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 “William Noble, a Soldier, was Tryed for Killing Richard Colket in Pancras Parish, on 14 June last, giving him a Wound upon the Breast of the depth of three Inches; the Man, viz, Colket, was found dead in Crab-tree Fields lying in the Grass upon his Face, and a Sword lying near him, about three a Clock in the Morning. Guilty, branding”. Proceedings at the Old Bailey, October 1692

The ritual of frock-coated and bewigged gentlemen accompanied by seconds firing pistols at each other from twenty paces was a mid-C18 innovation, swords previously the duellists’ weapon of choice.

For the non-military, the art of swordplay was taught by highly skilled Masters of Defence who, having proved their prowess at the bear-gardens and on other more informal stages without getting killed or maimed, adopted genteel manners and set up fencing academies in the West End suburbs.  They had a good trade (gentlemen habitually carried rapiers, attached to their waists and known as hangers), although Italians and Frenchmen with their supposed superior cultivation cornered the classier end of the market.

Commoners, meanwhile, settled matters of honour with spontaneous fisticuffs in the streets, at which matches large baying crowds congregated. The fussier might however choose to delay the proceedings, arranging to resolve a dispute with their bare knuckles at a later rendezvous in the fields.

Henry II had instituted the Assizes with trial by jury in the C12, but trial by combat was retained in some cases up until the reign of Elizabeth I, delegated champions hired from among the masters of defence. And it was at about this time that personal duelling began to replace ‘killing affrays’: attacks by gangs of hired assassins.

The combats, if hot-headed, might take place in the streets, though Hyde Park became a favoured venue for more deliberate confrontations, with also the neighbouring fields.

One of the very first recorded duels took place in an Islington field in November 1609, between two of James I’s courtiers. Sir George Wharton having wounded Sir James Stewart in the shoulder and thigh, the two men “made a deadly desperate close, / And both fell dead upon the ground…” as a contemporary ballad puts it. The king ordered the two corpses to be buried together in one grave. [1]

In 1654 Oliver Cromwell imposed six months imprisonment for sending, carrying, or accepting a challenge, over and above any charges resulting from the fight itself. Death in a duel was murder, not reporting a challenge within 24 hours meant its acceptance.

But at the Restoration such matters were taken less seriously, the new attitude illustrated by a brief report of a murder trial in January 1678: “A person was arraigned for Murder, but it appeared upon the whole matter to be upon a Challenge betwixt two Gentlemen and their Seconds who met in the Fields, and there unhappily the friend of the Prisoner was kill’d by one of the other two, who are neither of them to be found. The Quarrel being such, and a Duel premeditated, the Case appeared somewhat difficult whether Murder or Manslaughter, and so it was left upon a Special Verdict”.

The following March, however, with the death toll rising a royal proclamation called for the full implementation of the strictures of the former regime, so that a jury might still find against the victor in an affaire d’honneur. The exact position of the law is outlined in an April 1694 account in the Proceedings of John Law’s conviction for murder. Mr Law had argued with a fellow gent, Edward Wilson, concerning letters the victim had sent to a Mrs Lawrence. The two men encountered each other in Bloomsbury Square, when Wilson drew his sword first and died from a wound to his stomach following a single pass. [2]

Although the court was shown a letter from Law to Wilson containing threats and warnings of an evil design against him, the defendant claimed to have had no malice towards his victim, their meeting in the square a chance encounter and their duelling arising from “a sudden heat of Passion”. But a friend of Wilson testified to the two men having met earlier that day at the Fountain Tavern without Temple Bar, when they had argued about the letters.

The judge told the jury that “if they found that Mr Law and Mr Wilson did make an Agreement to fight, though Wilson drew first, and Mr Law killed him, he was (by the construction of the law) guilty of murder: For if two men suddenly quarrel, and one kill the other, this would be but Manslaughter; but this case  seemed to be otherwise, for this was a continual Quarrel, carried on betwixt them for some time before, and therefore must be accounted a malicious Quarrel, and a design of murder in the person that killed the other; likewise that it was so in all Cases”.

Law was found guilty of murder, the death sentence commuted to a fine for manslaughter on appeal. The victim was a ‘man about Town’, aka Beaux Wilson, who: “by common Report of Fame, kept a Coach and six Horses, maintained his Family in great Splendour and Grandeur, being full of money, no one complaining of his being their Debtor; yet from whence, or by what hand he had the Effects which caused him to appear in so great an Equipage, is hard to be determined”. A gamester, all manner of rumour and intrigue circulated about his reputation, some talk involving people in very high places.

And although not described as such in the Proceedings the defendant Law was also a beau and a gamester, his wealth originally had from his father, an Edinburgh banker/ goldsmith, but much increased from winnings at the gambling table. Born in 1671 and at a very early age recognised as a mathematical prodigy, Beau Law had been trained to the family business but tiring of clerk’s work moved to London where he employed a system of his own devising to calculate the odds at cards (he was also an accomplished real tennis player).

Like Wilson, he had prospered for the best part of a decade as a superior sort of gamester, when over-confidence of both his mental abilities and physical attractions apparently led him on the one hand to overplay the stakes at the table, while on the other to overplay a flirtation with Mrs Lawrence, causing him to be threatened with bankruptcy at the same time as receiving Wilson’s challenge. No doubt distracted, he had then overplayed his sword hand. But his footnote in legal history concerning the law on duelling pales into insignificance in comparison with the place he has since commanded in the annals of financial capitalism, a story I deal with elsewhere. [3]

Duels involving non-military commoners were openly ridiculed, but the lax attitude to those involving gentlemen and aristocrats survived till the C19, with something almost casual about many of the reports of deaths. Any sensation resulted from rank or position, or some other exotic detail of the affair rather than the fact of a fatality; eg, in April 1698 The Postman reports bluntly how one Sunday morning “two young sparks of 14 years fought a duel in Lamb’s Conduit Field, one dead the other dying”.

Three years later, the St Pancras register records in the same matter of fact manner the finding in February 1701 of the corpse of Robert Pinclough, near Tottenham Court Road: “He was found killed (supposed in a duel) in the Crabtree Field” (immediately to the west of the highway) but adds with relish, “He was long unknown, at last a Scotchman said he was formerly an officer in the Czar’s service and in Poland”.

Soldiers of all ranks were particularly prone to issuing challenges, often though not always when in their cups, several cases in the Proceedings detailing arguments in taverns and alehouses that spilled out into the streets and from thence to the fields, ending up at a burial-ground and the assizes with a charge of murder. But whether drink was a contributing factor or not, or indeed even when it appeared the result of a “continual quarrel”, juries almost always found the defendants guilty of manslaughter, most usually with a sentence to be ‘burnt in the hand’ and often with a cold iron.

A non-drink inspired duel in September 1712, for example, resulted from a long standing grudge between Edmund Hilliard and Henry Brittle boiling over during military exercises, the two soldiers arranging to meet in the Long Fields where later that day, although they had left the exercise yard in seeming good humour, Brittle was found dead of a rapier wound. [4]The Long Fields, behind Montague House (since 1759 occupied and much enlarged by the British Museum) and now occupied by various departments of London University (including the Institute of Historical Research, the Senate House-based history resources hub and web publisher of many important works consulted for this ebook), would become by far the most popular rendezvous for duellists, but for many years any field might do.

In the winter of 1720, Thomas Lewis died on the sword of James Melton in the Lamb’s Conduit Fields, near the “new burying ground” (St George’s Gardens WC1). The men were drummers in a group of Guardsmen drawn from different regiments who had retired to the King’s Arms in Drury Lane, when an argument broke out over the division of money paid for jointly beating the colours. Felton received the first wound, after which they shook hands. However, although Felton bled badly, the fight recommenced and Lewis died. [5]

This pattern of a hiatus followed by resumption in swordplay was common enough, probably because of the reluctance of one of the parties. In February 1696, John Sharp was branded for the manslaughter of Richard Champion, a witness describing how as he was going to work at the Pindar of Wakefield at about 8am he saw “two men with Swords drawn in the Fields take up their Hats and walk together, and that the Deceased had disarmed the Prisoner, and had both the Swords in his hand, and afterwards he gave the Prisoner his Sword again, and said, Damn him, he would kill him if he would not fight him”.

The prisoner, who might well have allowed himself to be disarmed by his over enthusiastic opponent, replied that he had “had enough, and would yield him to be the better man”. But the deceased was not satisfied, and when the fighting resumed soon received the fatal thrust. [6]

Close friends, or at least close acquaintances, might also come to fatal blows. The duel between Griffith Williams and Charles Haynes in January 1722 had been called in the Blew Boar’s Head in Exeter-street: “some Words arose betwixt them about a Man, and some Names were call’d by them, and the Lie given; and the Prisoner said to the Deceased, ‘You are not worth a Man’s Anger.’ The Deceas’d replied, He was ‘his Man at any Thing, let him Name Time and Place’. Upon which the Prisoner answered, ‘No Time like the present.’ And soon after they went out”.

They walked straight to the Long Fields, another witness testifying that he had approached them and “bid them consider what they were about”. Testimony of this display of civic responsibility then gave this witness the authority to lead the jury to a verdict of manslaughter, his also testifying that the deceased had drawn his sword first and that during a pause in the swordplay, which had become quite bloody, the defendant had told the deceased “Charles, leave off, I believe you have enough”. [7]

This is what the trial was all about, for few jurors really wanted to find a man who had killed another in an agreed and fair fight guilty of a capital offence. The hearings were pretty much set pieces, the role of the passer bye who resolves the case to the satisfaction of all a stock character. A supporting role would be provided by a person of whatever available ‘Rank and Quality’, to depose that they had known the accused for so many years and that he had “ever behaved himself with the utmost Civility and good Manners, being of a very peaceable Behaviour, and not given to commit Disorders; even when he was in Drink,” &c &c.

And although any hot-blooded duel might easily end in a death followed by the arrest and prosecution of the survivor, as in the case of Pinclough, and recommended by Lucas, discretion could limit the consequences. Thus a duel fought between Essex Meyrich Esq, and Mr Clifton in the Jockey Fields by Gray’s Inn might have passed without further notice, the meeting taking place at 4 o’clock one Monday morning in May 1727. According to the newspaper cutting in the Heal Collection however, “they were both wounded, the former dangerously”. No trial ensued, so it seems that either Meyrich survived or, alternatively, both died. [8]

    [1] The Duel - a history of duelling, Robert Baldich (1965)

    [2] Trial ref no: t16940418-28. All quotes from The Proceedings have been sourced from several libraries and archives over a number of years, but have all been recently verified online at The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674-1913 (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 24 March 2012). Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, Clive Emsley, Sharon Howard and Jamie McLaughlin, et al

    [3] See my ebook: Prophet Dan and the bubbles; or, Defoe, virtual people, virtual money & the search for El Dorado

    [4] oldbaileyonline.org: t17121210-25

    [5] oldbaileyonline.org: t17210113-18

    [6] oldbaileyonline.org: t16960227-16

    [7] oldbaileyonline.org: t17230227-22

    [8] Heal Collection CV1 34-14, held at the Camden local history & archives centre, Theobalds Rd WC1


This is an extract from:

An Absolute rake; or, ball games, vice & musick
(feat  early modern dance at Sadler's Wells)



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