The Magazine

Napoleon’s Nemesis

The British statesman who galvanized Europe against France.

Sep 10, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 48 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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Mention the names of Wellington, Nelson, and Pitt to any informed person and you’re likely to get a nod of recognition. But Castlereagh? A blank stare.  Yet the case can be made, and John Bew makes it convincingly, that Viscount Castlereagh was the equal of those three men and many other contemporaries, surpassed only by Palmerston among 19th-century British foreign secretaries. 

Napoleon's Nemesis

So why is he not better known and given his due?

The principal reason seems to be, as Bew demonstrates, that in his own time, Castlereagh was deeply controversial, the object of as much invective as honor, and that we’ve not successfully broken free of those ancient divisions of view. If Castlereagh was despised by the Romantic likes of Byron and Shelley but praised by conservative realists of his time, how is a biographer to make his way through this Sargasso of opinion? Bew has chosen to do so by taking into account the entire body of opinion, pro and con, that’s piled up since Cas-tle-reagh’s day—by examining and crediting, refining, or dispatching, as the case may be, the claims and charges that others have laid down since then.  

Given the mass and diversity of these views, the result is at times overwhelming—a book clotted by arguments that might have been made elsewhere. Yet this exhaustive biography, covering every event and circumstance of Castlereagh’s life and career, will leave readers in no doubt that he was a formidable figure whom we overlook to the distortion of historical understanding. Even if not definitive, the book will long remain one that everyone interested in late-18th-century British history and the Napoleonic era will have to confront.

Robert Stewart (called Castlereagh, in the British manner, after the title of his ennoblement) rose to the pinnacles of responsibility in successive British governments as a son of Ireland. Nurtured by the “radical Presbyterian politics of Ulster,” this member of the County Down gentry was forever marked by his Irish origins. In fact, Castlereagh’s life was an Irish life carried into Britain. Thus, however much his fidelity to the land of his birth may have been discounted and ridiculed in his day, that life cannot be understood save as the biography of an Irish patriot. In fact, Bew’s book is in many ways an Irish history, a chapter in the long history of the tortured relations between Britain and Ireland, whose realities have enriched, troubled, and sometimes perverted the history of the United Kingdom into our own time. Those influences, it should be kept in mind, have not been without effect (beyond the fact of Irish immigration) on American history. 

“The crucible,” in Bew’s words, of Castlereagh’s political thought, Ireland was also the seed ground of his lifelong political career. He cut his political teeth in the Irish Parliament between 1790 and 1801 while becoming the “architect of its abolition.” He achieved this feat as a leader of the successful campaign to gain representation for Ireland in the British Parliament though the Act of Union of 1800. The act was an epochal change that ended the life of the independent Irish government while either (depending upon which antipodal opinion you held) forever staining Castlereagh’s reputation, or elevating it to honor.

But this was not the only problem that Castlereagh created for himself, or that Ireland created for him. As a Protestant, he was a lifetime champion of the rights of his Roman Catholic countrymen, especially for their right to be represented—the right known as “Catholic emancipation.” Castlereagh was in his grave before the goal was finally achieved in 1829, but not before, once again, he was buffeted by storms of controversy both in Ireland and Britain for maintaining what, for him, was a deeply held conviction. 

It is evidence of the difficulty that this Irish native would henceforth face for having moved to create a single legislature from two and liberate Irish Catholics to participate fully in the union that some praised Castlereagh for being “so unlike an Irishman,” while others excoriated him for having betrayed the land of his birth. Such were the complexities that Castlereagh had to navigate as he made his way out of Ireland into the highest ranks of British officialdom after 1801. He might achieve standing, however controversial, in the larger world of British politics, but, as Bew writes, “Ireland was never to leave him.”