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Castlereagh was born on 18 June 1769 in Dublin. He was the son of Robert Stewart, an Anglo-Irish landowner who was elevated to the peerage in 1789; Stewart became an earl in 1796 and was created the Marquis of Londonderry in 1816. In 1821, following his father's death, Castlereagh became the second Marquis of Londonderry. He was educated at Armagh and St. John's College, Cambridge and was elected to the Irish Parliament in 1790 as an independent Member. In 1794 he married Emily Anne Hobart, to whom he remained devotedly attached throughout their long marriage. There were no children born to Castlereagh and his wife.
Castlereagh was one of the most distinguished Foreign Secretaries in British history and gained a distinguished reputation as the leader of the European diplomacy that followed the end of the French Wars. He took a major part in bringing together the Fourth Coalition, an alliance of great powers that finally overthrew Napoleon. He was instrumental in deciding the form of the peace settlement of Vienna. The concept of a Concert of Europe was largely his creation, and his influence did much to promote the practice of diplomacy by conference.
From March 1798 Castlereagh served as acting Chief Secretary to Earl Camden, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In November 1798 he was formally appointed to that office by Camden's successor, Lord Cornwallis with the approval of the Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger. Castlereagh's period as Chief Secretary for Ireland in Pitt's ministry coincided with the 1798 rebellion and the union with Great Britain. Castlereagh shared the view of Cornwallis that a policy of clemency was essential to end the disturbances, although he took severe and successful measures to quell the rising in 1798. The threat of French invasion and the Irish rising convinced Castlereagh that there was a need for parliamentary union with Britain. The passage of the Act of Union through the Dublin Parliament in June 1800 provided the first demonstration of Castlereagh's abilities as he forced the measure in the Irish Commons against bitter Protestant opposition. He, like the PM, Pitt, believed that Catholic Emancipation must accompany the union with Britain. In February 1801 Pitt failed to obtain George III's consent to emancipation; Pitt, Cornwallis and Castlereagh resigned in protest.
Castlereagh continued to advise Henry Addington's ministry on Irish questions and in July 1802 he was appointed President of the Board of Control responsible for Indian affairs. He gained an immediate influence in the Cabinet. Pitt returned as Prime Minister in May 1804; he appointed Castlereagh as Secretary of State for War in July 1805. Castlereagh's first task was to send a British expeditionary force to Hanover. However, this was ineffectual because of Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz in December 1805. Nevertheless, Castlereagh was convinced of the value of the British Army in continental warfare. On Pitt's death in January 1806 he left office and became the chief opposition spokesman on foreign and military affairs.
He returned to the War Department in the Duke of Portland's ministry in 1807 and showed his determination to send an army to fight on a continent now completely dominated by Napoleon. In 1808, Castlereagh reorganised the regular, reserve, and militia forces; this provided the country with adequate home defences and a larger and more efficient army for overseas operations. When the Spanish revolt against Napoleon broke out the same year, it was decided at once to send a major expedition to the Peninsula. Castlereagh was influential in securing the command for Sir Arthur Wellesley - later the Duke of Wellington - in 1809. In 1809 a British expedition sent by Castlereagh against Napoleon's naval base at Antwerp was allowed to waste away of disease on the island of Walcheren.
The disaster was not Castlereagh's fault but it brought to a head the long-standing divisions in the Cabinet. Since March 1809, George Canning, the Foreign Secretary, had been pressing for a change of policy had secured secret agreement for Castlereagh to be replaced by the Marquis Wellesley. When Castlereagh learned of this, he challenged Canning to a duel that was fought on 21 September. Canning was slightly wounded and both men later resigned from office. Castlereagh remained out of office for the next two and a half years.
In 1812 he rejoined the government as Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and after Prime Minister Spencer Perceval's assassination in May he became leader of the House of Commons. Castlereagh's first task was to hold together the general European opposition to Napoleon and as the end of the war drew near he worked to obtain preliminary agreement among the allies for the resettlement of Europe. In talks in 1814, he secured acceptance in principle of his plans for a peace settlement under the control of the great powers. By the Treaty of Chaumont in March 1814, he obtained provision for allied cooperation for twenty years after the war. On the fall of Napoleon in May 1814, the Treaty of Paris secured immediate British requirements: the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and the separation of the Low Countries as an independent kingdom. Castlereagh began to play a mediatory role at the peace conference at Vienna. His main European objectives were to prevent the territorial expansion of Russia and to strengthen the weak central European areas of Germany and Italy. He and Metternich, the Austrian Minister for Foreign Affairs, dominated the inner negotiations. Castlereagh took the lead in resisting the territorial demands of Russia and Prussia. The final settlement, with some compromises, was a practical embodiment of his principle of the "just equilibrium."
Castlereagh attached a fundamental importance to regular consultation by the great powers on matters of common concern and the peace treaty contained specific provision for periodic meetings of the victorious allies. The practice of holding such meetings became known as the "congress system" although Castlereagh's aim was to make diplomacy by conference possible, rather than to establish any system of international regulation or interference in the internal affairs of other states. The distinction became increasingly apparent in the remaining seven years of his career.
The Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 readmitted France to European diplomacy. Castlereagh resisted a Russian attempt to institute a league of European powers to guarantee the existing order under sanction of military force. When the liberal movement in Germany after 1818 and the revolutions in Spain and in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1820 brought Austria and Russia closer together, Castlereagh refused to treat their meeting at Troppau in October 1820 as a full European congress, and after the Congress of Laibach in 1821 he openly repudiated the Troppau principle of intervention and coercion. His State Paper of May 1820 emphasized the difference between the despotic states of eastern Europe and the constitutional structures of Britain and France and made it clear that the British government could only act on the expediency of any given issue and within the limits of its parliamentary system.
With the emergence in 1821 of the questions of Greek independence and the Spanish colonies, however, British political and commercial interests became directly affected and Castlereagh