|A duel by Robert Cruikshank from The English Spy by B Blackmantle (1825)|
A duel was a planned combat between two gentlemen using lethal weapons in the presence of witnesses. Duels were often referred to as affairs of honour because a gentleman fought to ‘remove the stain which he conceives attaches to his honour.’1
In his 1821 book on ‘ordeals’, Gilchrist described a duel:
The term 'Duel' signifies a single combat originating in a feeling of personal offence, and followed by a regular Cartel, or challenge, fixing a time and place, mutually convenient to the combatants. These individuals are termed principals, and are usually accompanied to the field, by two gentlemen, in the quality of friends, or seconds, for the purpose of arranging, and superintending, all the preliminaries, and proceedings of the combat.2
If a gentleman took offence at another gentleman's actions or words, he could challenge that gentleman to a duel. The challenger demanded satisfaction from the offender. It was considered more gentlemanlike to meet each other in a duel than to descend into a fist fight like the lower classes.
In The Duelling Handbook (1829), Hamilton’s third rule in the royal code of honour stated:
In a case which appears to require recurrence to a duel, the challenge should always emanate from the individual who first conceives himself offended. 3
Did a gentleman have to accept a challenge?
Hamilton’s first rule in the royal code of honour said:
No duel can be considered justifiable, which can be declined with honour, therefore, an appeal to arms should always be the last resource. 4
In Principles of Politeness (1798), Trusler wrote:
I am happy to find that gentlemen, men of honour, and even military men in some cases, appeal to the civil laws of their country, when challenged, instead of the sword; and they appear to be countenanced in so doing. 5
The trouble was that most gentlemen found it hard to decline a challenge ‘with honour’, afraid of being labelled a coward.
In a speech against duelling in 1830, Crampton said:
No man loves to fight for fighting sake; he fights because he fears he cannot honourably decline the combat. 6
There was no slur on a gentleman’s character if he refused a challenge from a man who he deemed unworthy in rank (such as a servant) or character (such as a known criminal).
It was the first duty of the seconds to try to effect a reconciliation between the parties. True gentlemanlike conduct was for the challenger to accept an apology if he could do so with honour.
Hamilton’s code of honour stated that:
Every apology which may be proposed, should be as dignified as the nature of the circumstances will admit of, it being inconsistent with true honour, to attempt the unnecessary degradation of an adversary. 7
The first offence required the first apology, even if the retort was more offensive than the insult.
If blows had been exchanged, no verbal apology could be given.
An apology, with its usual accompaniment, the offer of a whip or switch, should always be accepted for a blow, or for any other offence, which may be considered an assault. 8
Most Georgian duels used duelling pistols, but some were fought with swords. It is not clear whether the challenger or the challenged chose the weapon.
Hamilton quoted The Practice of Duelling and the Point of Honor, settled at the Clonmel summer assizes in 1777 and adopted throughout Ireland. These rules stated that the challenged party had the right to choose the weapon, though the challenger could decline swords if he gave his honour that he was no swordsman.
However, Trusler disagreed and said that it was the challenger who could choose:
Duelling is called demanding, and giving satisfaction; and it is the etiquette generally on these occasions that the challenger or party aggrieved, has the choice of weapons; and if pistols are determined on, to have the first fire; and the party challenged, being the aggressor, is to stand quietly to be shot at; when, if he is not killed; or rendered unable to return the fire, it is at his option either to fire at his antagonist, or discharge his pistol in the air; if he does the latter, the affair ends, and the challenger has had the Christian satisfaction of trying to murder his enemy, whom his Redeemer directs him to love. 9
Was it legal?
No! As a result, duels tended to happen at out of the way places, usually very early in the morning. Gentlemen considered that the etiquette surrounding a duel distinguished it from cold-blooded murder should one or both combatants be mortally injured.
In theory, the law made no such distinction, and a man could be sentenced to death for murdering his opponent in a duel, but the courts tended to be lenient, unless there were signs of impropriety.
Gilchrist made a study of duels from the accession of George III up to 1821. He wrote:
It appears, that in one hundred and seventy-two combats (including three hundred and forty-four individuals,) sixty-nine persons were killed; that in three of these neither of the combatants survived; that ninety-six were wounded, forty-eight of them desperately, and forty-eight slightly; that one hundred and eighty-eight escaped unhurt.
From this statement it will be seen that rather more than one-fifth of the combatants lost their lives, and that nearly one-half received the bullets of their antagonists.
It appears, also, that only eighteen trials took place; that six of the arraigned were “acquitted,” seven found guilty of “manslaughter,” and three of murder; that two were executed, and eight imprisoned during different periods. 10
Trusler disapproved of this leniency. He wrote:
The duellist who puts his antagonist to death, to support his honour; and thro' fear of being branded with cowardice, is no less criminal than the woman who puts her child to death, to preserve her honour, and conceal her and though the law punishes the latter with death, and winks at the former, in compliance with prejudice, reconciling it under the idea of self-defence; yet God, who sees not as man seeth, will punish both one and the other. 11
Each gentleman in a duel appointed one or two seconds – friends who would stand by them in the duel.
The first duty of a second was to effect a reconciliation without resort to violence, but failing this, the formal challenge was delivered to the challenged gentleman’s second.
If you are reduced to the necessity of giving a challenge, never commit it to writing, but convey it by the friend you have appointed your second; the letter conveying it will be evidence against you in a court of law. 12
It was the responsibility of the seconds to arrange the meeting and ensure fair play. The second of the challenged party set the ground and place of meeting.
In The Practice of Duelling and the Point of Honor (1777) used in Ireland and quoted by Hamilton, it stated that the challenger chose the distance, but it is not clear whether this was the case in England. Hamilton’s code of honour stated that parties should never be allowed to fight at less than ten yards distance.
For pistols, the seconds fixed the time and terms of firing, measured out the paces and loaded the guns.
For swords, the seconds ensured that the ground was clean, dry and even, and similar for both parties, and that the swords were of equal length to ensure fair play.
It was the duty of the seconds to step in and stop the duel after satisfaction had been gained. However, this was not always the case as sometimes the seconds joined in the duel.
Where were duels fought?
The challenged party had the choice of ground. A remote location was generally sought as duels were illegal and the parties did not want the meeting to be stopped by a constable of the law. London duels were fought in places like Hyde Park, Putney Heath, Wimbledon Common and Chalk Farm, north of Camden.
When did the duel stop?
It varied at what point a duel stopped, depending on what the seconds had agreed. would give the challenger satisfaction. Once honour had been satisfied, the parties were reconciled, and the matter considered closed.
For pistols, typically they fired one or more shots each, either together or taking it in turns starting with the challenger. Alternatively, they could continue until one or both parties were disabled. It was the duty of the seconds to try to end the duel after each round.
For swords, the duel continued until one party was badly wounded, disabled or disarmed, or until blood was drawn and the challenged party begged pardon.
He must have a truly murderous spirit who will fire at any gentleman after he discharges his pistol in the air, and whether swords or pistols are selected, the appearance of blood should generally terminate a duel. 13
Why were duels fought?
Many duels were fought over serious offences, such as the defence of a woman’s honour, or a gentleman’s character. But sometimes challenges were given for less honourable causes, such as gambling disputes or words spoken rashly, particularly under the influence of alcohol.
In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen referred to the duel fought between Colonel Brandon and Willoughby over his ward Eliza’s honour:
“Have you,” she [Elinor] continued, after a short silence, “ever seen Mr Willoughby since you left him at Barton?”
“Yes,” he replied gravely, “once I have. One meeting was unavoidable.”
Elinor, startled by his manner, looked at him anxiously, saying, “What? have you met him to—"
“I could meet him no other way. Eliza had confessed to me, though most reluctantly, the name of her lover; and when he returned to town, which was within a fortnight after myself, we met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct. We returned unwounded, and the meeting, therefore, never got abroad.”
Elinor sighed over the fancied necessity of this; but to a man and a soldier she presumed not to censure it.14
Lord Paget and Captain Cadogan
In 1809, Captain Cadogan challenged Henry Paget, Lord Paget, later 1st Marquess of Anglesey, to a duel for eloping with his sister Charlotte, who was married to Henry Wellesley, a younger brother of Arthur Wellesley, Duke ofWellington.
They met at 7am on 30 May 1809 on Wimbledon Common. Twelve paces apart, they fired together. Cadogan fired; Paget did not aim.
Gilchrist reported Paget as saying:
Nothing could ever have induced me to add to the injuries I have already done the family, by firing at the brother of Lady Charlotte Wellesley.15
William Pitt the Younger and George Tierney
In 1798, George Tierney objected to an expression used by William Pitt in the House of Commons and challenged him to a duel. They met on Putney Heath on 21 May 1798 at 3pm. At twelve paces, they fired two pistols each to no effect. Pitt fired his pistol in the air bringing the matter to a close with perfect honour on both sides.
Lord Castlereagh and George Canning
In 1809, Lord Castlereagh challenged Canning to a duel complaining that he had secretly tried to get him removed from office because of incapacity while continuing to work with him in the open.
The meeting took place on 21 September 1809 on Putney Heath at ten yards. The first shot missed, but in a second, Canning received a flesh wound in his left thigh.
Sir Robert Floyer and Mr Belfield in Cecilia
In Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, Sir Robert Floyer and Mr Belfield fought a duel prompted by a dispute for the right to escort Cecilia out of the pit of the Opera House. Sir Robert refused to make an apology for his rudeness. In the duel, Mr Belfield was wounded but not fatally.
1. Hamilton, Joseph, The Duelling Handbook (1829).
2. Gilchrist, James P, A brief display of the origin and history of ordeals (1821).
3. Hamilton op cit.
5. Trusler, Rev Dr John, and Chesterfield, Lord, Principles of Politeness and of knowing the world (1798).
6. Crampton, Philip Cecil, Speech of P C Crampton, Esq, at a public meeting of the Association for the Suppression of Duelling held in Dublin on Thursday June 10th 1830.
7. Hamilton op cit.
9. Trusler op cit.
10. Gilchrist op cit.
11. Trusler op cit.
13. Hamilton op cit.
14. Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811, London)
15. Gilchrist op cit.
Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811, London)
Burney, Fanny, Cecilia or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782)
Crampton, Philip Cecil, Speech of P C Crampton, Esq, at a public meeting of the Association for the Suppression of Duelling held in Dublin on Thursday June 10th 1830
Edgeworth, Maria, Belinda, this edition (1848)(1850)(1896)
Gilchrist, James P, A brief display of the origin and history of ordeals (1821)
Hamilton, Joseph, The Duelling Handbook (1829)
Hopton, Richard, Pistols at Dawn (2007)
Steinmetz, Andrew, The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries (1868)
Trusler, Rev Dr John, and Chesterfield, Lord, Principles of Politeness and of knowing the world (1798)
Pictures from the Wellcome Collection are used under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY 4.0)