The Code Duello (Part II: Deloping & The Role of Seconds)
Prior to the Irish code of 1777, (see my previous post for Part I of this study), some duels involved the custom of ‘deloping’. This is the term used to describe the practise of discharging one’s weapons into the ground or the air, instead of aiming at one’s opponent. It was employed when two friends were attempting to resolve a dispute in which honour was involved, but neither gentleman wished to intentionally wound the other.
These kinds of confrontations acquired the reputation of a ‘false’ or ‘dumb’ shooting. The British authorities were more than willing to allow the aristocracy their fields of honour and turn a blind eye to their duels, but allowing them to discharge their firearms in so irresponsible a manner was another thing entirely. The Code drawn up in 1777 made it very clear that deloping did not, and could not, satisfy the honour of anyone. One of the roles of attending a duel as a gentleman’s ‘second’ was to ensure that a dumb shooting did not occur.
A ‘Gentleman’s Second’:
A gentleman duellist usually attends his duel with at least one ‘second’, although three are traditional. The third man may be a personal physician, or friend with enough medical training to assist the gentleman, should injury arise to his person.
The gentleman’s second is required as a witness that the duel did, in fact, take place. He is also there to ensure that all 26 formalities required by the Irish code are upheld, along with any other terms agreed to by the participants.
Non-appearance for a duel to which one has been challenged or is the challenger, marks a man a coward, but it does occasionally occur that such a non-appearance is unavoidable during wartime. Should such an outcome occur, the gentleman’s second may take his place on the field of honour. Naturally, a non-appearance that may be avoided is not an acceptable excuse for leaving one’s honour undefended, nor does it oblige a gentleman’s second to step up. A gentleman’s second is also required to keep the details of the incident to himself, lest the duellists come to the attention of the law.
As can be seen, attending a duel in the capacity of a ‘gentleman’s second’ is no minor favour. The ‘second’ is either in the trusted employ of the duellist (as a personal valet, for example), or he is one of the finest compatriots imaginable. As many duels occurred between officers in the military during the Napoleonic Wars, it can be imagined that such warm bonds of mateship may indeed unite men who face out the horrors of battle together.
By the Victorian era, duels had ceased to become the popular way for settling matters of honour. In 1867 the publication of the Marquess of Queensberry Rules encouraged pugilism as the means for doing so. Bare knuckle boxing was found to be less dangerous to a gentleman’s person, less likely to end in death or arrest, and therefore more easily implemented. Amateur bouts of fisticuffs were not illegal, and an ‘amateur bout’ soon became code for a fight between gentlemen on a point of honour that need not be explained. These contests did not require a ‘gentleman’s second’ and the fewer in the secret, the better.
One can imagine valets throughout England sighing with relief at such an advance.