With a reputation for being cold and calculating, Castlereagh was perhaps the most hated of all English politicians. A member of the Irish Ascendancy, playing a key role in crushing the rebellion in 1798, his alliance with the reactionary rulers of Russia, Prussia and Austria and his defence of the repressive domestic policies of the Liverpool Government after the Peterloo Massacre, soured his reputation among those who had hoped that the world was on the verge of a more enlightened era.
Two of the greatest romantic poets led the condemnation. Shelley most famously in his Masque of Anarchy,
I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
whilst Byron exhorted passers by to piss on his grave. (1) His death by his own hand in 1822 was for many a cause for celebration.
As Foreign Secretary from 1812, Castlereagh was the architect of the alliance that finally brought about Napoleon's defeat. He always had a clear view of British interests and of the aims of the war against Napoleonic France: on the continent a balance of power and access for British commerce, at sea British hegemony. Despite the impression nurtured by the loyalist press, the object of the war was not the removal of Napoleon from power. This in time caused some dissension in the Cabinet, as well as with the Prince Regent who not unnaturally favoured the restoration of the Bourbons at a time when his throne did not feel too secure.
Castlereagh's view was that if Napoleon retained the support of his subjects, and if a peace which satisfied Britain's objectives could be reached with Napoleon still in place, and that was a big if, then Britain should not support a continuation of war to overthrow him. Such a policy would have risked civil war in France and dissension amongst the allies, with Russia, no friend of the Bourbons, favouring Bernadotte or a weak Revolutionary Government, Austria favouring a Regency of the Empress Marie Louise on behalf of her son Napoleon II, and Britain not wanting either.
Increasingly Britain's war aims narrowed down to an insistence that France give up Antwerp and the River Scheldt, vital to Britain's security and hegemony at sea, an aim not necessarily shared by its continental allies. Castlereagh had been fixated on Antwerp and the Scheldt since at least 1797, and it was this alone which caused Britain to veto the Frankfurt proposals brokered by Metternich in December 1813 under which Napoleon would have given up Italy, Spain, Germany and Holland, but not all of Belgium.
In February 1814 a letter from the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool to Castlereagh revealed the tensions in the Government, but also perhaps a deference to Castlereagh, the dominant member of the Cabinet:
The only material point on which we differ with you is as to the overthrowing of Buonaparte. we incline to the view that this event may be desirable whatever might be the immediate result of it.
No Government, be it what may, could be so bad for Europe as Buonaparte; .. I admit, however, that if France continues to support Buonaparte, we must make peace with him, and that we ought not to look to his destruction by any means which, in progress, will tend to separate the allies. (2)
In the event, Napoleon's refusal of the terms of the Treaty of Chaumont in March 1814 got Castlereagh and the British Government off the hook. A pro-Bourbon party emerged in France, led by Talleyrand, Napoleon's former Foreign Minister, a confidant of the Czar and the recipient of substantial British secret service funds. On 19th March 2014 Castlereagh was instructed by the Cabinet not to sign any treaty with Napoleon.
Unwilling to recognise Napoleon's title as Emperor of Elba or anywhere else, and sharing the concerns of Talleyrand and the Bourbons about the nearness of Elba to France, Castlereagh did not become a party to the Treaty of Fontainebleau. (3) With France subdued and Napoleon on Elba, he was then able to devote his energies to the peace treaty at Vienna, later to earn him the admiration of that twentieth century practitioner of realpolitik, Henry Kissinger.
An interesting glimpse into Castlereagh's views after Napoleon's return from Elba is given by John Quincy Adams, American diplomat and future President. Only a week before the battle of Waterloo, at a dinner also attended by Lord Liverpool, Castlereagh showed Adams a snuff box bearing a miniature picture of Napoleon which he had bought at Vienna from the court painter Jean Baptiste Isabey. Adams noted that the general opinion of those at that dinner was that Napoleon would shortly take refuge in America; for as to another island of Elba, that was out of the question. That experiment would not be tried a second time . (4)
At the dinner Castlereagh told him of Napoleon's wish to come to England at the time of the Fontainebleau Treaty to which he (Lord Castlereagh) had objected, as he could not have been answerable for the safety of his person here. Adams was perhaps surprised at the moderate tone in which Castlereagh spoke about Napoleon. Rather curiously Castlereagh said he had
much rather that he should have come back and be as he now is, than that he should have lost his life under the protection of the allies. Lord Castlereagh said he had never seen him, though he had felt a curiosity to see him, but the only opportunity that he had ever had for it was at the time of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, and then he had abstained from delicacy.(5)
A strange interlude, and perhaps we should be wary of taking at face value the comments of diplomats when socialising together, particularly when we remember that only a year earlier the British navy had set fire to the Capitol and the White House. Whatever Adams' opinions of the French Revolution and Napoleon, the United States was known to favour a strong France and for obvious reasons to oppose British naval hegemony. Also we have the benefit over those who attended the dinner in that we know the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo! Despite the large military imbalance in favour of the allies which would surely ultimately have led to his defeat, dealing with a temporarily victorious Napoleon would have put a strain on Castlereagh and the British Government at home as well as on the continental alliance.
Castlereagh's comments about Napoleon's safety probably reflected awareness of plots the Bourbons made against him whilst he was on Elba. The concern may appear to sit uneasily alongside modern claims that Castlereagh was in 1804 involved in a plot to assassinate Napoleon.(6) But the key words are under the protection of the allies . Napoleon's murder on Elba would have done damage to the British Government at home and on the continent, irrespective of who had done it. Napoleon's assassination as Emperor in 1804, if all evidence of the British Government's complicity could have been destroyed, would have been another matter altogether, as any advocate of realpolitik would readily understand!
1. This seems to have been written in 1820 before Castlereagh's death.
Posterity will ne'er surveyIt was first published in Lord Byron's Works , 1833, xvii. 246. In this edition the last two words were replaced by * *.
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.
2. Quoted in Rory Muir, Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon 1807-1815 (1996) p 318.
3. Sir Charles Webster, The Congress of Vienna 1814-1815 First published by the Foreign Office in 1919, Reissued 1934, pp 17-31,36-40. Nicolson, Congress of Vienna (London 1946) p118.
4. June 11th 1815. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams: Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848, Volume 3 J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1874, pp 219-220. Isabel attended the Congress as part of the French delegation and was commissioned to paint a portrait of the gathering.
5. Adams reported Castlereigh as saying he thought his [Napoleon's] speech to the legislative Assembly, this day received, was a very good speech; that it noticed in moderate terms the capture of a French frigate in the Mediterranean, but pretended that it was hostility in time of peace. Adams pp 219-220
6. For details of this plot, which formed a backdrop to the murder of the Duke d'Enghien, see Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great London 2014 pp 333-334