Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Duel that Shocked the Nation

by M.M. Bennetts

On the 21st of September 1809, just after the dawn of a sunny and clear morning, Viscount Castlereagh made his way with his cousin, Lord Yarmouth, toward Yarmouth's cottage, discussing as he went the fashionable soprano, Angelica Catalani, and even humming the tunes of her arias.  Awaiting them at the cottage were George Canning and Charles Ellis, Canning's second.  

After Ellis made one final attempt at reconciliation between the two principals, at shortly after six, Lord Castlereagh and Mr. Canning took the ten required paces, turned and took aim, both missing their first shot. After which, Castlereagh declared himself unsatisfied and the pair resumed their positions.

This second time Castlereagh's aim proved more accurate and Canning collapsed on the grass with a bullet in his thigh. Castlereagh, honour now satisfied, rushed to his fallen adversary's side, and taking him by the arm, carried him to a neighbouring cottage to receive medical attention.    

However, within weeks, The Battle of the Blocks, a satire mocking the profligacy and arrogance of the duellists, was published to the delight of the jeering classes.  And it was only the first of many such poems and satires.
But what can have occurred to have brought a man like Castlereagh, about whom one of his fellow diplomats would later write, "the suavity and dignity of his manners, his habitual patience and self-command, his considerate tolerance of difference of opinion in others...his firmness, when he knew he was right, in no degree detracted from the influence of his conciliatory demeanour..." to be involved in such a scandalous activity as a duel?  

Look no further than his opponent and rival, George Canning.  

Under the aegis of the aging and somewhat sickly Duke of Portland as Prime Minister, a government had been formed in March 1807 with Spencer Perceval as the Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House, Canning at the Foreign Office, and Castlereagh at the War Office.  

Castlereagh, with customary diligence, threw himself into his work reorganising the Volunteers and the militia to bolster Britain's expeditionary forces, as well as commissioning a series of reports from intelligence agents across Europe in an attempt to find the weak points in Napoleon's empire.

In the Lower House, he was also frequently called upon to stand firm against the attacks from the Opposition on the conduct of the war, in particular defending the actions and honour of Sir Arthur Wellesley, first in regard to his action in Denmark and latterly over events in the Peninsula which had culminated in the disastrous Treaty of Cintra.  

(In a nutshell:  Wellesley had trounced the French at the Battle of Vimeiro on 21 August 1808.  All well and good.  Within a day however, Wellesley was superseded by two older armchair generals, Sir Harry Burrard and Sir Hew Darymple, who negotiated a completely ruinous treaty with the French General Junot, in which Britain was required to transport all the defeated French troops back to France carrying with them their 'personal' items, which happened to be all they'd looted from the Portuguese.  When news of the treaty got out in London, there was a huge outcry--and Wellesley was blamed, though he had not been a signatory to the Treaty.)

By late September, as the news of the Battle of Vimeiro was published and the details of the dishonourable treaty leaked out, Canning, in private, grew strident in blaming both Castlereagh and Wellesley for the debacle.  

Though a new Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Moore, was given command of the Peninsular Campaign, by the end of January 1809 he was dead, and the surviving British troops had been evacuated following the Retreat to Corunna.  (No, things weren't looking great on the war front...)  Nevertheless, by April, heartily supported and endorsed in Parliament by Castlereagh, Wellesley was on his way back to the Peninsula as Commander-in-Chief, to aid the beleaguered Portuguese and Spanish in ridding themselves of the Napoleonic yoke. 

At the same time, Castlereagh proposed within the Cabinet attempting to open up another front in the war against Napoleon, this time in northern Germany near Flushing--later this would be known as the Walcheren Campaign.

And it is at this time, around Easter 1809, that Canning's campaign to discredit and undermine Castlereagh got going.  Thus as the months of meetings with his fellow Cabinet-members moved forward, as Castlereagh relied on their support and expertise and trust for his pursuit of the country's war aims, Canning was pursuing a secret campaign to have him removed from office even as in public he made a show of friendship and support.  A letter here, a comment there, it was a perpetual drip-feed of undermining criticism, and although the Prime Minister was unwilling to act on Canning's advice and remove Castlereagh, Canning's duplicitous backstabbing and insidious whispering campaign continued unabated.

And no one, not even his uncle, said a word, leaving Castlereagh completely and utterly in the dark.  

In early September, as the sick troops began to return home from the disastrous Walcheren Expedition and Castlereagh felt that the weight of responsibility for the debacle lay upon his shoulders, he also learned of Canning's efforts to unseat him and his fellow Cabinet members' silence on the subject.  Shocked and demoralised, on 8 September he resigned from the Government.  

Over the next few weeks, as more and more details emerged of Canning's ambitious plotting, including his letter to George III suggesting himself as a new Prime Minister (an unprecedented act) and the deal he had struck with Portland to replace Castlereagh or he himself would resign, Castlereagh felt more and more keenly the humiliation of his position.  Thus on 19 September, he wrote to Canning that he had acted, "in breach of every Principle of good Faith, both public and private...It was therefore your act, and your conduct, which deceived me, and it is impossible for me to acquiesce in being placed in a situation by you which no man of honour could knowingly submit to, nor patiently suffer himself to be betrayed into without forfeiting that character." 

Castlereagh's letter left Canning--who had never fired a shot in his life--with little alternative but to agree to the duel which had previously been suggested.  (Castlereagh was known to be a crack shot...)

Following the duel and the news of it leaking to the press and every scandal-monger in Britain, both Castlereagh and Canning remained on the backbenches of the House of Commons and outside the Cabinet for some time. 

Castlereagh's reputation recovered first and he was soon offered the position of Foreign Secretary by Spencer Perceval, now the Prime Minister, a position which he held from February 1812 until his death in 1822, becoming over the course of those ten years one of the most renowned diplomats of the 19th century and possibly the greatest of Foreign Secretaries for his work at the Congress of Vienna in 1814.  

It wasn't until after Castlereagh's death that George Canning held office again--a high price for his ambitious machinations against a fellow Cabinet member.  (And he limped.)

M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early 19th century British and European history and the Napoleonic wars and is the author of two novels, May 18122 and Of Honest Fame set during the period.  A third novel, Or Fear of Peace, is due out in 2014.

For further information, please visit the website and historical blog at


  1. Tweeted and shared with pleasure - i hadn't seen the name Canning since I read the later Poldark novels!

  2. You make history read so exciting, M.M! I've read these details before because I've always found Castlereagh so exciting.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. I apologise profusely but must advise that Wellesley did actually sign the treaty, which was why he was summoned home. But he did so on the direct orders of his superior, Dalrymple, as he'd not been involved in the treaty negotiation and disagreed with its terms, facts with which he argued his case at the subsequent enquiry.

    Sorry :)

  4. How I wish blogs like this were recommended to college students studying history~


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