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duelling

duelling. The duel, with its formal ritual, developed from trial by combat and its heyday coincided with the period of aristocratic supremacy from the 16th to the 19th cents. The amiable assumption was that the will of God would prevail. The concept of nobility demanded that a warrior would defend his honour, and that of his family, sword in hand. It should be distinguished from private warfare, clan feuds, bloody affrays, or assassinations, and it was a step forward when seconds were limited in numbers, forbidden to take part, but used as witnesses, organizers, and umpires. For obvious reasons, monarchs could not be challenged and had champions to represent them. In practice many monarchs tried to eliminate duelling, which was disruptive, particularly at court or in the armed forces. James I issued an edict forbidding duelling and in 1627 Richelieu in France had Montmorency-Bouteville executed as a grim warning. The change in the 18th cent. from swords to pistols helped to reduce the disadvantage of the novice confronted by an expert. Leading statesmen could expect to be called out. Pitt fought Tierney in 1798, Canning and Castlereagh exchanged fire in 1809 when both in the same cabinet, and Wellington and Winchilsea fought in 1829. A peculiarly bloody encounter in 1712 between Lord Mohun, whose aggression bordered on madness, and the duke of Hamilton left both dead. A ludicrous duel, averted in 1782 by the intervention of the Speaker, was between Lord North, notoriously short-sighted, and Colonel Barré, who had only one eye. It was important to know when to accept challenges as well as when to issue or decline them: the chevalier de Beauvoisis in Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir, mortified to discover that he had fought Julien Sorel, a mere tutor, spread the rumour that his adversary was the natural son of a distinguished nobleman. The decline of the duel in the 19th cent. owed something to the growing concept of the equality of citizens but more to a sense of the duel's unfairness. In Britain duelling came to an end after 1843 when Colonel Fawcett was killed by his brother-in-law Lieutenant Munro, leading the prince consort to insist that the Articles of War be changed to prohibit meetings. Duelling lingered only in the militarized societies of Wilhelmine Germany and tsarist Russia, where a decree as late as 1894 required officers to accept challenges on pain of dismissal.

J. A. Cannon

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