Was Castlereagh mad and if so why?

Posted by Tory Historian Saturday, June 13, 2009 , ,

The reason Tory Historian was cogitating about this was a book by Giles Hunt, entitled “The Duel – Castlereagh, Canning and Deadly Cabinet Rivalry”.

It is rather an odd book in that it follows the career of the two politicians with the focus on their long enmity, which finally resulted in the infamous duel of 1809 that left Canning with a flesh wound (though it could have been very serious, Mr Hunt keeps reminding us) and the reputation of both ministers as well as that of the government in tatters.

Yet, despite the fact that the duel is at the heart of the book, Mr Hunt professes not to understand what happened in the nine days before Castlereagh actually challenged Canning (that is how long he waited after realizing that the latter had led a behind-the-scenes intrigue against him) and during the actual duel.

He ends the central chapter with the words:

The simmering anger behind Castlereagh’s challenge reveals his pent-up feelings, and there is no mystery as to why he challenged Canning to a duel. He felt humiliated and angry, and Canning was the man who had been insisting that the government needed to be changed. The mystery is the delay in issuing his challenge, with a subsidiary mystery about the way he aimed, or failed to aim, his two shots. It is strange.
So, it would seem that Castlereagh was very angry about Canning’s machinations but we do not know why it took him nine days to issue a challenge and why he missed Canning (probably deliberately) with his first shot and wounded him with his second. Strange, indeed. Particularly as this is at the heart of the book.

In the end, Mr Hunt settles for Castlereagh being psychologically unstable, probably mad and suffering from tertiary syphilis. His evidence for his psychological problems at the time of the duel is an analysis by a graphologist, who had died before the book was published, made on the basis of a photocopy of a letter written by Castlereagh.

Even if the graphologist was given the photocopy blind, so to speak, this is doubtful evidence. Apart from that there is a great deal of “must have thought”, “would have assumed” and “probably felt” in the crucial chapters. Tory Historian had a rather old-fashioned training in history writing that definitely precluded phrases of that kind.

As for the tertiary syphilis or “some form of syphilis”, that is based on various snippets about Castlereagh’s health throughout his life as well as the final catastrophe of the morning when he cut his throat. Yet another expert is called in, a senior consultant neurosurgeon, also deceased before the book’s publication, who produced a diagnosis on the basis of H. Montgomery Hyde’s book, “The Strange Death of Lord Castlereagh” that contained most of the report of the coroner’s inquest.

None of which really solves the problem.


  1. Simon Harley Says:
  2. Sounds about right - historian (and it pains me to use the term) writes book, conveys the impression that he has solved something when he hasn't, and relies on a very narrow and suspect field of evidence when he actually bothers to address the subject.

    Such is my impression from your overview. I will ask a friend with knowledge of the era and the politics to have a look at the book when he has the chance.

  3. Thank you, Simon. That would be interesting and very useful.

    It is not impossible that Castlereagh had syphilis but Giles Hunt's "evidence" is dubious. As that is the only "new" information in the book, it is of importance. After all, as he admits, the duel may have prevented Canning from becoming Foreign Secretary (actually, there were various other reasons as well) but there is no reason to suppose that his policy would have been any different.

    There are also too many forced parallels with modern politics. By no stretch of the imagination can Castlereagh be described as a europhile and Canning a eurosceptic. In fact, I'd say that Mr Hunt does not understand what those terms mean.

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