Most of us have an exciting tale, passed down through the generations, that shapes our family’s view of itself. We might live boring, humdrum lives, but a bit of excitement is added by the “fact” that one of our ancestors was a highwayman, or a high-class courtesan, or made some other mark, even a disreputable mark, on history.
James Landale’s family has a more solidly based claim to such fame than most, for his ancestor, an otherwise apparently dull Scottish businessman, fought the last known fatal duel in the nation’s history. But all the family history could tell him about the drama came from one single, small newspaper cutting, a summary that raised more questions than it answered.
And so, intermittently over ten years, Landale set out to uncover the real story, much helped by the manuscript of the evidence of the resulting trial, which was fortuitously collected by one of the lawyers involved. He also found the very pistols used in the duel, in a corner of the small museum in Kirkcaldy.
But Landale sought more than just the individual tale, fascinating as it was. He also wondered why this was the last such clash. So as he follows the days leading up to the meeting of the 40-year-old David Landale, a sober linen trader and merchant, and George Morgan, the hot-head former army officer turned banker, in a muddy, misty field near the North Sea in 1826, he looks back over the history of the duel.
That takes him back to the medieval tales of trial by ordeal – including the wonderful account of the “duelling” greyhound, which avenged his murdered master. He wanders around the continent, tracing the social differences that led it to stick to cold steel, while British increasingly – and eventually almost exclusively – used pistols.
On the Continent, duelling remained the preserve of the aristocratic class, which still formed the military upper class. So it was that in 1794, when a young French officer, Captain Dupont, was ordered by his general to tell a fellow captain that he was not welcome at a ball, the two came to fight a duel with naked steel. The second man, Fournier, was seriously wounded by a sword thrust, and immediately demanded a rematch. So it came, over 19 years, that they fought regular duels – signing a contract that they would fight any time they came within 100 miles of each other. (Their story was made into a movie by Ridley Scott, called, logically enough, The Duellists.)
Only two under-employed aristocrats, one feels, could dream up and persistently follow through such a caper. In Britain, however, with its growing empire and spreading commercial wealth, the duel spread widely through society, well into the middle classes. Most of these combatants had never been trained with the sword – to try to wield one would be to provoke ridicule, and a quick but nasty death should your opponent be better prepared. This social change also led, as Landale outlines, to a whole industry in printed guides for duelling, for those not brought up with the requisite etiquette. And complex it was indeed, as Landale and Morgan, and their reluctant seconds, demonstrated.
One problem was the status of Morgan; he had been an army officer, but was he a gentleman? Then there was the nature of the conflict. The two had clashed initially when Morgan and his brother, joint agents of the Bank of Scotland, had suddenly refused Landale credit, threatening his commercial standing, his very name in the community, without which no merchant could continue. He’d then written a letter of complaint to their superiors in London. This was a commercial dispute; should it really be settled in a military manner, or taken to the rapidly developing civil courts?
The fact was that society was changing so fast that this looked less like an inevitable stage in a conflict between two men, and more like an anacronistic farce. (This was not helped by the fact that one of the surgeons called to assist the combatants had apparently had to attend in his slippers, since his wife had hidden his boots in a bid to stop him attending, for fear of the legal consequences.)
But getting to that point there was much palaver and confusion, until finally Morgan decided to provoke Landale by striking him in public, which could only have one result. (Although his second later told him he’d got the etiquette wrong, and should simply have directly challenged the merchant to a duel.) Landale describes the scene:
The morning of Tuesday August 22 1826 broke cold and damp, rain coursing down on Kirkcaldy’s townsfolk as they scurried to work…. So when George Morgan strolled down the High Street at 10 o’clock for his morning newspaper, he for once was carrying an umbrella rather than his usual cane. He entered James Cumming’s shop, selected a paper and engaged ‘in a little conversation’ as he rummaged in his pocket for a coin. But as he turned to leave, he spotted David Landale passing by outside. He did not hesitate. He rushed out the door and struck David violently across the shoulders with his umbrella.
‘Take you that, Sir!’ he cried.
David staggered back in shock. He had not seen George coming and took the full force of the blow on his shoulders. But, gathering his wits about him, he ran quickly into the shop, before Morgan could get in another blow.
“Mr Cumming, I hope you observed what passed’ he asked the bookseller. Cumming said he had indeed seen it all. But George Morgan was not yet done. He followed David inside. ‘By God, Sir, you shall have more of this yet!’ he yelled and moved forward to strike David again.
Furious at the indignity of this sordid fracas, David exclaimed: ‘I have never got such treatment in my life!’ and ran out before the banker could assault him again. George Morgan made chase but returned to the shop a few minutes later.”
The reader can imagine a Prussian aristocrat shuddering with horror at the scene and the class of the opponents. But now it was that the two men had to meet on that muddy field the next morning. The book is written so that – if you don’t cheat by looking ahead – you won’t know which man walked away from the field and which died there, and I won’t spoil that.
After the trial that followed, Landale then follows the duel to its final end – via two British army officers in India who “duelled” by sharing a darkened room with a lethal snake; one died a few hours later in agony, the other’s hair turned white with shock. He finds it, more or less, on the killing fields of First World War Europe. After that, the whole concept of personal honour or death came to seem meaningful, he concludes.
This is a highly readable book, providing a highly digestable mix of individual and social history covering more than 1,000 years, from the birth of the practice of duelling to its entirely welcome death. It is hard to find anything to criticise, although I would have liked a few footnotes to source some of the great tales for future reference.
* Declaration of interest: I used to work with James on The Times; he’s now a BBC politics correspondent. Useful fact: Kirkcaldy is pronounced kir caw day, for no good reason anyone I met there could explain. I’ve provided the Amazon UK link in the post because the book is not available on American Amazon.
Find more reviews of history books on My London Your London, together with theatre, gallery and museum reviews.