Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
A Polite Exchange of Bullets

A Polite Exchange of Bullets: The Duel and the English Gentleman, 1750-1850

Stephen Banks
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 330
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Polite Exchange of Bullets
    Book Description:

    This book, the most comprehensive study of the English pistol duel yet undertaken, examines what it meant to be a man of honour in eighteenth and nineteenth century England. A thorough survey of the incidence and distribution of duelling, both socially and geographically, identifies those sub-groups of gentlemen most likely to duel. The author considers the mores and manners of such groups and asks why it was that within specific professions, minor slights could only be requited by a demand for satisfaction. In doing so, the author rejects those traditional histories of duelling which have failed to engage with the internal dynamics and internal logic of the phenomenon itself. Too often historians have explained the rise of opposition to duelling in terms of social and cultural change whilst at the same time treating the duel as though its ideological content had become irrevocably fixed in the early seventeenth century. Honour culture too had a social and an intellectual history and the author outlines those conflicts of ideas within the culture of honour itself that did much to hasten the demise of the English duel. A Polite Exchange of Bullets will be welcomed as a fresh approach to an important social phenomenon by all those interested in duelling and in English social and cultural history. STEPHEN BANKS is a lecturer in criminal law at Reading University Law School and co-director of The Forum of Legal and Historical Research.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-881-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-3)

    This is a study of one particular aspect of English society during a period of the most astonishing transformation. In 1750, a foreign-born king, who had not long before defeated an attempt to unseat him, presided over the affairs of a largely agrarian country. A constitutional settlement had limited his powers, but he still claimed the right to make and unmake administrations at will. Science had progressed, but until as recently as 1736 one could still be condemned for the offence of witchcraft. Travel remained a precarious endeavour limited to the speed of the horse and vulnerable to the predations...

  6. 1 Setting the Scene: The Arrival of the Duel and a Brief History to 1750
    (pp. 4-23)

    On 29 June 1612 Robert Creighton, Lord Sanquhar was hanged on a gibbet erected outside Westminster Hall for the offence of procuring the murder of a fencing master, John Turner. Although Sanquhar’s rank alone would have been enough to make the execution memorable, it was the peculiar circumstances leading to the murder that lent the affair a particular notoriety. In brief, Sanquhar had some seven years before affronted and then challenged Mr Turner to a fencing match – seemingly wishing to demonstrate his prowess with the blade. In the encounter, however, Turner had prevailed, accidentally blinding Sanquhar in one eye. To...

  7. 2 Fashion and Physicality
    (pp. 24-42)

    As we have seen, neither the somewhat insincere disapprobation of the sovereigns and their ministers, nor the operation of the courts, nor the appeals of the pious, sufficed to prevent influential members of the court and aristocracy from becoming infused with the values of the duel during the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Numerically though, this represented but a small constituency, the strength of honour culture in the eighteenth, and continuing into the nineteenth, centuries was to lie in its transmission out from the court into the much broader, if ill-defined, classes of gentility. In Chapter 3 I shall...

  8. 3 Politeness, Interest and Transgression: Social Interaction and the Causes of Duelling
    (pp. 43-62)

    Although, Col. Bayley had given way to the ‘capricious emanations’ from his brain, it nevertheless caused him to consider his own conduct both foolish and regretful (see previous chapter). Despite the latent potential for violence lying within the breast of many a gentleman, it will soon become apparent that most – the overwhelming majority, I will suggest – of gentlemen conducted their lives without resort to so serious a hazard as a duel. The instinct for self-preservation was not still-born in the English gentleman and although I have referred to the tensions that existed when gentlemen vied for attention or sought to...

  9. 4 Controversies and Calculations: The Incidence and Distribution of Duelling
    (pp. 63-94)

    Thus far I have considered the physicality of gentlemanly society, and those species of quarrel that were most likely to conclude in an actual duel. However, I have also suggested that there were many countervailing considerations that induced gentlemen to compromise with each other; the absence of which would have made society very precarious indeed. Two questions then fall to be answered in this and Chapter 5. First, how common a phenomenon actually was the duel during the period under consideration? Second, were duellists distributed evenly throughout gentlemanly society or were there particular species of gentlemen who were more prone...

  10. 5 Guts and Governance: Honour Culture and Colonial Administration
    (pp. 95-113)

    As the previous chapter has demonstrated there were many sections of society into which the ideals of the duellists barely penetrated. Nevertheless honour culture was particularly entrenched within those very groups of gentlemen who were most likely to be tasked with service abroad, that is to say within the military and the political and administrative elite. Honour culture had an important role to play in the mentality of those administering His Majesty’s colonial possessions, sustaining the homogeneity of a class over great distances and yet at the same time posing, as we shall see, constant threats to good governance. It...

  11. 6 Dangerous Friends: Conciliation, Counsel and the Conduct of English Duelling
    (pp. 114-134)

    Thus far I have surveyed the distribution of duels, both geographically and socially, and said something about the disputes which led to them. However, the time has come to, as it were, take a step backward and consider the means by which honour disputes were resolved – for very many honour disputes did not, in truth, conclude in a duel. Here, then, I will examine the ways in which quarrels might be resolved, but I will also conversely consider the manner in which, where a resolution could not be found, duels might actually be conducted. Resolving disputes and refereeing combats might...

  12. 7 The Contest in the Courtroom: Duelling and the Criminal Justice System
    (pp. 135-166)

    Chapter 6 alluded to the very public nature of honour disputes, disputes that were often played out through the medium of the press. It gives one some pause for thought to reflect that by turns seconds or principals were advertising their intent to commit a criminal offence or recording in print that an offence had already been committed. Here, then, I intend to explore the relationship between honour culture and the law, but the very fact that unlawful acts were openly advertised of itself says much about the general effectiveness of the legal system in punishing duellists. Nevertheless, some have...

  13. Plates
    (pp. None)
  14. 8 The Years of Decline, the European Middle and the Domestic Duellists
    (pp. 167-190)

    Notwithstanding the operation of the courts, to observers at the beginning of the nineteenth century the duel probably appeared to be in as rude a health as it had ever been. There were perhaps more honour disputes during the first decade of the nineteenth century than in either of the two previous decades. Many of those disputes were undoubtedly engendered by the stresses and strains of war, but the cessation of hostilities probably did not lead to an immediate decline in duelling. We know that after the war there were a number of duels between officers of the army of...

  15. 9 The Reformation of Space, Place and Mind
    (pp. 191-216)

    If Simpson’s ‘dandelion’ hypothesis is to be discarded, as I am afraid it must be, then a contrary hypothesis suggests itself: that duelling disappeared not because the middle were adopting it to the alarm of the elite, but because the middle were resolutely opposed to it and imposed their will upon their betters. The belief that the demise of duelling can be ascribed to the rise of a new commercial middle class, whose values were (allegedly) necessarily antithetical to the culture of honour, has gained broad acceptance.¹ Donna Andrew has suggested that:

    The most important effect of the growth of...

  16. 10 Dishonourable Duellists and the Rationalisation of Punishment and Warfare
    (pp. 217-233)

    The duellist, as we have seen, was a peculiarly public creature, particularly, even obsessively, concerned with self-image. Certainly, he was disposed to look outward rather than inward and to find his estimation of himself not through contemplation but through envisaging how he appeared to others. Henri Rochefort put it succinctly: the duel would die ‘if there weren’t always four gentlemen available to draw up a duel report, and fifty newspapers to print it. In ninety-one out of ninety-two cases, one duels for the gallery. Suppress the gallery and you exterminate the duel.’¹ Changes in the way that duels were reported...

  17. Conclusion
    (pp. 234-242)

    Reviewing all that has gone before, it is clear that notwithstanding its emblematic importance, duelling as mode of settling differences between gentlemen was not a particularly common phenomenon. At best it was located within very specific sections of gentlemanly society. Certainly, this was so by the later eighteenth century. In London duelling found a place among the troublesome, and to a degree anti-patriarchal, young metro politan elite and for a short time was adopted by a rather limited number of aspiring men of the legal and then medical professionals. The duel followed such men out to the places of their...

  18. Appendix Selected Duels in England, Scotland and Wales, 1750–1852
    (pp. 243-288)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 289-302)
  20. Index
    (pp. 303-320)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 321-321)