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Chivalric honour gave way to arrogant folly in provoking duels

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Weapons on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about duelling originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 620 published on 1 December 1973.

Wellington and Winchelsea duel, picture, image, illustration

The Duke of Wellington challenged Lord Winchelsea to a duel following an argument over Roman Catholic voting rights, by C L Doughty

“Pistols for two and breakfast for one.” That was the macabre instruction given to a servant before his master went to fight a duel. History does not record whether the master ever needed his breakfast or whether he merely required an undertaker.

Although duelling has virtually died out in the world now, there were times when one could scarcely move about in a large city without hearing of some affair of honour that had just been settled in blood. Before looking at some of the more unusual fights, it will be helpful to consider a brief history of duelling.

It originated in the early Middle Ages, just after the Norman Conquest. If a man (or woman) was charged with a crime, there was no trial by jury. They could choose either trial by ordeal or trial by combat. Unless you could bribe the judge, trial by ordeal wasn’t much use. You had to do something like carry red-hot iron a number of paces without burning yourself. So, some people chose to plead: “Not guilty. I am ready to defend the same by my body.” That meant they would fight.

Accuser and accused would fight to the death at an appointed time and place. The idea was that God would favour the innocent, and justice would thereby be done. Sadly, cunning men began to cheat a little, by employing champions to fight on their behalf.

Duelling also had its opponents; such as King Edward I, who preferred the spreading habit of asking for a trial by one’s peers – a system that was to become refined to trial by jury as it exists today. But, trials by combat went on long after the king’s death. One of the oddest of these occurred in France in 1400. Aubrey Montargis was walking in a wood near Paris, accompanied only by his faithful dog. An enemy, the Chevalier Maquer, attacked and killed him. It was noticed in the next few days, that the dog became uncontrollable when near Maquer, and people began to suspect that he could be the murderer. Proper lists were set up for the combat, and Maquer appeared on horseback, armed with a lance. Amazingly, when the dog was released against him, the man was unable to hit it. When the point of the lance was lowered for a moment, the dog attacked him by the throat. Maquer screamed for help, saying he would confess to the crime. He was duly executed.

Though the right to trial by combat was not taken away in England for many years, it was replaced as a duel, by the duel of chivalry. This became an accepted method of settling arguments between knights, and was generally run on the lines of a tournament, where the knights concerned – sometimes supported by a number of companions – would fight from horseback and on foot to decide the issue. By about 1500, the wastage of good knights had become so great, that the frequent fights could no longer be tolerated. Knights were challenging each other on the merest points of honour.

The best known of these duels of chivalry is that recorded by Shakespeare in his play, “Richard II,” between Hereford and Norfolk in 1398. But, it was by no means the oddest. In 1390, Sir William Dalzell – a cunning Scot – challenged an English knight, Sir Piers Courtenay, to break a lance with him. But, he insisted that both men should be matched exactly. Courtenay agreed, whereupon the clever Scottish knight revealed that he had lost an eye at the Battle of Otterburn and he claimed that Courtenay should be similarly maimed. Of course, Courtenay would not agree so King Richard was forced to agree that the Scot had outmatched him in wit, and declared him the winner.

The duel of chivalry finally faded from the scene, with its grand panoply of spectacle – one classic fight between mounted knights took place along the centre of Old London Bridge – and was replaced by the duel of honour. Duelling became a social accomplishment and was used to settle all private quarrels, among the upper and middle classes. It began in France and reached such ridiculous proportions that during the reign of Henry IV (1589-1610) at least four thousand men were killed in duels and fourteen thousand pardons issued for breaking the law against duelling. During the reign of the Sun King – Louis XIV (1643-1715) the usual greeting when friends met wasn’t “What’s the news?” but “Did you hear who fought yesterday?”

Private duelling came to England during James I’s rule, though it was checked during Cromwell’s time. It is claimed that Cromwell’s son-in-law, Ireton, actually allowed his nose to be tweaked in public rather than break the law.

It was during the Restoration that duelling in England reached the proportions of a public spectacle. Every day in London saw several fights – Hampstead Heath, Covent Garden and Lincoln’s Inn Fields were popular spots for duelling – and there was even a club formed whose members had to have killed a man in an affair of honour.

Before duelling died away in England in the early nineteenth century, there were some bizarre fights recorded. In 1609 two of King James’s young favourites duelled at Canonbury, in a combat so desperate that both men died. Jeffery Hudson, court dwarf to Charles I, was once enraged by comments made about him by a young officer named Crofts. Many expected the duel to be a joking matter, and young Crofts turned up with a water pistol. But, the dwarf was totally in earnest and insisted they fight with real pistols on horseback. This put the larger man at a fearful disadvantage – since he presented so much bigger a target – and he was, indeed, killed by Hudson’s first shot.

No one was exempt from a challenge to his honour and lists of duelling men include Prime Ministers, actors, priests and playwrights, as well as a heavy sprinkling of military gentlemen. Most fought with pistols, though duelling with swords over honour certainly went on into the twentieth century.

Among the more eccentric combatants were two Frenchmen who duelled with pistols – in balloons. Predictably, a bullet hit one of the balloons and it crashed. Two other Frenchmen chose to hurl billiard balls at each other. That may sound amusing, but their aim was so deadly that one was slain.

Perhaps the man who showed the greatest absurdity of men risking their lives over some stupid, and often imagined, slur to their honour was the literary critic, Sainte-Beuve. When challenged to fight with pistols, he turned up under a large umbrella. He said: “I am quite ready to be killed. But, I am not prepared to catch cold.” It was men like that who eventually removed the foolish idea of duelling by the strongest of weapons – ridicule.

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