As a duel is the thing that set off all of the important things in ‘Restoring the Earl’s Honour’ (and, in fact, the very same duel also set off all of the important things in Book 7, Finding the Duke’s Heir), I thought that I would provide some
information on duels today.
A duel makes a great plot device for a book – but what were they really like?
From today’s perspective, they seem a rather crazy idea, but in the Regency
era, they were regarded as still reasonable, under some conditions. So – lets
look at some facts.
- Duels were illegal – completely so, but that didn’t stop hot headed young men.
- Duels might be fought with swords, rapiers or guns
- The minimum number of people who were supposed to be at a duel for it to be regarded as correctly done was 6 – the two contenders, a man to support each of them (called a ‘Second’), a man to count the paces and call for them to fire or have at each other, depending on the weapon type, and a doctor, who was supposed to patch up any damage done (assuming that it was not fought to the death….) there might be others present, but not often, unless, as in my story, there was a group of young men who were all friends of the combatants.
- Generally, duels were to first blood drawn, and that was enough to satisfy honour. With a sword or rapier, that was fairly simply to do in a way that was not too damaging – a scratch was enough. But with guns, it depended on whether both men thought that the other intended their death or not. If one feared that the opponent wanted you dead, shooting him first was your only option – if you were quick and accurate enough. If you were a good shot, you could attempt to shoot him in the arm or leg such that he had a good chance of survival unless he got a bad infection.
- Duels happened when one man challenged another, because either his own, his family’s or a woman’s honour had been besmirched by something that the other man had done or said, which the speaker would not apologise for.
- If a man had sufficiently badly impugned someone’s honour, and the insulted party (or closest related or attached male to the insulted party if it was a woman insulted) did not challenge them, or at least threaten to, then that person was seen as being weak and not honourable themselves – so it was rather a trap situation for all concerned.
- In theory, women never witnessed duels, even if their honour was what the duel was about. In practice, it is highly likely that sometimes they did manage to get to where they could see it.
- Duels were usually held at dawn, or just before dawn, so that there was half light to see by, but very few people were likely to be around to interrupt or call a law enforcement person of any kind to stop it. For the ton, who often went to bed at 3 or 4 in the morning after Balls etc, and did not get up until midday, dawn was the time when a person was least likely to be seen by anyone else.
- If a man did kill another in a duel, it was legally murder, and the wisest thing to do was to leave the country. Whilst the aristocracy had a solid level of protection from arrest, murder was going a bit far, and the dead man’s family might well pursue the case. In cases where someone died, and it was believed (whether that was true or not – perception is everything) that the man killed had actually had the right of whatever the dispute was, the Second was often wisest to leave the country as well, at least for some years.
- Duels were becoming rare in the Regency as the world moved more away from swords and more towards guns (with their greater risk of death), and as the concepts of honour were shifting in some ways.
- Women over whom a duel was fought tended to feel both flattered and horrified. There were, however, known to have been a few women who encouraged such things, getting a twisted thrill out of it – I guess that there are people like that in any era.
So – is any of that a surprise to you? Have you read any books that feature a duel, where you now think that it was presented incorrectly? Imagine living in a time when your man was expected to defend you against insults and harsh words in such a way – I think it would actually be rather tedious, myself.