A duel?… revisited

I was curious to know if readers would consider this case to be a duel. The answers I got were: no and maybe, which is pretty much my feeling about it.

OK, duels in reality (especially in the 16th and 17th centuries) often did not live up to the idealised rules of the code duello. (I am wondering if there are any such codes from before the 18th century, actually?) Contemporaries recognised the idea (and practice) of the ‘spontaneous’ duel, in which a verbal challenge and fight followed immediately after the initial affront, rather than awaiting a written challenge. But in this case there isn’t even a verbal challenge. (Or at least, there isn’t one recorded. Let’s come back to that in a moment.)

As a bit of an update, this is what an early-eighteenth-century writer has to say about challenges:

Sometimes persons quarrel accidentally and abruptly, and draw and fight without any deliberation: But commonly duels are by previous challenges, which are given divers ways… At present challenges are either verbal or written; verbal challenges are either given by the person himself, who apprehends himself affronted or injured as soon as the actions or words which gave the offence pass…

On top of that, as one of the commenters said, Grosvenor didn’t give his opponent time to dismount and draw his sword to defend himself. That was an important issue if a fight could be properly considered a duel of honour.

There is a possible interpretive problem here: are the witnesses telling us everything? As I mentioned, both of the two witnesses seem to have been under some kind of suspicion (and they were bound over to appear at the next Great Sessions). It’s possible, then, that they might have been selective in what they said to the examining magistrates; if this were to go to court it would be in their interests to avoid any mention of anything that might make the clash seem premeditated or organised, to make it look as much like a typical manslaughter scenario as possible. (If it were manslaughter, as opposed to murder, they could not be charged as accessories before the fact; and in murder cases, accessories received the same punishment as principals: death. So, potentially a big difference for them.)

And yet in scenarios like this a murder verdict was highly unlikely anyway; the ‘reality’ of what happened would have to be radically different – not just a matter of details – from what was described here before a jury would be likely to find murder (and even if it did, a judicial recommendation for pardon would have almost certainly followed).* It wouldn’t have made much difference if there had been an explicit challenge or a moment’s pause for Roberts to draw his sword, as far as the law was concerned. The real fight may have been a slightly less confused scuffle than it appears, but I don’t think there could have been much in it.

As I’ve already said, duels need to be seen in their larger context to be properly understood. Maybe that also means that a social historian needs to think rather carefully about just what is and isn’t defined as a duel. This one looks pretty much like a host of other fatal confrontations between early modern men at the time: it can be said to be about personal honour and ‘affront’, provocation and anger, but calling it a ‘duel’ seems to be according it dignities that it doesn’t really deserve. It was a case I transcribed quite a long time ago and didn’t at the time pay that much attention to it, to be honest. (Though I was intrigued by the foot race.)

So why did I bother to ask at all?

Well, here’s the interesting thing: I was subsequently reading various secondary sources in local history relating to the Myddleton family of Chirk Castle (Roger Grosvenor’s widow was a Myddleton), and they all asserted – though usually very briefly – that he had been killed in a duel. Online, you’ll find it mentioned at the Eaton Hall website, in the ODNB biography of Roger’s son (if you have a subscription) and passing references at genealogy sites. It’s referred to in the Calendar of the Wynn of Gwydir Papers and (I think) in one or two similar publications. And this is how it was (mis-)remembered locally at the end of the 18th century, in a letter in the Chirk Castle archives:

.. I have left Mr Lloyd’s memoir of the Chirk castle family at Dyffryn, and can therefore only tell you from memory, that one of old Sir Thomas Myddelton the Cavalier’s daughters, married Roger Grosvenor of Eton, son and heir of Sir Richard Grosvenor: this Roger was killed… in a duel on horseback with pistols on Belgrave heath [in Cheshire], by the grandfather of Major Roberts of Hafodybwch…

Now, the Grosvenor and Myddleton families were quite a respectable, solid set of landowners – not your average tumultuous country squires (or hellfire aristocrats). Roger’s grandfather, Sir Richard Grosvenor (ODNB biog, sub. required again), had been a ‘godly’ magistrate (he’s well known to early modern English historians) earlier in the 17th century, while Roger’s father-in-law Sir Thomas Myddleton (who was still alive) had been a key moderate parliamentarian in north Wales. Perhaps neither family was entirely happy at the idea of the Grosvenors’ eldest son and heir getting himself killed in a duel, but how unthinkable – and dishonourable – might it have been to admit to themselves or others that he had got himself killed in an ugly fight that was little better than a common pub brawl?

But then you might start to wonder how many other so-called ‘duels’ that were reported in letters (and, later on, newspapers) were equally un-duellish in their origins, and were called that retrospectively to make them look better in the eyes of the world…


*You’ll have to take my word for this, or slog through chapter 3 of my thesis.

10 thoughts on “A duel?… revisited”

  1. Hi Sharon, have you read John Carter Wood’s _Violence and Crime in Nineteenth-century England_, specificially Chapter 4 on the semi-formal fistfight. I think that this is a great framework that might very useful in going beyond the ‘What is a duel?’ ‘Is this therefore a duel ?’ question.

  2. Oh, I do, I do. Regularly.

    Not sure the fact that the author doesn’t make much is a consolation exactly… BTW, he’s quite prolific online, some interesting essays, eg here.

  3. Sorry, that came out wrong. I didn’t want any readers to think that John was gouging them: he isn’t. John deserves more money, people – it’s a great book.

    Interest to declare: I work with him.

  4. Are Routledge’s monograph prices generally that high? I’ll have to take a peek round their website, I suppose.

    For anyone interested, my favourite small commercial good-quality-and-reasonably-priced publisher right now just has to be Hambledon (which does some nice history of crime…).

  5. They do seem to be above average. I’d think of, say Oxford or Cambridge h/b monograph prices as averaging £45-50. UWP possibly even slightly less. Routledge, it’s more like £60-70. Though 80 is still really high. It’s just shocking and wrong, and a real shame for the author. (Note to self: avoid Routledge for future books.)

    … Although I still cringe when I remember telling two of my senior colleagues the other year how I’d look out for their latest books when they got remaindered… (This may have been after a few glasses of wine but I don’t think that’s much of an excuse.) Tact, what’s that again? Who needs to go to a conference to make a prat of herself? Not me. I can do that at home.

  6. I have a question that I hope you can answer. In what manner did gentlemen challenge their enemy to a duel. I was under the impression that one technique was for the challenger to drop a white handkerchief in front of the path of the individuel whom he wanted to duel. Is this true?

  7. Matt, it doesn’t ring any particular bells, but I haven’t got time to check it today. (I’m in the middle of a Big Thing that will be happening tomorrow!) I’ll see if I can find anything later.

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