One of the more curious books held in the Lambeth Palace Library collection is entitled ‘The only approved guide through all the stages of a quarrel: containing the royal code of honor; reflections upon duelling; and the outline of a court for the adjustment of disputes (ref: C51.6/H18)  by Joseph Hamilton, published in 1829.


Here, writing at the height of private duelling, Hamilton’s intent is to show not only the danger and lethality of the practice but also to coach a ‘gentleman’ in how to avoid being challenged and how to de-escalate the conflict if a challenge is issued. His overriding concern is private duels and how to not only comport oneself but how to change their public perception. Whilst by this time the view on legal or judicial duelling had changed, it being banned in England in 1810, private duelling was still widely practised. Even though it was legally considered murder if someone died, the courts rarely sought prosecutions. On page 34, for example, Hamilton refers to the work by James Gilchrist, ‘A Brief Display of the Origins and History of Ordeals’, who recounts 172 duels, with 63 people killed and 96 wounded. Of these only 18 survivors of these duels were sentenced in any way (this ranged from a shilling fine and 12 months in Newgate to transportation to Botany Bay for 14 years).[1]  Hamilton’s book lists the various forms of challenges that people made, as well as the reasons, and the response. He explains the rules of engagement or how to comport oneself as well as the role of seconds and observers, noting all the time the dreadful dangers that such people expose themselves to. The book is probably even more useful in the lists and examples that it provides of violations of these rules; people whom the author says act without honour, but one suspects are acting out quite common behaviour.


Before we come to the duels in the book it should be said that the introduction is a quite spectacular example of one of my favourite bits of early modern publishing. This being the deep unease, although less so than earlier periods, of being seen to publish a work for money. It may have been acceptable for hacks but it was not something a gentleman did. And so the book starts with a long winded justification for his desire to produce a code for duelling, his extensive submissions of the manuscript to the finest literary, political, and military characters of the age, and only after being assured of the approbation was he moved to publish.

The author of the book is very much set against the practice of duelling and having failed in attempts to ban the practice he is set in this book to try to limit or soften the outcome. The society in which he lived was, according to this work, one in which a gentleman might, for the slightest offence, be challenged to a deadly combat. He writes quoting a London editor that ‘Duels have become so common that we cease almost to hear of their immediate causes’ continuing ‘it is deemed by those who record passing occurrences, quite sufficient to say, that a meeting took place between two gentlemen’. Whilst one is tempted to accuse the writer of hyperbole – the book is by its nature polemical – between 1785-1800 there are surviving accounts of 206 duels in London alone.[2] This only accounts for those mentioned in the relevant pamphlet literature and only those in London. Many took place in the greens outside the city so the number is by necessity higher: for example the Irishman Sir Jonah Barrington states that 227 duels were fought during one year.[3] By the 1830s these duels were still a popular pastime and it is this light that Hamilton attempts to set out a codified system in which chivalry and justice can be served whilst avoiding duels.

This is reflected in the first rule ‘No duel can be considered justifiable which can be declined with honour, therefor an appeal to arms should always be the last resort.’ Of note, this ruling is supported by the author’s claim that, because these rules have been sanctioned by the commander of the British army and a great many worthies that he quotes in the front of the book, anyone who attempts to deviate from the rules can be considered not to be a gentleman and the matter referred to a court of honour. The book continues, laying out rules for who can offer a duel; the offended party; how to apologise with dignity; who can take part. Judges, jurors, literary editors, can all refuse in order to preserve their ‘perfect independence’. It offers rules on when to resort to the law, on occasions of violence or abusive treatment. There are rules as to how to act if one gentleman ‘unfortunately assaults’ another, whereon you are meant to apologise and give the other person a stick or a horsewhip.

Many of the rules are concerned with how to pick a second and ensure that he too is a ‘gentleman of honour’ and his duty to promote reconciliation between the two parties. It is also his duty to pick the time and place, preferably close to ‘surgical assistance’ and without too many obstacles over which to carry your friend’s body. He is also responsible for rejecting an ‘extravagant proposition’ for example that the duellist should ‘fight across a table, or at handkerchiefs length or hand to hand; using daggers, knives, rifles, blunderbusses’.

By the time we reach rule 40, and there are more to come, we have moved on to how to ensure the fairness of the duel. That any advantage of ground should be decided by tossing coins, no ‘boast, trick, threat, or stratagem that may wound the feelings of the combatants’ may be used. For example, you may not wear eyeglasses unless you habitually wear them. There are rules saying that if fighting with pistols you should never fight by highways, hedges, or the ridgeway of fields as the lines can provide references for aiming making the duel more dangerous.

Finally, his rules state that you must never abandon the wounded duellist in the field without securing a proper conveyance for him as gentlemen should always leave with the same dignity as when they arrived.

Having lain out rules for duelling and attempting to limit their effect the author is then interested in showing that contrary to popular belief, engaging in duels is neither a fair nor honourable thing. It is interesting to note that whilst providing examples of humorous or polite ways people have refused duels ‘Your behaviour last night has convinced me you are a scoundrel; and your letter this morning that you are a fool. If I should accept your challenge, I should myself be both’. He still paints the picture of a violent society; the letter continues that the gentleman carries ‘a sword to prevent assassination and to chastise insolence a cane’. This is a recurring feature in these responses. Some ask to make things right and that it was never their intention to offend (page 27). Some refuse due to God and duty (page 26). But they all say how they make sure to carry a sword in order to defend themselves. The author seems to take no issue with this interestingly.



To show the inherent unfairness and dishonourable nature of duelling, after pointing out that some people can fight and shoot much better than others, the author makes an interesting statement. ‘Duels for private quarrels were so repugnant to common sense that they were not practiced by the Greeks or Romans or other civilized nations of antiquity’. It appears that there were no duels in England until the reign of Henry VIII and it is a custom borrowed from the French. Referring back to the previous blog post on duelling regarding the book by John Selden one gets a very different view. There duelling, albeit primarily court duels, did not only have nothing to do with any French tradition being firmly Scandinavian in origin. It also had a long and proud tradition in history, particularly Greek and Roman. As was said before neither position is historically accurate and neither author would necessarily take that as a damning criticism. Apparently after all true honour has been the same in all ages and is not changeable on the fashions or opinions of mankind. Nothing ahistorical here.

The answer proposed to the difficulty of how one resolves such cases without duels is a peculiar one. Hamilton suggests that a series of ‘Courts of Honour’ should be set up throughout Europe. He offers to be the registrar of such a court, until a suitable gentleman can be found. This court would then settle all questions on the point of honour. He does go into some detail on how this system might work, who should form its ruling board, and how votes on submissions, written only, should be decided. These courts do have historical precedent and for a far more detailed study see ‘The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness and Honour’ by Markku Peltonen. There were pamphlets written against such courts claiming that they encouraged the underlying theory of courtesy and took duelling theory seriously.[4]

Such a court, he says, should exist in every city, shire, and county town throughout the empire to prevent duels arising from trifling cases. In aid of this the final, and largest, part of the work is concerned with recounting nearly one thousand accounts of quarrels and duels. The intention is to use them as precedents in such a court and to enumerate the various causes of duels. There are too many to provide a full account here but the work is well worth reading for anyone interested in this subject matter – both as a social and cultural phenomenon that would disappear within a few decades and as an account of how people thought about their culture and history; an example of the arguments and appeals that would sway a contemporary audience.


[1] Gilchrist, James P. 1821. ‘A Brief Display of the Origin and History of Ordeals: Trials by Battle; Courts of Chivalry or Honour; and the Decision of Private Quarrels by Single Combat: Also, a Chronological Register of the Principal Duels Fought from the Accession of His Late Majesty to the Present Time’. Printed for the Author.

[2] Shoemaker, Robert B. “The taming of the duel: masculinity, honour and ritual violence in London, 1660-1800”, ‘The Historical Journal’ 45, no. 3 (2002), pp. 525-45.

[3] Hurley, John W. 2007. ‘Shillelagh: the Irish fighting stick’. Pipersville, PA: Caravat Press.

[4] Peltonen, Markku. 2006. ‘The duel in early modern England: civility, politeness and honour’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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