Last night the London Record Society held a launch event for ‘The Diaries of John Wilkes, 1770-1797‘ edited by our own Dr Robin Eagles. Here, Dr Eagles relates one of Wilkes’s extra-parliamentary duels…
The St James’s Chronicle of 15-17 November 1763 carried a story of a duel fought between two unnamed persons of distinction. The account confined itself to reporting the fact that the duel had happened and that one of the participants now lay delirious and in agony from his injuries in his house in Great George Street. Oddly, the same issue contained a separate and rather different account of what must have been the same duel (and its aftermath). Unlike the other, brief summary, this was detailed and named names. The duel had been fought on 16 November between John Wilkes and Samuel Martin, the latter a fellow MP and former secretary to the treasury. The quarrel was the result of Martin’s stinging attack on Wilkes in the House of Commons in the wake of the North Briton No. 45 affair. As well as being a former member of the administration that Wilkes had attacked so openly, Martin had his own reasons for wishing to bring Wilkes down, having been the subject of vicious criticism in the paper’s earlier issues.
Wilkes’s immediate response to Martin’s speech in the House, in which Martin accused Wilkes of being ‘a cowardly rascal, a villain and a scoundrel’ was silence. Parliament had long taken a dim view of members fighting one another and there would have certainly been a move made to enforce a peace had Wilkes responded to Martin’s harangue. Wilkes, thus, kept his place and left it until after the day’s proceedings were over to write Martin a reply. In it he took pleasure in emphasizing that he was indeed the author of the pieces criticizing Martin, provoking Martin to do what he no doubt hoped he would: demand satisfaction.
Wilkes’s origins were in trade, but he was intent on reinventing himself as a gentleman. In this he had been only partially successful. Although he could claim the distinction of being squire of Aylesbury, thanks to his marriage to an heiress, he had recently had his courage and honour called into question over his handling of a duel fought with Lord Talbot in 1762 and another abortive affair with a Scots captain, Forbes, whom he had happened across in Paris in the summer of 1763. Martin’s demand for satisfaction offered Wilkes another opportunity to prove his bravery and his credentials as a person of honour. He readily agreed to the duel, which was arranged to take place in the environs of Hyde Park. As if to emphasize his sang froid about the whole business, according to one paper, Wilkes even called in at a poulterer’s on his way to the agreed ground to place an order for some woodcocks.
Having found a suitable place, the men agreed the rules they were to abide by and prepared to fight. The duel itself, as was not infrequently the case, was botched. Having been arranged hastily and in secret, no seconds were involved, though Wilkes does seem to have taken the trouble to make sure a servant followed him at a distance. Both men brought a brace of pistols and (at Wilkes’s insistence) they each exchanged one of their pair to ensure that there was no foul play. According to the newspapers’ account of the fight the first shots fired both missed and Martin’s second pistol then failed to fire at which Wilkes, with characteristic generosity, put his second pistol aside. The men then reloaded, turned and fired again. This time Wilkes was hit just below the belly. The bullet ricocheted off his waistcoat buttons, which saved his life, but drove the ball downwards into his groin.
Both men responded to the situation with the expected gentlemanliness of the times. Martin offered to get Wilkes to a chair so that he could be treated, while Wilkes assured Martin that he was satisfied Martin had behaved properly and that his opponent should make himself scarce to avoid trouble. Wilkes was then carried home where a surgeon managed to extract the bullet. According to the papers Wilkes was in ‘great spirits during the operation’. He also had the satisfaction of receiving visits from some worried friends: the duke of Bolton, Earl Temple and William Pitt the Elder.
Unsurprisingly, and as suggested by the contrasting accounts in the St James’s Chronicle, the various versions of the affair do not entirely agree. [For other accounts see John Sainsbury, John Wilkes: the Lives of a Libertine,77-9 and Arthur Cash, John Wilkes: the scandalous father of civil liberty, 153-6.] Both Wilkes and Martin, for instance, wrote about the event (Martin in vindication of his actions in case Wilkes died). Unlike the newspaper account, it seems to have been Wilkes’s pistol, borrowed from Martin, and not Martin’s that misfired and there is some suggestion that Wilkes suspected Martin had given him a faulty pistol deliberately. Martin was at pains to insist that both weapons were properly set up and that Wilkes’s fiddling with the borrowed piece had caused the charge to fall out, but other suggestions about Martin’s behaviour, combined with revisited accounts of Captain Forbes’s attempts on Wilkes in Paris added to an impression that Wilkes was the wronged party. It was even hinted that he may have been the subject of multiple assassination attempts. This, of course, added to his heroic status as an upholder of the people’s rights against a dubious administration. Most important, though, was Wilkes’s handling of the affair. He emerged with his reputation as a man of honour enhanced. Although the continuing legal actions against him and his need to recover from his injuries led to his self-imposed exile in France, at his return in the early months of 1768 he was no longer an outsider whose courage could be questioned, but a man willing to stand (defenceless) against the assaults of the administration and – perhaps most important of all – to keep smiling as he did so.