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What's The Point? A Review Of “A Brief Display of the Origin and History of Ordeals”

By Julie Cooper, author of The Seven Sins of Fitzwilliam Darcy

My latest novel begins with an enraged Mr Bennet challenging Mr Darcy to a duel. Duels were part of the fit and fabric of Regency life, and hardly shocking—and fortunately for Mr Bennet, Darcy is willing to do anything to avoid one with the father of his beloved.

It seems apparent that in Jane Austen’s mind, sometimes only a duel could settle grave injury; hence the scene in Sense and Sensibility, where Colonel Brandon meets Willoughby over Eliza’s honour:

“Have you,” she [Elinor] continued, after a short silence, “ever seen Mr Willoughby since you left him at Barton?”

“Yes,” he replied gravely, “once I have. One meeting was unavoidable.”

Elinor, startled by his manner, looked at him anxiously, saying, “What? have you met him to—"

“I could meet him no other way. Eliza had confessed to me, though most reluctantly, the name of her lover; and when he returned to town, which was within a fortnight after myself, we met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct. We returned unwounded, and the meeting, therefore, never got abroad.”

Elinor sighed over the fancied necessity of this; but to a man and a soldier she presumed not to censure it.

We note in this contest that neither duellist was hurt; the lack of injury or death resulting seems to have been almost inconsequential. The point of it was that Brandon held Willoughby to account—Willoughby had to face Brandon’s pistol. The test alone evidently satisfied Brandon’s sense of justice and honour.

There are many fine blog posts regarding the reasons, the rules, and the role of duelling in Regency society. I shall not attempt to repeat what has already been so eloquently rehearsed by so many. However, in James P Gilchrist’s book, A Brief Display of the Origin and History of Ordeals—A Chronological Register of the Principal Duels Fought from the Accession of His Late Majesty to the Present Time (shortened throughout this post to simply ‘Ordeals’) published in 1821, we receive some helpful insights into the mindset of duellists in the Regency era.

The first item of note is that duels took place for a range of reasons; Colonel Brandon’s in the case of Willoughby’s ill-usage of a young woman, was fought for what most would find a valid motive. Duels were undertaken, however, over much, much less.

The basis of one such duel in 1797 was reported in Ordeals as follows:

“The cause of this unfortunate affair is said to have arisen from a quarrel between Lieutenant Francis Buckley and the deceased, Captain Smith; in which the former received a blow from the latter who imagined that very improper language had been made use of towards him.”

Or this one, from 1803:

“This morning Lieutenant Colonel Montgomery and Captain Macnamara were riding in Hyde Park, each followed by a Newfoundland dog. The dogs fought; in consequence of which, the gentlemen quarrelled, and used such irritating language to each other that an exchange of address followed, and appointment to meet at seven o’clock in the evening near Primrose hill; the consequence of which proved fatal.” (To Lieutenant Colonel Montgomery, at least.)

In 1817, in a duel between Major Lockyer and Mr Sutton Cochrane, “the trifling difference between the parties arose in consequence of an unguarded expression from the deceased…he having asserted that ‘they were all in debt and were seeking their fortunes’ at which the Major felt very indignant and asked ‘if the other meant to include him?’; the deceased replied in the affirmative and declared he would ‘prove his assertion’ which he did by giving a very ingenious explanation, observing that if ‘we were not in debt to our fellow-beings, we were all indebted to our Maker.’” (Unfortunately, Mr Cochrane’s clever quip went unappreciated.)

In 1806, a duel was fought “between Baron Hompesch and a Mr Richardson, in consequence of the Baron, who is near-sighted, running against Mr Richardson and two ladies in the street.” (The Baron purported to have faulty vision, but he had no trouble finding his target in poor Richardson, may he rest in peace.)

Even men of the cloth were not exempt from the temptation to issue challenges:

“A duel was fought between Cornet Gardener, of the Carabineers, and the Reverend Mr Hill, chaplain of Bland’s Dragoons, when the latter received a wound from which he died two days later. …Hill was an Irish gentleman, of good address, great sprightliness, and possessed a great talent of preaching: but was rather too volatile a turn for his profession.”

Another duel, in 1807, was fought over a faulty misquoting of Shakespeare. A likewise foolish dispute between officers was due to an argument about “the particular wording of a command.” A third arose from “not…a quarrel of their own, but had sprung out of a quarrel of their mutual friends.” In all three cases, there were fatalities.

Touchy, anyone?

Not everyone was supportive of these ridiculous, destructive challenges. From 1815:

“They and their seconds were taken into custody and on enquiry into the circumstances of the case, the cause of the quarrel appeared so unsatisfactory, and the whole proceeding of those concerned so very strange, that, besides ordering them to find security to keep the peace, the Sheriff fined both principals and seconds twenty-five guineas each; and ordered the same to be applied for the benefit of the Lunatic Asylum as being, from its nature, an institution best entitled to a fine derived from such a source.”

No matter how ludicrous the cause, these contests were all undertaken with the utmost seriousness by the parties involved. In many situations, the one who was accused did not even fire upon his accuser, in public admission of ‘guilt’. This was the case with the aforementioned Sutton Cochrane—he joked about a sensitive subject to Major Lockyer, and although Lockyer shot to kill, Cochrane never even raised his weapon.

Often, even though the conflict led to loss of life, neither party held the other responsible. They truly felt their ‘honour’ had demanded the contest, although death was the result. In most cases, they attempted to arrange these affairs so that no blame could come upon the other—acting with the greatest secrecy, in meeting places where there would be no witnesses, and refusing to name the other combatant if injured. In the 1818 duel between Mr Theodore O’Callaghan and a Lieutenant Bailey, as Bailey lay dying from a shot inflicted by O’Callaghan, he called O’Callaghan to him, “shook hands with him and said everything had been conducted in the most honourable manner and that he forgave him—he asked Mr O’Callaghan if he would have done the same by him if he had wounded him? To this Mr O’Callaghan replied, ‘Most certainly, he should have acted as he had done; and followed up the observation by saying ‘I wish I had been wounded instead of you.’”

A gentleman’s seconds—he could call upon one or two friends to act on his behalf—were the ones who helped make these arrangements in secrecy, saw to the fairness of the contest—the number of paces taken before they faced each other, the condition of the weapons, and attempts to settle without violence. If there was a fatality, they were held culpable for the crime of murder by the law; they faced prison time and might even be executed. Yet, it was also a matter of honour for them. Friends don’t let friends duel—but if they can’t prevent it, friends don’t let friends duel alone. More than one had to flee for Ireland or the Continent to escape justice, because of an insult to a buddy which seems ‘trifling’ to us today. It explains the happy ending of this duel, however, which took place at Chalk Farm in 1818, between two young noblemen, the Earl of H— and Lord W—, attended by two noble friends, the Earl of B— and Lord F—.

“After an exchange of shots, the seconds interfered, and a reconciliation took place.”

Still, a duel seemingly could clear the air and restore the participants to bonhomie. Consider this contest, also from 1818:

“A duel took place last week between F-R-B and G-R-R—K, Esq, in consequence of a dispute at one of the Surrey hunting balls. The latter gentleman was wounded slightly in the body in the second fire. F-R-B is on the point of marrying with G-R-R—K’s sister, and they parted good friends.”

Ordeals presents example after example of “in consequence of an insult offered” or “in consequence of a dispute” or “ungentlemanly conduct” leading to cards exchanged, seconds involved, and a meeting resulting. Indeed, after reading this publication, one assumes that practically no gentleman was safe from such an encounter. Life was held more cheaply in those days, and a challenge sketched publicly the strength of one’s entire character.

About midway through my novel, The Seven Sins, the Reverend William Collins tenders a grave insult towards Elizabeth Bennet—directly before Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy.

How, do you suppose, was a Regency gentleman raised in a culture of honour and tradition to respond?

Image sources:

Thomas Rowlandson, The Dance of Death (WikiCommons)

British Museum: Satire on the duel between John Wilkes and Lord Talbot on Bagshot Heath on 6 October 1762 (public domain)

Burr-Hamilton duelling pistols, National Postal Museum

A Duel 1776, estate of James C. Kulhanek (public domain)

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Barry Richman
Barry Richman
Oct 20, 2023

Excellent article on a subject that seems to make it into each of my books ... the duel. "What are men to rocks and mountains?" Not as exciting but probably equal in wit and common sense! Very enjoyable read, Julie Cooper. Thank you.


Sep 21, 2023

Of course, I was familiar with duelling before reading your fun post, but it really drove home how absolutely ridiculous the practice was. ‘Honour’ as a reason to wound, potentially kill someone? I simply cannot wrap my head around it. Obviously, it was frowned upon by many at the time, just as they are today (when they do still happen, regrettably). Thanks for the post, and congrats on the new book!

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