It always seems good exercise to walk up the Red Stairs although, annoyingly, it never seems to get any easier. Nor do I think the number of steps reflects how many I feel it is. At the top, a gallery leads in two directions and along one of them is a small hallway from which leads the Canning Bedroom.
It used to be full of stuff piled up, boxes and an old sofa. Part of the cornice was on the floor, the paint was peeling , there were no lights and the shutters were a wrestling match. The hallway outside was patched wooden floorboards and always dim given there was no proper lighting. It was not hard, however, to see the potential beauty of the bedroom or of this part of the Castle.
The room was named for George Canning, a colourful politician who was Paymaster of the Forces, Treasurer of the Navy and Foreign Secretary for two years before fighting and being wounded in a duel with Lord Castlereagh, who was also a Minster at the time. The two politicians dislike of each other had almost paralysed the government and, following the duel, Canning was out of favour for the next five years, before again taking up a variety of political roles. In 1827, Canning was chosen to succeed Lord Liverpool as Prime Minister although some fellow party members resigned or refused to serve under him. Sadly he died in office just four months later in August 1827.
Like other statesmen of his time, he was an outstanding student, renowned for his intelligence and oratory, although he came from what today we would call a dysfunctional family. He be began political life as a Whig but turned to Pitt the Younger and the Conservative Party during a deeply troubled time of disagreement in Europe. Canning commented as follows: “Italy: plundered, insulted, trampled upon”, “Netherlands: driven into insurrection”, “Holland: groaning under arbitrary oppressions”, “Spain: trembling at the nod of a foreign master”.
Canning was convinced that William Pitt was the man needed in this hour and, whilst Canning wrote many songs, two lines are still quite relevant:
“The regrets of the good and the fears of the wise
Shall turn to the Pilot that weathered the Storm”.
Highclere welcomed many statesmen over the succeeding decades and century from Prime Ministers and Minsters of State such Lord Salisbury and Disraeli to Lord Derby and Arthur Balfour, as well as key representatives from other countries. I am sure they ate well and enjoyed the cellars, listened to music and discussed history, plays and politics. Perhaps they joined their host, Lord Carnarvon, for walks to admire the trees and views in Highclere Park, to discuss knotty problems, before returning for a cup of tea and slice of cake.
Perhaps fortunately for them there was no television or social media or other means of instant communication, allowing time to discuss and consider, to read carefully the papers and weigh the facts. This may of course be a romantic view and clearly these days politics is just as difficult. Two hundred years ago we were closed out of trade with Europe with increasing taxes as our economy faltered with sustained inflation, increased food prices, unemployment, trade restrictions and fears of rioting.
Because of the past (18th) century of planned prosperity, the British government were able to borrow long term at good rates. Today’s world is perhaps less convinced about the British economy going forward and we have yet to see what will happen next. To use Canning’s phrase, we do have a calm pilot and a Prime Minister who must be admired for her resilience in weathering the storm. History may not repeat, but its rhyme is bittersweet.
In the meantime, Canning bedroom has been redecorated, the cornice is in place and the corridor is now properly lit. Time to move on to another bedroom!