Early on the morning of 21 September 1809 two ministers of the crown in the Duke of Portland’s cabinet met to fight a duel on Putney Heath: they were George Canning the Foreign Secretary and Lord Castlereagh who was what we would now call Minister of War. Castlereagh the challenger was a crack shot; Canning had never handled a pistol in his life. As his letter to his wife settling his affairs makes clear, he believed he stood a good chance of being killed. Giles Hunt extends his account of the duel to embrace the study of the personalities of the two combatants and the political system within which they operated.
In the late years of the 18th century the ‘patriot king’ George III was struggling to wrest the prerogatives of the crown from the hands of selfish Whig aristocrats. The most important of these prerogatives was that of appointing and dismissing governments — for instance for George III any government which contained the Whig leader Charles James Fox — a prerogative long lost by British monarchs. In December 1783 he mounted what William Hague in his splendid biography of Pitt calls a political coup d’etat against his own government by appointing Pitt, aged 24 and without a majority in the House of Commons, as prime minister. Both Canning and Castlereagh were to desert the Whig opposition to serve their political apprentiship under Pitt. To Canning, Pitt was the pilot who had weathered the storms of the French Revolution and saved his country from defeat at the hands of Napoleon.
In 1807, after getting rid of the Ministry of all the Talents, George III summoned the former Whig grandee the Duke of Portland to form a ministry of Pittites, with Canning as Foreign Secretary and Castlereagh at the war office. Castlereagh was born in 1769, Canning a year later. Spotted by Pitt as an invaluable ally in an age when eloquence could sway votes in the House of Commons, Canning became one of his few close friends. Castlereagh was a self-confident member of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland; as a younger son of an Irish peer, he sat in the House of Commons prepared to assume the chores of office as a duty of his station in society. No orator, in Hunt’s words he was a hard-working ‘chief executive’, a safe pair of hands for any prime minister.
Canning’s family were, like Castlereagh’s, members of the Irish Ascendancy, but his father had been disinherited for marrying a penniless girl; dying a bankrupt, his impoverished widow went on the stage when actresses were considered as little better than whores. When Canning was a leading politician the Whig leader Charles Grey, later to be Lord Grey of the Reform Bill of 1832, remarked that it would be improper for the king to appoint the son of an actress as prime minister. To his eternal credit Canning did not disown a mother who was an embarrassment any more than Castlereagh ceased to love a wife who was described by Prince Schwazenburg as ‘very fat and dresses so young, so tight, so naked’. In a profligate age, its moral standards set by the heir to the throne who was an incurable lecher, both were happily married, and were faithful husbands.
Canning was always considered by his enemies — and his caustic wit brought him many — as an adventurer and opportunist for ever pushing his claims to high office. In an aristocratic political world he was ‘not one of us’, declassed, so to speak, by his father’s marriage. Inconceivable as it must now seem today, he was the only commoner in Portland’s government of peers and sons of peers. He could not have operated in this exclusive world if generous relations had not sent him to Eton and Christ Church, the two most aristocratic educational institutions in Britain. There he made useful friends and became a star performer, well drilled in the mores and manners of the British establishment. Castlereagh did not go to a public school, and he left Cambridge without a degree.
How did Castlereagh and Canning, as members of Portland’s government, come to shoot at each other on Putney Heath? All cabinets suffer splits and it is the enjoyable professional duty of political journalists to expose them. To Canning, Portland was a laid-back, elderly man presiding over a weak government incapable of meeting Napoleon’s challenge for the mastery of Europe. He repeatedly pressed for a stronger, remodelled government and most of the cabinet agreed with him. The remodelling included the removal of Castelreagh from the War Office, where his performance was regarded as lamentable. Lord Camden, Castlereagh’s uncle, who regarded his nephew as his own son, was to inform Castelreagh of this arrangement but failed to do so. When he learnt of the proposal he saw himself as the victim of a conspiracy. He determined to save his honour and take his revenge by challenging Canning.
Castlereagh’s behaviour was that of a victim of paranoia, who saw himself surrounded by enemies. He could not have wished to kill Canning; he would have been guilty of murder. But it was a near run thing; he shot Canning through the fleshy part of the thigh, a few inches from his femoral artery, which, if hit, would have killed him. It is still a mystery to me why he should have fired this second shot with the clear intention to wound. In 1812 Lord Liverpool, Canning’s friend from their Eton days, in a ministry that was to last for a record 15 years, was prepared to appoint Canning to the Foreign Office, Castelreagh generously offering to accept a minor office. But Canning insisted that Castlereagh should also give up the leadership of the House of Commons. The deal collapsed and Canning’s career was in the doldrums for four years. It was, as he was to confess to his wife, the most disastrous decision of his political career; to Castlereagh’s biographer an action ‘compounded of false pride, ambition and jealousy’. Why had he so overplayed his hand? Hunt suggests that he was unwilling to serve with, or as he thought, under, a man who three years earlier had tried to kill him on Putney Heath.
In August 1822 Castlereagh committed suicide by cutting his throat, having bought a small knife and inquired of a doctor the exact position of the jugular vein. If he had been of sound mind he would have been denied a burial in Westminster Cathedral; the coroner no doubt pressed for a verdict of madness, but all the evidence of the inquest points to the fact that he was profoundly disturbed, believing that he would be exposed as a homosexual. In an interview with the King, now George IV, he rambled on about a bishop caught with his trousers down in a male brothel. Wellington told the Chief Whip that he was ‘in a state of mental delusion’. It is clear that the paranoia which he had exhibited during the duel had assumed an extreme form: Hunt argues that at Cambridge he had caught some form of veneral disease — there is sound evidence for this — and that his paranoia ‘would be consistent with the tertiary stage of neurosyphilis’. His friends argued that he had been worn out by the burden of office as Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House. True, he had a host of political enemies, Irish patriots and British radicals, including Byron, who wrote:
So He has cut his throat at last — He! Who?
The man who cut his country’s long ago.
As his coffin made its way to Westminster Abbey, it was hissed by sections of the crowd.
Hunt’s fine and engaging portrait of Canning and Castlereagh’s rivalry ends with Castlereagh’s death. Canning succeeded him as Foreign Secretary from 1822 till 1827. He did not alter the course of British foreign policy, but as a politician conscious of the importance of public opinion, as Castlereagh was not, he gave it a new, liberal look. To recognise the Latin American states which had thrown off the rule of the absolutist Spanish monarchy was to call a
‘New World into existence, to redress the balance of the Old’. When Canning became prime minister in the spring of 1827 on Liverpool’s death, he was a dying man. He remained popular with the London mob, as Castlereagh had never been. As his coffin passed on its way to Westminster Abbey, respectful crowds filled the streets, quiet and orderly, in sharp contrast to the overt glee some had shown at his rival’s funeral some five years earlier.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 29, 2008