The Suicide of Lord Castlereagh

© By Cheryl Bolen

Since I strive for authenticity in my Regency-era historicals, especially in my Regent Mysteries, I try to use many personages who actually existed. English Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh makes a few appearances in my A Most Discreet Inquiry (Regent Mysteries, Book 2).

Born Robert Stewart in Ireland in 1769, he was elevated to Viscount Castlereagh at the age of 26 when his father became the Earl of Londonderry. Two years earlier he had entered the English House of Commons, where he would serve until his death in 1822 and which he would lead for the last decade of his life.

Lord Castlereagh

Lord Castlereagh

The same year he entered the English Parliament, 1794, was also the year in which he married Amelia (Emily) Hobart, daughter of John Hobart, 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire. Castlereagh’s maternal grandfather (Francis Seymour Conway, 1st Marquess of Hertford) as well as his father-in-law had both served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Lord and Lady Castlereagh were devoted to each other but never had children. Lady Castlereagh became well known in London as one of the patronesses of Almack’s.

As Secretary of War in 1809, he challenged Foreign Secretary George Canning to a duel at Putney Heath. In the duel, he shot Canning in the leg and had to leave government for the next three years.

He returned in 1812, at the age of 43, becoming Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, a position her held for ten tumultuous years, while also leading the Tories in the House of Commons. Despite that he worked tirelessly for his country to ensure a lasting European peace, he was extremely unpopular not only with the populace he served but also among newspaper editors and political cartoonists.

He succeeded his father as Marquess of Londonderry in 1821, but since it was a non-representative Irish peerage, he could still serve as leader of the House of Commons of Great Britain.

Two weeks before his suicide the next year he began suffering from paranoia, which could be attributed to the years of abuse by an angry citizenry and press, overwork, or even gout. 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 violent with his wife, accusing her of being in a conspiracy against him. She left their bedroom to call the doctor. That was when her husband went to his dressing room with a small knife which he had managed to hide. He stabbed himself in the carotid artery. Just as Dr. Bankhead entered the room, he said, “Let me fall on your arm, Bankhead. It’s all over!”

The suicide of Lord Castlereagh

The suicide of Lord Castlereagh

The nation was shocked. Even his bitter parliamentary opponent Whig Henry Brougham mourned him. “Put all their other men together in one scale, and poor Castlereagh in the other – single he plainly weighed them down,” Brougham said. “Also he was a gentleman, the only one amongst them.”

Lord Byron did not agree. He wrote over his grave:

Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.

Despite the circumstances of his death—attributed to insanity—the longtime Foreign Secretary was buried in Westminster Abbey near his political ally and mentor William Pitt. –Cheryl Bolen, whose novella, A Christmas in Bath, continues her Brides of Bath series set in Regency England.

5 thoughts on “The Suicide of Lord Castlereagh

  1. Castlereagh’s suicide was declared ‘while of unsound mind’ which meant he could have an honorable burial and his money wasn’t forfeit to the crown. It is a measure of public feeling that this outraged people when a carpenter who killed himself was given the ignominy of a burial naked at the crossroads with a stake through the heart. This caused such a public outrage and outcry that parliament changed the law concerning suicides and repealed the part about the burial being at the cross roads.
    It is sometimes forgotten hat he had succeeded to the title of Londonderry . That was brought home to me when I went to the library to find some biographies of him and couldn’t find anything under Castlereagh. . Though the marquisate has some higher titles the heir is usually known as Castlereagh in honor of the distinguished predecessor. It is hard to get to know Castlereagh. He was a dedicated public servant, lived a moral life ( at least as far as we know) in the midst of gross immorality, was probably a bit obsessive , seems to have lacked a sense of humor or the absurd, and was hated by Byron. and many Whigs. He was particularly hated by many for giving Europe back to the monarchies that had so oppressed the people before Napoleon. Ironically , some think that it was the return of the old despots that fueled the fight for nationalism that disturbed the 19th century.

  2. My new book will be of interest to readers of this page:

    Mr. Carttar’s Inquest: A Study of the Inquest into the Death of Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, 1822.

    Description: Among the most well-known ‘facts’ in British history is that Lord Castlereagh, the foreign secretary, committed suicide on August 12, 1822, by severing his carotid artery with a pen knife at his country residence, North Cray Cottage, near London.

    The following day, an inquest was held into Castlereagh’s death. Presided over by Mr. Joseph Carttar, Coroner for the Western Division of the County of Kent, the inquest deposed only two witnesses and sent the rest away unexamined. The court’s chief finding was that Castlereagh must have killed himself because no one else could have.

    This book, the first that has ever been written about Mr. Carttar’s inquest, challenges the idea that Castlereagh committed suicide, showing that the inquest was an exercise in manipulation and deceit whose purpose was to obfuscate the true circumstances of Castlereagh’s death.

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