12 December 2013

'His life departed like a candle burning out'

I’ve been sitting here crying my eyes out reading Gareth Glover’s superb book "Eyewitness to the Peninsular War and the Battle of Waterloo: The Letters and Journals of Lieutenant Colonel The Honourable James Stanhope" (2010). 

What particularly moved me was the tragic account of James Stanhope’s suicide, of which I had no idea of the particulars when I only just visited Kenwood House - the location of his suicide, which was in one of Kenwood’s outbuildings - this past weekend. The excruciating pain he endured after a dreadful injury he sustained whilst fighting during the Napoleonic Wars, accompanied by the unbearable loss of his dearly beloved wife (Lord Mansfield’s daughter) Frederica in childbirth, must have proved more than he could bear. I respect this man more than words can say. 

Another reason the tears have been pouring down my face is because the book contains Stanhope’s account of William Pitt’s death. I originally read the account during a research trip to the Centre for Kentish Studies in Maidstone, but re-reading it never fails to evoke tears in me. The line “his [Pitt’s] life departed like a candle burning out,” is incredibly poignant, and paralyses any admirer of Pitt with sadness and grief. Stanhope’s account of Pitt’s death is thorough, detailed, and harrowing. For me, it is also the most accurate. Pitt suffered terribly in his final illness. 

A friend asked me the other day where I read about the possibility of Pitt having died of pancreatic disease. It was in a snippet from this book. Here is the particular passage, given in the Notes section at the end of the text [Note 59]:

"It is probable that Pitt was actually suffering from either a duodenal (peptic) ulcer or pancreatic disease and had probably contracted typhoid fever in the later stages. It has been stated that Pitt died of acute liver failure brought on by his heavy drinking. However there is much conjecture over Pitt’s death and current medical thinking is that the most likely cause was a duodenal ulcer which had so narrowed the outlet of Pitt’s stomach that nothing could get through. He would thus have had pain, vomiting and weight loss; this would be caused by stress, alcohol and diet. Since there is no evidence of jaundice, he probably did not die of hepatic (liver) failure or severe chronic liver disease. His liver function may, nonetheless, have been impaired as a result of his drinking. One other possibility exists, that he had acute or chronic relapsing pancreatitis - i.e. inflammation of the pancreas, as a consequence of his alcohol excess." 

I think this account blows Gornall’s 1957 article on William Pitt’s health and final illness out of the water as (I’d like to think, anyway!) medical opinion has advanced considerably since the mid-1950s.
If you’re interested in the Napoleonic Wars, William Pitt the younger, the Stanhope family of Chevening, or indeed the Duke of Wellington, I highly recommend Gareth Glover’s book on James Hamilton Stanhope!


Glover, G. (ed.) (2010) Eyewitness to the Peninsular War and the Battle of Waterloo: The Letters and Journals of Lieutenant Colonel The Honourable James Stanhope. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military.

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