You see them in movies; you read about them in books: the hero and generally the villain square off in a duel with swords or pistols. We’ve talked about how many young men were taught early to shoot and to fence. They were also cautioned against hot-headed displays. But dueling was viewed as an honorable alternative to settling a dispute. Even though it was frowned upon by the magistrates, even the most senior and respected of peers sometimes demanded satisfaction on the field of honor!
Some duels were over gambling debts. In September 1810 in Surrey, Captain Hants was mortally wounded when he met a Mr. Coleshall at Monsley Hurst over a “trivial bet at Egham races.” This after Mr. Coleshall’s brother tattled on them the previous week when they were trying to set up to duel in Middlesex. So strong was the feeling about dueling, however, that when the Coroner’s Inquest was called, no witness mentioned Mr. Coleshall’s involvement. (So even the gossip columnist who reported about the event knew who had shot the gallant captain, but no one was willing to tell the jury the information.) The jury returned a verdict of “Willful Murder by person or persons unknown.” Hmm.
Sometimes duels were fought over a lady’s honor. A wealthy married gentleman by the name of Payne made advances toward a Miss Clark, who was a friend of his wife. Even his own brother tried to talk him out of it, but he refused to stop his attentions. Miss Clark must have poured her concerns out to her brother, who was a captain in the army, because he took umbrage and met Payne on Wimbledon Common (yes, that Wimbledon). Mr. Payne must have been feeling some remorse, for he told a friend that he would not return fire. The captain’s first shot killed him, leaving his widow to raise their four children. Once again, the jury returned a verdict of “Willful Murder by some person or persons unknown.”
Sometimes, however, duels were fought for political reasons. In 1798, the Prime Minister of England, William Pitt, accused George Tierney, an opposition politician, of desiring to obstruct the defense of England. Tierney demanded that Pitt withdraw the accusation; Pitt refused. Tierney challenged him to a duel, and the two met near London. The first set of shots went wild, and Pitt fired his second shot into the air, thereby vindicating honor. Even the Duke of Wellington, that victor of Waterloo, fought a duel when he was Prime Minister. He was accused of attempting to introduce “Popery” into British government by favoring laws giving Catholics more freedom in England. Wellington missed, and his opponent, the Earl of Winchilsea, fired into the air.
By the way, you may see the word delope or delopement used to describe the business of firing into the air. Georgette Heyer used the word in one of her books. So far, the term hasn’t been located in any document from the nineteenth century, to my knowledge.
So does that mean the pen really is mightier than the sword?