To Punish or Defend? The Regency Duel

Although one might need to read Georgette Heyer, rather than Jane Austen, to get a peek at a Regency duel, however, the activity is by no means ignored in Austen’s novels.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet voices her fears that her husband will fight Mr. Wickham, leaving her daughters to be turned out of their home by the Collins’. This may have been due to her over dramatic sense of self pity, but in fact, Sense and Sensibility’s Col Brandon and Mr. Willoughby do meet in an attempt to defend the (doubtable) honor of Eliza Williams.
“One meeting was unavoidable…I could meet [Willoughby] in 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.” Colonel Brandon and Willoughby fight a duel in a 2008 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Colonel Brandon and Willoughby fight a duel in a 2008 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility
According to one definition, “A duel is an arranged engagement in combat between two individuals, with matched weapons in accordance with agreed-upon rules.” During the 17th and 18th centuries (and earlier), duels were mostly fought with swords (the rapier, later the smallsword, and finally the French foil), but beginning in the late 18th century and during the 19th century, duels were more commonly fought using pistols. Special sets of duelling pistols were crafted for the wealthiest of noblemen for this purpose. The duel was based on a code of honour. Duels were fought not so much to kill the opponent as to gain "satisfaction", that is, to restore one's honour by demonstrating a willingness to risk one's life for it, and as such the tradition of duelling was originally reserved for the male members of nobility; however, in the modern era it extended to those of the upper classes generally. From the early 17th century duels became illegal in the countries where they were practised. By about 1770 however, the duel had undergone a number of important changes. Firstly, unlike their counterparts in many continental nations, English duellists had enthusiastically adopted the pistol and few duels were now being fought with the sword. Secondly, the office of 'second' had developed into 'seconds' or 'friends' being chosen by the aggrieved parties to conduct their honour dispute. These friends would attempt to resolve a dispute upon terms acceptable to both parties and, should this fail, they would arrange and oversee the mechanics of the encounter. By this time the values of the duel had spread into the broader and emerging society of gentlemen. Research shows that much the largest group of later duellists were military officers, followed by the young sons of the metropolitan elite. Duelling was also popular for a time amongst doctors and, in particular, amongst the legal professions. Quantifying the number of duels in Britain is difficult, but there are about 1,000 attested between 1785 and 1845 with fatality rates running at at least 15% and probably somewhat higher. The last duel in England was fought in 1852. In 1862, in an article entitled Dead (and gone) Shots, Charles Dickens recalled the rules and myths of Irish duelling in his periodical All the Year Round. Under the United Kingdom law, to kill in the course of a duel was formally murder, but for much of the history of the duel the courts were very lax in applying the law, since the legal professions were themselves sympathetic to the culture of honour. The Anglican Church was generally hostile to duelling, although some clergymen duelled, but non-conformist sects were relentlessly hostile. The sovereigns generally opposed duelling but rarely were active in suppressing it. Even towards the end of duelling Queen Victoria expressed the hope that Lord Cardigan, prosecuted for wounding another in a duel, "would get off easily". The reasons for the disappearance of the duel are controversial, but include the emergence of a new middle class hostile to honour culture, the development of collective imperialist ideologies rather than individualistic ideals and finally the need of the higher orders to present a law-abiding front in the face of the increasing challenges to the traditional order of society offered by those from below. The prohibition on duelling in the military was more rigidly observed (though exceptions were not unheard of), due to the ease by which a skilled but unscrupulous individual could gain rapid promotion by challenging senior officers to duels, killing them, and thus gaining promotion by seniority. It would also be bad for discipline, as officers could query any orders they did not agree with and contradict officers on important points, backed up by the threat of duels. Alexander Hamilton fights his fatal duel with Vice President Aaron Burr, July 1804. Duelling began to fall out of favor in America in the 18th century, and the death of former United States Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in a duel against the sitting Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804 did not help its declining popularity. Benjamin Franklin denounced the practice as uselessly violent, and George Washington encouraged his officers to refuse challenges during the American Revolutionary War because he believed that the death by duelling of officers would have threatened the success of the war effort. An Unavoidable Meeting The traditional situation that led to a duel often happened after the offense. Whether real or imagined, one party would demand satisfaction from the offender. One could signal this demand with an inescapably insulting gesture, such as throwing his glove before him. This is the origin of the phrase "throwing down the gauntlet". This originates from medieval times, when an individual was knighted. The knight-to-be would receive the accolade of three light blows on the shoulder with a sword and, in some cases, a ritual slap in the face, said to be the last affronts he could accept without redress. Therefore, anyone being slapped with a glove was, like a knight, considered obliged to accept the challenge or be dishonoured. Contrary to popular belief, hitting one in the face with a glove was not a challenge, but could be done after the glove had been thrown down as a response to the one issuing the challenge. Each party would name a trusted representative (a "second") who would, between them, determine a suitable "field of honour". It was also the duty of each party's second to check that the weapons were equal and that the duel was fair. Although generally demanded by custom, similarity of weapons is not essential; neither are witnesses, seconds, etc. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, it was normal practice for the seconds as well as the principals to fight each other. Later the seconds' role became more specific, to make sure the rules were followed and to try to achieve reconciliation, but as late as 1777 the Irish code still allowed the seconds an option to exchange shots. Pistols for Two? The chief criteria for choosing the field of honour were isolation, to avoid discovery and interruption by the authorities; and jurisdictional ambiguity, to avoid legal consequences. Islands in rivers dividing two jurisdictions were popular duelling sites; the cliffs below Weehawken on the Hudson River where the Hamilton-Burr duel occurred were a popular field of honour for New York duellists because of the uncertainty whether New York or New Jersey jurisdiction applied. Duels traditionally took place at dawn, when the poor light would make the participants less likely to be seen, and to force an interval for reconsideration or sobering-up. For sometime before the mid-18th century, swordsmen duelling at dawn often carried lanterns to see each other. This happened so regularly that fencing manuals integrated lanterns into their lessons. An example of this is using the lantern to parry blows and blind the opponent. The manuals sometimes show the combatants carrying the lantern in the left hand wrapped behind the back, which is still one of the traditional positions for the off hand in modern fencing. At the choice of the offended party, the duel could be fought to a number of conclusions:
  • To first blood, in which case the duel would be ended as soon as one man was wounded, even if the wound was minor.
  • Until one man was so severely wounded as to be physically unable to continue the duel.
  • To the death (or "à l'outrance"), in which case there would be no satisfaction until one party was mortally wounded.
  • In the case of pistol duels, each party would fire one shot. If neither man was hit and if the challenger stated that he was satisfied, the duel would be declared over. If the challenger was not satisfied, a pistol duel could continue until one man was wounded or killed, but to have more than three exchanges of fire was considered barbaric and, on the rare occasion that no hits were achieved, somewhat ridiculous.
Under the latter conditions, one or both parties could intentionally miss in order to fulfill the conditions of the duel, without loss of either life or honour. However, doing so, known as deloping, could imply that your opponent was not worth shooting. This practice occurred despite being expressly banned by the Code Duello of 1777. Rule 13 stated: "No dumb shooting or firing in the air is admissible in any case... children's play must be dishonourable on one side or the other, and is accordingly prohibited." Practices varied, however, and many pistol duels were to first blood or death. The offended party could stop the duel at any time if he deemed his honour satisfied. In some duels, the seconds would take the place of the primary dueller if the primary was not able to finish the duel. This was usually done in duels with swords, where one's expertise was sometimes limited. The second would also act as a witness. Participation in a duel could be honorably refused on account of a major difference in age between the parties and, to a lesser extent, in cases of social inferiority on the part of the challenger. Such inferiority had to be immediately obvious, however. As author Bertram Wyatt-Brown states, "with social distinctions often difficult to measure," most men could not escape on such grounds without the appearance of cowardice. For a pistol duel, the parties would be placed back to back with loaded weapons in hand and walk a set number of paces, turn to face the opponent, and shoot. Typically, the graver the insult, the fewer the paces agreed upon. Alternatively, a pre-agreed length of ground would be measured out by the seconds and marked, often with swords stuck in the ground (referred to as "points"). At a given signal, often the dropping of a handkerchief, the principals could advance and fire at will. This latter system reduced the possibility of cheating, as neither principal had to trust the other not to turn too soon. Another system involved alternate shots being taken, beginning with the challenged firing first. Many historical duels were prevented by the difficulty of arranging the "methodus pugnandi". In the instance of Dr. Richard Brocklesby, the number of paces could not be agreed upon; and in the affair between Mark Akenside and Ballow, one had determined never to fight in the morning, and the other that he would never fight in the afternoon. John Wilkes, "who did not stand upon ceremony in these little affairs," when asked by Lord Talbot how many times they were to fire, replied, "just as often as your Lordship pleases; I have brought a bag of bullets and a flask of gunpowder." A fictional pistol duel between Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky from the novel by Unusual duels To decline a challenge was often equated to defeat by forfeiture, and sometimes regarded as dishonourable. Prominent and famous individuals were especially at risk of being challenged
  • In 1798 HRH The Duke of York, well known as "The Grand Old Duke of York", duelled with Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Lennox and was grazed by a bullet along his hairline.
  • Irish political leader Daniel O'Connell killed John D'Esterre in a duel in February, 1815. O'Connel offered D'Esterre's widow a pension equal to the amount her husband had been earning at the time, but the Corporation of Dublin, of which D'Esterre was a member, rejected O'Connell's offer and voted the promised sum to D'Esterre's wife themselves. However, D'Esterre's wife consented to accept an allowance for her daughter, which O'Connell regularly paid for more than thirty years until his death. The memory of the duel haunted him for the remainder of his life.
  • The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin prophetically described a number of duels in his works, notably Onegin's duel with Lensky in Eugene Onegin. The poet was mortally wounded in a controversial duel (1837) with Georges d'Anthès, a French officer rumoured to be his wife's lover. D'Anthès, who was accused of cheating in this duel, married Pushkin's sister-in-law and went on to become a French minister and senator.
  • In 1843, two other Frenchmen are said to have fought a duel by means of throwing billiard balls at each other.
  • In 1808, two Frenchmen are said to have fought in balloons over Paris, each attempting to shoot and puncture the other's balloon; one duellist is said to have been shot down and killed with his second.
Four Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom have engaged in duels, although only two of them – Pitt and Wellington – held the office at the time of their duels.
  • William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne fought a duel with Colonel William Fullarton (1780)
  • William Pitt the Younger fought a duel with George Tierney (1798)
  • George Canning fought a Regency duel with Lord Castlereagh (1809)
  • The Duke of Wellington fought a duel with Lord Winchilsea (1829)
The last known fatal duel in Canada, in Perth, Ontario in 1833, saw Robert Lyon challenge John Wilson to a pistol duel after a quarrel over remarks made about a local school teacher, whom Wilson married after Lyon was killed in the duel. The last fatal duel in England took place on Priest Hill, between Englefield Green and Old Windsor, on 19 October 1852, between two French refugees, Cournet and Barthelemy, the former being killed.

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