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  • Writer's pictureClyve Rose

The Code Duello (Part I: The Rules and The Field of Honour)

Duels arrived in England from the continent in the early 1600s, most notably from Italy. The practise evolved from notions of honour that were carried forward from medieval times. Despite repeated attempts to outlaw the activity, including a law passed in the mid-1600s that applied the death penalty to any men caught duelling, duels grew in popularity, particularly among officers of the British military.

In the 17th century, King James I ordered his Solicitor General (Francis Bacon) to prosecute all attempts at duelling among the peerage. The King also issued an edict in 1614, ostensibly banning duels. While the bans and royal disfavour led to over 200 prosecutions for duelling between 1603 and 1625, the penalties were relatively light as the Sovereign preferred not to risk the ire of his lords.

By the time of the English Regency, a duel was the accepted mode for settling a dispute in which a matter of honour was deemed to be at stake. Beginning with the military before extending to the aristocracy more generally by the 1780s, duels were even known to occur among doctors and members of the legal profession. This was despite duels being deemed technically illegal.

In 1777, a set of ‘rules’ was formally drawn up in Ireland. These 26 specific ‘codes of conduct' were often kept in a gentleman’s pistol case, in case he needed reminding. In England, pistols replaced swords as the preferred weapons for duelling during the Regency era. However, the form of one's challenge remained more or less the same as in medieval times:

The Challenger announces to his peers a personal grievance against The Challenged. The specifics of the offense are not necessarily detailed in public – particularly if it involves one’s ‘domestic affairs’ (and most especially if it involves a lady’s reputation).

The Challenged may issue a public apology or offer other reparation (often financial) – or he can choose his weapon.

The Challenger then has the right to decide the location for the duel, termed ‘The Field of Honour’.

The Challenged may agree to this, or propose an alternative locale.

The Field of Honour:

This is no small matter. The Field of Honour has to be accessible, and ideally away from any place where arrest might be likely. Islands in rivers, or disputed jurisdictional lands were often chosen. Dawn was often the preferred time, as the rising mist veiled the participants.

Local constables sometimes designated specific fields for duels, making a point of avoiding those patrols. (It must be remembered that police law was in its infancy, and many constables relied on the local peerage for their livelihood.)

The Terms:

The conditions for each specific challenge are known as the Code Duello, and they vary from encounter to encounter. This is because once the challenge is issued, the specifics are decided by the individual parties.

The Challenger has the right to decide the terms of the duel itself. For these, he has the following options:

1. To first blood: The duel is ended as soon as one man draws blood from another. These kinds of duels are often considered unsatisfactory as regards matters of honour. A challenger who accepts such an outcome risks being deemed a coward.

2. To disable: The duel is ended only when one or both men are physically unable to continue with the duel due to their injuries.

3. To the death, or à l'outrance: The duel is considered ended when one or other party is mortally wounded (and/or, actually deceased).

The Challenger may end the duel at any time, once he feels his honour is satisfied.

Part II follows on from the above, detailing the all-important role of a gentleman’s ‘second’.

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