Castlereagh, Robert Stewart, Viscount, 2nd marquess of Londonderry

views updated Jun 27 2018

Castlereagh, Robert Stewart, Viscount, 2nd marquess of Londonderry (1769–1822). Castlereagh outgrew his background in Ulster politics and became an advocate of the union between Britain and Ireland, a capable war secretary, and finally a distinguished foreign secretary. Robert Stewart entered the Irish House of Commons at a by-election for Co. Down in 1790. He had the support of the reformist interest but while he never lost his belief in the necessity for reform in Ireland, he soon felt drawn to the policies of the younger Pitt. His kinsman Lord Camden encouraged him to look beyond merely Irish perspectives and he was elected to the Westminster Parliament in 1794. Castlereagh sympathized with reform in France but was unhappy about the decline of the French Revolution into violence. He was anxious about the impact of Jacobin ideas in Ireland through the secret society the United Irishmen, and believed Ireland's destiny to be inextricably bound up with that of Britain. He supported the war against France, became prominent in the suppression of the Irish rebellion of 1798, though always advocating clemency and reconciliation, and bore the main burden in carrying the Irish Act of Union in Dublin. Like Pitt he saw the Union as preliminary to a comprehensive programme of reform. He supported catholic emancipation, argued that the tithe should be abolished, and suggested that catholic clergy should be paid by the British crown. Castlereagh resigned with Pitt when George III thwarted the prospect for catholic emancipation. He was, however, prepared to serve in Addington's administration from 1802 and in Pitt's second ministry in 1804. On the death of Pitt he left office but became war secretary in the Portland ministry. He was an outstanding war minister. He saw the struggle against Napoleon in global terms, appreciated the need for European allies, improved recruitment to the militia and to the army, and organized an expeditionary force for continental intervention if possible. He was also eager to convey to the public the broader principles on which the war was being waged, though he lacked Canning's ability to capture the enthusiasm of the public. The Peninsular War was supported by Castlereagh from the start and he took the initative in bringing Wellesley (Wellington) forward and in restoring him to command after the death of Moore. The failure of the Walcheren expedition meant that Castlereagh left the war department as the scapegoat. He had strenuously urged an attack on French bases in the Scheldt, in order to disrupt French invasion plans and support the Austrians by a diversionary tactic. Although he had prepared the expedition with meticulous care, the campaign was bungled. The decision to withdraw was a bitter one, the more so because Canning was eager to ensure that Castlereagh carried the chief responsibility for failure. On learning that he was to be moved from the War Office, Castlereagh believed himself to be the victim of intrigue. The result was the collapse of the Portland ministry and the duel with Canning, which relegated both men to the back benches for several years.

Castlereagh's great opportunity came when he was appointed foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons on the formation of Liverpool's ministry in 1812. He built up the final coalition against Napoleon and his personal diplomacy strengthened allied determination. Although not a brilliant orator, Castlereagh was a successful leader in the Commons, winning the trust of MPs by his patience, courtesy, and understanding. At Vienna he did much to frame the peace settlement. He was committed to regular meetings of the powers in congress not in order to perpetuate the status quo, but to enable peace to be preserved by considered adjustment to inevitable change. He did not believe in collective intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. Castlereagh became alienated from Metternich and by 1820 had dissociated Britain from the Holy Alliance, which he had condemned on its inception as ‘a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense’. Although his distrust of Russian expansion in the Near East drew Castlereagh closer to Metternich over the Greek revolt, he seriously contemplated the recognition of the independence of the Spanish American colonies. In 1822, worn out by overwork and saddened by the failure of the congress system to work as he had hoped, he suffered a nervous breakdown and committed suicide. For many years the tragedy of his death and sustained misrepresentation obscured his greatness as foreign secretary.

John W. Derry


Hinde, W. , Castlereagh (1981).

Castlereagh, Robert Stewart, 2nd Viscount

views updated Jun 27 2018

Castlereagh, Robert Stewart, 2nd Viscount (1769–1822) British politician. Castlereagh was chief secretary of Ireland (1799–1801), and helped secure the passage of the Act of Union with Britain in 1800. As British war secretary (1805–06, 1807–09), he vigorously opposed Napoleon but resigned after a duel with George Canning. Castlereagh was a brilliant foreign secretary (1812–22), backing Wellington in war and helping to secure long-term peace in Europe at the Congress of Vienna (1814–15).

About this article

Robert Stewart 2d Viscount Castlereagh

All Sources -
Updated Aug 24 2016 About content Print Topic