Condemned by the Church of England and the Catholic Church, Yet … Famous Suicides in the Regency Era

Suicide was condemned by the Church of England, as well as the Catholic church during the Regency. In the late Georgian Era, one who was named as having committed suicide was to be buried naked, at the crossroads with a stake through his/her heart and his goods and money forfeited to the King for a year. Suicide was more a crime against God. It was more a religious thing about not being buried in consecrated ground. Supposedly, from some accounts, before the Reformation, after the suicide, the man’s goods went to the Church, and it was only after the Reformation that they went to the King.

Felo de se, Lating for “felon of him- or herself,” was applied against the personal estates (assets) of adults who committed suicide. Early on, English Common Law considered suicide a crime. Although dead, a person found guilty of the crime would have penalties, including forfeiture of property to the monarch and a shameful burial. Beginning in the 1600s, precedent and coroners’ custom gradually labeled “suicide” more of a temporary insanity than a crime against nature.  In the 17th and 18th centuries in England, as suicides came to be seen more and more as an act of temporary insanity, many coroner’s juries began declaring more suicide victims as non compos mentis (temporarily insane) instead. As such the perpetrator’s property was not forfeit (given to the Crown). MacDonald and Murphy write that “By the 1710s and 1720s, over 90 per cent of all suicides were judged insane, and after a period of more rigorous enforcement of the law, non compos mentis became in the last three decades of the century the only suicide verdict that Norwich Coroners returned. …Non compos mentis had become the usual verdict in cases of suicide by the last third of the century.” [Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England by Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy (1990). Chapter 4.]

Eventually, that period of “payment” was reduced to a year. After the year, the man’s property reverted to his heirs, but his family remained tainted by the act. Like the public hangings, the treatment of suicides was supposed to strike terror in the people, as well as show how the act would leave the family poor for a year to act as a deterrent. In England and Wales, the offense of felo de se was abolished by section 1 of the Suicide Act 1961

The burying at the crossroads with a stake through the heart was a bit of superstition left over from previous ages where it was thought the ghost of suicides would haunt people and  places unless pegged in place. Evil spirits could be made to stay in one place and not haunt people if a stake pinned them to the ground. A crossroads would misdirect the spirit, and it could no longer find its way home.

This punishment could be avoided if the verdict was “while balance of the mind was disturbed,” or the equivalent statement related to mental stability. Generally, the more prominent the man, the more likely it was that the verdict would be “balance of the mind was disturbed.”

Samuel Whitbread II by John Opie ~ Public Domain

In 1815, a Member of Parliament (MP), Samuel Whitbread, shocked society by committing suicide. The Coroner said that the heavy responsibility of being an MP at that time was too much for him. Whitbread was an MP for Bedford, a post he held for 23 years. He was a reformer—a champion of religious and civil rights and for the abolition of slavery. He was a proponent of a national education system, and, in 1795, sponsored an unsuccessful bill for the introduction of a minimum wage for workers. He was a close colleague of Charles James Fox, and became the leader of the Whigs upon Fox’s death. In 1805, he led the campaign to remove Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, from office. 

What most do not know of Whitbread was his admiration for Napoleon and French leader’s reforms in France and Europe. Whitbread strongly advocated for Britain’s withdrawal from the Continent during the war years. Napoleon’s abdication in 1814 was a devastating blow to Whitbread’s beliefs. He began to suffer from depression, and on the morning of 6 July 185, he committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor. 

(c) National Trust, Croft Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In 1818, Sir Richard Croft, 6th Baronet, the English physician to the British Royal family, who had attended Princess Charlotte and became famous due to his role in “the triple obstetrical tragedy,” killed himself when another patient died. 

When Princess Charlotte conceived in February 1817, Croft was chosen to attend her. Following medical dogma, Croft restricted her diet and bled her during the pregnancy. Her membranes broke on 3 November 1817. The first stage of labor lasted 26 hours. At the beginning of the second stage of labour, Croft sent for Dr. John Sims, who arrived 7 hours later. The second stage of labour lasted 24 hours. He had correctly diagnosed a transverse lie of the baby during labor; however, forceps were not used as they had fallen into disfavor in the British medical community. Eventually Princess Charlotte delivered  a stillborn 9-pound male. Five hours later she died. An autopsy ruled that Croft “had done his best.” However, the death of the Princess continued to weigh heavily on Croft, and on 13 February 1818, at age 56, he killed himself with a gun. Near his body a copy of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost was found open with the passage (Act V, Scene II): “Fair Sir, God save you! Where is the Princess?”

The website Prinny’s Taylor lays out more than one version of Sir Richard Croft’s death, including several conflicting reports in the Times and the inquest findings. If interested, you may read that report HERE.

Both Croft and his wife are buried at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly. A memorial to them is found within the church.

CC BY-SA 4.0
File:A memorial to Sir Richard Croft, 6th Baronet, in St James’s Church, Piccadilly.jpg
Created: 31 January 2019

 

November 1818, Sir Samuel Romilly, a British lawyer, politician and legal reformer, died by cutting his throat. It was said that he was despondent over the death of his wife. From a background in the commercial world, he became well-connected, and rose to public office and a prominent position in Parliament. After an early interest in radical politics, he built a career in chancery cases, and then turned to amelioration of the British criminal law.

Sir Samuel Romilly by Sir Thomas Lawrence, painting, circa 1806-1810 ~ Public Domain

 

Romilly worked to reform the criminal law. He spent a dozen years of his life on the passage through Parliament of legislative reforms. In 1808, Romilly managed to repeal the Elizabethan statute which made it a capital offense to steal from the person. Successful prosecutions of pickpockets then rose. In 1809, three bills for repealing draconian statutes were thrown out by the House of Lords. Romilly saw further bills rejected; but in March 1812 he had repealed a statute of Elizabeth I making it a capital offense for a soldier or a mariner to beg without a pass from a magistrate or his commanding officer. Romilly failed to pass a law which would have abolished corruption of blood for all crimes, but in the following year he tried again and succeeded (except for treason and murder).  Also in 1814, he succeeded in abolishing hanging, as well as drawing and quartering. 

On 29 October 1818 Lady Romilly died in the Isle of Wight. A few days later, on 2 November 1818, Romilly cut his throat, and died in a few minutes, in his house on Russell Square in London. His nephew Peter Mark Roget attended him in his final moments.  His last words were written: My dear, I wish … presumably regarding his late wife.

Lord Byron was not at all kind to Romilly’s memory because of the part Romilly played in Byron’s separation from his wife. Though Byron’s solicitor had engaged Romily to act for Byron, Romilly and Lushington had  acted for Lady Byron. The case never went to court and Byron never forgave Romilly. When Romilly died, Byron did not mourn him. He said something to the effect that it was ironic that after separating Byron from his wife, Romilly cut his own throat when he lost his own wife. 

As was the custom of the time, he was given a proper burial. Romilly was buried on 11 November 1818 at the parish church of St Michael and All Angels, Knill, Herefordshire, along with his wife Ann.

Marble bust of Castlereagh by Joseph Nollekens, 1821. Yale Center for British Art ~ Public Domain

Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, usually known as Lord Castlereagh, derived from the courtesy title Viscount Castlereagh was an Anglo-Irish statesman and another high-ranking person Lord Byron “skinned” in his poetry.

Posterity will ne’er survey

A nobler grave than this:

Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:

Stop, traveller, and piss.

Beginning in 1812, Castlereagh served as the British Foreign Secretary. He played a key role in managing the coalition that eventually defeated Napoleon. He was the principal British diplomat at the Congress of Vienna. He was also leader of the British House of Commons for the Liverpool government.

Despite his contributions to Napoleon’s defeat, Castlereagh was extremely unpopular in the country he served. His critics disliked how he constructed peace, allowing reactionary governments on the Continent to suppress dissent. He was also called out for his association with the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth’s repressive measures at home. Castlereagh chose to support the infamous Six Acts, which suppressed any meetings advocating political reform in order to remain in cabinet and diplomatic work.

The suicides who died due to “unbalance of the mind” were often buried in a separate section of the church yard or family plots on their own grounds. They were not buried in “holy” ground. 

For these reasons, Castlereagh appears with other members of Lord Liverpool’s Cabinet in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem The Masque of Anarchy, which was inspired by and heavily critical of the Peterloo Massacre:

I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

In 1822, he began to suffer from a form of a nervous breakdown. He was severely overworked with both his responsibilities in leading the government in the House and the never-ending diplomacy required to manage conflicts among the other major powers. At the time, he said “My mind, is, as it were, gone.” Towards the end of his life, there are increasing reports, both contemporaneous and in later memoirs, of exceptionally powerful rages and sudden bouts of uncharacteristic forgetfulness. He surprised his friends by admitting his belief in ghosts and other supernatural beings, in particular the “radiant boy”, a figure which emerges from fire and is supposed to foretell death, which he claimed he had seen as a young man in Ireland.

He is said to have told the King during a meeting on August 9 that he was being watched by a servant who was tailing him everywhere. It is also reported that he told the King, “I am accused of the same crime as the Bishop of Clogher,” referring to Percy Jocelyn, the Bishop of Clogher who had been accused of homosexuality the previous month. Many later thought, after the suicide, that Castlereagh was being blackmailed.

The King surmised that Castlereagh believed he was being blackmailed for the same reason. It remains unclear whether there was some sort of extortion attempt, and if so, whether such attempt represented a real threat of exposure, or whether the purported blackmail was a symptom of paranoia. His friends and family were alarmed and hid his razor. Unfortunately, on 12 August, Castlereagh managed in the three to four minutes he was left alone to find a small knife with which he cut his own throat.

“A retrospective speculative diagnosis has linked various instances of (at the time) little explained illness to syphilis, possibly contracted at Cambridge. Stewart’s undergraduate studies were interrupted by a mysterious illness first apparent during the closing months of 1787, and which kept him away from Cambridge through the summer of 1788. Later, there were unexplained illnesses in 1801 and 1807, the first described by a contemporary as ‘brain fever”‘which would be consistent with syphilitic meningitis.” (Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh

The Suicide of Lord Castlereagh by George Cruikshank, 1822 ~ Public Domain

The temporary insanity decree allowed Lady Londonderry to bury her husband in Westminster Abbey. The pallbearers included Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister, Lord Sidmouth, the former Prime Minister, and two future Prime Ministers, the Duke of Wellington and Frederick Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich. Many viewed the verdict and Castlereagh’s public funeral as a damning indictment of the elitism and privilege of the unreformed electoral system. His funeral on 20 August was greeted with jeering and insults along the processional route, although not to the level of unanimity projected in the radical press. A funeral monument was not erected until 1850.

Soon there after, a carpenter or such who committed suicide and was to be buried naked at the cross roads with a stake in his heart.

“Crossroads burials ended with the increasing understanding of mental illness and depression, particularly after the suicide of Lord Castlereagh in 1822. Many Londoners were also shocked in 1823 at the crossroads burial of Abel Griffiths – a disturbed young man who had killed his father – at the junction of Eaton Street, Grosvenor Place and the King’s Road. Crossroads burials were abolished by an act of parliament the same year. Few objected, although one argument against abolition was that the disgrace of crossroads burial was a ‘deterrent’ to suicide.” [History Extra]

Even so, for the common man, the suicides who died due to “unbalance of the mind” were often buried in a separate section of the church yard or family plots on their own grounds. They were not buried in “holy” ground. 

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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4 Responses to Condemned by the Church of England and the Catholic Church, Yet … Famous Suicides in the Regency Era

  1. Angelyn says:

    Nice summary of famous Regency era suicides. I didn’t know Whitbread had such nice legs, nor was I aware of Castlereagh’s alleged syphilis (and I’ve blogged on the latter’s suicide!)

    I’m always glad to learn new things–this blog is a good place for that.

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