Dū’ėl, n, &v.1 fight with deadly weapons between two persons, in presence of two seconds, to settle quarrel.
Hounslow Heath once had a fearsome reputation for a wide variety of unsavoury activities, including murder, highway robbery, the general seduction of the innocent and gullible and the execution of assorted miscreants and subsequent grisly exhibition of their corpses. It was also, at a time when individuals settled their differences with swords and pistols, a perfect place for duels. In his admirable history of the area, “And So Make A City Here”, historian G.E Bate notes a couple for our interest…
His first example was fought in horseback on 1st August 1603 between Sir John Townshend, and his kinsman Sir Matthew Browne. Following a disagreement between the two men a challenge was thrown down and accepted and both men rode out to Hounslow Heath to settle the matter with swords. Unfortunately during the fight both men were fatally wounded. Sir Matthew died on the spot and Sir John the following day, 2nd August.
Sir John Townshend was no stranger to the rules and practises of duello. In 1600 he had a falling out with Sir Christopher Heydon, a Member of Parliament and prominent astrologer, who challenged him to a duel. Fortunately for both men they were summoned before the Privy Council before the duel took place and were only released when a colleague, Sir Edward Coke, offered to go bail for Townshend’s good behaviour.
Bate’s second duel on Hounslow Heath can be found in the Domestic State Papers of 1606, and a letter sent by Dudley Carleton, 1st Viscount Dorchester and Secretary of State to his “very loving friend” John Chamberlain…
” The last fray of the times was between two young lawyers who were found both on the ground having each spitted the other with their rapiers, and made themselves friends as they lay, though without strength one to help another.”
Bate does not mention any final outcome.
Our slice of paradise has also provided the perfect setting for a number of fictional duels. One was fought on the towpath between where Twickenham Bridge and Richmond Lock now stand - and carries an attached ghost story…
Another fictional duel is to be found in Charles Dickens’s third novel “Nicholas Nickleby”, published in serial form in 1838 and 1839. It takes place on Ham Meadows between the lecherous Sir Mulberry Hawk and his former friend Lord Frederick Verisopht who was defending the honour of Nicholas Nickleby’s younger sister, Kate…
…After a pause, and a brief conference between the seconds, they, at length, turned to the right, and taking a track across a little meadow, passed Ham House and came into some fields beyond. In one of these, they stopped… Sir Mulberry turned his face towards his young adversary for the first time. He was very pale, his eyes were bloodshot, his dress disordered, and his hair dishevelled. For the face, it expressed nothing but violent and evil passions. He shaded his eyes with his hand; gazed at his opponent, steadfastly, for a few moments; and, then taking the weapon which was tendered to him, bent his eyes upon that, and looked up no more until the word was given, when he instantly fired.
The two shots were fired, as nearly as possible, at the same instant. In that instant, the young lord turned his head sharply round, fixed upon his adversary a ghastly stare, and without a groan or stagger, fell down dead.
‘He’s gone!’ cried Westwood, who, with the other second, had run up to the body, and fallen on one knee beside it. ‘His blood on his own head,’ said Sir Mulberry. ‘He brought this upon himself, and forced it upon me.’
– CHARLES DICKENS “Nicholas Nickleby”
The story continues with evil Sir Mulberry Hawk running away to France where he lives in comfort until his money runs out. He returns to England and dies in a debtor’s prison… which is, perhaps, some kind of justice.
The last duel fought between Englishmen in England occurred in 1845, when James Alexander Seton had an altercation with Henry Hawkey over the affections of Hawkey’s wife, Isabella, leading to a duel at Southsea when Seaton was killed. A few years later Isabella had a romantic liaison with another man!
The last fatal duel to occur in England was between two French refugees, Cournet and Barthelemy near Old Windsor in 1852. Cournet was killed but Barthélemy was acquitted at the subsequent murder trial. However he was hanged three years later for two subsequent killings.
- In 1808, two Frenchmen are said to have fought in balloons over Paris, each attempting to shoot and puncture the other’s balloon. One duellist is said to have been shot down and killed with his second.
- In 1843, two other Frenchmen are said to have fought a duel by means of throwing billiard balls at each other.
- In the 1860s, Otto von Bismarck was reported to have challenged Rudolf Virchow to a duel. Virchow, being entitled to choose the weapons, chose two pork sausages, one of which was infected with the roundworm ‘Trichinella’. He suggested that each should choose a sausage and then eat it. Bismarck reportedly declined. Perhaps he thought Virchow’s proposal was tasteless!
– from Martyn Day