views underwent a complete change, in common with those of many of his contemporaries, influenced, probably, by the excesses of the French Revolution—and from an ultra Liberal he became the most strenuous supporter of conservative British influence in Ireland.

This change must have taken place very soon after the passing of the Irish Reform Bill, as in the same year (1793) he advocated the suppression of the Volunteers, and the establishment of an Irish militia upon the same footing as that of Great Britain.

Writing to his grandfather, Earl Camden, at this period, he says:

“My opinion has invariably been that the country could never have any security against sedition as long as volunteering was tolerated, nor its internal peace be firmly established till a militia took its place.”

His letters and papers, relating to home and foreign politics, even at this early stage in his career, evince extraordinary foresight and sagacity.

On the advancement of his father in the peerage in October 1795, he succeeded to the courtesy title of Viscount Castlereagh, by which he has been since known in history.

In 1797 Lord Camden appointed him Keeper of the Privy Seal, and it was arranged that during Mr. Pelham’s retirement in England, he should discharge the duties of Chief-Secretary of Ireland. He was thus at once introduced into active public life, from which he never withdrew till his dying hour.

Pelham resigned in April 1799, from a conscientious objection to any further concession to the Catholics, and on the recommendation of Lord Cornwallis, the rule theretofore observed, that the Chief-Secretary should be an Englishman, was broken through, and Lord Castlereagh was given the office.

From the time of his appointment as Lord-Keeper, however, he had discharged the whole duties of Secretary, and they were of a most arduous kind—covering the period of the Insurrection.

Whilst he advocated the sternest measures of suppression, his private despatches clear his character from the charge of vindictiveness of motive.

The acerbity of Irish parties during the struggle, the extent of disaffection, and the narrow escape the Empire had of dismemberment, confirmed Lord Cornwallis and Lord Castlereagh in the belief that some change in the government of the country was absolutely necessary, and they both threw themselves with the utmost energy into Pitt’s project of a union between Ireland and Great Britain.

The following extracts from Lord Castlereagh’s papers embody the reasons that influenced him in differing from the vast body of his countrymen on such a vital question:

“The times require that we should, if possible, strengthen the Empire as well as this Kingdom. We at present require, and shall continue, I fear, to require, a larger military force than our own resources can supply. There can be little doubt that a union, on fair and liberal principles, effected with the good will of both Kingdoms, would strengthen the Empire; and there can be as little question that Ireland would be more secure were the resources of England pledged to her by incorporation than, as they are at present, but as a favour. The complexion of our internal system is most unpleasant; it is strongly tinctured with religious animosity, and likely to become more so. United with England, the Protestants, feeling less exposed, would become more confident and liberal; and the Catholics would have less inducement to look beyond that indulgence which is consistent with the security of our establishments. … A provincial legislature and a deputive executive want that policy of union, that weight and energy, necessary to contrive wise measures, but principally to carry them into effect against the powerful impulse of such combustible materials. The united strength and wisdom of the Empire alone, acting on a constant plan, and far removed from the little party squabbles that divide the inhabitants of this country, are adequate to command obedience, and impose silence on such jarring elements. Both the Parliament and people of Ireland have, for the seventeen years past, been almost entirely engaged in lessening, by degrees, their dependence on Great Britain, in weakening the connexion, and paving the way for the separation of the two countries. It signified nothing to say that their views were honourable and patriotic; that Ireland was held in chains by the sister kingdom; and that they had a right to seize the moment of her depression and generosity, or what else you choose to call it, to rescue themselves from this indignant situation. … The connexion between the two countries is reduced by them almost to a single thread—the unity of the executive power, and a negative on the laws passed in the Irish Parliament. … I do not say that the present members of the Irish legislature are at all inclined to come to these extremities; their conduct has been in the highest degree loyal, and their attachment to England sincere. But who can answer for their successors; nay, who can even answer for themselves, in case the rebellion should acquire a firm consistence, and be so powerfully supported by Gallic force or machinations as to seem in a fair way of succeeding? … When the political existence of one country is so dependent on the protection of another, as that she needs only to be deserted for a single moment in order to fall into the most miserable state of anarchy and disorder, surely the protecting country has a right to demand that the subordinate one should adopt every means for her own preservation that justice and equity may prompt her to offer. Though the preponderating country may not find it convenient or even safe to desert the other on account of her refusing to adopt these means, yet is the refusal itself an act of the most manifest and downright injustice that can possibly be conceived.”

As far as Great Britain was concerned, the question was decided without difficulty, on 31st January 1799, when eight resolutions in favour of the Union, moved by Mr. Pitt, were carried by 140 to 5 in the Commons, agreed to without a division in the Lords, and endorsed by a joint address of both Houses to the King.

But it was in Ireland the real difficulty lay.

On the morning of 23rd January, after a debate lasting twenty-one hours, the address in which the question was mentioned was carried by a majority of one (106 to 105); but next night the Union paragraph was expunged by 109 to 104, and the greatest rejoicings ensued throughout Ireland.

The measure was abandoned for that session; Cornwallis was despondent as to the ultimate issue; but Pitt and Castlereagh were only the more confirmed in their resolution to let no obstacles prevent the accomplishment of their design. “The measure neither is nor never will be abandoned,” wrote the Duke of Portland.

Lord Castlereagh and his colleagues now bent themselves to bring about the Union by every means within their power.

The story of their operations, from the point of view of their political opponents, will be best read in the Life of Grattan by his Son, and in Barrington’s Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation; and as told by themselves, in the Cornwallis Correspondence and the Castlereagh Papers.

The characters of the two leaders in the movement are strikingly exhibited in these works. Cornwallis continually shows his detestation of what he believes to be the unavoidable duty of bribery and violence imposed upon him—he longs to kick out of his presence the men with whom he traffics; whilst Castlereagh sets about his work in a cool and business-like manner, without compunctions of any kind. Yet the former was sixty-one years of age, and the latter only thirty.

Some members of Parliament were brought over by fair argument.

The country was overawed by the presence of a large army.

The Catholics were buoyed up with promises of Emancipation after the Union; and a State provision for their clergy was planned. Protestants were told that a union was the only means of preserving the Protestant establishment, and were terrified by the possible results of Catholic ascendency in an Irish Parliament.

Bribery was openly resorted to; and promises of place and peerages, or elevations in the peerage (“refined species of seduction,” as Alison calls them), were freely made.

All legitimate reforms, such as might render a union less likely to be called for, were opposed in Parliament.

The wavering were brought over by declarations that the Government would never lose sight of the measure until it was carried.

Opponents were dismissed from office. Officers in the army, who held seats in Parliament, and were likely to vote against the measure, were refused permission to return home.

Means were resorted to, but with little success, to get up petitions in favour of the Union; and every effort was made to discourage adverse petitions.

No stronger admission can be cited as to the means it was found necessary to employ to carry the measure, than a passage in Lord Castlereagh’s memoirs (vol. ii. p. 13), where he endorses Cornwallis’s opinion, that the event of the question of Union was altogether dependent on the continuance of the English militia in Ireland.

The difficulties these statesmen had to wade through were complicated by the necessity of concealing from Lord Clare and others of their colleagues, the prospects of speedy emancipation and possible endowment that were privately held out to the Catholics as the price of their tacit concurrence.

After another year of unwearied and unflinching labour on the part of the Irish executive, the preliminary motion in favour of the Union was carried in the Commons, about one o’clock on the morning of 6th February 1800, by a vote of 158 to 115; and thenceforward all was easy work for Castlereagh and his friends.

The Irish House of Lords was from the first largely in favour of the measure. The only matter of surprise is that, in view of threats and arguments, lavish promises of place and title, and boundless resources for “compensation” and bribery, in the face of the recent insurrection, and of the revolutionary troubles in France, so many members of the Irish House of Commons stood out to the last, and refused to make terms with those who sought the extinction of the autonomy of their country.

Thomas De Quincey, who was present, thus concludes, in his Autobiographic Sketches, a vivid account of the last act in the drama:

“The Bill received the royal assent without a muttering, or a whispering, or the protesting echo of a sigh. … One person only I remarked whose features were suddenly illuminated by a smile, a sarcastic smile, as I read it; which, however, might be all a fancy. It was Lord Castlereagh, who, at the moment when the irrevocable words were pronounced, looked with a penetrating glance amongst a party of ladies. His own wife was one of that party; but I did not discover the particular object on whom his smile had settled. After this I had no leisure to be interested in anything which followed. ‘You are all,’ thought I to myself, ‘a pack of vagabonds henceforward, and interlopers, with actually no more right to be here than myself. I am an intruder, so are you.’

The last Act of the Irish Parliament was 40 George III. cap. 100, “For the better regulation of the Butter Trade of Cork.”

The Act of Union is 40 George III. c. 38 (1st August 1800) of the Irish Statutes, and 39 & 40 George III. c. 67 (2nd July 1800) of British Statutes. It came into operation on 1st January 1801. Its chief provisions were:

(1) That the two islands should be united as “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland;” that the affairs of the Empire should in future be carried on in that name, as they had been under that of “England” before the union with Scotland in 1707, and under that of “Great Britain” subsequently. By royal proclamation the red “saltier” cross of St. Patrick was added to the Union Jack, “interfused” with the white cross of St. Andrew, which had been added after the Scotch union.

(2) The Parliaments of the Kingdoms were to be united; Ireland sending 100 members to the Commons, and 4 spiritual and 28 temporal peers to the Lords.

(3) The Churches of England and Ireland were united, and “the continuance and preservation” of the Established Church of England and Ireland was “deemed and taken to be an essential and fundamental part of the Union.”

(4) The subjects of both countries were placed on the same footing regarding foreign trade.

(5) The public debts of the two countries were to be kept separate, and for twenty years the relative contributions for imperial purposes were to be two shares by Ireland to fifteen by Great Britain. After twenty years, under certain contingencies, the exchequers of the countries might be united.

Mr. Lecky says:

“The Union was emphatically one of that class of measures in which the scope for statesmanship lies not in the conception but in the execution. Had Pitt carried it without offending the national sentiment—had he enabled the majority of the Irish people to look back on it with affection or with pride—had he made it the means of allaying discontent or promoting loyalty—he would indeed have achieved a feat of consummate statesmanship. But in all these respects he utterly failed. There was, it is true, no small amount of dexterity of a somewhat vulpine order displayed in carrying the bill; but no measure ever showed less of that enlightened and far-seeing statesmanship which respects the prejudices and conciliates the affections of a nation, and thus eradicates the seeds of disaffection and discontent. … The manner in which it was carried was not only morally scandalous; it also entirely vitiated it as a work of statesmanship.”

Lord Cornwallis and Lord Castlereagh experienced almost as much difficulty in redeeming their promises as to the granting of peerages as they had in passing the measure.

The English cabinet stood aghast at the list presented; and it was only by threatening to resign office that the Lord-Lieutenant and Chief-Secretary were able to secure the fulfilment of their pledges.

The Catholics, however, found themselves completely betrayed. Their tacit assent, or at least quiescence, without which it would have been all but impossible to succeed, had been secured by assurances that the measure would be speedily followed by Emancipation.

Pitt had astutely omitted to make this part of the negotiation known to George III.; and when, after the Union, the King was approached on the subject, it was found he would never agree to such a change in the constitution—the very mention of it caused him to shed copious floods of tears, and unbalanced his mind for some time.

To save appearances, Pitt resigned, and with him Lords Castlereagh and Cornwallis.

In order not to further embarrass the Government, Lord Castlereagh refrained from seeking immediate advancement for himself in recognition of his services in bringing about the Union. He represented the County of Down in the United Parliament, where his administrative powers were soon recognized; but he was, not unnaturally, regarded by the great majority of his fellow-countrymen and the English liberals with feelings of the deepest rancour.

Although he was nominally out of office, he gave every assistance to the Government in carrying on its Irish policy.

There are in his Correspondence some remarkable memoirs penned by him at this period for the guidance of the Ministry—urging the necessity of Catholic Emancipation, the payment of the Catholic clergy, the substitution of a charge upon land for tithe, and the erection of military works of defence in Ireland.

In July 1802 he was appointed President of the Board of Control, and Mr. Alison says:

“From this time forward his main attention was directed to foreign affairs; and his biography becomes the diplomatic history of Europe, down to the period of his death, twenty years afterwards.”

Lord Wellesley bears this testimony to his Indian administration:

“The whole course of my public service, as far as it was connected with the public acts of that most excellent and able personage, affords one connected series of proofs of his eminent ability, spotless integrity, high sense of honour, comprehensive and enlarged views, sound practical knowledge, ready despatch of business, and perfect discretion and temper, in the conduct of the most arduous public affairs. … He never interfered in the slightest degree in the vast patronage of our Indian empire; and he took especial care to signify this determination to the expectants by whom he was surrounded.”

He retained the Presidency of the Board of Control after Pitt’s return to power in May 1804, and a year later was transferred to the head of the War Department. He lost this position on the death of Pitt in January 1806, but was re-instated on the return of the Tories to power in April 1807, and remained in office until September 1809.

Mr. Alison thus eulogizes his administration:

“He entered upon the direction of the War Office in April 1807 … When removed from office in September 1809, he had succeeded, by his unaided efforts, not only in securing the independence of his country, and arresting the torrent of Napoleon’s victories, but he had set in motion that chain of events which in their final results produced his decline and fall. … He had resuscitated the contest on the Continent. He had fitted out an army, and appointed a commander whose exploits had already recalled the days of Crecy and Agincourt. … He had established a military system for the defence of the country. … Never was a minister who in so short a time had conferred such benefits on his country, or so quickly raised it from a state of imminent danger to one of comparative security and imperishable glory. … If Lord Castlereagh had not broken through the usual routine of military promotion, and given Wellington the command in Portugal, and supported him and urged the continuation of the Peninsular war, when both were violently assailed by a violent opposition, and Government had only a slender majority, … the campaign of Torres Vedras would have never encouraged the Russians to resist French invasion, and furnished a model on which their system of defence was to be framed. If he had not, in the same year, strenuously combated the recommendation of the Bullion Committee, national bankruptcy would have prostrated Great Britain at the very crisis of the war. If he had not withstood the loud clamour against the Peninsular war, if he had failed in feeding Wellington with adequate supplies, the battle of Vittoria would never have caused Joseph’s crown to drop from his head, or brought Austria at the decisive moment into the field, after the armistice of Pleswitz.”

On the 4th of April 1809, in consequence of disagreements between Lord Castlereagh and Mr. Canning as to the conduct of the war, it was resolved, at a private meeting of the Cabinet, at which the former was not present, that his lordship should be called upon to resign.

This resolution was not communicated to him until the 7th of September.

The result was a duel between Castlereagh and Canning, in which the latter was wounded, and the resignation of both of them.

As a member of the House of Commons, he continued to take the keenest interest in public affairs, and upon Lord Wellesley’s resignation in February 1812, he was appointed Secretary of Foreign Affairs, a post he held until his death.

He is said soon to have communicated the impress of his mind to the whole Ministry, and to have gained an ascendency over his colleagues in forwarding an active and energetic war policy against France—occupying in this, as in many other respects, the position formerly held by Pitt.

In December 1813, he was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary with the allied Sovereigns; and although not actually a member of the Chatillon Congress of the following February, exercised, through his brother, a preponderating influence upon its proceedings and in the settlement of Europe at the period of Napoleon’s retirement to Elba.

For these services he was decorated with the order of the Garter.

Alison says that he earnestly sought to bring about the formation of a strong German Confederation, and, as a curb upon the ambition of Russia, the restoration of Poland as an independent monarchy. He also strenuously advocated the abolition of the slave trade.

When Castlereagh made his first appearance in Parliament after his return from the Congress of Vienna, the whole house spontaneously rose, and received him with cheers.

During the Hundred Days he was indefatigable in his exertions to keep together the Grand Alliance and prepare the means of resisting Napoleon, and after the battle of Waterloo he went to Paris to conduct in person the negotiations then pending for the settlement of the affairs of Europe.

There he seconded Wellington’s efforts to restrain the extreme measures threatened by Blucher against the capital of France; while, on the other hand, he had a large share in compelling the restoration of the works of art—the plunder of Europe—with which Paris had been enriched.

After these events his attention was mainly directed to home politics, and the course he took was one of uncompromising opposition to all measures of reform and all efforts to satisfy the political aspirations of the people.

Not being a man to shun danger, or to shirk the responsibility of the policy he believed right, he did not in any way seek to conciliate opposition.

In 1821, on the death of his father, he became Marquis of Londonderry.

The arduous nature of his duties in connexion with the congresses of Troppau, Laybach, and Verona, which assembled between 1820 and 1822, pressed very heavily upon a mind already overtaxed with public affairs, and produced a state of febrile excitement similar to what he had experienced after the passing of the Act of Union.

The King and Wellington separately remarked a change coming over him. The family and his physician were put upon their guard, a watch was set upon him, and even his razors were removed from within reach.

On the morning of 12th August 1822, after passing a restless night, he went into his dressing-room, and desired his physician to be sent to him.

Dr. Bankhead hurried in and found him standing facing the window, with his hands above his head, his throat cut and bleeding profusely. He had managed to conceal a penknife.

Castlereagh threw his arms round the doctor’s neck, and, saying in a feeble voice, “Bankhead, let me fall on your arm; I have opened my neck; it is all over”—sank on the ground and expired. He was then 53 years of age.

No words can express the varied feelings of grief, horror, and delight that pervaded the country at the news of this catastrophe.

The funeral procession to Westminster Abbey was attended by an immense concourse of people, who, while the coffin was being removed from the late peer’s residence to the hearse, and again from the hearse to the Abbey, vented their joy at his death in shouts of exultation.

The feelings of the masses in Ireland, so far as they found expression, were not more respectful to the memory of the deceased statesman.

Lord Castlereagh was greatly beloved by his family; he was munificent to the poor, and encouraged letters both in Ireland and England. He delighted in field sports. The statue over his remains in Westminster Abbey almost looks down upon the simple flagstone that marks the grave of Henry Grattan.

Sir Robert Peel bears testimony to Castlereagh’s abilities:

“I doubt whether any public man (with the exception of the Duke of Wellington) who has appeared within the last half century, possessed that combination of qualities, intellectual and moral, which would have enabled him to effect under the same circumstances what Lord Londonderry did effect in regard to the Union with Ireland, and to the great political transactions of 1813, 1814, and 1815. To do these things required a rare union of high and generous feelings, courteous and prepossessing manners, a warm heart and a cool head, great temper, great industry, great fortitude, great courage, moral and personal, that command and influence which makes other men willing instruments, and all these qualities combined with the disdain for low objects of ambition, and with spotless integrity.”

Barrington says:

“In private life, his honourable conduct, gentlemanly habits, and engaging demeanour were exemplary. Of his public life, the commencement was patriotic, the progress was corrupt, and the termination criminal. His first public essay was a motion to reform the Irish Parliament, and his last was to corrupt and annihilate it by bribing 154 of its members. It is impossible to deny a fact so notorious. History, tradition, or the fictions of romance contain no instance of a minister in Ireland who so fearlessly deviated from all the principles which ought to characterize the servant of a constitutional monarch, or the citizens of a free country.”

Lord Brougham thus sums up Lord Castlereagh’s character:

“His capacity was greatly underrated from the poverty of his discourse; and his ideas passed for much less than they were worth, from the habitual obscurity of his expressions. … Scarce any man of any party bore a more important place in public affairs, or occupies a larger space in the history of his times. … He was a bold and fearless man; the very courage with which he exposed himself unabashed to the most critical audience in the world, while incapable of uttering two sentences of anything but the meanest matter in the most wretched language; the gallantry with which he faced the greatest difficulties of a question; … all this made him upon the whole rather a favourite with the audience whose patience he was taxing mercilessly, and whose gravity he ever and anon put to a very severe trial. … In council he certainly had far more resources. He possessed a considerable fund of plain sense, not to be misled by any refinement of speculation, or clouded by any fanciful notions. … The complaints made of his Irish administration were well grounded as regarded the corruption of the Parliament by which he accomplished the Union; … but they were wholly unfounded as regarded the cruelties practised during and after the rebellion. Far from partaking in these atrocities, he uniformly and strenuously set his face against them. … Lord Castlereagh’s foreign administration was as destitute of all merit as possible. No enlarged views guided his conduct; no liberal principles claimed his regard; no generous sympathies, no grateful feelings for the people whose sufferings and whose valour had accomplished the restoration of their national independence, prompted his tongue. … He flung himself at once and for ever into the arms of the sovereigns.”

The Marquis of Londonderry was succeeded in his honours by his brother Charles. The Memoirs and Correspondence, edited by the latter, appeared in twelve volumes, between 1848 and 1853.

Sir Archibald Alison’s Lives of Lord Castlereagh and Sir Charles Stewart, 3 vols. 1861, embrace in reality a history of Europe during his lifetime, from a very conservative point of view.


21. Barrington, Sir Jonah, Historic Memoirs of Ireland. 2 vols. London, 1835.

72. Castlereagh, Viscount: Memoirs and Correspondence, edited by the Marquis of Londonderry. 12 vols. London, 1848–’53.

72a. Castlereagh, Lives of Lord, and Sir Charles Stewart: Sir Archibald Alison. 3 vols. London, 1861. See also No. 216a.

87. Cornwallis, Marquis, Correspondence: Charles Ross. 3 vols. London, 1859.
Cotton, Rev. Henry, see No. 118.

98a. De Quincey, Thomas: Autobiographical Sketches. Edinburgh, 1853.

127. English Stage, Annals of the: Dr. Doran, F.S.A. 2 vols. London, 1864.

212. Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland—Swift, Flood, Grattan, and O’Connell: William E. H. Lecky. First and Second Editions. London, 1861–’71.
Lecky, William E. H., see No. 212.

281. Peerage for the People: William Carpenter. London, 1835.

313. Statesmen in the Time of George III.: Lord Brougham. 6 vols. London, 1845.

314. Statutes, Public General, of the United Kingdom.