As Prime Minister, the most compelling point of Wellington’s term was the question of Catholic Emancipatoin, the granting of almost full civil rights to Catholics in the United Kingdom. The change was forced by the landslide by-election win of Daniel O’Connell, an Irish Catholic proponent of emancipation, who was elected despite not being legally allowed to sit in Parliament and whose election prompted tempers to flare all around. The Earl of Winchilsea (George Finch-Hatton, 10th Earl) accused the Duke of having “treacherously plotted the destruction of the Protestant constitution” by publishing such in a newspaper of the day called The Standard. Wellington uncharacteristically responded by immediately challenging Winchilsea to a duel. On 21 March 1829, Wellington and Winchilsea met on Battersea fields. When it came time to fire, the Duke took aim and Winchilsea kept his arm down. The Duke fired wide to the right. Accounts differ as to whether he missed on purpose; Wellington, noted for his poor aim, claimed he did, other reports more sympathetic to Winchilsea claimed he had aimed to kill. Winchilsea did not fire, a plan he and his second almost certainly decided upon before the duel. Honour was saved, restored, etc. and Winchilsea wrote Wellington an apology. However, whether they loathed him or loved him, all those who knew Wellington were shocked that he had gotten himself involved in a duel. Everyone wanted details of the event; very few got them.
We are fortunate enough to glean the full details of the duel in the form of a report known as – Dr. Hume’s Report To The Duchess Of Wellington On The Duel With The Earl of Winchilsea. Hume was surgeon to the Duke of Wellington and head of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Saturday, 21st March, 1829. “Les moindres circonstances deviennent essentielles quand il s’agit d’un grand homme.'” (“The lesser circumstances become essential when it comes to a great man.'”)
|Sir Henry Hardinge
In consequence of a note which I received last night from Sir Henry Hardinge, requesting my attendance on him at an early hour this morning, I repaired to his house in Whitehall Place at a quarter before 7 o’clock, where I found that he was engaged as second in a duel, and desired that I should accompany him to the field. Sir Henry did not inform me who the parties were, but he mentioned that they were persons of rank and consequence, and begged of me particularly to keep near him on the ground, that I might witness everything that took place, and be able to testify how anxious he had been to prevent this meeting, and what his efforts still were to avoid bloodshed. He then told me he was obliged to mount his horse in order to find his friend, and requested me to step into his carriage, which was waiting in readiness, and would convey me to the place where my attendance was required.
|Old Battersea Bridge by Walter Greaves
I got immediately into the carriage, which drove through the Green Park, by Pimlico, along the King’s Road, Chelsea, over Battersea Bridge, and stopped about half a mile on the other side of the river, at a point where the two roads cross each other at the foot of the hill. Here I alighted, and was looking about to see if any one should make his appearance, when, to my astonishment, I perceived Sir Henry Hardinge and the Duke of Wellington riding towards me. The Duke rode suddenly up to me, saying in a laughing manner, “Well, I dare say you little expected it was I who wanted you to be here.” I was overwhelmed with amazement and so greatly agitated that I could scarcely answer him; but I put on as steady a countenance as I was able, and replied, “Indeed, my Lord, you certainly are the last person I should have expected here.” He said, “Ah!
perhaps so; but it was impossible to avoid it, and you will see by-and-by that I had no alternative, and could not have acted otherwise than I have done.” Sir Henry Hardinge, who was a little behind the Duke, then came up, and, after a few words of common conversation, they rode to the top of the hill, going to the right and to the left, as if looking out for their opponents. They returned in a short time to the carriage near which I was walking, and, requesting me to take out a case of pistols I had brought with me and to follow them, they turned down the cross road on the left, which runs parallel to the right bank of the river, looking towards London.
I took the pistols out of the case, carrying them in my hand with my great coat thrown over my arm to conceal them, and proceeded along the road till it opens, after you pass a small farm-house, into an extensive plain, called, I believe, Battersea Fields, having left directions with Sir Henry’s coachman for the other parties to follow when they should arrive.
The Duke and Sir Henry again rode some little distance up the height, and seemed looking out for those they expected; and having laid the pistols in a field behind some broken hedges, I continued walking quietly along the path to avoid attracting observation.
I had not been long in this situation when I perceived two gentlemen issue from the narrow road, whom I immediately recognised as my Lord Falmouth and my Lord Winchilsea. Sir Henry Hardinge and the Duke turned their horses at the same instant and came towards them. Sir Henry got off his horse and saluted Lord Falmouth and his friend; but the Duke kept at a little distance, although he also dismounted from his horse. Recollecting Sir Henry’s request, I joined him with the two Lords and walked along with them.
Lord Falmouth, a
s we turned through the gate into the field where I had laid the pistols, on the left of the path towards the river, said, he hoped he had not kept Sir Henry waiting, but that his coachman had by mistake driven them to Putney instead of Battersea Bridge. Sir Henry said, “Oh, no; it is no matter.” Lord Falmouth then begged to know if he had received and read a certain paper he had sent or left for him. To which Sir Henry answered that he had got the paper, but had not read it, and made some remarks on the little necessity, as it appeared to him, for coming to this extremity. Lord Falmouth seemed agitated and very much affected, and said nothing had ever given him so much pain; but he found it impossible to act otherwise than he had done.
We had during this conversation proceeded further into the field, the Duke accompanying us at some little distance, and had got near the hedge at the opposite end of it, when we perceived some people at work, which made us turn off to the right and leap a small ditch to get into another field, where we were less likely to meet with interruption. The Duke went on by himself, Lord Falmouth, Sir Henry, and I, remained at the bank near the ditch, Lord Winchilsea being also near the bank, but at a little distance from us.
I placed the pistols on the ground, and said to Sir Henry, “As you have only one hand, perhaps you would permit me to load.” (1) To which he replied, “Certainly, if Lord Falmouth has no objections.” He then gave the pistols to Lord Falmouth to examine, and, having afterwards returned them to me, I loaded one, and was proceeding to load the second, when Lord Falmouth said, “Will not one be sufficient?” I replied that I thought it might save trouble afterwards, and loaded that also, and was going with them towards the Duke, who had been joined by Sir Henry Hardinge, when he (Lord Falmouth) called to me to look at the manner in which he loaded. I answered carelessly, “You may load, my Lord, in any manner you please,” and went on. His Lordship, however, seemed a good deal agitated, which I observed on turning round, and therefore I went back and offered to load for him; but he had at length succeeded in getting the ball into the mouth of the pistol, and rammed it home. He thanked me politely, and whilst I stood beside him till he had finished priming, etc. (he only loaded one pistol), he stated again most earnestly his regret at the circumstances which had led to this meeting, and the painful situation he was unavoidably placed in. I said to him, “But surely, Sir, it might have been prevented? Could not you have prevented it? Is not Lord Winchilsea entirely to blame? As for the Duke, I know so well his discretion and temper in all great matters that I am certain he could never either say or do anything to offend or to hurt any man’s feelings whatever.” Lord Falmouth replied, “I do not say whose fault it is, but, I assure you, it cannot be settled without this meeting.”
We went together towards the Duke and Sir Henry, who were further in the field, when Sir Henry proposed measuring the ground; and, having fixed upon a spot, he said to the Duke, “Have the goodness to place yourself here, Duke;” and then stepped off twelve paces towards the ditch, near which Lord Winchilsea was standing, followed by Lord Falmouth, who also paced the ground, making a mark with the heel of his boot when he came to the spot where Sir Henry had halted. Lord Winchilsea came forward and placed himself upon the spot marked, but as I heard him observe that Lord Falmouth had placed him between two trees, I said, “Oh! you may stand where you please, my Lord, either a little more to the right or to the left;” and accordingly he moved two or three steps to his right, when Lord Falmouth came up and began stepping again, to ascertain that the distance was still correct.
Sir Henry then took one of the pistols from me, and, placing it under his arm, he went to about halfway between Lord Winchilsea and the Duke, where he stood still, and, taking a paper from his pocket, he called on Lord Falmouth to come near him, and Lord Winchilsea to pay attention whilst he read it aloud. The purport of what Sir Henry said was that he took that opportunity of protesting in the strongest manner against the necessity of pushing this affair to the extremity to which it had been urged. He reminded and warned both Lord Falmouth and Lord Winchilsea that they alone must be answerable for the consequences which might result from this meeting; “and,” said he, “if I do not now express my opinion to your Lordship in the same terms of disgust I have done in the progress of the affair, it is because I wish to imitate the moderation of the Duke of Wellington.” After the protest had been read Lord Winchilsea said something in a low voice, of which I heard only the words “rather strong language.” Lord Falmouth seemed much affected, and replied (I think with tears in his eyes) that nothing he had ever been concerned in had given him so much pain as the conduct he had found himself obliged to pursue upon this occasion; but although he entirely disapproved of the publication of the letter, which, indeed, was indefensible, what he had done was unavoidable, and that, when everything was over, he was confident even Sir Henry Hardinge would do him justice. He referred again to some paper he said he had sent to Sir Henry, and I think he again asked him if he had read or seen it. To which Sir Henry replied, “No;” and, if I recollect right, he added, “Indeed, my Lord Falmouth, I do not envy you your feelings.” Sir Henry then said, pointing to some people who had collected at the end of the field and were looking on, “we had better take our ground; the sooner this affair is over the better,” and went up to the Duke, who had remained all this time on the same spot without speaking a word, but with a smile of good-nature upon his countenance, which displayed on this occasion all that calm mildness of expression which, at times, contrasts so strikingly with the manly firmness and determination of his character, and gave him the pistol, which the Duke took and cocked. Lord Falmouth at the same time gave his pistol to Lord Winchilsea, and he and the Duke remained with them in their right hands, the arm being extended down by their sides. Lord Falmouth and Sir Henry then stepped back a few paces, when Lord Falmouth said, “Sir Henry, I leave it entirely to you to arrange the manner of firing.” Upon which Sir Henry said, “Then, gentlemen, I shall ask you if you are ready, and give the word fire, without any further signal or preparation;” which, in a few seconds after, he did; saying, “Gentlemen, are you ready? fire!” The Duke raised his pistol and presented it instantly on the word fire being given; but, as I suppose, observing that Lord Winchilsea did not immediately present at him, he seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then fired without effect.
Part Two Tomorrow!
(1) Hardinge lost his left hand by shot during the Battle of Ligny on June 16, and thus was not present at Waterloo two days later. Wellington afterwards presented him with a sword that had belonged to Napoleon.