“More the air of an assassin than of a gentleman”: Duels & attempted murder in eighteenth-century England

A Very English ScandalThe recent BBC adaptation of John Preston’s book – A Very English Scandal – about the trial of the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe for conspiracy and incitement to murder, prompted us at the HPT to think about other parliamentarians with links to murder, conspiracy and scandal. Today’s blog from our Lords 1715-1790 project Editor, Dr Robin Eagles considers duels between MPs and their political connections…

Politics could be a dangerous business in eighteenth-century England. In a period where the honour code made men quick to reach for their swords, fast friendships were occasionally ended by violent altercations. This was the case with Owen Buckingham, MP for Reading, who attended the birthday party of his friend, William Aldworth in March 1720, only for the two to fall out, for their quarrel to turn violent, and for Buckingham to end up on the floor with a mortal wound. Although technically a duel, Aldworth was compelled to flee leaving his wife distracted out of her wits.

In this case there was no suggestion that the affair had been anything other than an accidental tragedy, but there were other occasions when contemporary society was more than a little suspicious that duels were in fact but thin covers for attempted political assassinations.

One of the most famous of these was the Mohun-Hamilton duel of November 1712 (see https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2016/06/09/house-of-lords-1660-1715duelling/). Early on the morning of 15 November 1712 the body of James, 4th duke of Hamilton, premier peer of Scotland, was dragged into his coach waiting on the fringes of Hyde Park. Hamilton had been involved in one of the most notorious duels of the age against Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun – an irascible Cornish peer, who had carved out a career for himself as a particularly effective Whig enforcer (see https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/it-helps-to-have-friends-in-high-places-the-acquittal-of-lord-mohun/). In a spectacularly violent contest, Hamilton managed to kill Mohun, but was himself mortally wounded in the process. According to some accounts he received his death not at Mohun’s hands, but stabbed from behind by Mohun’s second, General MacCartney, who was intent on getting the job done. Many concluded thus that the Mohun-Hamilton duel was far more than a savage culmination of years of dispute between the two men who both laid claim to the Macclesfield inheritance, but was in fact a deliberate effort at assassination dreamt up by the Whigs who wished to prevent the Tory Hamilton from taking up his politically sensitive posting as ambassador to France.

Mohun-Hamilton was not the only occasion when people suspected there was more to the quarrel than personal antipathy. The radical MP and proprietor of the opposition paper the North Briton, John Wilkes, was involved in two incidents that some thought may have been orchestrated by his political enemies. First, while in Paris in the summer of 1763, Wilkes was accosted by a Scots officer, John Forbes, though on this occasion Wilkes managed to avoid fighting a duel, arguing that he simply did not have space in his diary to accommodate him. Forbes attempted to insist on fighting, but when he proved unable to produce a second Wilkes declined, observing that he had ‘more the air of an assassin than of a gentleman’ [Cash, Wilkes, 139]. Later on that year, Wilkes engaged in a pistol duel with fellow MP and government supporter, Samuel Martin, in which Wilkes sustained serious injuries. Indeed, it was in part his need to recover from the bullet wound in the groin that he sustained during the bout that led to him quitting the country (see https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2014/11/26/you-have-behaved-like-a-man-of-honour-the-duel-between-john-wilkes-and-samuel-martin/).

Earlier in the century, another famous newspaper magnate, William Pulteney, joint founder of the opposition paper, The Craftsman, was challenged to a duel with his former friend, the notorious court wit, Lord Hervey. The affair arose out of a dispute in the press over the authorship of the introduction to a political tract, widely thought to have been penned by Hervey. The ‘Dedication’ had attacked Pulteney personally, leading to Pulteney publishing an even more vicious response ‘A Proper Reply to a Late Scurrilous Libel’ in which he alluded to Hervey’s suspected homosexuality. Although Hervey persisted in denying writing the dedication, he now felt he had no choice but to call Pulteney out. The resulting duel, which was fought on frosty ground one January afternoon in 1731, saw Pulteney getting the better of his rival, walking away with a scratch to the hand, while Hervey received a couple of more serious (if not life-threatening) stab wounds before the two men were parted by their respective seconds, Henry Fox and Sir John Rushout. The papers were forced to publish retractions of earlier reports that had suggested Hervey had been disarmed.

What made the whole thing look more like a political job, though, was a rumour that circulated afterwards that Hervey (heir to the earldom of Bristol, but not yet a peer in his own right) was to be ennobled for his role ‘in so meritorious an action’. Duels were normally frowned upon, so the fact that it was believed that he was actually to be ennobled for his part in one emphasized the fact the he was viewed as a defender of the administration, which might well have been only too happy to see Pulteney silenced.

In the event no such peerage was forthcoming and Hervey had to wait another two years before being called up to the Lords by a mechanism known as a writ in acceleration, ostensibly to bolster the government’s rhetorical talents in the upper House. As for Pulteney, he continued to play a leading role in opposing Walpole and was eventually made a peer himself following Walpole’s overthrow. Both men, then, Hervey and Pulteney newly ennobled as earl of Bath, found themselves once more facing each other in the more decorous surroundings of the House of Lords.


Further reading:

  • Arthur Cash, John Wilkes: the scandalous father of civil liberty (2006)
  • Lucy Moore, Amphibious Thing: the life of Lord Hervey (2000)
  1. Halsband, ‘The Duel’, History Today (1972)

To find out more about the political career of Jeremy Thorpe, head over to our Heritage Lottery Fund project ‘From the Grassroots’, an oral history project about politics in Devon. See Liberalism in North Devon.

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