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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Regency Duels

In England, dueling was part of a long-standing code of honor, far beyond a mere tradition. Gentlemen took their dueling very seriously; they would rather die than be dishonored.

Does your heart go pitter patter just at the sound of that? Mine sure does. How many man that honorable do you know? Okay, maybe we'd call it misplaced pride, but hey, that was a different world with a different set of rules.

The procedure for issuing a challenge was very specific. A gentleman never challenged a social inferior. For instance, a gentleman of significance with ties to the aristocracy or nobility would never challenge a commoner, such as a blacksmith or a farmer. Also, if there was a significant age difference, the duel would not be extended.

If they were socially equal, or at least similar, the gentleman who was offended would tell the man who’d wronged him that he should choose his “second,” a close friend or family member who would look out for his best interests. If he was really incensed, he might slap him with his glove, but that was considered extreme and beneath gentlemanly behavior, as it was the ultimate insult and probably resulted in a fight then and there.

After the verbal challenge – or perhaps warning would be a better word – was issued, depending on the severity of the offense, the other might have a choice; he could either apologize, or he could accept. Sometimes, the apology would not be accepted, often if there were a third person who’d been wronged.

The next day, supposedly after heads had cooled, the wronged man who wished to duel would send his “second” with a written letter challenging the duel. The other may chose to apologize or accept the challenge. If accepted, he would choose swords or pistols and name the time and the place.

When the allotted day arrived, they met, probably in a remote place where they wouldn’t be caught by the law, and the seconds inspected the weapons to be used. A final opportunity for an apology could be given. If not, the seconds decided if the duel should be fought to (a) first blood, or (b) until one can no longer stand, or (c) to the death. Once that was decided, the opponents dueled and the seconds watched to insure that nothing dishonorable happened.

If one of the duelers becomes too injured to continue, occasionally the second would step in and duel. Sometimes, the seconds were hot-headed and ended up dueling each other as well.

By the Regency Era, dueling was outlawed. However, duels still happened more frequently than many people knew. The problem was, because courts were made up of peers, they were reluctant to charge another peer with murder as a result of a duel. There is a case where one nobleman was charged with murder and tried, but used the defense that his behavior was gentlemanly and honorable, meaning that he acted within the proper code of conduct. He was acquitted by his peers.

As horrible as it sounds to our modern selves, these gentlemen took their honor very seriously, and considered death preferable to living with the label of a coward, a label that would follow them and their families for years.

And, maybe it’s me, but there a certain romance about a gentleman brave enough and protective enough to be willing to risk death defending my honor from another man who’d besmirched it.

A duel is what leads to all the trouble for my hero in my newest book "The Stranger She Married" and causes events he wishes desperately he could change, especially when the duel goes awry and causes pain to an entire family.

I'm sure glad my husband isn't likely to try it...


Judi said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Donna!

Joyce DiPastena said...

Fascinating post, Donna. Did you know, though, that originally the "seconds" fought each other alongside the main duelers? I learned that from reading The Three Musketeers, which was set well before the Regency era. I'm not an expert in either time period, but it's fun to pick up tidbits wherever I can. ☺

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