Mount Stewart and its role in European History
The people who made and lived at Mount Stewart are connected to many significant events in Irish, British and European history, from the Congress of Vienna to the First World War. Lead Curator Frances Bailey summarises the significant events and people that underpin Mount Stewart’s history.
Building Mount Stewart
The Stewarts came from Scotland to Donegal as part of the Jacobean Plantation of Ulster. Alexander Stewart and his wife, Mary Cowan, bought a large area of land in County Down in 1744, part of which became Mount Stewart demesne. Mary had inherited a fortune from her brother, Robert Cowan, who was in the East India Company, and was Governor of Bombay.
A modest house on the shore of Strangford Lough was extended in the 1780s into a long low 2-storey house by Alexander’s son, Robert. Robert also built a walled garden and farm buildings further inland, and commissioned James ‘Athenian’ Stuart to design the Temple of the Winds, one of the finest small neo-classical buildings in Ireland. Through his political connections and marriage, Robert rose through the political ranks, becoming earl and subsequently marquess of Londonderry.
It was Robert’s son, best known as Viscount Castlereagh, who chose the architect George Dance to design a new wing for Mount Stewart which included a series of fine reception rooms. The west wing was built around 1804–6.
Castlereagh is best known in Ireland for his involvement in the repression of the 1798 Rebellion and as one of the architects of the Anglo-Irish Union of 1800, for which he was vilified by many. He was however regarded as a consummate statesman and astute negotiator.
From 1802 to 1822 he was based in London as Secretary of State for War and Foreign Secretary during the wars with America and France under Napoleon. He was one of the chief negotiators at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) and his greatest legacy was steering the Congress towards a more equitable balance of power. The Congress was the first multinational European congress; many issues were discussed including the abolition of slavery. Castlereagh became a staunch supporter of abolition, as the trade was 'repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality'.
The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 earned him more criticism, for although he was not personally responsible and was appalled by the outcome, as Home Secretary he had to justify the yeomanry’s actions. In 1822 he suffered a breakdown and took his own life, just a year after becoming the 2nd marquess of Londonderry.
Charles Stewart and the extension of Mount Stewart
Castlereagh’s half-brother, Charles Stewart fought in the Peninsula War under Wellington and became British ambassador at Berlin and then Vienna during the Congress. In 1819 he married the wealthy Frances Anne Vane Tempest who had inherited coal mines and a grand estate in County Durham. They travelled widely and rebuilt Wynyard, County Durham and Londonderry House in London. Charles also extended Mount Stewart in the 1840s. His grandson, the 6th Marquess, was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in the 1880s. The 6th Marquess was strongly opposed to Home Rule for Ireland; he and his wife were instigators and signatories of the Ulster Covenant in 1912.
The 7th Marquess
Charles’s great-grandson, Charles 7th Marquess, served in the First World War, during which his wife Edith founded the Women’s Legion. At the end of the war, Edith began to create the gardens at Mount Stewart and redecorated and furnished the house, processes she thoroughly enjoyed and continued until her death in 1959. Charles served in the new Northern Irish government following the partition of Ireland in 1921. He later became Secretary of State for Air during the early 1930s. The horrors of the First World War and the rise of Communism meant many were anxious to avoid another European war. For Charles, this meant holding a series of meetings with the Nazi leadership, but his actions and intentions were misunderstood and his career and reputation were fatally damaged.
These historic, sometimes seismic, events are woven into Mount Stewart and there are many objects, books and paintings in the house that connect us to the people who experienced, influenced and formed them.
Discover more about Mount Stewart's collections on the National Trust Collections website.