Viscount Castlereagh

The British statesman Robert Stewart Viscount Castlereagh and 2d Marquess of Londonderry (1769-1822), as foreign secretary did much to consolidate a firm final international alliance against Napoleon and to establish the framework for a remarkably durable European peace settlement.

Robert Stewart was born in Ulster on June 18, 1769, son of Robert Stewart and Lady Sarah Seymour. His father, a substantial landowner and member of the Irish Parliament, was raised to the Irish peerage in 1789. As the eldest son, Robert held the courtesy title of Viscount Castlereagh from 1796 until he succeeded as Marquess of Londonderry in 1821. His schooling in Ireland was followed by a year at Cambridge and by a good deal of contact with the influential English families of his mother and stepmother, the Hertfords and the Camdens. In 1794 he married Lady Emily Hobart, daughter of the Earl of Buckinghamshire. Entering the Irish Parliament in 1790, he at first advocated radical reform of that body. But increasing fear of French influence and finally the Wolfe Tone rebellion convinced him, and the British government, that the only way to cure political corruption in Ireland and Catholic grievances on representation and tithes was parliamentary union with Britain. Castlereagh became chief secretary for Ireland in 1798, and to him fell the distasteful task of "persuading" a majority in the Irish Parliament to accept the Act of Union (1800). He resigned with William Pitt in 1801, when George III opposed legislation to permit Catholic representation.

For the next 11 years Castlereagh was in and out of office. He served as president of the Board of Control for India (1802-1805) and briefly as secretary for war under Pitt. In 1807 he returned to the War Office. In September 1809, believing that the foreign secretary, George Canning, had been secretly intriguing against him, Castlereagh insisted on a duel in which Canning was slightly wounded. Both had resigned from the Cabinet a few days earlier, and both remained out of office for several years.

In March 1812 Castlereagh began his long tenure as secretary of state for foreign affairs, and in June he also became government leader in the House of Commons. He carried this double burden until his death, but it was in foreign affairs that he found his greatest success.


Peace Settlement

Napoleon's disastrous losses in Russia in 1812 broke his spell, and Britain could again weld an alliance with Russia, Prussia, and Austria against his restless domination. By the end of 1813 the Allies had reached the Rhine and the Duke of Wellington had crossed the Pyrenees, but differences in aims and tactics were bubbling to the surface.

The great problem now was to unite the Allies for an agreed settlement that would ensure a durable peace. Castlereagh proposed that France be allowed the boundaries of 1792 but be contained by independent buffer states and by balanced Great Powers. If these objectives were reached, Britain would return the colonies captured during the Napoleonic Wars. When Napoleon spurned these terms, Castlereagh succeeded in 1814 in pledging the Allies at Chaumont to a continuing Quadruple Alliance. Napoleon could not rally the weary French against invasion, and the First Treaty of Paris (May 30, 1814), made with the restored Bourbon government, embodied Castlereagh's moderate terms without occupation or indemnity except private claims. France was also pledged a voice at the Congress of Vienna except on matters affecting the balance of power.

Castlereagh played an important part at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), which negotiated a peace settlement emphasizing security and respect for law and treaties. To Castlereagh these objectives could best be ensured by a "just equilibrium" of the Great Powers, which would leave neither serious grievances nor prospect of easy gains to tempt resort to war, and in which the independence of the small states would be preserved. Ethnic factors got little attention from the peacemakers except for France, where Castlereagh and Wellington threw all their influence on the side of a settlement that would not arouse lasting national feeling. Even after Napoleon's Hundred Days in 1815, punitive measures of the Second Treaty of Paris were kept short term and symbolic. A new treaty of Quadruple Alliance publicly pledged immediate action if France crossed its frontiers in aggression or again accepted a Bonaparte and provided for periodic consultation by the four at top level (congresses).

Britain adhered to the Quadruple Alliance, and at the first Congress (Aix-la-Chapelle), in 1818, Castlereagh and Wellington were able to secure agreement to bring France into the congress system, to end the occupation, and to reduce the French debt for private claims by 80 percent while reaffirming the alliance against French aggression. This timely Congress put the capstone on the strategy of containing France within a settlement tolerable to the French nation.


Later Career

The next 4 years put Castlereagh under enormous strain. Severe economic depression and widespread agitation roused European governments to almost panic fear of revolution. In Britain the archconservatives in the Cabinet insisted on the repressive "Six Acts," for which Castlereagh bore the major responsibility in the Commons. The bill of divorce for Queen Caroline, on which George IV insisted, was also highly unpopular. And Castlereagh was attacked for consorting with the autocrats of the Alliance, who now repressed their own people and intervened in other states to suppress constitutionalist movements. Moreover, he was damaged by his icy reserve (attributed to shyness, for with friends and colleagues he had tact and charm), his disdain for criticism, and his stilted language. Actually, he was bending every diplomatic effort to dissuade the Austrian foreign minister, Metternich, from turning the congress system into an organization for suppressing constitutionalist movements.

In 1820-1821 Castlereagh withheld British representation from the Congress of Troppau-Laibach, making known to the governments of Europe that Britain denied any right of intervention. When another congress was called for September 1822 to deal with the Greek revolution and Spain and the Spanish colonies, he decided to try personally to dissuade the powers or, if need be, to break with them more openly. But it remained for his successor, George Canning, to carry out this policy, which he did with popular acclaim. Following a grueling term in the House of Commons, Castlereagh suffered a nervous breakdown, and on Aug. 12, 1822, he committed suicide.


Further Reading on Viscount Castlereagh

C. K. Webster has influenced all subsequent biographies with the two most thorough studies of Castlereagh's major work: The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh, 1812-1815 (1931) and The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh, 1815-1822 (1925; 2d ed. 1934). Also valuable are Sir J. A. R. Marriott, Castlereagh (1936); lone Leigh, Castlereagh (1951), particularly for the earlier years; C. J. Bartlett, Castlereagh (1967), a readable and balanced analysis of Castlereagh's career; and Bradford Perkin's important study, Castlereagh and Adams: Britain and the United States, 1812-1823 (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Derry, John W. (John Wesley), Castlereagh, London: A. Lane, 1976.

Hinde, Wendy, Castlereagh, London: Collins, 1981.