The Duel Fought by the Duke of Wellington and the Earl of Winchilsea
Updated: Apr 4, 2022
On 21 March 1829, the Duke of Wellington and Earl of Winchilsea fought a duel at Battersea Fields in South London.
At this time, the Duke of Wellington was Prime Minster of Great Britain and Ireland, and his Tory Government had passed the Catholic Relief Bill. This act was represented the legislative move towards Catholic emancipation, and a section of the legislation would allow Catholics to take a seat in parliament.
Wellington (who had been born in Dublin) had not initially been a supporter of Catholic Emancipation, but the fear of rebellion meant that changed his views on the subject – clearly, he was a pragmatist.
Conversely, The Earl of Winchilsea was a staunch Protestant, and he accused ‘the Iron Duke’ of ‘an insidious design for the infringement of our liberties and the introduction of Popery into every department of the State’.
Winchilsea had written a letter expressing his dissatisfaction with Wellington’s religious policy. Once Winchilsea accepted authorship of this letter, the Duke ‘demanded a retraction,’ which was then refused. Wellington demanded ‘reparation’ for so unprovoked an insult – leading to the Saturday morning meeting at Battersea Fields.
The duel took place at 8am on Saturday 21 March at Battersea Fields, South London. Wellington was accompanied by his second Sir Henry Hardinge, whilst Winchilsea’s second was Edward Boscawen, first Earl of Falmouth.
The physician, John Hume, attended in case of injury and subsequently sent a detailed report to the Duchess of Wellington:
“Lord Falmouth … 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 farther 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 wide without effect.
Lord Winchilsea did not present his pistol at the Duke at all, but I cannot be quite positive as I was wholly intent on observing the Duke lest anything should happen to him, but when I turned my eyes towards Lord Winchilsea after the Duke had fired his arm was still down by his side from whence he raised it deliberately and holding his pistol perpendicularly over his head he fired it off into the air….”
News of the duel was met with shock, with some newspapers carrying censorial reports. Jeremy Bentham was moved to write to the Duke the following day:
“Ill advised man ! Think of the confusion into which the whole fabric of the government would have been thrown had you been killed, or had the trial of you for the murder of another man been substituted in the House of Lords to the passing of the emancipation bill !”
Generally, however, Wellington found that this event enhanced his reputation and he was praised in various accounts for his:
The Duke later received a letter from the Earl, which stated how the latter had ‘given the Duke of Wellington the usual satisfaction for the affront he conceived himself to have received from me.’ The Earl went on to apologise for having charged the ‘Noble Duke’ ‘with disgraceful and criminal motives.’
Despite the affair causing ‘the most alarming reports,’ The Duke of Wellington went calmly on with his business, returning to Downing Street and thence to Windsor where he reported the day’s events to the king at the time, George IV.