The hero and the villain face each other at dawn in some woodland clearing or quiet heath, far from the notice of the local magistrates. Their seconds confer with quiet seriousness about the weapons – pistols or rapiers. A doctor, reluctant and grumbling in the cold morning air, waits by the carriages.
It is an affair of honour of course – an accusation of cheating perhaps, or an insult to a lady. Both men are calm and show no fear: if they have been lying sleepless most of the night while they mentally review their wills they show no sign of it.
The print to the left, from the Sporting Chronicle, shows the hero, calmly awaiting the shot of his opponent who appears to be holding a pistol in each hand. The waiting man is stripped to the waist in order to prevent cloth being carried into any gunshot. The doctor peers nervously from the cover of a tree above, the seconds stand by and a carriage waits in the distance.
But was it really like that? Perhaps it was sometimes, but often duels arose out of misunderstandings or drink and resulted in tragedy. The last duel fought in Norfolk was on 20th August 1698. Sir Henry Hobart of the great Elizabethan house of Blickling Hall called out Oliver le Neve over words le Neve was supposed to have uttered when Sir Henry lost his parliamentary seat in an election.
Le Neve denied having said the offending words but, despite being left-handed and considered much at a disadvantage in a sword fight as a result, he was quite prepared to defend himself. His letter to Sir Henry survives –
I am very sorry that I was not at Reepham yesterday when you gave yourself the trouble of appearing there, that I might not only have justified the truth of my not saying what it is reported I did, but that I might have told you that I wrote not that letter to avoid fighting you but that if the credit of your author has confirmed you in the belief of it, I am ready and desirous to meet you when and where you please to assign. If otherwise, I expect your author's name in return to this that I may take my satisfaction then, or else conclude the Imputacon [sic] sprung from Blickling and send you the time and place; for the matter shall not rest as it is though it cost the life of
They met on Cawston Heath. Le Neve was wounded in the arm but he ran Sir Henry through the stomach and he died the next day at Blickling Hall in great pain. Le Neve fled the country and lived under a false name in the Netherlands, but when he heard he was being threatened with outlawry he returned, stood his trial for manslaughter and was acquitted in 1700.
The duel is commemorated in the Duelling Stone (above) which stands in what was the garden of the Woodrow Inn beside the road to Norwich - a memorial to wounded pride.
At least Sir Henry was the aggressor in this and refused to listen to le Neve’s protestations of innocence. An even more tragic memorial is a tombstone in the old churchyard of Sawtry St Andrew, next to the old Great North Road in Huntingdonshire.
James Ratford. 25th Day of June 1756. Aged 37 years.
Near to this stone, who’ere you art, draw near
In Pity drop One pious, friendly Tear;
Far from His native Home, He lost His life,
By One who seem’d His Friend, Ill timed strife.
The best of Husbands; to His Children, dear,
Courteous to all, and to His Friend, Sincere.
Resigned to his Fate, well may the Wretch feel woe
While He in endless Bliss and Pleasure go.
The local archives confirm that this was a duel. James was far from his home in Leicestershire. What had happened between him and the friend to whom he had been so “sincere” to result in the death of the best of husbands and a dear father?
These two real-life tragedies haven’t stopped me writing about duels if they fit into one of my novels, but they have made me pause and think about the truth behind the dashing image of duellists at dawn.
What do you think? Is a duel a good opportunity to see the hero at his courageous best, or would true valour lie in walking away?