Wednesday 20 February 2019

Historical Fiction author, Jayne Davis, is taking a look at duelling and its place in history. #History #HistoricalFiction

 Duelling and its place in history
by Jayne Davis

Long ago, justice relied on ‘the will of God’, and an accused person’s guilt or innocence could be tried by ordeal (walking over hot coals, for example – if your burnt feet healed, you must be innocent!). In parts of Europe, trial by combat was also used to settle disputes, either between the conflicting parties, or by champions on their behalf. Wager of battle was introduced to England after the Norman conquest, and continued until the mid 15th century (later in Scotland and Ireland). Walter Scott included a trial by combat in Ivanhoe.

A re-enacted trial by combat.

Trial by combat morphed into duelling, although duels were fought over matters of ‘honour’ rather than to settle court cases. In the 16th century, duels were fought with swords, but by the 19th century most duellists used pistols. Disputes were generally only settled in this way by the aristocracy, and various duelling codes were developed.

A duel in 1763.

Laws against duelling were made in most countries, but largely ignored. In Britain, if you killed someone in a duel you could be tried for murder, but the courts rarely enforced this. The last fatal duel in England took place in 1852.

Generally, the person being challenged could choose the time and weapons, and also the conditions. For example, they might stop at first blood, or when one man was wounded badly enough he could not continue to fight. Fighting à l’outrance meant to the death.

If using pistols, one party might delope (fire wide, or in the air) to satisfy honour without killing their opponent. However this could sometimes be taken as implying the opponent was not worth killing!

My forthcoming novel, Sauce for the Gander, starts with Will, Lord Wingrave, fighting a duel, with his friend, Harry Tregarth, as his second.


A mist rising from the Thames added a chill to the air as they neared the meeting point at Tothill Fields, although Will could see blue sky above.

The doctor awaited them by the school, and followed them into the fields. Lord Elberton was already pacing back and forth, his grey wig and coat giving the impression of a ghost. Nearby stood a small table, incongruous in this setting, with another man beside it.

Will stopped twenty paces away while Tregarth and the doctor went to confer with Elberton’s second. Hands in pockets, resisting the impulse to pace like Elberton, Will watched as the two seconds examined the pistols. Tregarth even squinted down the barrels.

He wondered what Uncle Jack—Colonel Jack Stanlake—would say if he were here now. Something short and to the point about keeping his breeches buttoned, no doubt, but reprimands from his uncle had never put his back up the way his father’s rantings did.

The seconds paced out the requisite distance, sticking swords in the ground to mark each point, and returned to the table. Will’s lips twisted at the irony—his father’s obsession with the succession had led to this. If Will had had his way he might still have faced death, but death on a battlefield in service to your country was surely a more honourable end than duelling over an unfaithful wife. But the past could not be undone, and the future was out of his control.

Tregarth waved Will over, and he and Lord Elberton converged on the little table. Elberton’s lips were pressed together in a thin line and he glared as he gestured for Will to choose a weapon.

Will took the nearest, checking there was enough powder in the pan.

“You will take your positions, gentlemen, and turn to face each other,” Jaston said. “On the drop of my handkerchief you will fire. If the matter is not resolved at that point, you will remain in position while we collect the pistols and reload them.”

Jaston looked at Will, waiting for his agreement before turning his gaze to his own principal. Elberton nodded, and strode off to his mark.

Will took his place, breathing deeply of the damp air. His heart accelerated, but aside from that he felt remarkably calm. The click of the hammer moving into position as he cocked the pistol was loud in the still air. Turning sideways, he presented his right side to Elberton, keeping one eye on Jaston’s handkerchief. As it fluttered to the ground, he raised his arm and fired well above his opponent’s head, the shot ringing in his ears.

He felt nothing; glancing down, there was no blood to be seen. He had only heard one shot, so Elberton must have fired at exactly the same time, however unlikely that seemed.

Elberton's shout of rage gave him the true explanation—his opponent’s pistol had misfired.

A feeling of lightness spread through him, making him aware how tense he'd been. Fate was kind, he thought, turning his face up to the warmth of the sun.

Tregarth called him back to the table as Elberton stalked over to his own second, anger in every line of his body.

"Jaston, what the hell did you—"

"Both pistols were loaded correctly, Lord Elberton," Jaston said, not reacting to what was, in effect, an accusation of misconduct.

Elberton thrust his pistol towards his second. "Load it again. Now."

Will stood to one side, exchanging a quick glance with Tregarth.

"Lord Wingrave deloped, Lord Elberton. That is normally the end of the matter." Jaston did not take the proffered pistol. "To demand another shot goes against protocol."

“Damme, due to your incompetence, I haven’t had my first shot!” Elberton thrust his face forwards.

Jaston took a step back. “Nonetheless, sir, it will do your reputation—”

“Damn my reputation, sir, I demand satisfaction.” He turned and glared at Will. “Do I have to strike you, sir, to make you face up—”

“Take your shot, Lord Elberton,” Will said. He turned to walk back to his point, but Jaston’s voice stopped him.

“This will be a second exchange of shots, Lord Elberton. I insist upon it. I will not damage my honour by agreeing to such an improper proceeding as you suggest.

Will turned back and handed his own pistol to Tregarth to reload.

Tregarth kept his voice low. “Wingrave, you cannot delope again. Let him know you will aim properly this time, else he’ll have too much confidence. He will kill you if he can.

“No,” Will said, loudly enough for Elberton to hear. “I will do as I did for the first exchange. Lord Elberton made a valid challenge, it was not his fault the pistol misfired." Whatever the rules said, he considered it an act of cowardice to rely on a misfire. A stupid opinion, quite possibly, but one he intended to abide by.

"Wingrave, your—"

"Tregarth, do not invoke my father!"

His friend sighed, but returned to the table to load the guns. This time Elberton chose; Tregarth brought the remaining gun to Will, and Will walked back to the sword stuck in the ground.

Sauce for the Gander

A duel. An ultimatum. An arranged marriage.
England, 1777
William Stanlake, Viscount Wingrave, whiles away his time gambling and having affairs, thwarted in his wish to serve his country by his controlling father. Then a deceived husband and a challenge to a duel change everything.

Constance Charters is an unwanted daughter, relegated to keeping house for her impoverished but socially ambitious father. When the Earl of Marstone wants a bride at short notice for his errant son, her father eagerly accepts the match. But Connie wants a husband who will respect her for herself, not an idle profligate.

Both are coerced into the marriage, but their new home holds unexpected dangers. Can they overcome the forces against them and forge the lives they want for themselves?

Sauce for the Gander is the first book in the Marstone Series--a set of standalone stories with some characters in common. Each book is a complete story with no major cliffhangers, although there might sometimes be a minor plot thread to be resolved in a later book.

Coming March 2019...

The Mrs MacKinnon

England, 1799
A traumatised soldier returning to a derelict inheritance. A widow with a small son and a manipulative father.

Major Matthew Southam returns from India, hoping to put the trauma of war behind him and forget his past. Instead, he finds a derelict estate and a family who wish he'd died abroad.

Charlotte MacKinnon married without love to avoid her father’s unpleasant choice of husband. Now a widow with a young son, she lives in a small Cotswold village with only the money she earns by her writing.

Matthew is haunted by his past, and Charlotte is fearful of her father’s renewed meddling in her future. After a disastrous first meeting, can they help each other find happiness?

Jayne Davis

Jayne Davis writes historical romances set in the late Georgian/Regency era, published as both ebooks and paperbacks.
She was hooked on Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer as a teenager, and longed to write similar novels herself. Real life intervened, and she had several careers, including as a non-fiction author under another name. That wasn't quite the writing career she had in mind...
Finally, she got around to polishing up stories written for her own amusement in long winter evenings, and became the kind of author she’d dreamed of in her teens. She is now working on the first few books in the Marstone Series, set in the late Georgian/early Regency period.

Connect with Jayne: Website • Pinterest • Goodreads.

Reenactment trial by combat image – open source — Wikimedia
Pistol duel - open source — Wikimedia

1 comment:

  1. I loved the excerpt, Jayne, and can't wait to discover what happens next!


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