I’ve been writing a duel in my latest book, so I wanted to brush up on my research. My duel takes place in the mid 1750’s and it’s an affair of honour over a lady. The poor lady is like to be ruined by having two men fighting over her, but they’ll sort that out later!
In the mid 1770’s the “duelling code” was introduced, but this was after the time I’m writing. Nevertheless I used it as a general guide, since they were doing many of these things before.
First, duels were illegal. If a duellist killed his man, he could be prosecuted for murder. That rarely happened, partly because most duels weren’t to the death, and partly because duellists were rich and influential men.
What we see in a lot of films seems to be largely correct. The person challenged would choose the weapons, usually swords or pistols, but they could in theory choose anything. They would meet early in the day, somewhere quiet, but often word would get around and men would turn up to watch the duel and to bet on the outcome.
The combatants had seconds, and it was up to them to arrange matters like the meeting place, and getting their man there on time, and providing neutral weapons. They would examine the weapons to see if they were tampered with, and load the pistols, or sometimes provide them preloaded.
Although duelling was outlawed, and punishable by death if a member of the armed forces took part in one (if he wasn’t dead already!) that didn’t seem to stop determined participants. However, there were some trials, and they became public sensations. In 1736: Henry St Lawrence and Hamilton Gorges fought to the death, and Mr. Gorges stood trial for murder. He was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence. The cause of the scandal involved the deaths of two of his family in a carriage accident.
And of course, Byron was involved in a duel, which led to his conviction for manslaughter. But the man was a walking scandal.
Some duels were over legal disputes – an argument over an inheritance which could have dragged on for years was settled in 1712 when the Duke of Hamilton and Lord Bohun met. Unfortunately, both were killed and their seconds found guilty of manslaughter.
If the participants were wounded, nobody came to court, but there was always that chance.
And the duelling pistols! They were the epitome of the gunsmith’s art. Although most people didn’t indulge in duelling, most men owned a pair of duelling pistols, because they were so beautiful. Not to mention costly! But looking at them today, all I can feel is a chill.