Pistols for Two, Breakfast for One

“A Duel, 1776,” painting owned by James F. Kulhanek

If you read Regency romances chances are you will sooner or later be drawn into a duel, or at least an account of one. Though it was illegal, dueling was a popular way for Regency males to display their athletic prowess, respond to an insult or settle a debt of honor.

In the 18th century, duels were often fought in London’s Hyde Park. But as the city grew, Primrose Hill (and nearby Chalk Farm) to the north of London became a popular spot for these sometimes-deadly encounters. Primrose Hill was a wooded area, remote from the city but still easy to reach by carriage. According to the Camden History Society, at least seven duelists died on or in the vicinity of Primrose Hill from 1790 to 1837, with 25 exchanges of gunfire recorded.

Duels were fought for the slimmest of reasons. In 1803 one man died and another was severely wounded in a duel that was apparently the result of a disagreement between two dogs. Lieutenant-Colonel Montgomery and Captain Macnamara were walking their dogs in Hyde Park when one of the canines “snarled and growled” at the other. The two officers, who’d never even met previously, went to Chalk Farm to settle the matter.

I don’t know what happened to the dogs, but the colonel was killed in the ensuing duel and the captain was seriously injured. Captain Macnamara was later tried for murder at the old Bailey but was acquitted.

In 1806 the poet Thomas Moore took umbrage at some bad reviews of his work and challenged the editor of the Edinburgh Review, Francis Jeffrey, to a duel. The two men were arrested before the duel could take place. It may not have mattered if the duel had proceeded; contemporary accounts suggest that the dueling pistols were loaded with blank cartridges.

Moore also wanted to fight Lord Byron for Byron’s criticism of his work, but Byron went abroad and by the time he came back to England Moore’s emotions had cooled. The two poets eventually became friends.

The Duke of Wellington in 1830, when he was prime minister of Great Britain (painted by John Jackson)

Even the Duke of Wellington fought a duel, when he was 59 years old and the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Wellington had voted in favor of the Catholic Relief Bill, which allowed Catholics to hold seats in Parliament. The Earl of Winchilsea, a staunch Protestant, accused Wellington of an “insidious design” to infringe on the liberties of British citizens, and also slammed Wellington for the “introduction of Popery into every department of the state.”

Wellington couldn’t let this attack on his integrity go unanswered, and so he challenged Winchilsea to a duel at Battersea Fields in the south of London on March 23, 1829. Wellington deloped (fired his pistol into the air) and Winchilsea did the same when it was his turn. No one was hurt and honor was satisfied.

Though duelists were typically male, more than one pair of women picked up pistols or swords to settle an argument. In 1792 Lady Almeria Braddock challenged Mrs. Elphinstone to a duel in Hyde Park. The cause of their quarrel hinged on the question of Lady Almeria’s age. In true mean girl fashion, Mrs. Elphinstone complimented Lady Almeria on how well she looked – given how old she was.

According to the account in Robert Baldick’s fine book, The Duel, a History, Mrs. Elphinstone began her taunts by using the past tense to describe her friend’s beauty. “You have a very good autumnal face even now,” she added, “but you must acknowledge the lilies and roses are somewhat faded. Forty years ago, I am told, a young fellow could hardly gaze on you with impunity.”

Lady Almeria protested that she was not yet 30, which was overdoing it a bit. Mrs. Elphinstone cited Collins, a source similar to Burke’s Peerage, for proof that Lady Almeria was born in 1732, which would have pegged her age at about 60. What else could Lady Almeria do but challenge Mrs. Elphinstone to a duel?

In what came to be known as the “petticoat duel,” the two women started by firing pistols, and Lady Almeria’s hat was the first casualty. They fought on with swords, and the duel continued until Lady Almeria nicked Mrs. Elphinstone in her arm. At the sight of her own blood Mrs. Elphinstone agreed to write an apology to Lady Almeria, and the duel ended.

The moral here is that some “facts” should be accepted without question, especially when it comes to a woman’s age.

“Two women,” by Martin Engelbrecht, circa 1740-1750


Sources for this article include:

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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