House of Lords 1660-1715…duelling

Next month the History of Parliament will publish our first set of volumes focussing on the House of Lords. Covering the period 1660-1715, this five-volume work is now available for pre-order at Cambridge University Press, at a special pre-publication price. This month we’re publishing a series of blogposts inspired by research from the volumes.

In the second of this series, Dr Robin Eagles discusses a ‘noble’ phenomenon prevalent in this period: the duel…

In mid-January 1668 news circulated of a spectacular duel fought between the duke of Buckingham, backed by two seconds, and the earl of Shrewsbury, similarly supported. At the end of the affray one of the seconds (Captain Jenkins) was dead on the field and Shrewsbury severely injured with a sword thrust through the body, resulting in his death a few weeks later. None of the combatants left the place uninjured. The cause of the quarrel was Buckingham’s notorious affair with Lady Shrewsbury, and lurid tales soon spread that the countess had herself been present at the fight dressed as a page to cheer on her lover.

Although the Buckingham-Shrewsbury duel was the stuff of melodrama, it was symptomatic of a problem in society that had been identified by Charles II even before his return to the throne. Technically, duels were fought between gentlemen according to a strict code of honour. The distinction is important as it helps explain the disparity in treatment meted out to gentlemen, who could plead that an otherwise drunken assault had been part of a duel for which they might expect more lenient treatment, and lesser folk whose quarrels were considered mere loutishness and were more likely to be treated harshly by a justice system designed to favour the better connected. This contrast was made very apparent in a report printed in the Post Boy of 1-4 November 1707, which related two violent incidents that had recently transpired in Gibraltar. In the first, the reporter noted how two grenadiers in Watkins’ regiment ‘quarrelling, cut one another with their hangers’ so violently that one died immediately and the other the following day. The second recounted a similar incident, though here it was deemed a ‘duel’ fought between a lieutenant of Eliot’s regiment and an ensign of Watkins’. As a result of this affray, the latter died and the former was seriously injured.

If duelling was a sport undertaken only by the more elevated in society, it did not make it any less vexing a problem for the state in the period following on from the Restoration. As a means of settling disputes that had been prevalent in early Stuart Britain and only very inadequately controlled by James I and Charles I, it re-emerged with a vengeance along with the restoration of the House of Lords and the full range of legal privileges for its members. One correspondent of Roger Kenyon’s indicated that by 1680 the duel was a familiar feature of society. ‘Murthers and dewells wee have frequent’, he reported before regaling Kenyon with the latest bout that involved the earl of Plymouth, Lord Mordaunt, the heir to the earldom of Devonshire and Sir George Hewett. In this case, none died as one of the principals made sure he ‘wounded his man very shrewdly, but not mortally’. [HMC Kenyon, 115-16] Not all duellists were so restrained. Henry Hastings, defeated in a bout with Lord Morley suffered a wound to the head so severe that it carried him off not long after. The 7th earl of Pembroke, a thoroughly unstable character, was accused during his trial for murder of stamping on the man he had killed. The notorious Hamilton-Mohun duel of 1712 was also notable for its viciousness; Mohun was stabbed deep into the groin and Hamilton slashed on both legs as well as suffering a severe cut to the breast.

The sources of provocation for duels being fought were almost as numerous as the bouts themselves. Mohun-Hamilton was, strictly speaking, the result of a long-standing legal dispute. Quarrels over gambling were frequent, as were imbroglios over lovers and after the 1688 Revolution political disagreements between those sympathetic to the exiled dynasty and upholders of the Revolution settlement occasionally ended in blows. In each of these cases alcohol often played a part and on a number of occasions it is quite clear that the provocation was trifling and fuelled to a large degree by drink.

On occasion, efforts were made by the king himself and the Lords to curb the excesses of the duellists. In October 1671, for instance, an exchange of words between Buckingham and the earl of Oxford ‘had likely to have ended in a duel… but was prevented by his majesty’ [BL, Add. MS 36916, f. 232]. Charles II and his successors, however, proved frequently unwilling or unable to do much to suppress the practice. Charles might even have been said to have been complicit in its survival by his readiness to re-employ courtiers disgraced for taking part in affairs of honour after only very nominal periods of disgrace. In July 1680, the earl of Arran (future duke of Hamilton) was ordered to the Tower for quarrelling with Edward Seymour at Whitehall, but having ‘withdrawn’ briefly Arran was readmitted to court once more. Here England was at odds with some parts of the continent, where duelling was treated far more severely. In November 1703, for example, the Daily Courant reported how the Marquess Scipione Santi Croce and his seconds the Marquess Bentivoglio and Marquess Corsini had all been condemned to death in Rome for killing (in a duel) Baron Angelo Gavoti.

If the monarch was largely hamstrung, what was the response of the House of Lords? Throughout the period, it is evident that the Lords too struggled to clamp down on members wishing to settle differences by resorting to blows rather than rhetoric. In 1663 the earls of Middlesex and Bridgwater were forced to make a formal submission to the House as were the 3rd Baron Mohun and Viscount Mordaunt in 1675. In 1690 the House committed Lord Lansdowne to Black Rod’s custody to prevent him from fighting with the earl of Danby (heir to the marquess of Carmarthen). On other occasions members eluded the Lords’ officers with ease in order to keep their appointments with their opposite numbers. Thus the House was unable to prevent numerous squabbles boiling over into mortal combat, with the result that Francis Talbot, 11th earl of Shrewsbury, Charles Mohun, 3rd Baron Mohun, his son Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun, and James Hamilton, 4th duke of Hamilton, all met their end as a result of organized bouts with men who had once sat alongside them at Westminster.


Click here for the rest of our series inspired by our upcoming House of Lords 1660-1715 volumes.

To pre-order your copy, visit Cambridge University Press.

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