To view this media, you will require Adobe Flash 9 or higher and must have Javascript enabled.

Duration 25:35

How to win a duel

A fight, possibly to the death, over a matter of honour this month. No, we’re not just arguing amongst ourselves, the Past Masters team are talking about duelling.

Formal duelling evolved from medieval sword fights into pistols at dawn before fading away in the 19th century. We’ll be looking at what survives in the Archives from these risky and generally highly illegal fights and finding out what happens to the winners and losers of a duel.

Document gallery


Bob: Hi there, you’re listening to Past Masters from the National Archives in London. I’m Bob.

Jo: And I’m Jo.

Bob: And this month we’re going to be talking about duelling. We all know the stereotypes of glove-slapping and swordfighting but we’re going to use documents from our collections to look at the realities of what sort of people fought duels and why, what made duels start and what made them stop.

Jo: And I’ll be giving tips on do’s and don’ts for anyone finding themselves inconveniently challenged to a duel and in need of some helpful advice.

Bob: Is that likely?

Jo: Be prepared, that’s my motto.

Bob: It’s the boy scouts motto.

Jo: Yes, but it’s my motto too.


Bob: So, I think the first question is, what is a duel?

Jo: Oh brilliant, yes, start with an easy one why don’t you?

Bob: Come on, it’s just two people fighting with swords or pistols to some formal rules isn’t it? It’s not rocket science. It comes out of medieval knightly codes of honour and stuff.

Jo: It’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

Bob: Okay, walk me through a typical duel. It could be with swords, it could be with pistols, right? How does it start? With someone being offended?

Jo: Yes, and someone being offensive. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century dictionary writer and all round clever-clogs is a man with his finger on the pulse. Here’s what he had to say about why duels happened in the 1700s:

Samuel Johnson: Sir, as men become in a high degree refined, various causes of offence arise; which are considered to be of such importance, that life must be staked to atone for them, though in reality they are not so…Before men arrive at this artificial refinement, if one tells his neighbour he lies, his neighbour tells him he lies; if one gives his neighbour a blow, his neighbour gives him a blow: but in a state of highly polished society, an affront is held to be a serious injury…A duel must be fought upon it; as men have agreed to banish from their society one who puts up with an affront without fighting a duel. Now, Sir, it is never unlawful to fight in self-defence. He, then, who fights a duel, does not fight from passion against his antagonist, but out of self-defence; to avert the stigma of the world, and to prevent himself from being driven out of society.

Bob: Doesn’t Dr. Johnson think it’s bad that people fight, maybe kill, just over their reputation?

Johnson: No sir, a man may shoot the man who invades his character, as he may shoot him who attempts to break into his house.

Bob: That’s me told.

Jo: Not really. But it’s more than just their reputation. What Dr. Johnson says about being ‘driven out of society’ is right. In the 18th century many families live on credit. So if you let rumours about, say, your finances go unchallenged you could go bankrupt. Being called a coward and not fighting could seriously affect your military career. Gossip about your relationship with your wife could turn into court cases for your children about their inheritances.

Bob: But I think you’re making it sound more sensible that it actually is. Isn’t it true that a lot of duels are just a couple of young drunks with more pistols than brains?

Jo: Formal duellists are sometimes the cream of the nobility.

Bob: Rich and thick?

Jo: Yes, but we can see examples from all sorts of groups: actors, writers, servants, women, MPs, students, lawyers even priests.

Bob: This is an armed society we’re talking about.

Jo: Most people in the first half of the 18th century, say, wear swords and later in the century they own guns. So, if you get in a serious fight, that doesn’t mean a few bruises, you might get run through. A lot. Or shot. Here’s an extract from the diary of Leonard Gillespie, a ship’s surgeon writing at the end of the century.

[A hint of sea sound]

Leonard Gillespie: November 10th (?) 1799. In consequence of a quarrel on board, the surgeon and master of the Bittern met…in the morning to fight, where the former received a ball under the deltoid muscle of the left arm. (ADM 101/102/10)

Jo: Notice anything about it?

Bob: It’s…short.

Jo: That’s probably because it’s the kind of thing that happens all the time. When Samuel Johnson talks about a “highly polished society”, he doesn’t just mean the nobility. He’s also talking about middle class professional types. Duelling is very common in the navy and army and then when people leave they’re much more likely to duel later on.

Bob: But Johnson knows people who don’t fight. Didn’t his friend James Boswell weasel out of five or six duels?

Jo: Different people weigh up an insult differently. Sometimes your friends don’t pile on the pressure. Sometimes the only people who think fighting a duel is a good idea are the two people turning up.

Bob: So why might I have a duel? What would someone have done to me?

Jo: Thrown a glass of wine over you in an officer’s mess. Been mean about a female member of your family or any other woman you’ve ever met. Got too friendly with your wife. Or accused you of being cowardly, that’s quite a good one. That’s what happened to Captain John Sinclair

John Sinclair: That your petitioner, having had the honour to serve your majesty several years as Capt. Lieutenant of the said Col. Preston’s own company…always discharged his duty with loyalty and courage and most particularly in the late Battle of Winnendale. (SP 87/7/100 f.198)

Bob: Wait, Winne-Where?

Jo: It’s a very minor battle in 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession. Ssh. Don’t interrupt.

John Sinclair: That nevertheless Ensign Hugh Shaw of the same regiment and his brother Captain Alexander Shaw…having maliciously and falsely aspersed your petitioner with misbehaving himself in the said action and having in the hearing of several officers uttered diverse scurrilous, false and scandalous speeches against your petitioner behind his back, which, if your petitioner had taken without receiving satisfaction…must for ever have been branded a coward and excluded the society of his fellow officers and all other persons of honour and lived in perpetual infamy. (SP 87/7/100 f.198)

Bob: So that’s the point at which you slap someone in the face with the glove, right?

Jo: It’s a bit more-

Bob: – complicated than that. How did I know you were going to say that?

Jo: There are two ways of challenging someone; the right way and the wrong way.

Clerk of Court: The said Sir John Chichester, baronet…without any just…provocation whatever [called him] rogue, rascal, villain, pitiful justice…and did then and there by all his force and might strike and beat him…upon and over his head with the great end of a whip which he…there had. (KB 33/17/1)

Jo: That’s the wrong way. We’ve got a whole box of cases like that. If you just go out and seriously assault someone they could just have you arrested.

Bob: That seems fair enough. What’s the right way?

Jo: What you’re supposed to do, if someone has badly insulted you, you step back from the situation, decide if it’s really serious and if it is and you really want a duel you should write a challenge. Like this one from the collection:

William Graham: Mr Patersone, I designed to have sent you this line before this time, but there was something came in my way that hindered me. However, I don’t doubt that ye mind pretty well of the treatment you gave me at Glasgow for which I design you should satisfy me. Wherefore I desire you may meet me the morrow morning by eight of the clock at William Simpson’s house…in the Grass market bringing your sword with you. Where you shall be attended by: William Grahame. (SP 34/30 f.141)

Bob: That’s quite restrained. Pretty polite.

Jo: It’s important to try and keep it as nice as possible because in theory, if you’re rude you could insult the other person, they might challenge you back and then it gets really complicated. But lots of challenges were rude or weren’t written down, like you say you can just wallop someone in the face and not necessarily with just a glove. Horsewhips were quite popular.

Bob: Let’s stick with Mr. Grahame and Mr. Patersone. How did that come about?

Jo: There’s a document reporting the trial afterwards that tells us.

Reporter: In the month of October 1708, during the time of Justice Ayre at Glasgow, there happened a scuffle in the street between William Grahame, deceased and Robert Walkinshaw, which drew William Patersone, brother of Sir Hugh Patersone, baronet and other friends on both sides…into the quarrel. Mr. Grahame, alleging that Mr. Patersone had assaulted him from behind did ever afterwards entertain a resentment against the said Mr. Patersone, notwithstanding the repeated endeavours of friends to remove that mistake which appeared to continue by the [coldness?] between them until Tuesday 21st December 1709 when Mr. Grahame sent…a challenge.
(SP 34/30 f.142)

Bob: So William Grahame wanted to have a fight over a fight?

Jo: Yes.

Bob: That’s ridiculous, why didn’t Paterson just say no?

Jo: Apparently he did. A lot. But if your opponent’s very keen it can be difficult, people can accuse you of cowardice, sometimes in the newspapers. If things do get whipped up it can get to point where it’s almost harder not to fight, than to fight. But let’s say you’ve been challenged or received a challenge, what do you do next?

Bob: Find a quiet spot somewhere and fight it out?

Jo: No. Rule one: don’t do anything in a duel on your own. What you need to do is find a friend that you can really count on to organise things and be your second. Someone you would trust with your life.

Bob: Literally. Alright. What do seconds do?

Jo: A good second should try and stop the duel.

Rev. Gilley: [To] The Right Honourable Robert Peel, Home Office. Sir. I am a clergyman and seize a few minutes which are in my power on a Sunday to say that I have…learned that a libel has been published on my brother-in-law Major Hutton of the 4th Dragoon Guards…and that a duel is likely to be the consequence…The publication offending Major Hutton…I have not read but I am told that it reflects much upon the private character of him and my sister, who is his wife…I may have acted ignorantly and mistakenly in addressing this letter to you – if so I have only to regret I have erred because I knew no better method of preventing what I feel to be both in a religious, moral and civil point of view, a great crime. If this letter ought to have been addressed to Bow-Street, I trust you will have the goodness to transmit it – if my name can be kept from Major Hutton I shall be thankful. If otherwise, I shall be content to bear his [ill will] that I may secure him from the committing of a crime against God and a crime against the law of his country. (HO 44/18  ff.428)

Bob: They should shop you to the police?

Jo: No no, sorry, bad example. They should talk to your opponent and the other second and try to reach an agreement about an apology or something like that. William Patersone’s second is Alexander Ruthven.

Reporter: Mr. Ruthven when in the field still pressed an agreement but to no purpose, whereupon Mr. Paterson alighted from his horse to receive the assault and Mr. Ruthven, seeing no possibility of [adjusting] the matter, drew his sword with a resolution to see things fairly done by either party. (SP 34/30 f.142)

Bob: So you’re relying on your second to stop the other side from cheating?

Jo: Yes, the duellists themselves are not supposed to involve themselves in the arrangements. You would be hoping that your second would make sure both guns are actually loaded, for instance, or that you’re not about to just wander off alone into a field in the middle of nowhere and get quietly shot in the back of the head.

Bob: Who’s William Graham’s second?

Jo: Well, he doesn’t seem to have had one.

Bob: This is another one of those things where the practice of dueling doesn’t match the theory.

Jo: Proper duels should have seconds.  Maybe he didn’t have any friends willing to risk prison for him.

Bob: Wait, that hasn’t come up before.

Jo: Let’s be clear: duelling is completely illegal in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Bob: Ah.

[Slight courtroom reverb]

Justice Blackstone: When two persons coolly and deliberately engage in a duel, this being attendant with an apparent intention and danger of murder and being a high contempt of the justice of the nation, [this] is a strong aggravation of the affray, though no mischief has actually ensued.
(WO 43/726A)

Jo: That’s the legal position from the 1760s. It’s illegal to fight a duel or act as a second even if no one is hurt or killed. Of course if they are-

Bob: It’s worse.

Jo: Yes, but in general unless it gets really nasty you’re probably okay. Here at the Archives, we’ve mainly got the records of government and you won’t find here trial documents relating to duels where no one got hurt. We’ve only got the messy ones.

Bob: So if I accept a challenge, how likely am I to get killed?

Jo: Don’t worry. Most duels aren’t fatal. Many of them end with no one being seriously injured and most people who fight duels are not arrested. Or not charged anyway. The Victorian historian John Millingen reckoned that out of over 170 duels in the reign of George III, only 18 duellists went to trial and of those only two were executed.

Bob: And how many people were injured in those fights?

Jo: 48-

Bob: That’s not so-

Jo: -slightly and another 48 desperately.

Bob: Oh.

Jo: There are various ways that people try and cut down the number of people who are killed or injured.

Bob: They’re shooting each other with pistols and fighting with very sharp swords. Tell me, where exactly does the safety aspect come in?

Jo: The swords are very dangerous, which is, although it sounds odd, one of the reasons there’s a move to pistols.

Bob: I suppose it’s quite hard to run someone through just a little bit.

Jo: You might fight to, what’s called ‘first blood’ and the seconds should then stop the fight as soon as they see any sort of wound. In a pistol duel you should take it in turns to fire but if you both fire and miss – and that’s quite likely because you’re not supposed to aim – then the duel should be over. Easy.

Bob: Hang on, go back. You’re not supposed to aim?

Jo: No, It’s considered bad form because the object isn’t to kill the other person. It’s symbolic to show that honour has been satisfied. Of course you might decide to have another round.

Bob: Why?

Jo: It depends how serious the insult is.

Bob: So where does all this happen?

Jo: You want your second to pick somewhere easy to get to (and get away from) but somewhere where you can get some privacy so you don’t get arrested. In London Hyde Park is very popular.  Wimbledon Common, Putney Heath, Blackheath. Close-ish to town.

Bob: You probably don’t want to be too far from a doctor.

Jo: Try and bring one of those with you. They’re supposed to stay slightly out of view so afterwards they can say they didn’t see anything and not get arrested.

Bob: Lucky them. Can they actually deal with bullet wounds in the 1700s?

Jo: Of course. The balls of lead shot often don’t pass all the way through the body so the doctor will extract them for you. Often on the field, without anaesthetic.

Bob: Fun.

Jo: The problem is that clothing can get forced into the wound causing infection. This led to MP Humphrey Howarth’s celebrated “naked” duel in 1806 where he carefully took the field in just his pants. You stand sideways to present a smaller target to whoever’s firing. Though apparently that increases the chance of the bullet piercing more than one organ.

Bob: Nice. If I’m challenged how am I supposed to remember all this stuff?

Jo: That’s easy, buy a book.

Bob: Like a dummies guide to duels?

Jo: Yeah. They explain how to choose a good second, what sort of pistols or length of sword to pick. Deciding who shoots first: very important. Really, really try and get the first shot.

Bob: Good tip.

Jo: An 1830s book tells you how a duelist should prepare the night before the big fight.

A Traveller: That his mind might not dwell on the affair, he ought to invite a few friends to dinner.

Jo: Or, from the 1820’s, what you should wear.

Joseph Hamilton: [Neither party should wear] light coloured clothing, ruffles, military decorations or other very attractive objects upon which the eye of his opponent may rest.

Jo: We’ve already seen, in general, it’s not done by the book. People fight on horseback, from hot air balloons, with knives – but generally it goes like this. You set your affairs in order. You turn up, pace out the distance and then:

[The sound of a stream]

Leonard Gillespie: They met…near the river…with seconds and a surgeon. It would seem that the seconds had made some proposals of an accommodation …but they proved ineffectual and Mr. D’Aragni is said to have been insulted by his antagonist. The latter however gained the first fire but wishing to terminate the affair without bloodshed notwithstanding the injuries he had received and judging that his example would be followed by the other combatant, he [sound of a gunshot – preferably from a flintlock pistol]
discharged his pistol widely into the air, when his enemy, or rather his assassin, shocking to relate, immediately leveling his piece with deliberate aim, [sound of a gunshot – preferably from a flintlock pistol]  lodged the contents  of it in his body, the ball, after passing the arm and thorax lodging itself in the spine…He fell immediately but without the smallest hope of ever rising, such being the nature of his wound that the lower part of his body was fatally paralyzed…His antagonist immediately made off without speaking to the wounded man who instantly desired that his wife might be sent for…He died this morning…(ADM 101/102/10)

Bob: You really need to make that first shot count.

Jo: Firing into the air was something that a few duelling experts disapproved of but it was a legitimate way of resolving things. You turned up, fired, everyone’s honour was satisfied. But if you do that you’ve got to be very, very sure that your opponent will do the same thing.

Bob: What about in a sword duel?

Jo: Let’s hear what happened between Mr. Patersone and Mr. Graham.

[The sound of swordfighting]

Reporter: Mr Graham engaged Mr. Paterson with much fury and after passing of some thrusts Mr Graham received a wound in his right arm which doing perceived by Mr. Ruthven, he struck up the combatants swords and renewed his desires for an agreement, as did Mr. Paterson. But still Mr. Graham insisted for further satisfaction. Mr Paterson, finding himself inavoidably obliged to do his utmost for his own preservation, after passing of some more thrusts Mr. Graham received a wound above the right nipple [?!] [sound stops]
of which he died the next day. So long as Mr. Graham continued master of his reason [and] strength, he owned that he had brought the mischief upon himself and entreated that neither Mr. Paterson nor Mr. Ruthven should be by his friends prosecuted for his untimely and misfortunate death.

Bob: We’re another man down.

Jo: It does happen and when it does, it’s time to leave the country. You should have a carriage or sedan chair waiting to whisk you off to Europe.

Bob: Otherwise it’s a murder charge.

Jo: Yep.

Bob: So if you lose you get shot and if you win you get arrested.

Jo: That’s very much a worst case scenario. Here’s John Sinclair again:

John Sinclair: And the said Ensign Shaw, being since dead of his wounds, whereby your petitioner is become liable to a further prosecution on that account, he was forced for a livelihood to enter into the King of Persia’s service, where he hath been raised to the degree of a Captain and where he still remains in exile, but is desirous of returning into his native country and to serve your Majesty, his only lawful sovereign, as soon as he may be permitted to do it with safety.

Bob: Persia seems like a long way to run.

Jo: Go where the work is, I say. Also Sinclair was actually responsible for the deaths of two people and he killed one of them not in formal duel conditions but by riding up and just shooting him in front of a lot of witnesses and he still expects clemency from the crown.

Bob: Did he get it?

Jo: There’s not a pardon in the file. But there is good news for Mr. Patersone, who tried so hard along with his second not to fight William Grahame.

Queen Anne: Her Majesty of her royal prerogative, mercy and clemency does herby remit and forgive the said William Patersone for the crime of slaughter committed by him on William Graham of Dougalstourie[?] [this] day of December, one thousand seven hundred and nine years. (SP 34/30 f.136)

Jo: And that’s how to win a duel and get away with murder in 1709.

Bob: So what brought an end to this quaint and harmless pastime?

Jo: Lots of things. There were always people who thought duelling was a bad idea.

Leonard Gillespie: [This] barbarous and murderous practice, which, in spite of all laws, human and divine, cuts off with impunity a number of spirited men from society, the sad victims of prejudice of education, the most atrocious in its consequences, repugnant to every principle of civil policy and fostered by the most unchristian pride, vain glory and spirit of revenge. (ADM 101/102/10)

Bob: But a lot of people still think it’s worse to not fight a duel than to fight one.

Jo: Even people who are prominently anti-duelling, like Sir Richard Steele who edited the Tatler and Spectator magazines in the early 1700s often turn out to have fought duels themselves. This is Steele’s attempt at making challenges seem just too stupid to send, published in the Tatler in 1709.

Richard Steele: From my own apartment June 6th. Sir. Your extraordinary behaviour last night, and the liberty you were pleased to take with me makes me, this morning, give you this, to tell you, because you are an ill bred puppy, I will meet you in Hyde Park an hour hence; and because you want both breeding and humanity, I desire you would come with a pistol in your hand, on horseback, and endeavour to shoot me through the head to teach you more manners. If you fail of doing me this pleasure, I shall say you are a rascal on every post in town: and so, Sir, if you will not injure me more, I shall never forgive what you have done already. Pray, Sir, do not fail of getting every thing ready and you will infinitely oblige…your most obedient humble servant, etc.  Richard Steele.

Bob: Did that work?

Jo: No. Here’s a document from the 1820s showing a typical establishment attitude to duelling, a whole century after Steele. A local magistrate on the Scilly Isles has just been tipped off that a duel is about to happen and invited to make an arrest.

John Johns: St. Mary’s, 2nd August 1829. Sir, in answer to your letter this instant received I do not feel myself justified to act in the manner you suggest…Had I information of the parties alluded to actually going out with an intention of unlawfully fighting a duel it would then be my duty, slender as my authority goes, to prevent it. I have the honour to be sir, your very humble servant, John Johns. (HO 44/9 f.13)

Jo: But by the 1840s, the reaction of the local forces is a bit different.

Thomas Dann: On Saturday afternoon the 12th September…about 5’o clock, I saw the Earl and Captain…on Wimbledon Common within 150 yards of my mill…and I saw them exchange shots…The Earl and the Gentleman stood to the best of my knowledge about 12 yards from each other as in the attitude of fighting a duel. I was about 150 yards from them as the first shots were fired and as I was going towards them, they fired a second time. The Earl fired one of the shots and other was fired by someone I don’t know. I then went to them and told them that they must consider themselves my prisoners for a breach of the peace – or something to that effect…I told them all they must go with me to the station house. (TS 11/897)

Jo: This is a duel between the Earl of Cardigan and Captain Harvey Tuckett and they’ve been banged up by a miller moonlighting as a police constable.

Bob: That’s pretty embarrassing.

Jo: This is the decade where the punishment for duelling is increased to transportation to Australia. Also Queen Victoria makes it clear she doesn’t like duelling which cuts duels in the army right down.

Bob: I suppose the country is changing in a lot of ways. Roads and railways and new housing have cut up the countryside outside towns, so there are fewer handy quiet spots to go and shoot somebody in England. Victorians don’t carry swords in the same way as 18th century types. And they’ve invented police.

Jo: If you try duelling from the 1840s on, you find you get bothered an awful lot: by police, by friends, by everyone. There’s just much more of a feeling in society that a violent solution to a problem is wrong. Duelling carries on in Europe but after the 1840s it’s basically died a death in Britain.

Bob: If you want to see a selection of the National Archives documents used in this edition including William Graham’s challenge to William Patersone you can read them now on our website at

Jo: Thank you to our readers Andrew Ashmore, Andrew Ormerod and Gary Thorpe. Next month we’re going to be looking through the National Archives’ very own X-Files to reveal the truth about government records on extraterrestrial life.

Bob: Is the truth out there?

Jo: I’ve no idea, I haven’t read the files yet, but I do know we’ve got loads of UFO reports collected by the Ministry of Defence over more than fifty years and we’re receiving over 150 more files in the next 18 months. We’ll be looking through some of them and asking specialists here at the Archives what records end up here and whether it’s possible for government to deny knowledge.

Bob: That sounds a little weird.

Jo: These are real documents from the collection. What can I say? I want to believe.


Bob: Okay Scully, see you next month.

Jo: Oh, I think I’m Mulder.

Bob: No, I don’t think so.