John Selden on duelling

There have been many books written over the years regarding the art of duelling and fencing, from the Walpurgis manuscript circa 1300, now held at the Royal Armouries, Leeds, through to 19th and 20th century treatises detailing its evolution into the more familiar sport. Held within the printed books collection at Lambeth Palace Library are a series of pamphlets and books purporting to inform the reader about the correct way of managing oneself in a duel, the correct form, and its long history. Here we shall look at one of the earliest, published in 1610. This is a rich and interesting subject and one well served by the vibrant and eclectic collection held at Lambeth Palace Library.

(P)45.C 13.04 title page

The duello or single combat from antiquitie deriued into this kingdome of England, with seuerall kindes, and ceremonious formes thereof from good authority described [reference: (P)45.C 13.04] concerns itself not only with the correct forms and approach to duelling but also its history. Written, according to the introduction, in 1610 by John Selden and reprinted by William Bray, this book aims to tell the history of duelling and its proud tradition. Its author, John Selden, was a well-known lawyer and historian and was heavily involved with, if not fully supportive of, the Parliamentarians during the Civil War. Interestingly enough he was appointed to take control of the clerks and keeper of the records in the Tower during the Interregnum and was instrumental in creating what we now know as the Parliamentary Archives.  In this work Selden balances his work between legal duels, that being duels to decide legal matters, and private duels, that being matters of honour or quarrels. He was interested in their history, provenance and evolution. He was writing at a time when judicial duels were still part of proceedings and the procedures of the criminal appeal were still supported by a ‘wager of battle’. Indeed, a judicial duel in 1631 was only stopped from going ahead by Charles I.[1]

In this book, as in others, appeals are made to ideas of honour and antiquity. Throughout Selden’s book the duel is presented as not only a right but a sensible and logical way to solve cases and disputes. He argued that due to its finality and clear outcome it is preferable in the most serious situations. As a result, much of the text is concerned with the question of intricate legalities and precedents.

(P)45.C 13.04 preface.jpg

That being said, attempting to read this work as an accurate description of the descent of duelling, or an accurate account of its historic evolution, is akin to reading Livy, Saxo or Herodotus. Some of what he says is somewhat historically accurate, but it is probably by mistake. The purpose of this history is to support his argument, through references to antiquity and the Bible. See for example the influence of French law on the development of English duelling; there was, according to Selden, none – it was derived from the Normans and hence Scandinavia. This is of course entirely inaccurate. As an amusing aside, this insistence on a distinctly English and manly or worthy style of combat can be seen throughout English writing of this time; see for a particularly pertinent example the fencing manuals of George Silver.

The exact manner of this legal duel is laid out in the book. Once both parties have agreed to the duel a surety is given: ‘Defendants for performing his defence by his body’ and ‘Appellants for deraigning [arranging] the battell’. Once the appointed day arrives they ‘arraying themselues in conuenient armes’ [dress themselves appropriately]. To ensure that both parties attend ‘the Defendant [has been] continually remayning [remaining] in safe custody’. The combatants take each other’s hand and recite:
This heare you whome I holde by the hand, which say you are called by the Christian name of Iohn that I Peter such a yeare, such a day and place, (as is expressed in the Appeale) did not feloniously cause, nor compasse the death (if the appeale bee of murder) of Thomas your father (brother, or &c.) nor did to this felony assent as you haue before supposed, so GOD shall mee helpe and the Saintes.

To which the Appellant replies:
This heare you whome I hold by the hand, which say you are called by the Christian name of Peter that you are forsworne, and therefore for sworne, because such a yeare, such a day, and in such a place, you did felloniously with mallice prepensed, with such a kinde of weapon giue a deadly wound in such a place of the body of Thomas my father, whereby hee dyed within one houre after as I haue before said against you, so helpe mee God and the Saintes.

As you can see there is a certain formality and form attached to this; there is a clear statement of what happened, to who, and how. Of note if the loser of the duel survived in addition to being judged guilty of the crime they were also considered guilty of perjury.[2]  Following this the combatants are detained and forbidden from speaking to one another until the combat.

Click here for a 14th-century image from the Brabant Chronicle, showing two men duelling. The work of Hans Talhoffer also gives an idea of how combatants may have dressed, for example solo longshield or duel between a man and a woman.

When it comes to the main event, Selden has us put aside images of knights in armour or the interchange of blades. “They are to fight, saith Britton, their heades vncouered, handes and feete naked, with two bastons tipt with horne of one length, and euery of them a quadranguler shield without other weapon”.

Early trials by combat did indeed allowed a variety of weapons, particularly for knights. This seems to have been the preferred choice, particularly for commoners or lower orders. They were allowed a rectangular leather shield and could be armed with a suit of leather armour, bare to the knees and elbows and covered by a red surcoat of a light type of silk called sendal. This took place on a designated duelling ground that was typically sixty feet square. The combat was to begin before noon and be concluded before sunset.

In practice, each of the parties facing trial by combat was assisted by a second, often referred to as a squire. The role of the squires was to attend the battle and to arrange the particulars of the ceremony. Over time, squires would meet and resolve the disputes during negotiations over combat. Ample time was made for this by creating a process for checking the saddle and bridle of horses for prayer scrolls and enchantments (it is worth noting here that he is speaking of historical practice; however, for a Puritan Selden shows a remarkable lack of issue with the more talismanic aspects of Christianity) and requiring litigants to exchange gloves  and sometimes to go to separate churches and give five pence to the church.

The fullest account of a duel that appears in the book is that of John of Ansley, Knight, against  Thomas Catrington, Esquire, of Treason, viz. ‘that hee for a great sum of mony yeelded vp the Castle of S. Sauiours in the Isle of Constantine in France to the French, when as hee might well haue defended it, hauing sufficient of all prouision’. We are told that a day was appointed, and the duel was to take place at Westminster.

‘An exceeding conflux of people was from all parts of the kingdom. A little time after [the accusers enters the square], the defendant is thus demanded. Thomas of Catrington defendant, appeare to defend thy cause, for which Sir Iohn of Ansley Knight and appellant hath publiquely & in writing appealed thee. and thus thrise by an Herehault [herald]. At the third proclamation, the Esquire appeares mounted on a steed [bearing the arms of Thomas, who, when hee approached the lists, dismounted himself. The Esquire entring the lists on foote, the constable & Marshall produce a certaine Indenture made before them, by consent of the parties, conteining the articles of the accusation, which were there publiquely read. Catrington began to offer exception at some of them, thereby thinking to haue some-what extenuated the blottes [stains] laide on him. But the Duke of Lancaster seeing him in delayes, with an oath openly menaced him, that vnlesse according to the Duello-lawes hee would admitte all in the indenture, which was drawne by his assent, as free from beeing taxt for insufficiency of forme, hee should bee presently drawne and hanged as a traitor. Wherevpon the Squire ceased from his exceptions, and entended onely the Combat. Sir Iohn Ansley, and after him this Catrington, tooke oath of the truth of his cause, that hee was free from all vse of Art Magique, that he did not carry with him any hearbe, stone, or other kinde of experiment of Witchcraft, as hoping thereby for victory. The Combat it selfe followes betweene them. First Launces, then Swords, afterwards Fauchions are their weapons. The Squire had still the worst, euen untill Ansley, although with some hazard and doubt, got the adiudged victory.’

Following this is a description of the roles of judges, constables and marshals and their place in antiquity. Again, there is more interest here in accounting and providing precedent for their use than any real historical inquiry.

This is accompanied by detailed descriptions of how private suits might result in a judicial duel largely revolving around rights of inheritance and land possession. This is a much shorter section discussing briefly the manner of the fights and the ceremony surrounding them.

This work of Selden was written at a very interesting time. Over the next few decades all of the old certainties of the previous generations would be overthrown. It is very much a work looking backwards not only in its subject matter but in its approach to history. Much of the work quotes from Geoffrey of Monmouth and presents a fanciful history of an ahistorical past. The practice of duelling, specifically judicial duelling, was very rare when this book was written, although it was not taken off the books until the 1800s. The work captures a view, possibly a nostalgia, for a simple time.

Click here to see a historical recreation from the pages of Hans Talhoffer showing a judicial duel between a man and a woman from the 15th century.


[1] Toomer, G. J. John Selden : A Life in Scholarship. Oxford-Warburg Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
[2] Low, Jennifer A. Manhood and the Duel : Masculinity in Early Modern Drama and Culture. Early Modern Cultural Studies. New York ; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

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