Posterity will ne’er survey
a Nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss!
Lord Byron, Epigram, 1822
On 15th August 1822 the MP Robert Peel, who was accompanying George IV on a visit to Scotland, handed a note to the King shortly after the the royal yacht had carried them into the port of Leith near Edinburgh. The note had been dispatched from London by the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, three days earlier and it informed the King that the Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, had cut his own throat and was dead.
The news may not have come as a shock to the King. Less than a week beforehand, a dirty and disheveled Castlereagh had burst into the royal apartments at Carlton House, raving that he was the victim of a malicious plot to have him arrested for committing homosexual acts and claiming that the police were searching London for him. The experience had left George so thoroughly shaken that, after calming Castlereagh and sending him home, he had written to Lord Liverpool and instructed him to grant the exhausted Foreign Secretary a leave of absence to allow him to recuperate in the country. Castlereagh had left London for his estate at North Cray in Kent but his mental state continued to deteriorate and early on the morning of 12th August he entered his study, took a penknife from his desk draw and slashed open the artery in his neck. “ I cannot express”, the King was to write in his response to Liverpool three days later, “the painful grief I which I feel at your melancholy communication… on occasions of this description, the agony of one’s mind is lost is lost in amazement.”
The members of Britain’s political class were equally shocked by news of the suicide and even the most outspoken of Castlereagh’s parliamentary critics were willing to offer some words of kindness as a mark of grudging respect for the fallen Minister. “It is”, reflected the reformist opposition MP Henry Brougham, “like losing a connection suddenly. Also, he was a gentleman and the only one amongst them”. William Wilberforce, who had also disagreed vehemently with Castlereagh’s policies in the past, was also moved to write “Alas! Alas! Poor fellow! I did not think I should feel for him so very deeply.” Consequently, there was a notable lack of partisan opposition to the conclusion reached by a hastily convened inquest, which decided that Castlereagh had committed suicide in a temporary fit of insanity and was therefore still entitled to a state funeral.
However, opinions about Castlereagh’s legacy were far less forgiving out in the country. For many Britons, particularly those living in the emerging industrial centres of the Midlands and the North, Castlereagh was seen as the architect of a reactionary political creed which aimed at marginalising them and shoring up the political and economic ascendancy of the affluent land-owning classes of the Tory Shires. When news of his death leaked out into the public domain it provoked howls of delight from many sections of the radical press. “Castlereagh has cut his throat and is dead!” cheered the front page of William Cobbett’s Political Register, “let that sound reach you… and let it carry consolation into your suffering soul!” Cobbett’s editorial also dismissed the suggestion that a state funeral should be granted because Castlereagh’s suicide had been caused by a fit of madness and sarcastically stated that, if this were the case, “men would no longer wonder at the miserable state in which they are; no longer wonder that famine and overproduction of food should at once oppress the land. There should be the solution to the whole wonder – A Mad Secretary of State and a Mad Leader of the House of Commons.” The radical journalist Richard Carlile was even blunter; dismissing the inquest as a whitewash, he said that Castlereagh should be buried at a crossroads with a stake through his heart and urged people to attend the funeral only in order to cheer at the sight of his coffin.
The speed and severity of the radical response stunned moderate reformers and many immediately sought to distance themselves from the whooping mobs of radical pressmen. The “expressions of exultation” being voiced in some part of the country, clucked the editor of The Liberal newspaper, were “disgusting to behold”. It is notable that, for all the ink that they had spilled over Castlereagh when he was alive, London’s caricaturists also remained silent on the issue of his death. Suggesting perhaps that even the most reform-minded of the City’s printsellers were not ultra-radicals at heart.
Despite widespread fears that a public ceremony would provoke rioting on London’s streets, the funeral went ahead as planned. At 8am on the 20th August the carriage carrying Castlereagh’s coffin passed slowly through the streets of North Cray as the bells of parish church slowly tolled in the distance. The carriage then picked up speed and by 1pm it had arrived at Castlereagh’s townhouse in St James’s Square. From here the funeral procession was to form and progress slowly along Pall Mall and down Whitehall to Westminster Abbey. As the procession began it was noted that most of the crowd observed a respectful silence, although accounts of the day which were subsequently published in the radical press were keen to stress any instances of jeering and booing that occurred along the route. The only moment of serious tension came, reported one of the mourners, when the funeral carriage drew to a halt at the gates of the Abbey and “a knot of fellows some 12 to 20 evidently paid and collected for the purpose, endeavoured by throwing up their hats and shouts, to excite disturbances.” However, this apparent attempt at incitement failed and once the carriage was safely inside the grounds of Westminster Abbey the coffin and its contents were finally laid to rest in a tomb next to that of William Pitt the Younger.
Thus the funeral of this profoundly controversial figure was carried off without serious incident or unrest.