Funny how when you are looking for one thing, you are so often distracted when you happen across something far more intriguing. Today I was scouring the FCO web site for something on the King’s Messengers (more on this in due course), when I came across the story of a duel between two senior cabinet ministers, in 1809.
George Canning was Foreign Secretary in the Duke of Portland’s Cabinet and Viscount Castlereagh (pictured) was the minister in charge of war. These two grandees had opposing view on how best the army should be deployed, Canning favouring Portugal and Castlereagh wishing for His Majesty’s forces to be sent to the Netherlands.
Ostensibly friends, Castlereagh discovered that Canning had been plotting with Portland to have him removed from the cabinet. Outraged, he challenged Canning to a duel. And so, on 21st September, the two men faced each other on Putney Heath. Canning had no combat experience of any sort, whereas Castlereagh was pretty handy.
During the first round, both duellists failed to harm his opponent. Canning had the next shot, and missed again. Castlereagh then wounded Canning in the leg, bringing matters to a close. There was widespread outrage that such prominent men should be settling matters of national import through duelling; both protagonists were obliged to resign from office, although naturally they eventually returned to public affairs, although Canning only after his old enemy had killed himself in 1822.
Other high-profile duels during this period include William Pitt the Younger v George Tierney (1798) and the Duke of Wellington v Lord Winchelsea (1829)
There is a quite recent book about this incident: The Duel by Giles Hunt.