August 12, 1822 – Suicide of Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh (53) who was at that time Britain’s Foreign Secretary.
Long-term depression and work stress may have contributed to his death. But judging from the account I will give you below, in his last days he probably suffered from some kind of acute psychosis. His suicide shocked the country.
As a prominent politician, Castlereagh had played an important role in the war against Napoleon and the subsequent peace efforts. But he also was very unpopular with large parts of the British population because of his involvement with very conservative, even repressive government policies. For more about all this see his Wikipedia page; here I will concentrate on his psychosis and death.
Castlereagh already had a reputation for his at times extreme reactions; in 1809 he had temporarily given up his government position after having challenged a political opponent to a duel with pistols (in which he had wounded the other).
At the time of his death he was still very successful in running Britain’s foreign affairs. In the months before his death however, his personal behavior gradually became more erratic. Eventually, he visited the King to tell him an agitated, rambling, paranoid, and completely untrue persecution story (with elements such as a blackmailer accusing him of homosexuality, and the police being after him).
A Detailed Account
Here is how a popular biography, printed in 1823, related the story of Castlereagh’s paranoid behavior up to his suicide in full detail.
It is interesting because it also shows how the Lord’s physician tried to address his patient’s mental disturbance: by calling in a “cutter” for bloodletting; by advising rest and a simple diet; and by prescribing inadequate medication such as laxatives.
[...] still no one apprehended that the noble Marquis’s mind was in any way affected. His Majesty was the first to communicate the fear and suspicion that a change had taken place; that caution was requisite; that danger otherwise might result. On the Friday, (August 9. 1822) preparatory to his Majesty’s departure for Scotland, in the course of that audience, his Majesty was surprised and alarmed, at the incoherent manner in which Lord Londonderry conversed; and after the noble Lord’s departure, it is stated, that the King wrote to Lord Liverpool, mentioning that the Marquis of Londonderry had just been with him, and that he had talked in a very remarkable manner; that his Majesty felt alarmed on his Lordship’s account; and that it would be advisable to take becoming precautions to have the opportunity of watching his Lordship’s conduct. His Majesty further urged the necessity of at once having medical advice; but if possible, without letting his Lordship know that his demeanour had been the subject of any remark.
On the Marquis of Londonderry’s arrival at his house in St. James’s Square, his lady and several persons in his establishment noticed in his Lordship a singular incoherence of look, and great agitation of mind. Dr. Bankhead, who had been for many years his Lordship’s physician, was immediately sent for. He found his illustrious patient labouring under a considerable depression of spirits, and complaining of an oppressive sensation in the head. Dr. Bankhead recommended that he should be cupped, and waited until the cupper arrived, by whom seven ounces of blood were taken from the back of his Lordship’s neck. This evidently relieved him; and Dr. Bankhead suggested the propriety of his taking repose on the sofa for half an hour, before he set out for North Cray, whither he was on the eve of departure.
With this advice the noble Lord complied, and became much more composed. He was attended by his lady with the most affectionate solicitude, and by her persuasion took some tea. Dr. Bankhead then gave him some aperient medicine, desiring that he would take it in the morning, and keep himself cool and quiet.
His Lordship, before he took his leave, stated that he felt himself extremely unwell; and stipulated that Dr. Bankhead should go to North Cray the next day, and remain with him until he was better. To this Dr. Bankhead agreed, and they parted, the Marquis and his lady setting out for his seat.
On Saturday evening, Dr. Bankhead, in pursuance of his promise, proceeded to North Cray: he arrived about seven o’clock, and was immediately shown into the Marquis’s room. He found him in bed; but from the manner in which he addressed him on his approach, he at once saw that he was labouring under a serious nervous attack. He endeavoured to compose his mind, and remained with him the better part of the night, again giving him some cooling medicine, and confining his diet to food of the simplest character.
The whole of the next day his Lordship continued in bed; but again evinced such a waywardness of imagination, and seemed to be labouring under such extraordinary delusions, that it was deemed expedient to remove from his reach every thing by which he might do himself bodily mischief. His Lordship frequently expressed apprehensions that he was the object of some dreadful conspiracy; and even when he saw Dr. Bankhead and his amiable Marchioness talking together, he exclaimed, that he was sure they were plotting some mischief against him. His manner too, which had been usually kind and indulgent, became harsh and severe.
He grew petulant and impatient; still the physician saw no ground for serious apprehension, and did not deem it necessary to call in additional advice. He attributed his Lordship’s disease to the great anxiety and fatigue incident to his very irksome office, and hoped that a little quiet would restore him to his accustomed vigour of mind and constitution. He remained with his Lordship until a late hour on Sunday night, and observed with pleasure, that his conversation became more rational; at length he left him with the Marchioness, and retired to an adjoining room.
In the morning, the Marquis, after having had some sleep, awoke suddenly, and rang the bell; the Marchioness’s maid answered it; when he asked her what she wanted in the room, apparently forgetting that he had summoned her. The Marchioness then said, that his Lordship wanted breakfast, and breakfast was accordingly brought. He found fault with it, and said it was not fit for him, although precisely the same as usual. At half-past seven he rang again, and desired that Dr. Bankhead might be sent to him. The Marchioness then quitted the room, and entered her own dressing-room. At this moment the servant retired, and went to apprise Dr. B. of his Lordship’s desire. Dr. B. said he was ready to attend immediately.
The servant then went back to see that her mistress had retired; and at that moment, while she stood in the passage, the Marquis opened the door, and rushed by her into his dressing-room. He was attired only in his dressing-gown. She was alarmed, and called for Dr. B., who rushed to the spot. She said her lord had gone into his dressing-room, and Dr. B. hastened forward; when, at the moment he reached the door, he saw the Marquis with his front towards the window, and his face towards the ceiling; and his right arm also seemed to be raised. Without turning round, he exclaimed, as if conscious who was approaching, having in feet been apprised of it by the previous announcement of the servant, “Bankhead, let me fall upon your arm: it is all over!” This was all he said.
The Doctor ran forward, and caught him on his arm; but, unable to sustain his weight, let him fall to the ground. Life, however, was almost instantaneously extinct, and a torrent of blood rushed from a wound in his neck. On further investigation, Dr. B. found a small clasp-knife, with a white handle, and a curved blade of about two inches in length, clenched in his right hand, with which it appeared that he had just inflicted the fatal wound. The carotid artery, or jugular vein, was completely divided, and with anatomical precision; for the extent of the external orifice did not exceed an inch in width, while the depth was two inches. The most expert surgeon, if endeavouring to extinguish human life with the utmost promptitude, could not have effected the object more scientifically.
Dr. Bankhead instantly apprised the Marchioness of the event, and she endeavoured to fly to the body, but was prevented by the Doctor. Lady Suffield, her ladyship’s sister, as well as Miss Fitzroy, and Miss Napier, who were in the house, were soon called to her assistance; but a considerable time elapsed before she could be pacified, and then no power of persuasion or entreaty could induce her to go beyond the adjoining room; where, throwing herself upon the bed, she remained for many hours in a state of uncontrollable grief, which was only interrupted by frequent groundless expressions of self-accusation.
[...] Amidst all the confusion naturally attendant upon such a scene, it is surprising that the details did not more readily obtain publicity; but up to a late hour the next morning, we have been assured, the nearest neighbours remained in ignorance of the true character of the misfortune which had occurred. The servants were prudently charged to secrecy; and we believe not one, from the highest to the lowest, betrayed their trust.
When the fact was divulged in all the public offices, the consternation was excessive.
As said, nationwide the shock was great. After a formal inquest had established that Castlereagh had killed himself in a fit of insanity and therefore was not responsible for his own death, he was buried with full honors in Westminster Abbey. This irked some political opponents who accused the government of class justice, a cover-up, elitism. After all, at that time, suicide formally was still a crime in English law and this even implied forbidding a Christian burial.
The accusation of class justice was not entirely unfounded. Since long, it had already been quite common for members of the upper class to be excused in some way after a suicide. At the same time, more common people sometimes still got an ignominious burial after a suicide. For an example, see my story about Abel Griffiths.
In 1823 the British law was changed to allow all suicide victims to be buried in consecrated ground.
Due to Castlereagh’s political unpopularity, the reactions to his death were very mixed anyway. Some reactions were downright vicious: Byron wrote a little poem inviting people to piss on Castlereagh’s grave. For more, see this blog post: Posterity will ne’er survey, a nobler grave than this… Stop, traveller, and piss!, Lord Castlereagh’s funeral, 1822 (at the Print Shop Window blog about the history of English political satire).
Some very interesting personal correspondence about Castlereagh’s illness and death (including letters to and from his physician Dr. Bankhead, the latter describing his diagnosis) can be read in full in The Wellington Connection: Lord Londonderry, posted at the Number One London blog.
Meanwhile, just like today after a suicide sometimes the psychiatrist will be blamed for neglect, this very sentiment was also present after Castlereagh’s death.
Henry Brougham, a Member of Parliament, wrote in a letter that same week: “By the way, I hope to live to see medical men like Bankhead tried for manslaughter, at the least. What think you of removing things from poor C., and then leaving him alone, even for 5 minutes?” But as far as I know, Bankhead was never asked to justify his actions.
- Titles: Castlereagh officially was not just Viscount Castlereagh, but since 1821 also his father’s successor as Marquess of Londonderry.
- Both Castlereagh portraits are by painter Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). The first one was made in 1810, source: the London National Portrait Gallery. The second one was painted in 1817, source: the British Royal Collection e-Gallery.
- The detailed report of Castlereagh’s insanity and suicide is from his biography, as printed the year after his death in The Annual Biography And Obituary For The Year 1823, Vol. VII. This book is online, digitized by Google Books.
- The drawing that shows the moment when Castlereagh killed himself was made the same year by illustrator George Cruikshank (1792-1878).
- The quote of MP Henry Brougham about Dr. Bankhead having neglected his patient is from a letter in The Creevey Papers at the Lord Byron And His Times online documentary collection.