posted on Nov, 8 2017 @ 11:07 AM
In June 1838, an Anglo-French duel was fought on the common land of Wormwood Scrubs, just outside London.
I’m getting my information from the Spectator, the issue of June the 23rd, 1838. They report the event as taking place “last Saturday”.
The English participant was Lord Castlereagh. This is not the Castlereagh who was Foreign Secretary in the Napoleonic wars, fought a duel with
Canning, and got himself into Shelley’s poetry;
“I met Murder on the way;
He had a mask like Castlereagh.”
THAT Castlereagh was long dead in 1838. THIS Castlereagh was his nephew, thirty-three years old.
Castlereagh had taken to stalking a prominent opera singer, Madame Grisi. He made himself conspicuous in his applause at the theatre, he was in the
habit of paying her “marked attention” in company, and he frequently “exhibited himself on horseback” in front of her residence in Regent
Street. I think that last one just means that people could see him. Finally he sent her a letter containing a “declaration of attachment”.
Unfortunately the lady had a husband, M De Melcy, whose suspicions had already been awakened. He intercepted the letter, called on Lord Castlereagh
twice (finding him away at Ascot), and left a letter demanding satisfaction. The ground for the challenge, specifically, was that Castlereagh had
”insulted” his wife- i.e. by assuming that she would be open to adulterous advances. On his return from Ascot, Castlereagh hastened to visit the
Count “to assure him that his wife had not in any way encouraged him, and that he was ready to make the most handsome apology”. But M. De Melcy
did not want an apology. He wanted his duel.
Arrangements were accordingly made by the two seconds, Mr. Bentinck acting for Lord Castlereagh, and M. Cottreau for M. De Melcy. “There was some
difficulty in settling the mode of fighting”. The problem was that the English and French codes of duelling were as far apart as the English and
American codes of football are today. Both sides were contending for the fight to be governed by their own customs.
In France, the challenger, as the injured party, had the right to name time, place and weapons. English custom gave that privilege to the person
challenged (offering some defence against the aggressive bully with a specialised expertise).
So the French side wanted to insist on fighting with swords. M. Cottreau was assured by Bentinck that Lord Castlereagh was not accustomed to swords.,
so he finally waived the point and agreed to pistols. Nevertheless, he wanted to fight with pistols in the French style rather than the English
“Our readers are aware that the French practice is to place the antagonists at forty paces distance, and to give them the privilege of walking up to
fixed points eight paces from each other, and of firing either before or after arriving at those points. This M. Cottreau insisted on, in
consideration of his abandonment of the sword; but Mr. Bentinck very properly told him that he could not answer for public opinion if a duel so fought
was attended with any fatal result, and he prayed M. Cottreau, to agree to the old-fashioned English mode of equal chance, at twelve paces distant. M.
Cottreau struggled hard for his right, but he agreed at length to submit himself to the customs of this country, and he undertook on behalf of M. De
Melcy to fight with pistols, at the word of command, at twelve paces.”
It seems to me that the French custom was a little more aggressive than the English custom. The French duellist wanted a sporting chance of killing
his opponent. The English duellist came to the ground with an attitude of “My honour is vindicated when I have shown that I am not afraid to face
Neither country, we may observe, was following the film cliché practice of “participants stand back to back and pace away from each other”.
The two parties arrived on the scene at half past four in the morning, with a surgeon in attendance. Then they decided that they did not want to fight
with the pistols they had brought, and a pair of pistols was bought from a
gunsmith. Because of this delay, it was ten o’clock before everybody was ready. Lord Castlereagh put into M. Cottreau’s hands a declaration
re-affirming the entire innocence of Madame Grisi. Then the two combatants took their ground.
“M De Melcy carried his pistol in a manner by which a surer aim is taken, but by which the person is wholly exposed, while Lord Castlereagh bore his
in the form which gives some protection to the chest, but which is less effective in attack.”
My interpretation of this description is that the Count was facing his opponent directly, perhaps using both hands to steady his pistol; Castlereagh
must have been standing sideways-on, holding out the pistol in one hand alone. Perhaps this was another national difference.
“The word " fire " was pronounced, and a handkerchief dropped—the appointed signals.
They fired at the same instant. Lord Castlereagh's ball did not take effect, while M. De Melcy's passed through his antagonist's right arm near the
wrist, across the waistcoat, grazing the skin of the chest, and leaving a track of blood.
The noble lord was staggered by the blow, but in a second he shook off the faintness and received the attentions of his friends with composure.”
Mr. Bentinck declared that since Lord Castlereagh was wounded, the affair could not be carried on. “Not for the present”, added M. De Melcy. But
Bentinck persisted in suggesting that the matter should be altogether at an end, since the Count had been given satisfaction and his wife had been
vindicated. So the Frenchman relented and said he did not desire to carry his resentment any further.
“The seconds then having stated in the usual form that both principals had conducted themselves fairly and honourably, Lord Castlereagh was carried
to the house of a peasant, and there was attended by the surgeon who witnessed the proceedings."
I have been skimming through the Spectators of this period, and there seem to be reports of a duel almost every other week.
As long as nobody dies, the law takes no notice.
But if one of the participants died, the survivor would be facing a murder charge. In one case, both seconds joined the survivor in the dock,
though they were hoping to get away with the implausible plea that they had been taken to the location without knowing the purpose of the journey.
Fortunately Lord Castlereagh had received a flesh wound which did not put him in any serious danger.
He survived to become the fourth Marquess of Londonderry.
And the lover of Madame Grisi.