The Death of Duelling: The Colston Case in Reverse?


The Rule of Law and the Colston Four

The historian Christopher Andrew once did a piece for BBC Timewatch on the death of duelling, citing two cases separated by a few decades.

Duelling was illegal in both cases.

In the first, the jury acquitted the accused.

In the second, they did not.

The law had not changed in the intervening period, but social attitudes towards duelling had turned against the practice as a way of honourably settling disputes. One imagines m’learned friends benefited, thereby.

And the duel that took place between two lawmakers, the Duke of Wellington, at the time the Prime Minister, and George Finch-Hatton, 10th Earl of Winchilsea in Battersea Fields on 21st March 1829, over the issue of a letter the Earl had sent to the Duke about the Catholic Relief Bill, had rather brought the practice into disrepute as a way of resolving disagreements between gentlemen.

The Duke fired and missed; he claimed he did so on purpose. However, the Duke was known as a poor shot and accounts differ as to whether he purposefully missed.

Winchilsea kept his arm by his side at the command to “fire” then quite deliberately raised his arm in the air and fired. He then apologised for the language of his letter. It is almost certain that Winchilsea and Falmouth, his second, had agreed on their course of action, as the letter of apology was already prepared.

I mean what is the point of chaps squaring off with no intention of even drawing blood with a letter of apology already prepared?

And Wellington was in the curious position of having, on campaign, banned duelling by his officers for fear of losing the talented amongst them and he felt there were precious few that came up to such an estimation.

But he had personally risked his life as Prime Minister at a time of crisis for party and country.

Wellington the politician was never the equal of Wellington the general and diplomat, perhaps because he had been used before he went into politics to being a law unto himself.

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