The slap of the glove, the demand for satisfaction, pistols at dawn; duelling is a familiar ritual to anyone who has read historical writing set in Europe from the Early Modern period onward. The duel as a gentlemanly way to settle matters of honour survived many attempts to suppress it over the centuries; but what finally killed duelling? Military historian and novelist Richard Hopton investigates.
Duelling has a long history, flourishing in Europe from the 16th to the 19th centuries. It was exported to America and the many other places where Europeans planted their flags; India, South Africa, the West Indies and South America among them. The notion that there were certain slights to a gentleman’s honour – and it was almost exclusively men who fought duels – which could only be expunged on the duelling ground exercised a powerful influence in certain milieux for three centuries.
Nor was the novice duellist short of advice as to how to conduct himself: manuals offering advice on the etiquette of the duel as well as the technicalities of swordplay were published from the latter half of the sixteenth century onwards.
At the same time, duelling always attracted fierce opposition. Monarchs, churchmen, and campaigners railed against duelling from its inception, variously denouncing it as ‘Gothic barbarism’, a waste of life, an offence against Christian morality and a gross infraction of the criminal law. The French King Henri III was so disturbed by the popularity of duelling at his court that he issued a decree denouncing the practice as early as 1578.
Duelling as a historical, perhaps even a romantic, curiosity is lodged in our collective imagination. The image of gentlemen in breeches and tricorn hats meeting in wooded glades or on sandy heaths at first light to defend their honour is an enduring one. The duel has been, and remains, not surprisingly, popular with novelists and playwrights – it makes a dramatic set-piece and constitutes a useful (if perhaps slightly hackneyed) plot device – something which has done much to ensure its longevity in the popular imagination.
Less well known is the story of the demise of the duel. In different countries, duelling disappeared at different times and at different rates: in Britain, which was the first country to eradicate the duel, it happened astonishingly quickly. A practice which had flourished for more than two centuries, died out in little more than two decades.
In 1829 the serving Prime Minister, no less a figure than the Duke of Wellington, felt it necessary to fight a duel to clear his name. By mid-century the duel was already a thing of the past: it may be that the last duel fought in Britain took place in 1852.
By the time the young Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, duelling’s days were numbered. Britain was becoming a more modern society, industrialised and urban with an expanding educated, evangelical middle class. The rule of law prevailed. In such circumstances, the archaic, aristocratic institution of the duel was an anachronism.
In 1840 Lord Cardigan fought a duel on Wimbledon Common with Captain Harvey Tuckett, an officer in his own regiment, the 11th Hussars. Tuckett was wounded and Cardigan charged with attempted murder. Tried in the House of Lords, his acquittal on a technicality provoked public outrage. It was a sure sign that opinion had shifted decisively against duelling. Cardigan, the unrepentant Regency buck, was out of tune with the times.
In Britain and elsewhere the military had always been a stronghold of duelling so was a natural target for the abolitionists. In 1844 the Articles of War, which governed the conduct of all serving soldiers, were amended to deprive officers’ widows of a military pension should their husbands be killed in a duel. This, it was hoped, would be a major disincentive for officers to fight a duel. From that moment on, the duel, Britain at least, faded into history.
Final proof that the duel was a thing of the past was provided by the Tranby Croft affair of 1890. Among a house party gathered at Tranby Croft in Yorkshire for Doncaster races was the Prince of Wales and a wealthy Guards’ officer, Sir William Gordon Cumming.
When Sir William was caught cheating at baccarat, it was hushed up; but word leaked out, bringing the accusation into the public domain, whereupon he decided to clear his name by suing for slander.
A sensational trial ensued; but the point is that 60 years earlier the matter would have been settled on the duelling ground. The guests at Tranby Croft that autumn were precisely the rich, hearty, military types who would, in earlier times, have had resorted to a duel without a second thought. But by 1890, it was even for them, unthinkable.
In France and elsewhere in continental Europe duelling continued in rude health into the 20th century. One historian has estimated that in France alone up to 500 duels were fought every year until 1914. In France, politicians and journalists were enthusiastic duellists – Georges Clemenceau, who had a foot in both camps, may have fought as many as 22 duels – but even gentle, bookish Marcel Proust felt obliged to exchange shots with a journalist who accused him of being homosexual.
Duelling may have been commonplace in fin-de-siècle France but fatalities were rare. The very lack of danger exposed the practice to ridicule. In 1901, a Berlin newspaper scoffed that “French duels… present not the slightest danger to their participants.” By contrast, duelling in the Kaiserreich was a more serious matter: the pistol was the preferred weapon and deaths more numerous. One necessarily speculative statistic suggests that the fatality rate of German duels at this time was approaching one in three.
It was the Great War which killed off the duel. After the slaughter in the trenches, it was difficult to take duelling seriously. Old habits die hard, though, and in the years after 1918 duelling occasionally fizzed into life, like an abandoned, half-extinguished firework. Mussolini and his henchmen were enthusiastic duellists; Marshal Pilsudski fought a duel, as did the odd hot-tempered South American politician. In France, duels were still occasionally fought, often in incongruously modern circumstances. In 1926, the chairman of an oil company fought a journalist in the Paris velodrome. Another duel arose from a disagreement about a film review. Duelling had survived into the age of the silver screen.
It may very well be that the last duel fought in earnest took place in France in April 1967. Appropriately enough, it arose from a spat between two politicians, Gaston Deferre, Communist deputy and mayor of Marseilles, and René Ribiere, a Gaullist deputy. They fought with rapiers in the garden of a house in Neuilly. Ribiere was twice hit on the forearm, at which point the fight was stopped and Deferre declared the winner.
Two years later, men landed on the moon.
Richard Hopton is an author and journalist. His most recent book, and his first novel, is The Straits of Treachery, which was published in 2020 and came out as a paperback on 21 January, 2021. It won the 2019–20 SAHR Prize for Military Fiction. A tale of war, treachery and divided loyalties, his novel is set in Messina in Sicily in 1810 during the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars. He is now working on its sequel.
Richard’s three previous books, all non-fiction, are:
A Reluctant Hero: The Life of Captain Robert Ryder, VC (Pen & Sword Books, 2011)
Pistols at Dawn: A History of Duelling (Piatkus, 2007)
The Battle of Maida, 1806 (Pen & Sword Books, 2002)
If you’re interested in how to write a fight or battle scene in historical fiction, Matthew Harffy‘s Historia feature, Battling with history, is full of information about this tricky subject and should interest both authors and readers.
The Dance of Death: the Duel. Coloured aquatint by T. Rowlandson, 1816: via the Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)
Le Duel a l’Épée et au Poignard (The Duel with the Sword and Dagger), from Les Caprices Series A, The Florence Set by Jacques Callot: Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia
The Field of Battersea, caricature of the 1829 duel between the Duke of Wellington (as a lobster) and George Finch-Hatton, 10th Earl of Winchilsea by William Heath, 1829: via Wikimedia
Mr Punch’s “Tableau” – Society in Court illustrating the Tranby Croft affair trial: Punch, volume 100, p279, 13 June, 1891: via Project Gutenberg
Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky’s duel by Ilya Repin, 1899: Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts via Wikimedia