The cause of the quarrel between the two men is uncertain but according to an account written in 1735, Mohun’s second, General Macartney, inflamed the dispute and fomented the duel to avoid a long and expensive law suit between the two protagonists. While there is no doubt that Hamilton was keen to fight, Mohun was far less enthusiastic. Once at Hyde Park, Mohun would have dismissed the seconds as he believed them unnecessary but Hamilton would have none of it stating ‘Mr Macartney should have a share of the dance’. Macartney and the Duke had an acrimonious history.
Armed with smallswords, the two principals then fell upon each other without regard for the niceties.
All having drawn, immediately the two Principals made such violent and desperate Passes, or rather Stabs, that they soon fell down mortally wounded, and the Lord Mohun grappling with the Duke, and shortning [sic] his Sword, gave him that Wound on the fleshy Part of the Shoulder which reach’d his Breast, and was said to have been given him by Macartney after he fell.
Other accounts indicated that neither man bothered to parry and riposte and simply stabbed at each other, ‘neglecting all the rules of the art [and] seemed to run upon one another’. The fight was savage. The Duke was stabbed twice in the right leg, once in the arm, and received another serious injury in his upper right chest. Mohun received a severe wound in the groin and a wound in one arm but the most serious injury was in his chest, caused by a thrust in which the blade passed right through him up to the hilt. Mohun struck a fatal wound ‘while the Duke was over him’ having shortened his sword. The blade went through the Duke’s ‘shoulder to his heart’. The sword was shortened because the blade broke. Both men had wounds to their left hands. From the autopsies, it was clear that the first wound suffered by each man was the fatal injury.
The coroner’s report recorded that ‘Dr. Ronjat, Sergeant Surgeon to his late Majesty [William III] was sent for’ and on arriving at the Duke’s house at eight the next morning, he discovered
his Grace dead upon the bed in his cloathes, which he presently cut off, and upon searching the body carefully, observed that the [radial] artery of the right arm was cut in two, which he judged to be the immediate occasion of his death: He found likewise another wound on the left side of his breast, three inches above the nipple, two inches broad, running obliquely from the left to the right, and above eight inches deep; besides those a third wound in the right leg, about three inches broad, running from the outside of the shin bone obliquely under the calf.
Dr Ronjat did not examine Lord Mohun’s body. That task fell to Mr la Fage who on searching the body
found three wounds, one on the right side, penetrating obliquely the whole body, and coming out on the left above his hip; another very large one in the right groin, cutting the great [femoral] artery, which he took to be the principal cause of his death; and … had in addition three fingers of his left hand almost cut off.
Blood loss from a severed femoral artery can lead to unconsciousness in 30 seconds and death in 3 minutes, depending on how the artery is cut. A clean diagonal cut, as Mohun’s appears to have been, would have led to rapid death. Similarly, Hamilton’s severed radial artery was cut diagonally so that it could not close up by natural sphincteral action and he would have rapidly bled to death.
The fight took less than 2 minutes. The weapons were produced as exhibits at the inquest. Three of the blades were doubled-edged; only one, that belonging to Macartney, was a ‘three-cornered’ hollow-ground blade. The severity of the wounds, their width in particular, was in no small way due to the blades being double-edged. The wounds to their left hands had been inflicted when they tried to grab the blade of the other and would not have occurred had the blades been hollow-ground. The grabbing had been attempts at disarms. A commonly taught disarm was a parry quarte followed almost simultaneously by threading the left hand inside to grasp the blade (although the hilt was better) to force it upwards, by which means the owner of the sword had no choice but to relinquish his grip.
When you have a Quarrel with any Man, and have not the Opportunity to Decide it immediately, don’t trust him within Reach unless others be present, or near, and when you are going to Fight, or returning from it having got the better, don’t trust your Adversary behind you, nor any way within Reach, least he give you foul Play, and Stab you for Revenge, or takes a Villainous way of getting the better of you when you are not provided, or ready to defend your self …
McBane was accustomed to fighting men from similar backgrounds to his own, common soldiers, innkeepers, ‘ruffins’, rather than those from the middle classes, military officers or the aristocracy. In 1697, he fought off a regimental press gang in Stirling when he was already an experienced solider, having fought in the Highlands and Flanders, including the storming of the fortress of Namur. The press gang were lucky to escape with their lives and he made them beg his forgiveness. While serving with the Royal Scots, soon after the affray with the press gang, he set up a fencing school in Limerick after his regiment was sent to Ireland. Then, when they were dispatched to Holland, he set up another to serve all the garrison soldiers and fought all the other fencing masters of the garrison to establish his dominance and ensure prospective pupils would call on him and not them.
If you are engaged with a Ruffin, or a Stranger, be watchfull that he does not throw his Hat, Dust or something else at your face which may blind you, upon which he may take the Opportunity to make a home Thrust; or perhaps, if he sees an Open, he will dart his Sword at you, and if he misses, trust to his Heels.
Of course, these were not usually the actions of men who had arranged to meet at a specified time and place to settle a matter of honour. Many of the affrays in which McBane became involved, like his contemporary Peter Drake, were not fought over matters of honour but rather over women or money or because the instigator was drunk. When men went about armed, it was all too easy to resort to steel to settle a matter, no matter how trivial, a complaint that was as familiar to Georgian London as it had been in Elizabethan London.
McBane advised his readers to do the very thing he warned them against, namely to throw something in the face of their adversary to distract him. It was all about gaining control and denying the adversary the opportunity to do likewise. Some men went to a fight prepared to commit ‘foul Play’.
[W]ith a Bravo or Ruffin, I would throw any Thing in his Face to blind him, and then take the advantage of it: such Fellows as those, often carry Dust in their Pockets, or some-thing on purpose for that end; but no Gentleman ought to use such Methods, unless with such People who often carry Pocket Pistols about ‘em, so to prevent the worst to ones self, I think ‘tis not amiss to get the better of them as soon as possible, by blinding them, or by any other means whatever, before they shew a Pistol, for fair play is what they ought not to have.
He advised against disarms, still very popular among pupils in fencing salles but too dangerous to attempt against a reasonably accomplished swordsman. And he impressed on his readers to keep a clear head and avoid rising to provocations that his wits might be the sharper. To fight in hot blood was to invite death because angry men took silly risks. McBane taught men how to fight, not just how to fence. He fought many duels but only lost the first of them. He bested every other man who went against him and killed several of them in the process.
McBane had not a lot of time for false honour, stating that
many have been deceived by not taking care of themselves … tho’ their Adversaries have been men of strict Honour, as they thought, and that they would not be so Base and Villainous, as to be guilty of any Thing below the Character of brave Men, and Gentlemen.
In other words, trust was less of a virtue and more of a vice when it came to combat. Indeed, the same could be said for soldiers on any battlefield: until an enemy is clearly unable to offer violence, it was best not to trust his docility and compliance as a willingness to give up as these might be a ruse to make you lower your guard. Indeed, McBane had this to say about remaining vigilant when an opponent was apparently ceasing hostilities, especially when that cessation was mutually agreed upon and only temporary:
if it happen that you both consent to Rest to take Breath, don’t quit your Sword out of your Hand, nor look from him, nor stand within his Reach, and if he Submits and offers to deliver his Sword, don’t let him come near, but with the point of his sword in his Hand, and Mounting presented to you, and should he desire to be Reconciled, and the Swords are drawn, whether you have Exchanged any Thrusts or not, don’t suffer him to come near, tho’ in a friendly manner, unless he throw his Sword down on the Ground, and if after you have Disarmed your Adversary, or he submitted and delivered his Sword, you return him his Sword again, be sure give it with the Point towards him, and be ready in all the aforementioned Cases, with your own Sword, and take care least he Spring in upon you, and trip you up, or by being Stronger, he may disarm you of your own Sword, or break one or other, and stab you with the Piece, that is when you have Disarm’d him, or he has delivered his Sword.
McBane’s contemporary, Peter Drake, killed a man who tried to stab him after apparently conceding defeat in good grace.
An avoidance and counter stroke as taught by Donald McBane in the mid-eighteenth century
Mathews was a skilled swordsman, Sheridan less so although he had studied under Angelo. The matter was to be settled in Hyde Park. Unlike the Mohun/Hamilton duel which was fought in the morning, the Sheridan/Mathews fight was arranged for about six o’clock on the evening on Saturday 4 May. The principals and their respective seconds duly arrived at the appointed time and walked to an area known as the Ring (subsequently better known as Rotten Row). Sheridan and Matthews then disagreed over the selection of a suitable piece of ground on which to fight. The surface of the first area was too uneven. They moved to another, then another where Mathews was unhappy about some distant onlookers. They now moved to the Hercules Pillars at Hyde Park Corner. Sheridan and Mathews then
arranged to meet at the Bedford Coffee House, where Knight [Mathews’ second] would acquaint them with Mathews’s waiting-place. This proved to be the Castle Tavern at the corner where Henrietta and Bedford Streets adjoin. They engaged a room. It was now dark. Ewart [Sheridan’s second] took up the lights, and after some vain ‘declarations’ in Sheridan’s favour by Mathews, who alternated between obstinacy and compromise, the combatants set to work in grim earnest.
Sheridan and Matthews exchanged thrusts, parries and ripostes without result until Matthews overextended a lunge, allowing Sheridan to seize the forte of his blade, much as Mohun had tried to do years before with Hamilton’s. According to Sheridan, he
struck Mr. Mathews’ point so much out of the line that I stepped up and caught hold of his wrist, or the hilt of his sword, while the point of mine was at his breast. [Knight] ran in and caught hold of my arm, exclaiming ‘Don’t kill him!’ I struggled to disengage my arm, and said his sword was in my power. Mr. Mathews called out twice or thrice: ‘I beg my life.’ We were parted.
There now followed an argument over whether Sheridan had, indeed, managed to disarm Mathews and thereby end the fight since, as the latter argued, he had not relinquished his weapon in the action so he was still in possession of it although Sheridan had command of it. Sheridan demanded Mathews give up his sword that he, Sheridan, might break it or else Mathews was obligated to return to his garde. Mathews chose to surrender his sword but not with good grace. Sheridan then broke it and flung the hilt across the room. Mathews complained that this unnecessary act was a dishonour, claiming ‘he could never show his face if it were known that his sword were broke’. However, everyone agreed to remain silent about what had transpired in the room.
Sometimes life imitates art. Tobias Smollett included a duel between Lord Quiverwit and Roderick Random in The Adventures of Roderick Random published in 1748 and that encounter so closely resembled the duel between Sheridan and Mathews that had Sheridan scripted this he would have been accused of plagiarism. Clearly, Smollet knew what he was writing about which only goes to show that eighteenth-century literature can sometimes provide insights into the conduct of duels.
Sheridan demanded that Mathews publicly retract the published slanders and apologise for them. Matthews refused, claiming he was under no obligation to do so. In the end, however, he had little choice but to concede and, two days later, Sheridan had the apology and retraction published in The Bath Chronicle. Unfortunately for Mathews, the Chronicle got hold of the story and had a high old time describing the duel in fabulous glory, exaggerating the events of the encounter, inventing episodes which did not occur, fabricating the time and place of it. Mathews was now a publicly disgraced man and was shunned. He had his version of events published in the paper but inevitably, perhaps, Mathews resolved that his only recourse was to challenge Sheridan and fight him again to restore his lost reputation. Sheridan was so incensed by Mathews’ conduct in trying to repudiate in print what had happened between them, he felt he had no choice but to fight him again.
BOTTOM: use of the foot in combat mid-fifteenth century when fighting with longswords. This sort of thing was still taught in the mid-eighteenth century when longswords had been replaced by smallswords
At some point in the brawl – for that is what it was, rather than a duel – both men managed to regain their feet, it seems. Sheridan regained control of his bent sword and lunged at Mathews wounding him in the belly. But now Sheridan’s sword broke against Mathews who was subsequently accused, probably unjustifiably, of wearing a concealed mail shirt, a thoroughly ungentlemanly deceit. The armour was supposed to have turned Sheridan’s blade. However, the sword may have been broken as
the disarmed Sheridan raised his right hand both in token of his plight and as a means of defence. It was dreadfully cut, yet all the time he gripped hold of his own scabbard, which his enemy retained.
Whatever the truth of the charge, Sheridan’s blade broke about four inches from the hilt. Now both men had broken their swords but Mathews had hold of both. At this point in the affair, the seconds should have stepped in to stop the fight and prevent further injury but Barnett, Mathews’ second, prevented Sheridan’s second, Paumier, from intervening. Now, Mathews stabbed at Sheridan up to thirty times with the two weapons, cursing and swearing the whole time. Fortunately, for Sheridan no more than five stabs struck home otherwise he would certainly have died. His injuries
were chiefly flesh wounds in the neck, for Sheridan managed to ward off the rest with his hand, so that they only penetrated his coat. One of these or the previous ones must have been violent, for it shattered the frame of Miss Linley’s picture, which was found in a pool of blood, together with one of Sheridan’s sleevebuttons; while another wound … injured the stomach.
Now, the seconds stepped in. Sheridan’s stomach wound was to the ‘left side of the belly’ and this one nearly proved to be fatal after it became infected. He took more than a week to fully recover. The Bath Chronicle described his condition as ‘three or four wounds in his breast and side, and now he’s very ill’. Henry Angelo, son of the famous fencing master, stated that some time later Sheridan showed him ‘a wound in his neck, then in a sore state, which he told me he had received from his antagonist on the ground’, while Richard’s sister, Alicia, wrote that
Mathews … having picked up the point of one of the swords, ran it through the side of his antagonist’s throat, and pinned him to the ground with it.
While an accurate and reliable contemporary account of the duel does not exist so that the roles played by each protagonist and the conduct of the seconds are disputed, there is no doubt about the outcome. Mathews was the victor of the second duel but he earned only opprobrium and Sheridan was very nearly killed. While he was recovering from his injuries, he started work on what was to become School for Scandal. And one of the characters in The Rivals, Sir Lucius O’Trigger, is probably based on Barnett, Mathews’ second in the Bath duel.
According to a survey published in 1821, a mere 172 duels occurred in England between 1760 and 1821; not all of those would have been fought with swords, of course. In these encounters, sixty-nine combatants were killed, a further forty-eight were seriously injured, while another forty-eight suffered minor injuries. Thus, 179 of the duellists were quite unharmed in their encounters. On average, in a single year, there were no more than three duels, resulting in one death with just over one and a half of the combatants suffering injury. Thus, any duel became noteworthy because of its rarity and when the outcome was serious injury or death, the social impact was huge.
Even though during the seventeenth century, duelling had been more of a problem than it was during the period of the survey, nevertheless, few encounters had resulted in death or serious injury. Duelling had always been forbidden but rarely stopped and few duellists were prosecuted for murder or manslaughter before the 1720s. The change in English law following the Mohun/Hamilton duel made the consequences of killing an opponent much more serious than hitherto; you were much less likely to escape the hangman if you killed your opponent, despite pleading clergy, thereby reducing the inclination of men to fight over matters of honour.
Benefit of clergy was a defence in England that dated back to the twelfth century by which a member of the clergy could claim exemption from secular law. Since only the clergy could read, proof of clergy was provided by reading or reciting a Latin text (known as a neck verse), although by the eighteenth century such proof was no longer required and exemption only meant from the noose not from punishment of any sort (transportation to the Americas or from the late eighteenth century to Australia was deemed a suitable punishment). Benefit of clergy was not abolished until 1823. With the decline in duelling came a rise in litigation in which quarrels were settled in court.
The Italians, like the French, were keen duellists despite prohibitions. As many as 2,759 duels were fought by Italians between 1879 and 1889, mostly with swords. Fifty men were killed, while some 3,900 wounds were inflicted. Clearly, the incidence of fatal woundings was low. However, the level of non-fatal wounding was very high.
The Mohun/Hamilton duels and those between Sheridan and Mathews showed how men conducted themselves when faced with the reality of injury or death, no matter how remote the likelihood according to statistics. As far as the two men fighting were concerned, the likelihood was very high indeed. While some duellists were proficient with a sword and knew very well their quarte and their riposte, the circumstances of a duel were very different from those of the fencing salle where life or death were not an issue. Even when the techniques of fencing were apparently well absorbed by the brain and the muscle of the fighter, he might yet find all such knowledge deserted him under stress. One thing that the fencing salle did not teach was the management of stress when fighting for your life. However, until the mid-eighteenth century, fencing was still very much a fighting art and remained so in France especially until the end of the century. For military men, the situation was rather different as they learned how to fight with military swords.
Fear was always a factor in any fight. In 1924, Aldo Nadi, an Olympic gold medallist from the 1920 Antwerp games, fought a duel with Adolfo Contronei, a sports journalist who was a good fencer but nowhere near as good as Nadi. Indeed, Nadi came close to killing him. Witnesses to the event, sanctioned by Mussolini who had himself fought two duels before becoming Il Duce, later expressed surprise and not a little disappointment that, despite Nadi’s skill and experience, his posture and his actions showed none of that skill. He looked more like a novice than an expert. However, Nadi later admitted in his autobiography, The Living Sword: A Fencer’s Autobiography, published thirty years after his death, that when injury and death were real possibilities, the body acted differently, responding to the primordial imperative for self-preservation. Contronei was no stranger to duelling. Before facing Nadi, he had already fought several duels and Nadi would have been well aware of that. Contronei’s duelling experience did not outweigh Nadi’s Olympic experience, however, but it certainly frightened Nadi.
Floquet, Boulanger, Nadi, Mussolini and Contronei all fought with duelling épées, which were essentially the same as sport épées except for the point. The style of play with such weapons deviated considerably from that with the eighteenth-century smallsword as the primary targets were the outstretched swordarm, the wrist (above and below) and the hand of the swordarm because these were the nearest targets for a thrust; disarms were suicidal manoeuvres and rarely attempted.
To kill a man in a duel required more than skill. The necessary intention to commit the act was necessary. Being aggressive was not enough. Military men had an advantage over civilians because they were trained to fight and kill. Nevertheless, a one-on-one fight was quite unlike a battle or a skirmish and required a different sort of focus. Did a fighter watch his opponent’s hand, his feet, his eyes, his blade? All of them? An awareness of movement was of greater importance than attention on a single element. An appreciation of those movements which were genuine threats and those which could be safely ignored only came with experience and could not be taught. This sort of focus was essential in any fight.
The willingness to kill had to be present in the fighter before he arrived for the duel. This is not to imply that he turned up with the intention of committing murder but rather that he had the mental strength to kill should the situation necessitate such action. It was not a decision that could be reached by considering the question in the middle of a fight. Nevertheless, the ability to exercise restraint and not kill when an opportunity to kill arose was no less important. To describe Floquet’s action in not killing Boulanger as restraint of this sort rather than inaction due to an inability to kill depends on our perspective as only Floquet knew the truth of the matter. In order to kill, whether in a duel or on the battlefield, required the deliberate suppression of the urge not to kill since killing was taboo and normally unsanctionable.
a meadow, ankle-deep in water at the least, bidding farewell to our doublets, in our shirts [we] began to charge each other … we being fully resolved (God forgive us!) to despatch each other by what means we could.
Sackville was impetuous and received the first wound.
I made a thrust at my enemy, but was short, and, in drawing back my arm, I received a great wound …
Bruce had struck him across his swordarm with a stop cut but the wound was not so deep that it cut the radial artery nor did it sever the tendons as he was still able to wield his rapier, although it must have cut into muscle. Sackville’s impetuosity was not dampened and he went at Bruce again but missed him again and
received a wound in my right pap [nipple], which passed level through my body, and almost to my back.
This was clearly a thrust. He then lost the little finger of his swordhand; the thin leather gloves they both wore provided little protection. Both men were now breathless from their exertions. After a brief pause, they continued fighting and Sackville managed to put his point to Bruce’s throat. Sackville demanded that he yield but Bruce refused. Sackville was now suffering the effects of blood loss from his three wounds and he felt faint. He decided to end the fight and
struck at his heart, but, with his avoiding, missed my aim, yet [it] passed through [his] body, and, drawing out my sword, repassed it again through another place, when he cried, ‘Oh! I am slain!’ seconding his speech with all the force he had to cast me. But being too weak, after I had defended his assault, I easily became master of him, laying him on his back.
Bruce still refused to surrender. However, Sackville no longer had the heart to finish him off. They both lay on the ground exhausted. Bruce’s surgeon took him to his carriage then suddenly turned on Sackville who was in no position to defend himself. Fortunately, his own surgeon intervened and Bruce called out to the assailant to leave Sackville in peace. Sackville survived the fight but Bruce died of his wounds the same day.
It seems like a cinematic cliché but rapier and smallsword duels in which fatal wounds were inflicted on one protagonist only for the injured man to fatally wound his attacker before succumbing to his own did happen. Indeed, death is rarely instantaneous and despite a fatal wound the victim could still retaliate. A relatively slow rate of blood loss from wounds and the effect of adrenaline could allow mortally injured men to fight on.
Thus, a duel might be between two men who had no intention of killing each other but feel honour-bound to fight, two who did mean to kill each other if they could, or between one who did mean to kill his opponent who did not share the same desire. Irrespective of the intentions and a mental readiness to kill, a fight was not a choreographed spectacle in which everyone knew what was going to happen because they were following a well-rehearsed routine. And irrespective of the level of skill of the two protagonists, chance could play a significant role in the outcome of the duel as well as the effect of emotions. Risk could never be eliminated, only minimised. And that required a cool head.
McBane advised a fighter to be always in control of his temper. Anger increased the breathing rate and, hence, the body’s uptake of oxygen was increased ready for the fight. The problem came from the two parts of the brain that responded to anger. One part, the amygdala demanded action while the left frontal lobe exercised reason. The balance between the demands of one and the restraint of the other was very fine and the consequence could be wild action. Anger caused a surge in the stress hormones adrenaline, noradenaline and cortisol, which increased heart rate, triggered the release of glucose from the liver, increased clotting but also led to shortness of breath. Breathing became shallower so that the uptake of oxygen decreased. Body movements ceased to be aerobic and became anaerobic. The muscles stiffened leading to loss of coordination, timing and fine control. The muscles sometimes trembled which further reduced the swordsman’s ability to control his weapon with accuracy and precision. And the mind ceased to think coherently so all the mechanisms for control needed for fighting ceased to function properly. Under such circumstances, it was not uncommon for the angry man to become the dead man.
The principal causes of death in duels were blood loss, air embolism, asphyxiation, pneumothorax (collapsed lung) and infection, none of them instantaneous, all of them painful.