Tuesday 12 August 2014

"My mind, is, as it were, gone": The Suicide of Castlereagh

Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, KG, GCH, PC, PC (Ire), Viscount Castlereagh (Dublin, Ireland, 18th June 1769 – North Cray, Kent, England, 12th August 1822)

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry by Thomas Lawrence, 1809-10
Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1809-10

There are some names that echo through the ages, men and women who will always be remembered for their philanthropy, heroics, or perhaps their infamy. These are the names that seem to sum up their era for better or worse and for me, one of these names is undoubtedly Castlereagh, a man who is perhaps less well known now than he once was though for me, he is a figure of endless fascination. Today marks the anniversary of his death and it is this story that I will tell, a bleak end to a troubled existence. 

Castlereagh lived a life among the highest political spheres, serving in a number of high profile government offices in which he found himself increasingly at odds with public opinion. Associated with wildly unpopular policies and broken political promises, as he was attacked by the people, so too did his mental health become increasingly frail. In the year of his death, increasing stress saw Castlereagh's behaviour becoming increasingly erratic as he descended into paranoia.

As summer drew on, Castlereagh returned to the sanctuary of Loring Hall in North Cray, Kent, where his friends and family remarked that he cut a most unsettled and unhappy figure. With his physician, Doctor Bankhead, in constant attendance and all razors and other dangerous implements removed from his reach, the once influential man passed long and unhappy days in mental distress until, somehow, he managed to come by a penknife.

The Suicide of Lord Castlereagh by George Cruikshank, 1822
The Suicide of Lord Castlereagh by George Cruikshank, 1822
On the morning of 12th August Castlereagh's paranoia reached new heights and he aggressively accused his wife, Lady Amelia Hobart, of joining a widespread conspiracy against him. As she fled to summon Doctor Bankhead to attend the husband she had nursed throughout his decline, Castlereagh took up the blade and slashed his own throat. He was dead within minutes and as news of his suicide spread throughout the land, the nation fell into shock at such a violent end to the career of Castlereagh.

Perhaps in deference to his widow, the inquest found that Castlereagh had taken his own life whilst insane. Accordingly, he was buried with full honours in Westminster Abbey on 20th August. Even in this, the final act of Castlereagh's story, the unpopular politician's funeral procession was heckled and jeered on its way to the Abbey. Though his political opponents and colleagues alike were quick to sing the praises of Castlereagh, it is Byron's verse that has caught in the public memory, a savage memorial to a troubled man.
Posterity will ne'er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.


Mary Seymour said...

I believe Percy Bysshe Shelley also wrote some cruel verses about Castlereagh. Politics can be a savage business. The parallels with Lady Thatcher are interesting.

Catherine Curzon said...

Savage indeed! Shelley referenced Castlereagh in The Mask of Anarchy, and I've added the germane lines below.

I met Murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh -
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

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.

Terry Tyler said...

Poor chap - I remember him well, from schooldays. Castlereagh and Canning....

Unknown said...

Interestingly, although equally sorrowful, this is also the anniversary of Robin Williams' suicide.

H_cat said...

Byron was a total prick..in so many ways.

Catherine Curzon said...

We didn't go anywhere near the 18th century at school; I'm making up for lost time...

Catherine Curzon said...

Oh, so it is - that hadn't occurred to me!

Catherine Curzon said...

He did have his funny ways...

Allan D said...

What credence do you give to the blackmail story? That he picked up a lady of leisure on the Haymarket and was blackmailed by her pimp?