Above: Fred Walker's melodramatic interpretation of the death of a duellist in a combat on the sands near Boulogne-sur-Mer, Last Moments of the Count of Saverne in William Makepeace Thackeray's Denis Duval in the Cornhill Magazine, No. 9 (April 1864).

The practice of duelling has deep roots. The word "duel" itself was in common use from "at least the thirteenth century" (Griffin 46, n. 77). As a method of settling disputes, a duel could be employed either to resolve injustice (the judicial duel) or as a feature of chivalry (the chivalric duel). Knights had recourse to the latter more frequently in the reign of Edward III (1327-77), "who set the seal of royal approval on the practice by himself challenging the French King Philippe to a duel in 1340" (Baldick 27). Chivalric duelling declined by the end of the fifteenth century as mounted knights gave way to archers on foot; but the more general practice of defending one's honour in a duel persisted and gained a new impetus from Europe in the 1570s (see Shoemaker 525). It became firmly established in England in the next century, despite moves to outlaw it.

The heyday of the personal duel among aristocratic youth was therefore between the later sixteenth and later eighteenth centuries. The watchword of the duellist was "Deus vult," or "God wills it." In other words, duellists believed that Providence would direct the swords, and later bullets, of the adversaries, and would through the result signal who was in the right. As J. A. Chartres remarks, duelling was considered a suitable dispute resolution mechanism for only the chivalric class: "The concept of nobility demanded that a warrior would defend his honour, and that of his family, sword in hand" (308). The gentleman's second, usually his closest friend, could serve as a witness, umpire, organizer, and administrator, but was never permitted by custom to intervene (see Chartres 300). Monarchs for obvious reasons were prohibited from engaging in duels; should a prince or ruler be challenged, he would appoint a champion to represent him on the field of honour. There was one important change over the course of the period. Swords or rapiers were the weapons of choice in the earlier part of eighteenth century, but gradually pistols overtook blades. “The first duel involving pistols in the London area took place in Tothill Fields in 1711 between Colonel Richard Thornhill and Sir Cholmley Deering," says Robert E. Shoemaker (528); and by the early 1760s pistols were more common. Throughout, those who resorted to this dramatic way of defending their honour were usually aristocrats or those aspiring to such a status; and military men.

Duelling in the nineteenth century

Right: Illustration in Cassell's Illustrated
History of England
, Vol. VII: 139.

Duelling gradually declined in the nineteenth century, more because of public pressure than the availability of legal processes or the threat of legal action. Nevertheless, there were a number of notorious, high-profile cases in which men adopted the forbidden practice in order to settle "affairs of honour." On 23 March 1829, for example, The Duke of Wellington, now aged fifty and Prime Minister, fought a duel at Battersea Fields in South London over the Tory Government's Catholic Relief Bill. He was patron of the new King's College in the Strand, a project to combat the institution of the "godless" University College (then known as London University) in Gower Street. Although the new institution was to be Anglican, it would grant degrees to Protestants and Catholics alike. The Earl of Winchilsea, a staunch Protestant, saw this as a cover for Wellington's aim to promote Roman Catholicism — an aim, he felt, which also lay behind the Prime Minister's support for legislation which would one day allow Irish, Catholic Members of Parliament to represent their largely Catholic constituencies in Parliament. In fact, although born in Dublin, Wellington himself did not favour Catholic emancipation or enfranchisement. He regarded the legislation pragmatically, as a measure that would curb rebellion. Still, the Earl insisted that he had formulated "insidious designs for the infringement of our liberties and the introduction of Popery into every department of the State" (qtd. in Jennings 249). The victor of Waterloo could hardly brook such an insult, and challenged Winchilsea to a duel. Since the Earl refused to retract, the duel duly took place.

After all, the two behaved in a most chivalric fashion, for when the Duke had discharged his weapon and Winchilsea remained standing, the Earl immediately discharged his own pistol into the air, signalling that he had no wish to take the life of the Prime Minister. The Duke then returned to Westminster to attend to political affairs before visiting King George IV at Windsor to report on the morning's events. The King seems to have approved (see Jenkins 250), and subsequently the Earl (though not without the urging of Wellington's second, Lord Henry Hardinge) inserted the word "apology" into a conciliatory public letter. The affair was nevertheless considered scandalous. Already the practice was falling into disuse.

Duelling was "effectively banned in the army" in 1844, "hastening its demise throughout the kingdom" (Mulholland 207-8). The last recorded duel in England took place on 19 October 1852, between two French political exiles, 43-year-old Frederic Cournet and Emmanuel Barthélemy. Cournet had helped spread rumours about his fellow-exile's sexual misconduct, in particular, his treatment of his mistress, and refused to take back his words. The two met on Priest Hill, between Englefield Green and Old Windsor. The duel is described in close and searing detail in Marc Mulholland's The Murderer of Warren Street (208ff). Since Cournet was fatally wounded, this was also the last fatal duel to be fought here, and Barthélemy, and three of the four seconds who were apprehended, were fortunate to get off with a light sentence for manslaughter. The situation was somewhat different elsewhere: in Russia and Germany, particularly among the military, the practice lingered late into the nineteenth century; Chartres, for instance, notes that in Russia "a decree as late as 1894 required officers to accept challenges on pain of dismissal" (308).

Duelling in historical fiction

Right: Phiz's frontispiece for Ainsworth's The Spendthrift,
Sword Play (April 1855) sets the keynote.

In Britain, duelling also lasted well into the Victorian period in another way — in historical fiction. Notable examples of duels occur in Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers (1836-37) Nicholas Nickleby (1839), and it was a popular topic for historical novelists such as William Harrison Ainsworth, probably because scenes of physical violence engendered reader engagement. In his lengthy catalogue of historical novels Ainsworth never flinched from depicting a duel; indeed, the Victorian reading public had long associated Ainsworth's novels with such affairs of honour. A prime example is The Duel in Tothill Fields in the July 1842 number of The Miser's Daughter". Such episodes were, of course, ideal for illustration. George Cruikshank illustrated this one, and his illustration may have inspired another Dickens illustrator, Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne), thirteen years later, when providing illustrations like Sword Play for Ainsworth's The Spendthrift. This popular saga had run serially from January 1855 through January 1857 in Bentley's Miscellany. Ainsworth seems to have set the principal action of the novel during the 1740s, so is historically accurate in describing a duel involving rapiers rather than pistols. Not only Ainsworth himself but both Cruikshank and Phiz show knowledge of the procedures involved. The illustrations include all the details of a duel, such as the positioning of the antagonists and the witnesses against an appropriate architectural backdrop. Interestingly, the protagonist triumphs in the first encounter, only to be bested and wounded in a second encounter shortly afterward.

Another historical novel in which duelling plays a pivotal part is W. M. Thackeray's The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, serialised as The Luck of Barry Lyndon in Fraser's Magazine at intervals in 1844, but dealing with the later part of the previous century. The young scapegrace flees after a duel in which he thinks he has killed his rival, and this sets in train a life of dangerous braggadocio, in which his luck eventually runs out. Typically, he sees that first duel in a positive light, despite its repercussions: "I did not feel any horror or fear, young as I was, in seeing my enemy prostrate before me; for I knew that I had met and conquered him honourably in the field, as became a man of my name and blood" (55). Nor does his doting mother blame him for it. On the contrary, she feels proud of him. Nevertheless, he knows that he has to evade the police, and is, in fact, not reluctant to try his luck in the wider world. More duels follow, "a score more" at least (255), and are no small part of "the daring, and the devilry, and the wickedness and the fall of Barry Lyndon" (378). This serial duelling sums up his character as a dauntless risk-taker, an adventurer and a gambler — even with life itself. Ironically, such exploits exert a certain fascination despite the damage they do and the disapproval they evoke. But the mixed reaction is important: readers are being tasked with finding in themselves the scruples that the protagonist lacks. It may not be a coincidence that Thackeray was writing this novel in 1844, the very year in which duelling was banned in the army.

Above: Phiz's pistol duel seems a much more measured and disciplined affair than sword-play: The Duel (February 1858), Chapter 30, in Charles Lever's Davenport Dunn.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, illustrations confirm that pistols had largely replaced blades, as in Fred Walker's Last Moments of the Count of Saverne in The Cornhill Magazine, No. 9, April 1864. Other depictions of duels in Victorian novels and their illustrations include Phiz's atmospheric dark plate etching of the death of young Hamilton in a pistol duel in Davenport Dunn (February 1858), and another by Phiz for Ainsworth's Mervyn Clitheroe, The Duel on Crabtree Green (Part 5, December 1857). Here, Phiz focuses upon the dramatic moment at which the combatants discharge their weapons, again maintaining rather than undercutting the suspense, because the illustration does not give away the resolution. Significantly, by this stage, as in the duel between Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Frederick Verisopht in Nicholas Nickleby, the victor often has to be spirited out of the country to avoid arrest.

Other signs of the times are signalled by the descriptions and illustrations of costume and setting,. For example, there is a ruinous castle in the background of the duelling scene in Phiz's Sword Play. Readers are left in no doubt that Ainsworth and others were recording a largely bygone custom for their readers, and actually tracing its decline. While these readers might well have found reading about duels titillating, they were being made aware that such engagements were anachronistic in the modern age, when affairs of honour were much better settled in court.

Other Victorian Illustrations of Duelling in Novels

Left: The Cruikshank engraving of the protagonist's giving satisfaction, The Duel in Tothill Fields (1842) in Ainsworth's The Miser's Daughter (July 1842). Centre: Phiz's humorous depiction of a stage duel, The Country Manager Rehearses a Combat in Nicholas Nickleby, Chapter 22 (Oct. 1838). Right: Phiz depicts the kind of quarrel that might well lead to a duel in Nicholas Nickleby: The Last Brawl between Sir Mulberry and His Pupil (July 1839). [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Illustrations of the Verisopht/Mulberry Hawk Duel in Nicholas Nickleby

Left: Fred Barnard's full-page illustration of Verisopht laid out on the field of honour: All the light and life of day came on; and  amidst it all, and pressing down the grass whose every blade bore twenty tiny lives, lay the dead man, with his stark and rigid face turned upwards to the sky (1875). Centre: Harry Furniss's 1910 lithograph of the same scene with violent undertones: Lord Frederick Verisopht falls in a Duel in the Charles Dickens Library Edition. Right: C. S. Reinhart's picturesque realisation of the same scene for American readers: Lay the dead man, with his stark and rigid face turned upward to the sky in the Household Edition, New York (1875).

Links to related material


Ainsworth, William Harrison. The Spendthrift: A Tale. (1857). Illustrated by Phiz; engraved by the Dalziels. Ainsworth's Works. London & New York: George Routledge, 1882.

Baldick, Robert. The Duel: A History of Duelling. London: Spring Books, 1970.

Illustrated History of England. Vol. VII. London: Cassell, 1865. Internet Archive, from a copy in the University of California Libraries. Web. 2 November 2021.

Chartres, J. A. "Duelling." The Oxford Companion to British History. Ed. John Cannon. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1999. 308.

Dickens, Charles. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Illustrated by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne). London: Chapman and Hall, 1839.

_______. Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Illustrated by Robert Seymour, R. W. Buss, and Hablot Knight Browne. London: Chapman & Hall.

_______. Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The Authentic Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1901 [rpt. of the 1868 volume, based on the 30 May 1857 volume].

Griffin, Margaret. Regulating Religion and Morality iin the King's Armies, 1639-1646. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2004.

Jennings, George Henry. An Anecdotal History of the British Parliament: From the Earliest Periods to the Present Time. London: Horace Cox, 1892. Google. Free Ebook.

Lever, Charles. Davenport Dunn: A Man of Our Day. Illustrated by "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Browne). London: Chapman and Hall, 1859.

Lever, Charles. Davenport Dunn: The Man of The Day. Illustrated by "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Browne). London: Chapman and Hall, February 1858 (Part VIII).

Mulholland, Marc. The Murderer of Warren Street: The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Revoltionary. London: Hutchinson, 2018.

Shoemaker, Robert B. "The Taming of the Duel: Masculinity, Honour and Ritual Violence in London, 1660-1800." The Historical Journal 45, 3 (2003): 525-545.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Denis Duval. Illustrations on wood by Fred Walker. First published in The Cornhill Magazine, No. 9, March–June 1864. London: Smith Elder, 1862.

_____. The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon. London: Collins, 1900. Internet Archive, from a copyn in Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 7 November 2021.

Created 2 November 2021

Last modified 7 November 2021