“Are those your fingers on the ground or are you just unhappy to see me?” Smallsword fight to the death, early 18th century

Duels look so pretty on the screen and in paintings. But sometimes, the dying that was done was not quite as pretty.

Especially when two men engaged who wanted to make sure the other was carried off the field feet first…

(From Steinmetz, Andrew   The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries, London: Chapman and Hall, 1868, p. 163ff; vol. I)

The Duel between the Duke of B— and Lord B—

About four in the morning his Lordship waked, and got softly up, without (as he thought) being observed; and dressing himself, buckled on his sword, and fixing two agate flints in his pistols, charged them; but recollecting that the Duke’s second would probably desire to see them loaded, he drew the cartridge.

By this time the General was awake, and observing his Lordship taking a book out of his pocket, he thought it improper to interrupt him. His Lordship then kneeled down at a small jasper table, and seemed to pray with great devotion for a quarter of an hour, often repeating, just loud enough to be heard, the errors of his youthfuk days, and fervently supplicating the Almighty not to impute them to him; after which he awoke the General, adding, that as the morning was cold and rainy, he did not wish to delay his Grace.

By the time they were accoutred, De Lee requested to view his Lordship’s sword, when he examined the point and handle most cautiously, and then returned it, adding, that he wished it was going to be employed in a cause more serviceable to his country. His Lordship replied, that it could be matter of little consequence, let the event be what it would. On their departure, the General desired to know if there was anything he was desirous to communicate, upon which he placed in his hand a letter, addressed to the Right Honourable the Countess of E—, desiring that he would deliver it to her when alone, and not upon any consideration to put it into another hand.

They arrived somewhat before the appointed time, and took several turns from the tree to the lodge, his Lordship several times expressing surprise at his Grace’s delay, though it was not more than two minutes beyond it.

His Grace then arrived, attended with one second only. He bade his Lordship good morning, and hoped he had not waited for him too long; then, pulling out his watch, said he had hit it to a point, adding, that he would rather die than break his promise upon such an occasion. His Lordship returned the expression, and said, that, though the had waited a little, there was sufficient time left to dispatch the business they were upon. To which his Grace replied, the sooner it is dispatched, the more leisure there will be behind. In the interim the seconds were pairing the swords, and each one loading his adversary’s pistols. They then agreed to the following terms, namely:—

1. That the distance of firing should not be less at each time than seven yards and a half.

2. That if either should be dangerously wounded on the first discharge, the duel should cease, if the wounded person would own that his life was in the hands of his antagonist.

3. That between the firing and the drawing swords there should be no limited time, but each should endeavor to make the first thrust.

4. That if either should yield, as in the second article, during the engagement with swords, whether by a wound, a false step, or any other circumstance, then the engagement should cease.

To which four articles both assented. His Grace stripped off his coat, which was scarlet, trimmed with broad gold lace, when his Lordship’s second stepped in to unbutton  his Grace’s waistcoat, to see justice done to the cause he had espoused; on which, with some indignation, his Grace replied, —”Do you take me to be a person of so little honour!”

The same ceremony was performed on his Lordship, who had already pulled off his coat, which was crimson, with broad silver lace; and both the combatants being ready, Lord B— added, —”Now, if it please your Grace, come on.”

His Grace fired and missed; but my Lord B—, perhaps from more experience, and knowing that battles were seldom won by hasty measures, deliberately levelled at him, and wounded his Grace near the thumb.

They both discharged again, when his Lordship received a slight wound in his turn. On which they instantly drew their swords, and impetuously charged each other, each of them seeming rather to mediate the death of his adversary than to regard his own safety.

In the first or second thrust Lord B— entangled the toe of his pump in a tuft of grass, and, in evading a lounge from his antagonist, fell on his right side, but, supporting himself on his sword-hand, by inconceivable dexterity, he sprang backwards, and evaded the thrust apparently aimed at his heart.

A little pause intervening here, his Grace’s second proposed to his Lordship a reconciliation; but the ardent thirst after each other’s blood so overpowered the strongest arguments and reason, that they insisted to execute each other forthwith, whatever might be the consequence. Nay, the anger of his Grace was raised to such a pitch of revenge, that he, in that irritated moment, swore if, for the future, either of the seconds interposed, he would make his way through his body.

Then, after all remonstrances had proved ineffectual, they retired to their limited distances; and perhaps one of the most extraordinary duels ensued that the records of history can produce, fairly disputed hand to hand.

The parrying after this interval brought on a close lock. In this position they stood, I dare say, a minute, striving to disengage each other by repeated wrenches, in one of which his Grace’s sword got caught in the guard of his Lordship, which circumstance his Lordship overlooked, so that this advantage was recovered by his Grace before the consequence which it might have brought on was executed. At last, in a very strong wrench on both sides, their swords sprang from their hands. I dare say his Lordship’s flew six or seven yards upright.

This accident, however, did not retard the affair a moment, but both seizing their weapons at the same time, the duel was renewed with as much malevolence as ever. By the time his Lordship had received a thrust through the inner side of sword-arm, passing forward to the exterior part of the elbow; his, at the same time, passing a little over that of his antagonist: but, cleverly springing back, I think partly before his Grace had received his push, he ran him through the body a little above the right pap.

His Lordship’s sword being thus engaged, nothing was left for his defence but a naked left arm; and his Grace being in this dangerous situation, yet had fair play at almost any part of his Lordship’s body, who barely put by several thrusts exactly levelled at his throat, till at last, having two fingers cut off in defending the pushes, and the rest mangled to a horrible degree, his Grace lodged his sword one rib below the heart, and in this affecting position they both stood without either being able to make another push.

Each of them by this time was in a manner covered with blood and gore, when both seconds stepped in and begged they would consider their situation, and the good of their future state; yet neither would consent to part till, by the great loss of blood which his Lordship had sustained, he fell down senseless, but in such a position that he drew his sword out of his Grace’s body.

Recovering himself a little before he was quite down, he faltered forward, and, falling with his thigh across his sword, snapped it in the middle.

His Grace, observing that he was no longer capable of defence or sensible of danger, immediately broke his own sword, and fell on his body with the deepest sigh of concern, and both expired before any assistance could be got, though Doctor Fountaine had orders not to be out of the way that morning.

Note: Steinmetz claims to have copied the account from a manuscript in the possession of one Mr. Goodwin, “author of the Life of Henry VIII“, speculates that this story is “pure invention”. His point of contention: “I cannot well see how, with his body spitted by his Lordship, as described ‘a little above the right pap,’ and consequently inferring a home thrust to the very hilt, his Grace could either be able to use his sword, or have ‘fair play at almost any part of his Lordship’s body.’ If poignards had been mentioned, one might understand it a little better; but really, after the previous struggle, either this case proves that human endurance, under pain, is illimitable (…) or that the narrative is a mere broadsheet concoction for a sensational purpose. It is utterly incomprehensible how his Grace, being spitted as aforesaid on the right, could possibly ‘lodge his sword one rib below the heart’ of his Lordship—that is, on the left. Doubtless such a feat would produce, as the narrative says, an ‘affecting position;’ but I cannot conceive how it could possibly be performed under the circumstances described.” (p. 169.)

Steinmetz’s doubts appear somewhat artificial. He himself recounts Sir Edward Sackville’s 1613 duel with Lord Bruce, where both participants received very similar injuries—yet continued until Sackville fainted and Bruce collapsed. (For the complete story, see the Prelude to The Secret History of the Sword.)

The injuries received by his Lordship become clearer to understand if you picture both opponents locked in a close corps-à-corps, with the Duke’s sword pushing upwards rather than thrusting, with the hand in low quarte position. The sawing motion of the blade, which his Lordship desperately tries to keep from tearing into his throat by grabbing it with his bare hand, is responsible for slicing off his fingers, and then lodging under a rib on the left side of his body. Given the anatomical characteristic of the ribcage—namely, that the ribs overlap to provide a protective shield against frontal impact and hits from above, an upward ripping push with the point would indeed have ample opportunity to lodge in the intercostal space.

One response to ““Are those your fingers on the ground or are you just unhappy to see me?” Smallsword fight to the death, early 18th century

  1. Robert Wrightson

    Would this be the 1712 duel between the Duke of Hamilton and Lord Mohun in Hyde Park?

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