A History of Duelling

By Tim Lambert

Trial by combat or trial by battle was common in Europe in the Middle Ages. If a man was accused of a serious crime he had the right to fight his accuser. People believed that God would ensure that right would prevail and that if a person was innocent he would win. If he was guilty he would lose. Women and the old and infirm could appoint a champion to fight on their behalf. The Normans introduced trial by combat into England. But the Church condemned the practice in 1215 and it fell into disuse. However, it was not legally abolished until 1819.

Duelling in the modern sense began in Renaissance Italy. If a man insulted another man the aggrieved party could challenge him to a duel, with swords.

Duelling became common among the upper class in England in the 17th century. By the late 18th century duels were usually fought with pistols rather than swords and each of the duellers had a ‘second’. Anyone who refused a challenge to a duel was treated with scorn. Fortunately, guns were inaccurate so shots often missed. But obviously, gentlemen risked death or injury by fighting a duel.

A pair of duelling pistols

In Europe many kings banned duelling but they were unable to stop it. In England duelling was illegal but the authorities usually turned a blind eye.

But duelling declined in Britain in the early 19th century. Public opinion gradually turned against the practice. In 1829 the Duke of Wellington fought a duel with Lord Winchilsea. Neither man was harmed. But by the 1840s duelling was very rare in Britain. The last fatal duel in Scotland took place in 1826. In England, the last fatal duel between Englishmen happened near Gosport, Hampshire in 1845.

However, the last fatal duel in England took place near Windsor in 1852 between two Frenchmen, one of whom was killed. The survivor and the second were convicted of manslaughter. The days of turning a blind eye to duelling were over.

Duelling went on longer in other parts of Europe. In France, the last duel was fought with swords in 1967. One man was slightly wounded twice but survived.

In America, the first duel was fought in 1621. But in the 19th century, public opinion turned against duelling. It died out after the Civil War.