At Turin Castle in County Mayo two men had a duel which ended in the accusation of “willful murder” and a self-imposed exile.

Duel in the Crown

Ritualized single combat is ancient in origin. There are accounts of Greeks and Romans meeting in deadly conflict. It was common practice for Celtic and Viking warriors to issue challenges “mano a mano” to rival champions on the battle field. But it wasn’t until the arrival of feudalism with its accompanying chivalric code for Knights did the volatile mix of honor and  testosterone collide so explosively. Feudalism was a stratified hierarchical system which insured loyalty and military support for the Monarch . It was inextricably linked to land ownership. Typically, a King would grant parcels of land to heavily armed horsemen or Knights in return for their military service and their direct loyalty to him. The tradition of “trial by combat” would become lavishly ritualized underpinned by a chivalric code which would help to ensure that it remained a preserve of the Nobility.

Feudalism albeit in a diluted form would help maintain the social status quo and trial by combat in the form of dueling would persist, although technically against the law, as the last resort for a Gentleman of honor up until the 19th century.

In 1748 on the 21st January a duel was fought near Turin Castle in Kilmaine, County Mayo at a place known as Musicfield. John Brown (5th Baronet) had challenged Robert Miller of Millford House (Gentleman) to a duel. The outcome would lead to an accusation of ‘willful murder’ of Robert Miller and the self-imposed exile of John Browne. By the mid-18th century dueling was common amongst the Irish Nobility and Gentry, with Dublin at its epicenter. Custom made dueling pistols had become highly prized status symbols for any self-respecting Gentleman and Dublin gun makers were amongst the best in the World.   The Aristocratic Browne family had been Roman Catholic and John Browne had “stepped over” and embraced Protestantism on the occasion of his marriage to Margaret Dodwell in 1722.

Duel purpose

The  cause of the Duel arose from an objection from Robert Miller who had refused Browne admission to an exclusively Protestant drinking club ’The True-Blue Club’ of KIlmaine on account of Browne’s earlier allegiance to Roman Catholicism, specifically, to prohibit anyone who had a Catholic Grandfather from joining. Browne issued a formal objection to the prohibition which was hand delivered by James French, Browne’s second, with a proviso that if Miller’s response was unfavorable, French would inform Miller that Browne would meet him beside the turlough (seasonal lake) at 2 o’ clock that day.

Turin Castle, County Mayo.

Turin Castle, County Mayo.

Miller’s appointed second was Robert Lindsey of Turin Castle who arrived at the chosen hour with Miller. Browne was a popular character in the area and arrived with a retinue of armed supporters, one of whom James McDonough was a Petty Constable. It was rumored at the time that if Browne had been unsuccessful then his followers who apparently had concealed themselves from view would immediately avenge their Champion.  After a vain attempt at reconciliation the two parties separated. Browne with pistol in each hand suddenly paced forward and without warning, wheeled around firing once, then twice. Miller returned fire on Browne’s first shot which failed to hit the mark but was hit in the right of the stomach by the second pistol blast. Browne then very ungallantly threw one of his pistols at the wounded man then leapt on his horse and rode off.  Miller soon followed, managing to mount his trusty Steed Hobnob and as tradition dictated, even managing to jump the main gate at Milford before collapsing and being carried into the house. Miller died some four days later.

Browne now full of remorse wrote three letters to Robert Lyndsey at Milford expressing his profound sorrow for what he had done and offering his hope for Miller’s recovery. Browne admitted to using home-made slugs which he had melted down, reasoning that it “may give some insight to his Surgeons” it was possible that Browne may have used conjoined slugs, as a source mentions, bullets found chained together. Miller was buried alongside his faithful Horse Hobnob, under the communion table in the Protestant Church in Kilmaine.

On the 27th January a verdict of willful murder was returned, and a process of outlawry was issued against Browne who had disappeared after the duel. In January 1749 he reappeared surrendering himself for trial in Dublin at the Court of King’s bench.  The trial in April of that

year resulted in Browne being acquitted of the charge of murder but guilty of manslaughter. The result was a popular outcome and reportedly there were celebrations in the streets of Dublin. The apparent  highly politically charged atmosphere surrounding the trial may have had a marked  influence on the sentence: “ John Browne Esq. was burnt in the hand, at the bar of the King’s Bench and ordered into confinement for six months for killing Robert Miller Esq”.

Duels rules OK!

It was probably because of the shambolic nature of the Brown – Miller duel and others like it that prompted calls for the introduction of a regulatory code. This transpired in 1777 at the Clonmel Summer Assizes  when the Code Duello was introduced by the Gentlemen of Counties Tipperary, Galway, Mayo and Roscommon and prescribed for general adoption throughout Ireland. The Code consisted of 26 rules comprehensively detailing with etiquette, weapon choices, topography etc. For example: Rule 5: As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among Gentlemen no verbal apology can be received for such an insult. The alternatives, therefore- the offender handing a cane to the injured party to be used on his back at the same time begging pardon, firing on until one or both are disabled; or exchanging three shots, and then asking pardon without proffer the cane, if swords are used, then parties engage until one is well bloodied, disabled or disarmed, or until, after receiving a wound and blood being drawn the aggressor begs pardon.  Rule 10 states ‘Any insult to a Lady under a Gentleman’s care or protection, to be considered by one degree, a greater offense than if given to the Gentleman personally and be regulated accordingly’  Rule: 14 states ’Seconds to be of equal rank in society with the principals they attend inasmuch as a second may choose or chance to become a principal, and equally is indispensable.’

The Code Duello would be universally adopted and was even recognized by the U.S. Navy who incorporated the code into the Midshipman’s hand book! It was only abandoned in 1862 when dueling amongst officers became a serious cause for concern.

Dueling had permeated the very upper echelons of 19th century society on both sides of the Atlantic; serving Vice President Aaron Burn and the first Secretary of the Treasury  Alexander Hamilton met on the field of honor observing the Code Duello in July 1804. Hamilton was a seasoned Duelist and the chosen ground near Weehawken New Jersey was a popular venue for such disputes, disturbingly, it was also the same spot where Hamilton’s son had met his death defending his Fathers honor in 1801! This may have pricked his conscience as one version of the incident recalls that he fired harmlessly into the air. However, Burr shot Hamilton in the stomach and Hamilton expired the following afternoon with the bullet still lodged in his spine. Another version maintains he fired and missed. Burr returned to Washington where despite being charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, was never tried but resumed his duties enjoying the immunity of his office.

Dueling Damsels

The practice of deadly combat was not just a manly preserve. There are recorded incidents in history of Woman upholding their honor in bloody ritual confrontation; In 1792 Lady Almeria Braddock met Mrs. Elphinstone in the so called “Petticoat duel” The Duel which was fought very publicly in London’s Hyde park emanated from a conversation where Elphinstone had questioned Lady Almeria’s true age. The subsequent exchange of pistol fire, resulted in damage to the venerable Lady’s hat, the duel however continued by sword, only ending after Mrs. Elphinstone received a wound to her arm acquiescing then to delivering a hand written formal apology.        

In 1815 Daniel O’ Connell, The Great Irish statesman and architect of Catholic Emancipation   reluctantly accepted a challenge to meet John Norcott D’Esterre at Bishopscourt in county Kildare. D’Esterre a Dublin Corporation  Alderman and former Royal Marine Lieutenant was reputed to be a crack shot. Dublin Corporation was a fiercely Protestant organization and it was believed at the time that D’Esterre who was nearing bankruptcy, was encouraged by his colleagues to challenge their nemesis, O’Connell after he had delivered a speech which described the corporation as “beggarly”. On the 2nd of February ,the two protagonists met in a secluded part of the Bishop’s court estate; The seat of the  powerful Ponsonby family, dynastic Whig politicians who had dominated Irish politics for generations. De’Esterre after stating that he had no animosity towards Catholics whatsoever took the prescribed 10 paces and fired. His shot, unexpectantly was way off the mark. O’ Connell returned fire hitting his assailant in the groin. D’Esterre was immediately attended by two surgeons. Initially it was not believed that the wound would be a mortal one but unfortunately two days later D’Esterre died, his Surgeons unable to stem the flow of blood.

Put your Dukes up!

The Only Irish born British Prime minister; Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington would also seek satisfaction, by meeting George William Finch - Hatton 10th Earl of Winchilsea and 5th Earl of Nottingham, on the field of honor. The duel took place on Battersea common close to the river Thames in March 1829. Wellington who was also Prime Minister of Ireland and head of the Tory Government had recently passed legislation that would allow Catholics to take a seat in Parliament. This seemingly Pro- Catholic stance so angered the rabidly Protestant Earl that he publicly accused the old warhorse of ‘an insidious design for the infringement of our liberties and the introduction of Popery into every department of the State’. Wellington’s response was swift and curt he would seek satisfaction unless the slur on his name was retracted. As no such retraction was forthcoming  the two antagonistic  aristocrats agreed to meet at the appointed time of  8 am on Saturday. The Duke’s second was an old comrade, Sir Henry Hardinge,1st Viscount, Secretary at War, veteran of Waterloo who having only one hand had to seek the help of  the attendant physician, John Hume to load the Duke’s pistols. Winchilsea arrived late accompanied by his Second, Edward Boscowen ,1st Earl of Falmouth. Having assumed their allotted positions, they waited for the command “Fire!”. The Duke fired first, narrowly missing the motionless Earl who stood ’steady and fearless’ ,Wellington a notoriously bad marksman maintained that he had deliberately missed his opponent. To the undoubted surprise of the old Duke and the growing crowd of onlookers, in a typical gesture of submission known in the dueling fraternity as delopement. Winchilsea raised his firearm vertically over his head discharging it harmlessly into the air. It would appear that Winchilsea had planned an extremely precarious  course of action which would allow him to exit the field with his honor intact, as a written apology was immediately  presented to Wellington and Hardinge. After some deliberation and rejection and under threat of a re-match. Winchilsea agreed to amend the apology commensurate to the Duke’s demands.

Prior to this encounter Wellington’s Ministerial fortunes had been waning, his soubriquet “Iron Duke” alluded not to his military or leadership qualities but to the fact that his unpopularity had necessitated the  fitting of  iron shutters to his mansion “No 1 London” to protect his windows from unruly protestors! The Press were generally critical of the Duke’s actions and of the practice of dueling  ‘No wonder the multitude break laws when the law makers themselves, the great, the powerful and the famous, set them at open defiance’  However the wily Wellington was a betting man and probably felt vindicated by his actions as his reputation soared. His Wife famously remarking to their son “ That the mob were... abusing your father, now they are cheering him again’.

Dueling would inevitably fall out of favor and by 1841 Ireland had recorded her last incident of fateful single combat; The Kelly Lynch duel. Both natives of County Roscommon, the opponents would meet on the border of Galway and Roscommon on the Ballygill bridge which spans the river suck. The dispute which arose over an argument concerning a horse would leave Malchy Kelly with a deadly wound resulting in his death five days later on the fifth of June.

The last recorded fatal duel in England would take place 11 years later in 1852 at Priest’s Hill, near Windsor between two French political exiles; Frederic  Cournet and Emmanuel Barthelemy. The recorded cause were political differences but more likely it was as a result of an insult to a former girlfriend of Cournet. By an act of extreme bravery on the part of Cournet , who after standing motionless under two misfired shots, handed one of his own more reliable pistols to the known homicidal Barthelemy who promptly dispatched Cournet to his maker with a deadly shot to his chest.

In America the “last notable American duel” was fought on the 13th September 1859 in the most noble of causes - The abolition of slavery. U.S. Senator David C. Broderick of California and Ex Chief Justice S. Terry of the Supreme Court of California both Democratic political allies and former close friends having taken opposing stances in the slavery issue and as a result of arguments and insults arising from that, would agree to a deadly tryst in a ravine near Lake Merced in San Francisco, resulting in the fateful shooting of the abolitionist Broderick. Broderick died three days later, a hero and a martyr. Amongst his last words was the statement ” They have killed me because I was opposed to slavery and a corrupt administration”.

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