Lincolnshire’s Last Duel by Jim Snee

Duelling has an odd place in history in that, although it has its origins in antiquity, it is very much an example of romantic revival, albeit a very dysfunctional one.

In its most ancient form, duelling was undertaken as a form of champions combat, by which the fate of many were determined by two selected or volunteer champions who fought in single combat. Examples can be found in Greek, Roman, Germanic and British mythology. I remember, as a child, acting out a story of champions combat in the village church, the story of David and Goliath.

Such combats continued into the medieval period and we also have records of judicial combat where an accused and accuser would determine their own fates with a life or death battle. Today this is often seen in a chivalrous light with jousting knights on mighty chargers. The reality was more brutal, combat was on foot, and the weapons used were often clubs or hammers. A rather ugly business to be given the title “The judgement of god”.

As an aside, it is often believed that judicial combat was only between men, this may not be so as we have surviving accounts of how women should be armed, and we have illustrations of the marital combat where the man must stand waste deep in a hole in the ground and, with a wooden club, defend himself from his wife who is armed with a rock, tied into her scarf. Hell, indeed, hath no fury…

By the time of the Wars of the Roses, duelling and champion combat had fallen out of fashion. Private quarrels in the court were settled on the field of battle, but now with whole retinues and armies taking part. This was not entirely an improvement, and it may not be entirely coincidental that tournaments underwent a substantial (and rather theatrical) revival, possibly to provide an outlet for social pressure and reduce the number of casualties.

In the 16th Century dynastic and political struggles in Italy saw a resurgence of settling disputes through single combat. As the new Italian fencing style spread through Europe, a fashion for social duelling travelled with it. Originally it was a fashion for the upper echelons of society, those who could afford fencing masters, but in the late 16th century it was becoming more popularised, particularly with the appearance of plays like Romeo and Juliet.

An early instance that connects Lincolnshire with duelling, is almost Shakespearian in itself. In 1586, Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby de Eresby, was commanding a garrison in Holland, fighting the Spanish. Correspondence appears to have started between Bertie and the Spanish Commander of a nearby town. Insults are exchanged, tempers flare and the Spanish Commander, Vittorio Frizzio, issues a challenge. Bertie accepts the challenge, but in doing so berates the challenger for his ignorance of the customs of chivalry. There is no record of the duel ever being fought, and it is clear from Bertie’s correspondence that the queen was not amused. I am put in mind of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s pathetic letter of challenge.

Almost from its very beginning, duelling was frowned upon by law, with killing in a duel considered murder and punishable by death. This seems to have little effect, particularly when those engaged in duels were the high and mighty.

In 1644 the civil war was raging across the country and Lincolnshire was largely held for Parliament. However, the commanders of parliament were spending as much time quarrelling with each other as they did pursuing their enemies. One upshot of this was that Lord Willoughby of Parham, a local dignitary, became so angry with the Earl of Manchester, Parliament’s regional commander, that he issued a challenge to a duel. It took the combined might of the House of Lords to bring the two to some sort of reconciliation and avoid the death of at least one of their military leaders.

As for duels in Lincolnshire itself, in 1682 we have a letter saying the Lord Castleton killed a Mr Batty in a duel, possibly in Dembleby. This would have been a duel with swords. Duelling with pistols did not develop until the late 18th century.

Whereas duelling with swords required training and therefore leisure time and money, duelling with pistols was available to all. In fact, it was considered bad form to actually practice with the weapons beforehand. This much more democratic form of combat does seem to have resulted in something of a free-for-all as to the way the duel was carried out, and it is not long before publications appear to codify the rules and inform people of the correct etiquette for shooting each other at dawn. It is likely that the library of every fashionable house in Lincolnshire would have had such a volume amongst its shelves, although probably they were very little used. As for the Code Duello which was the unofficial aw of duelling, this was mainly concerned with how many times the duellists must shoot each other for honour to be satisfied, although there is a section on how to resolve disputes between seconds, with a duel.

The early 19th century saw political turmoil between the Tory Party and the Whig Party over constitutional reform. It is at this time we see political duelling and in many respects the decline of the duel. In 1829 an infamous duel took place between the Duke of Wellington and Lord Winchelsea. The Duke fired deliberately wide and Winchelsea fired his gun into the air. Commentators were appalled, and cartoons appeared mocking both the men and the practice. It was also at this time that events would be set in motion that would lead to Lincolnshire’s last duel.

Up to 1830, the elections in Stamford were effectively controlled by the Cecil Brownlow Marquess of Exeter who fielded two candidates, one of whom was his brother; Lord Cecil. However, in 1830, Charles Tennyson (later Tennyson d’Eyncourt) entered the fray for the Whigs. Tennyson did not win this election, but he had gained considerable support, and there were allegations of voter intimidation by the Tories.

In 1831 there was another election and in Stamford both parties were ready for battle. Exeter hired in hundreds of “bruisers” and “pugilists” that he equipped with staves, and even set up cannon on his house roof. The Whigs had the local populous on their side. Although Lord Cecil was returned as MP for the town, on this occasion he was not being joined by a fellow Tory and family member. The second MP returned for Stamford was Charles Tennyson, for the Whigs. The recriminations following such a violent electoral battle were harsh and largely directed at the Tories. Lord Cecil, feeling his honour was being besmirched, challenged Tennyson to a duel. They met on the 18th of June at Wormwoods Scrubs Park in London and exchanged shots. Neither was hurt and the matter settled, it appears, in Tennyson’s favour. Certainly, the letters of congratulations were received by Tennyson, from both local and national gentry.

And that appears to be the last Lincolnshire duel. Duelling fell out of favour in the 19th century, not because of any legal pressure, but simply because people believed that there was no longer a place for it in a civilised society. After more than three hundred years of prohibition and harsh sentencing, it was the peer pressure and good manners that finally put it down.

Perhaps that is why the Victorians were so hooked on the phrase, “Manners maketh man…”