Posts Tagged ‘Dandies & Dandyzettes’


Cassidy Percoco

Inquiring Readers: guest author, Cassidy Percoco, submitted this informative article about duels during the Regency era. Enjoy!

The duel is a staple of Regency fiction, whether classic (Colonel Brandon and Willoughby’s duel in Sense and Sensibility) or contemporary (Bridgerton, of course). It’s tempting to think of it as a literary device, but in fact duels were an accepted aspect of upper-class and upper-middle-class life, though the vast majority of gentlemen never fought or even witnessed one.

The duel had been introduced to England from Italy in the sixteenth century, and quickly spread along with other Italian notions of courtesy and civility. These new ideas, which were coming to replace the older traditions of chivalry and courtly love, would become entrenched and end up becoming the standard for gentlemanly behavior for centuries. Where chivalry had been focused on aristocratic men proving their honor through their behavior toward women (or at least high-born ladies), these new standards included a great deal of focus on men proving their honor in relation to other men – and in theory, all gentlemen, whether nobly born or of the gentry, were equal in this.

The major proof of one’s own honor was being seen to behave civilly toward other men acknowledged as honorable, and having them behave civilly toward oneself. A gentleman’s reputation was of paramount importance, and any action taken by someone else to threaten that reputation – a direct insult made to his face, or a slander made behind his back – was a problem. Being hit by another gentleman or being accused of lying were two insults that were frequently seen as so intense that they required a duel to settle. However, not all provocation was so clearly endangering to the reputation: any argument could theoretically lead to a duel if one or both participants became incensed enough, although most of the time gentlemen made allowances for each other to avoid actually coming to the field over simple mistakes like being jostled in the street, as being too eager to duel could also be a strike against one’s reputation.

If the insult came from a servant, pauper, or tradesman, there was no shame in responding immediately with one-sided violence, but when it came from another man of honor, the most appropriate way to repair the hurt was for both parties to meet in a duel at a later time, and to fight (generally with swords, until the 1780s) to wounding or even death. This required “seconds,” gentlemen who assisted the combatants by acting as go-betweens and arranging the time and place of the duel. But on another level, the second’s assistance was in being a gentleman who provided assurance that a duelist was also a gentleman himself, since engaging in a duel with someone who technically was not eligible would have been shameful. The duel was so associated with the nobility and gentry that the idea of tradesmen engaging in one was seen as very humorous. The London Times printed numerous stories (almost certainly fictional) relating duels held by florists, tailors, and the like, always showing some cowardice or intemperance to prove that dueling was really the province of gentlemen.


Portrait of an aristocratic man. Copyrighted image courtesy of Cassidy Percoco, illustrated by Joanne Renaud.

The British government opposed the practice strenuously, imposing penalties on those who were caught dueling or who intended to duel. Killing a man in the heat of passion (which did apply to some earlier duels) could lead to the reduced charge of manslaughter, but the decision to defer immediate violence in favor of a fight at an appointed time and place later meant that deaths from dueling were considered cold-blooded murder. However, the sovereigns tended to pardon convicted duelists, and there was overall a widespread tolerance for violent behavior on the part of gentlemen, whether aimed at each other or their social inferiors. As long as a duel was considered a fair and honorable attempt to satisfy honor, a duelist who killed his opponent could generally avoid consequences. On the other hand, a duel seen as a malicious attempt to kill someone was not given the same tolerance. For instance, a duel between a Major Campbell and a Captain Boyd in Scotland in 1808 was fought in a closed room with no seconds, and resulted in Captain Boyd being fatally wounded; on his deathbed, Boyd accused Campbell of having rushed him into such an unorthodox duel against his wishes, and as a result, Campbell was actually executed.

512px-thumbnail-Dueling pistols

French cased duelling pistols, Nicolas Noel Boutet, single shot, flintlock, rifled, .58 caliber, blued steel, Versailles, 1794-1797 – Royal Ontario Museum – Public domain image by Daderot, Wikimedia Commons.

By the time of the Regency, pistols were the preferred weapon in British duels. They were seen as more equitable, as they required less training to wield than the sword – while some might be expert marksmen, there was less likelihood of a pistol duel being decided by one participant having greater skill. Pistols could also be fitted with hair triggers to fire before a duelist was necessarily ready, and the terms of a duel often required both duelists to simultaneously bring the firearm to bear and fire in one movement to force the shooters not to aim. While some gentlemen were known to purchase dueling pistols with rifling in the barrel to increase their accuracy, and to practice target shooting to improve their own ability, this was strongly deplored.

What was important for the restoration of honor was going through the formula of the challenge, the seconds’ deliberations, and the shooting: it was not important to actually hit, let alone kill, one’s opponent by the time of the Regency. A gentleman who had been insulted needed to be willing to stand up with a pistol to prove his honor or he might be thought weak, and a gentleman who had given insult needed to allow himself to be shot at (rather than apologize) so as not to be thought a coward. While duels sometimes ran to multiple volleys of fire, an initial exchange of bullets without harm could often satisfy the needs of honor.

Dueling had always been particularly associated with military officers, as men born into the gentry and aristocracy were both familiar with weapons and put a high price on honor, and as a result, there was an increase in reported duels during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, particularly in London and in port cities where troops might be quartered. In the following decades, however, the practice died out in Britain. Tolerance for aristocratic violence decreased, and at the same time, the barriers between rich and poor increased such that there was less need to show “honor” as a conspicuous sign of class. Modern mid-nineteenth-century men were restrained workaholics, not impulsive and dissolute rakes, and they had a respect for official hierarchy and the rules. The duel would be left behind as a relic of a chaotic and romantic past.

Further reading:

Stephen Banks, A Polite Exchange of Bullets: The Duel and the English Gentleman, 1750–1850 (The Boydell Press, 2010)

Markku Peltonen, The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness, and Honour (Cambridge University press, 2003)

Victor Kiernan, The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of Aristocracy (Oxford University Press, 1988)

About the Author:

Cassidy Percoco has been focused on history from the time she was a child. After graduating with an MA in Fashion and Textiles: History, Theory, and Museum Practice from the Fashion Institute of Technology, she embarked on a career in museum collections management, and today she works at the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY. She has previously published Regency Women’s Dress: Techniques and Patterns, 1800-1830, and runs Mimic of Modes Historic Patterns.

all portraits-Cassidy-Percoco

Portraits of roles in Dandies & Dandyzettes. Copyright image courtesy of Cassidy Percoco, illustrated by Joanne Renaud.

A Regency tabletop role-playing game

The topic of dueling is discussed in Dandies & Dandyzettes, a new tabletop role-playing game for one to many players now being funded on Kickstarter. In Dandies & Dandyzettes, players can step into the past and become anyone they can imagine, from a duel-hungry officer to a lady-in-waiting to the queen to a Cheapside lawyer and his family. The book also works as a detailed guide to the world of Regency Britain, from honor ideologies to the specifics of how to send a letter. 

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: