So you want to have your own duel?

So we now know all about the history of duels thanks to my post earlier this week but what if we want to duel ourselves?

There is always some idiot out there who flames you on Twitter, leaves a rude comment on our blogs or a frankly nonsensical review on Amazon about our books.  Conventionally we are demanded to ignore them or commence hostilities in a  pointless and insulting flame war over the internet.

I say our honour has been impuned and we demand satisfaction.  Now, who is with me?  I’m not altogether encouraging anyone to go out and duel as that would be (sadly?) highly illegal but suppose, just suppose that it is the only way then where do we start?   Let’s journey back to the days where the answer to almost every insult, perceived and real, could be solved by way of a duel.

There is no reason too big or so petty that it is not worthy of a duel.   On 23 March 1829, the Duke of Wellington and Earl of Winchelsea fought a duel at Battersea Fields in South London simply because the Earl had reproached the Iron Duke for not being tough enough on Catholics.


The first thing to do is of course to

1: Choose your rules

It is 1820. You are a handsome young Northumbrian travelling through London named Robert Broadale and you want to duel somebody. But how?

The Wild West may indeed all ready by wild but a quick-draw shoot-out at High Noon is completely out of the question for a gentleman.   How about the French Code?  With 85 rules, it would be hard to find a more gentlemanly code to duel by, but it is hard to concentrate enough to remember everything when all you know is that you want to give that cheeky rapscallion James Pinkerton his comeuppance.

Thankfully there is no need to worry now that we can go by the Luckily, the streamlined Irish Code Duello (1777)  It only has 25 rules, plus a couple of footnotes about knee-bending. Huzzah! But one of those rules is that your opponent, the challenged party, gets to choose the weapons. Damn it!

What happens if that oik Pinkerton might pick swords. You hate swords. You bunked off fencing lessons at Eton to smoke and play cards. Luckily, rule XVI says you can avoid a swordfight by swearing on your honour that you are no swordsman. Pistols it is!  Huzzah!

2: Choose your provocation

James Pinkerton is a monstrous cad, and you want him dead. But you can’t duel someone just because you don’t like them. One duels to defend one’s honour – or the honour of a woman in one’s care – and to demand satisfaction after a slight, insult or violent blow.

The type of offence decides the type of duel. For example, if your foe called you a liar, he is allowed the chance to call the whole thing off with an outright apology after the second exchange of bullets, or to offer an explanation after round three (if you’re both still alive by then). If he punched you, no verbal apology can suffice, but he can offer you a stick to beat him with in lieu of a duel (rule V).

It seems half the rules in the Code Duello are there to make you change your mind.   Do they want us to have a duel or not?  Rule XXI (“Seconds are bound to attempt a reconciliation”) means your chum Aubrey has a duty to talk you out of it. But it’s no use: you want Pinkerton’s blood.

One night the rapscallion gives you a shove while you are drunk at a party. You can’t really tell what’s going on (as you’re also off your face on laughing-gas), but that probably constitutes a violent blow and is justification enough.

Slurring slightly, you challenge him to a duel. It’s against rule XV (“challenges are never to be delivered at night”), but that scoundrel had insulted your wife, or at least you think he did! Sometimes, rules are there to be broken.

3: Choose your meeting-place

Technically, the challenged party gets to choose. But it needs to be somewhere secluded. You don’t want any undue attention. Duelling is illegal. It’s basically just murder with waistcoats. Admittedly, it was once an acceptable alternative to a court case (a hangover from the medieval idea of trial by combat), but Queen Elizabeth outlawed all that in 1571.

In these more enlightened times, even the Americans are starting to quibble about it. There was a real palaver a few years ago when their vice-president Aaron Burr shot and killed a politician called Alexander Hamilton. Two centuries from now, that duel will inspire a popular hip-hop musical, but hip-hop hasn’t been invented yet so there is no need to let that deter you.

It’s a good idea to have your duel on a no-man’s-land between two parishes; the local law enforcement will all assume it’s somebody else’s problem.

You meet Pinkerton on a misty, swampy island, covered in dense woodland with just one small glade that happens to have an old gypsy woman living on it. Perfect.  Honour will be satisfied, Huzzah!


4: Make sure everyone turns up

You’re here and Pinkerton is here. But that’s not enough people. You both need a ‘second’ (essentially a back-up duellist). And you should really have a separate adjudicator who can give the signal to begin – a dropped handkerchief is customary.

You will also need a doctor, paid in advance, who will probably turn his back during the duel so he can deny knowing exactly what happened, in case he ever needs to testify about it (Burr’s physician David Hosack did this during his duel with Hamilton).  Don’t worry, you should be able to get your money back if you come through this uninjured and if you’re dead then there are bigger things to worry about.

All present and correct? Good.

5: The duel begins – don’t panic!

Cheer up. Guns are still a bit rubbish really, people are generally merciful, and only a small number of duels end in death. Remember rule XXII: “Any wound sufficient to agitate the nerves, and necessarily make the hand shake, must end the business for that day.” Besides, it’s not uncommon for gentlemen to deliberately waste their first shot.

Unfortunately, you’re fighting by the Irish Code Duello, which explicitly forbids ‘deloping’, or shooting elsewhere (the sky, the ground, etc.) out of pity for your opponent.

You have agreed to shoot “at pleasure”, which means you don’t need to fire as soon as the handkerchief falls. A thought strikes you: if you shoot first and miss, Pinkerton cannot simply shoot at a passing pigeon. According to the Irish rules – and you’re beginning to wish you’d learnt the French version – he must aim for a living human being. He will have all the time he needs to line up a fatal shot.

You glance at the handkerchief. It fall… good luck!


If you shoot first and miss, your opponent can fire from as close a range as he desires.

But why was duelling such an integral part of society? In our modern age, solving a problem by asking a chap to step outside is generally considered an immature, low-class thing to do.

The following text is taken from a 2010 edition of The Art Of Manliness

But for many centuries, challenging another man to a duel was not only considered a pinnacle of honour, but was a practice reserved for the upper-classes, those deemed by society to be true gentlemen.

“A man may shoot the man who invades his character, as he may shoot him who attempts to break into his house.” -Samuel Johnson

While dueling may seem barbaric to modern men, it was a ritual that made sense in a society in which the preservation of male honor was absolutely paramount. A man’s honor was the most central aspect of his identity, and thus its reputation had to be kept untarnished by any means necessary. Duels, which were sometimes attended by hundreds of people, were a way for men to publicly prove their courage and manliness. In such a society, the courts could offer a gentleman no real justice; the matter had to be resolved with the shedding of blood.

How did this violent way to prove one’s manhood evolve? Let’s take a look at the history of the affair of honor and the code duello which governed it.

Origins in Single Combat

In the ancient tradition of single combat, each side would send out their “champion” as the representative of their respective armies, and the two men would fight to the death. This contest would sometimes settle the matter, or would serve only as a prelude to the ensuing battle, a sign to which side the gods favored. Prominent single combat battles have made their way into the records of history and legend, such as the battle between David and Goliath in the Valley of Elah and Achilles’ clashes with both Ajax and Hector in Homer’s Iliad. As warfare evolved, single combat became increasingly less prevalent, but the ethos of the contest would lend inspiration to the gentlemen’s duel.

aaron burr alexander hamilton duel engraving

Dueling in Europe

“A coward, a man incapable either of defending or of revenging himself, wants one of the most essential parts of the character of a man.” Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Dueling began in ancient Europe as “trial by combat,” a form of “justice” in which two disputants battled it out; whoever lost was assumed to be the guilty party. In the Middle Ages, these contests left the judicial sphere and became spectator sports with chivalrous knights squaring off in tournaments for bragging rights and honor.

But dueling really became mainstream when two monarchs got into the act. When the treaty between France and Spain broke down in 1526, Frances I challenged Charles V to a duel. After a lot of back and forth arguing about the arrangements of the duel, their determination to go toe to toe dissipated. But the kings did succeed in making dueling all the rage across Europe. It was especially popular in France; 10,000 Frenchmen are thought to have died during a ten year period under Henry IV. The king issued an edict against the practice, and asked the nobles to submit their grievances to a tribunal of honor for redress instead. But dueling still continued, with 4,000 nobles losing their lives to the practice during the reign of Louis XIV.

Dueling in America

“Certainly dueling is bad, and has been put down, but not quite so bad as its substitute — revolvers, bowie knives, blackguarding, and street assassinations under the pretext of self-defense.” -Colonel Benton

Dueling came to American shores right along with her first settlers. The first American duel took place in 1621 at Plymouth Rock.

Dueling enjoyed far more importance and prevalence in the South than the North. Antebellum society placed the highest premium on class and honor, and the duel was a way for gentlemen to prove both.

The majority of Southern duels were fought by lawyers and politicians. The law profession was (as it is now) completely saturated, and the competition for positions and cases was acute. In this dog-eat-dog society, jostling for position and maintaining an honorable reputation meant everything. Every perceived slight or insult had to be answered swiftly and strongly to save face and one’s position on the ladder to respect and success.

And while we tend to paint modern politics as uncivil and romanticize the past, politicians of the day slung bullets in addition to mud. Legislators, judges, and governors settled their differences with the duel, and candidates for office debated their issues on the “field of honor.” Political showmanship of the day involved timing a duel for right before an election and splashing the results in the papers.

Dueling and Violence

american painting duel aftermath man on ground snow

“The views of the Earl are those of a Christian, but unless some mode is adopted to frown down by society the slanderer, who is worse than a murderer, all attempts to put down dueling will be in vain.” -Andrew Jackson

Despite putting on a courageous front, no gentleman relished having to fight a duel and risk both killing and being killed (well, perhaps with the exception of Andrew “I fought at least 14 duels” Jackson). Thus duels were often not intended to be fights to the death, but to first blood. A duel fought with swords might end after one man simply scratched the arm of the other. In pistol duels, it was often the case that a single volley was fired, and assuming both men had survived unscathed, satisfaction was deemed to be achieved through their mutual willingness to risk death. Men sometimes aimed for their opponent’s leg or even deliberately missed, desiring only to satisfy the demands of honor. Only about 20% of duels ended in a fatality.

Duels founded on greater insults to a man’s honor, however, were often designated to go well beyond first blood. Some were carried out under the understanding that satisfaction was not gained until one man was incapacitated, while the gravest insults required a mortal blow.

To us, duels seem like a pointlessly barbaric way to settle disputes; going into a duel the odds were nearly 100% that one man or both would be wounded or killed. And, adding insult to injury, it could very well be the innocent party who was slain.

Even at the time, there were many critics that argued that dueling was unnecessarily violent and contrary to morality, religion, common sense, and indeed, antithetical to the very concept of honor itself. But there were also those who argued that dueling actually prevented violence.

The idea was that single combat warriors averted endless bloody feuds between groups and families ala the Hatfields and McCoys. The duels nipped these potential feuds in the bud as insults were given immediate redress, with satisfaction given to both parties.

The practice was also thought to increase civility throughout society. To avoid being challenged to the duel, gentlemen were careful not to insult or slight others. The courtly, formal manners this time period is famous for-the stately dress, the bowing, toasting, and flowery language-were designed to convey honorable intentions and avoid giving offense. Jealousies and resentments had to be repressed and covered with politeness.

In the 1836 manual, The Art of Duelling, the author summarizes the pro-dueling perspective of the time with comments that seem remarkable to the modern ear:

“The practice is severely censured by all religious and thinking people; yet it has very justly been remarked, that ‘the great gentleness and complacency of modern manners, and those respectful attentions of one man to another, that at present render the social discourses of life far more agreeable and decent, than among the most civilized nations of antiquity; must be ascribed, in some degree to this absurd custom.’ It is certainly both awful and distressing to see a young person cut off suddenly in a duel, particularly if he be the father of a family; but the loss of a few lives is a mere trifle, when compared with the benefits resulting to Society at large.

I should consider it very unwise in the members of government, to adopt any measures that would enforce the prohibition of duelling…the man who falls in a duel, and the individual who is killed by the overturn of a stage-coach, are both unfortunate victims to a practice from which we derive great advantage. It would be absurd to prohibit stage-travelling-because, occasionally, a few lives are lost by an overturn.”

Dueling Necessities

vintage dueling pistols set box black white photo

The components of the gentleman’s duel were often quite varied. The challenged party was usually given the choice of weapons, and the possibilities were endless. Duels have been fought with everything from sabers to billiard balls. A duel was once even fought over the skies of Paris, with the participants utilizing blunderbusses in an attempt to rupture each other’s hot air balloons. One succeeded, sending the opposing man and his comrade plummeting to their death, while the winner floated triumphantly away.

Swords were the weapon of choice until the 18th century, when the transition to pistols made dueling more democratic (fencing took skill-a man might challenge another to a duel, spend a year learning swordsmanship, and then return to fight the duel. But nearly anyone could pull a trigger). As the practice of using guns grew in prominence, arms makers began to create sets of pistols specifically built for dueling. The idea behind this practice was simple. If two men were going to engage in a duel, their “equipment” needed to be as similar as possible so as not to give one man an unfair advantage over the other. Thus, by the latter 18th century, sets of dueling pistols were being produced by fine arms makers throughout Europe. Dueling pistols were often smooth bored pistols, and usually fired quite large rounds. Calibers of .45, .50, or even .65 (caliber = inches of diameter) were in common usage. The pistols were made to exact specifications and were tested to ensure that they were as equal in performance and appearance as possible. A man’s dueling pistols were a prized possession, an heirloom passed down from father to son.

Code Duello: The Dueling Code

duel painting men with swords fighting

“A duel was indeed considered a necessary part of a young man’s education…When men had a glowing ambition to excel in all manner of feats and exercises they naturally conceived that manslaughter, in an honest way (that is, not knowing which would be slaughtered), was the most chivalrous and gentlemanly of all their accomplishments. No young fellow could finish his education till he had exchanged shots with some of his acquaintances. The first two qualifications always asked as to a young man’s respectability and qualifications, particularly when he proposed for a lady wife, were ‘What family is he of? And ‘Did he ever blaze?” -19th century Irish duelist

Dueling code evolved over the centuries as weapons and notions of honor changed. Proper dueling protocol in the 17th and 18th centuries was recorded in such works as The Dueling Handbook by Joseph Hamilton and The Code of Honor by John Lyde Wilson. While the dueling code varied by time period and country, many aspects of the code were similar.

Despite our romanticized notion of duels as being fought only over the most grievous of disputes, duels could often arise from matters most trivial-telling another man he smelled like a goat or spilling ink on a chap’s new vest. But they were not spontaneous affairs in which an insult was given and the parties marched immediately outside to do battle (in fact, striking another gentleman made you a social pariah). A duel had to be conducted calmly and coolly to be dignified, and the preliminaries could take weeks or months; a letter requesting an apology would be sent, more letters would be exchanged, and if peaceful resolution could not be reached, plans for the duel would commence.

The first rule of dueling was that a challenge to duel between two gentleman could not generally be refused without the loss of face and honor. If a gentleman invited a man to duel and he refused, he might place a notice in the paper denouncing the man as a poltroon for refusing to give satisfaction in the dispute.

But one could honorably refuse a duel if challenged by a man he did not consider a true gentleman. This rejection was the ultimate insult to the challenger.

The most common characteristic of a duel between gentlemen was the presence of a “second” for both parties. The seconds were gentlemen chosen by the principal participants whose job it was to ensure that the duel was carried out under honorable conditions, on a proper field of honor and with equally deadly weapons. More importantly, it was the seconds (usually good friends of the participating parties) who sought a peaceful resolution to the matter at hand in hopes of preventing bloodshed.

Once the challenge to duel was given, several issues had to be settled before the matter could be resolved. The challenger would first allow his foe the choice of weapons and conditions of the combat, and a time would be set for the event. Seconds were responsible for locating a proper dueling ground, usually a remote area away from witnesses and law enforcement, since dueling remained technically illegal in most states, though rarely prosecuted. Duels were sometimes even fought on sandbars in rivers where the legal jurisdiction of the time was hazy at best.

Honor was not only given for showing up for the duel-proper coolness and courage under fire was also required to uphold one’s reputation. A gentleman was not to show his fear. If he stepped off the mark, his opponent’s second had the right to shoot him on the spot.

The End of the Dueling Age

Many modern men mistakenly believe that dueling was a rare occurrence in history; a last resort only appealed to in the case of serious matters or by two overly hot-headed men. In fact, from America to Italy, tens of thousands of duels took place and the practice was quite common among the upper classes.

But dueling’s popularity eventually waned at the end of the 19th century, lingering longer in Europe than America. Stricter anti-dueling laws were passed, and sometimes even enforced.

The bloodshed of the Civil War on this continent, and the Great War on the other, also dampened enthusiasm for the duel. Despite our modern romanticism for dueling, it was a practice that hewed down young men in the prime of their life. Having lost millions of their promising youth in battle, felling those who remained became distasteful.

Additionally, Southern society was vastly transformed in the aftermath of the Civil War. The aristocracy was shattered; busy with Reconstruction and rebuilding, there was less time and inclination to duel. A man’s prestige and position in society became less about his family, reputation, and most of all, honor, than it did about cash. Disputes were taken not to the field of honor but to the courts, with vindication given by “pale dry money instead of wet red blood.”

Duels of the seventeenth and eighteenth century were conducted primarily with swords, although by the late eighteenth century they were fought with pistols. Fortunately, pistol dueling fell out of fashion by the mid-nineteenth century. However, prior to its demise a “Royal Code of Honor” existed and was adhered to by dueling Principals and Seconds. The code stated, “No duel can be considered justifiable, which can be declined with honor, therefore, an appeal to arms should always be the last resource.”

This meant that great lengths were taken to avoid duels. For instance, if a gentleman experienced violence or abusive treatment, he was to seek redress for the abuse or assault through the Courts of Law. Or if a the challenged party refused to provide satisfaction, then a notification in a public journal was to be considered more “creditable” than personal violence. Additionally, every apology proposed was to be dignified and every attempt made to avoid further or unnecessary degradation of an adversary was to occur.

Even when a pistol duel was undertaken, it was expected that after each discharge of the pistols there would be attempts to resolve the issue. However, when a duel did occur, duelers were expected to behavior appropriately. The were to use the utmost delicacy and politeness at every stage because as one author noted, “the first essential of a duel is a perfect correctness of behaviour.” Rules for pistol dueling were so important, the Royal Code of Honor noted that “should any individual attempt to deviate from [the] rules … his adversary will be justified in refusing to recognize him as a gentleman.”

Etiquette and rules for dueling included the following:

  1. No duels were to be fought on Sunday, on a day of a Festival, or near a place of public worship.
  2. A gentleman, who valued his own reputation, would not fight a duel with, nor act as a Second to, a person who aggravated and increased discord or violence by striking someone with his fist, a stick, or a glove or called the person a liar, coward, or any other irritating name.
  3. The Second was to be “a ‘man who [was] not passion’s slave,’” and no gentleman was to accept the position of a Second, “without first receiving from his friend, a written statement of the case upon his honor.”
  4. When “bosom friends, fathers of large, or unprovided families, or very inexperienced youths … [were] to fight, the Seconds [were to] … be doubly justified in their solicitude for reconciliation.”
  5. A Principal was not to “wear light coloured clothing, ruffles, military decorations, or any other … attractive object, upon which the eye of his antagonist [could] … rest,” as it could affect the outcome of the duel.
  6. The time and place were to be as convenient as possible to surgical assistance and to the combatants. The Royal Code of Honor noted that “special precaution should invariable be used, to prevent … carrying wounded gentlemen over walls, ditches, gates, stiles, or hedges; or too great a distance to a dwelling.”
  7. The parties were to salute each other upon meeting “offering this evidence of civilization.”
  8. As there were always unexpected advantages — the terrain or light — advantages were to be “decided by the toss of three, five, or seven coins … carefully shaken in a hat,” and the challenged party was entitled to the first toss, the challenger to the second, and so on until the advantages were decided.
  9. No gentleman was allowed to wear spectacles unless they used them on public streets.
  10. There was to be at least 10 yards distance between the combatants.
  11.  The Seconds were to present pistols to Principals and the pistols were not to be cocked before delivery.
  12. The combatants were to present and fire together without resting on their aim at the agreed upon signal.
  13. After each discharge the Seconds were to “mutually and zealously attempt a reconciliation.”
  14. Each combatant would fire one shot and if neither was hit but the challenger satisfied, the duel was declared over. However, if the challenger was unsatisfied, the duel continued. But no more than three exchanges of fire were allowed, as to exchange more shots was considered barbaric.
  15. The offended party determined what conclusion was acceptable and there were three possible outcomes: 1) first blood (the duel ended when one combatant was wounded); 2) the duel continued until one combatant was physically unable to proceed; or 3) death, a combatant was fatally wounded.
  16. Neither the Principal nor the Second were to abandon an injured gentlemen “without … securing for him a proper conveyance from the field.”
  17. After the duel was over, the Seconds were to remind friends and relatives of the combatants, that the slightest indiscretion could renew the breach and Principals were also to abstain from conversation upon the subject so as not to reopen closed wounds.


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Duelling – A Matter Of Honour

It’s hard to imagine a when men would fight for honour almost at the drop of a hat or indeed a white handkerchief but there was a time when this was de rigueuer.   There used to be thousands of duels and this penchant for legalised violence would be what descended into the infamous cowboy shoot-outs of the American Wild West and those awkward moments in British pubs when you might be asked to pop outside.

A duel is an arranged engagement in combat between two individuals with matched weapons in accordance with agreed-upon rules.

Duels in this form were chiefly practiced in early modern Europe with precedents in the medieval code of chivalry, and continued into the modern period (19th to early 20th centuries) especially among military officers.

During the 17th and 18th centuries (and earlier), duels were mostly fought with swords (the rapier, and later the smallsword). But beginning in the late 18th century in England, duels were more commonly fought using pistols. Fencing and pistol duels continued to co-exist throughout the 19th century.

The Duel After the Masquerade is a painting by the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme

The Duel After the Masquerade is a painting by the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme

The duel was based on a code of honour. Duels were fought not so much to kill the opponent as to gain “satisfaction”, that is, to restore one’s honour by demonstrating a willingness to risk one’s life for it, and as such the tradition of dueling was originally reserved for the male members of nobility; however, in the modern era it extended to those of the upper classes generally. On rare occasions, duels with pistols or swords were fought between women; these were sometimes known as petticoat duels.

Legislation against dueling goes back to the medieval period. The Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) outlawed duels. From the early 17th century, duels became illegal in the countries where they were practiced. However, there was usually a delay of centuries between the duel becoming illegal and it actually ceasing to be a common occurrence.

Dueling largely fell out of favor in England by the mid-19th century and in Continental Europe by the turn of the 20th century. Dueling declined in the Eastern United States in the 19th century and by the time the American Civil War broke out, dueling had begun to decline, even in the southern states. Public opinion, not legislation, caused the change.

It was all so much different in the centuries that followed early medieval English Knights and their codes of honour that became chivalry and what we would more broadly label good manners and gentlemanly behaviour. During the early Renaissance, dueling established the status of a respectable gentleman, and was an accepted manner to resolve disputes.

The duel arrived in the British Isles at the end of the sixteenth century with the influx of Italian honour and courtesy literature – most notably Baldassare Castiglione’s Libro del Cortegiano (Book of the Courtier), published in 1528, and Girolamo Muzio’s Il Duello, published in 1550. These stressed the need to protect one’s reputation and social mask and prescribed the circumstances under which an insulted party should issue a challenge. The word duel was introduced in the 1590s, modelled after Medieval Latin duellum (an archaic Latin form of bellum “war”, but associated by popular etymology with duo “two”, hence “one-on-one combat”).

Soon domestic literature was being produced such as Simon Robson’s The Courte of Ciuill Courtesie, published in 1577. Dueling was further propagated by the arrival of Italian fencing masters such as Rocco Bonetti and Vincento Saviolo. By the reign of James I dueling was well entrenched within a militarised peerage – one of the most important duels being that between Edward Bruce, 2nd Lord Kinloss and Edward Sackville (later the 4th Earl of Dorset) in 1613, during which Bruce was killed.

James I encouraged Francis Bacon as Solicitor-General to prosecute would-be duellists in the Court of Star Chamber, leading to about two hundred prosecutions between 1603 and 1625. He also issued an edict against dueling in 1614 and is believed to have supported production of an anti-dueling tract by the Earl of Northampton. Dueling however, continued to spread out from the court, notably into the army.

In the mid-seventeenth century, duelling was less popular for a while as it impeded by the activities of the Parliamentarians whose Articles of War specified the death penalty for would-be duellists. Nevertheless, dueling survived and increased markedly with the Restoration. Among the difficulties of anti-dueling campaigners was that although monarchs uniformly proclaimed their general hostility to dueling, they were nevertheless very reluctant to see their own favourites punished. In 1712 both the Duke of Hamilton and Charles 4th Baron Mohun were killed in a duel induced by political rivalry and squabbles over an inheritance.



This painting illustrates the concepts of having a Second in the Duel and of how it was something of a spectacle for observers


By the 1780s, the values of the duel had spread into the broader and emerging society of gentlemen. Research shows that much the largest group of later duellists were military officers, followed by the young sons of the metropolitan elite (see Banks, A Polite Exchange of Bullets). Dueling was also popular for a time among doctors and, in particular, in the legal professions. Quantifying the number of duels in Britain is difficult, but there are about 1,000 attested between 1785 and 1845 with fatality rates running at at least 15% and probably somewhat higher. 

In 1777, at the Summer assizes in the town of Clonmel, County Tipperary, a code of practice was drawn up for the regulation of duels that would soon be adopted throughout the British Isles and much of the USA.

Rule 1.—The first offence requires the apology, although the retort may have been more offensive than the insult.
—Example: A. tells B. he is impertinent, &C.; B. retorts, that he lies; yet A. must make the first apology, because he gave the first offence, and then, (after one fire,) B. may explain away the retort by subsequent apology .

Dueling remained highly popular in European society, despite various attempts at banning the practice.

According to Ariel Roth, during the reign of Henry IV, over 4,000 French aristocrats were killed in duels “in an eighteen-year period” while a twenty-year period of Louis XIII’s reign saw some eight thousand pardons for “murders associated with duels”. Roth also notes that thousands of men in the Southern United States “died protecting what they believed to be their honor.”

The first published code duello, or “code of dueling”, appeared in Renaissance Italy. The first formalised national code was France’s, during the Renaissance. In 1777, a code of practice was drawn up for the regulation of duels, at the Summer assizes in the town of Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland. A copy of the code, known as ‘The twenty-six commandments’, was to be kept in a gentleman’s pistol case for reference should a dispute arise regarding procedure. During the Early Modern period, there were also various attempts by secular legislators to curb the practice. Queen Elizabeth I in England officially condemned and outlawed dueling in 1571, shortly after the practice had been introduced to our country.


However, the tradition had become deeply rooted in European culture as a prerogative of the aristocracy, and these attempts largely failed. For example, King Louis XIII of France outlawed dueling in 1626, a law which remained in force for ever afterwards, and his successor Louis XIV intensified efforts to wipe out the duel. Despite these efforts, dueling continued unabated, and it is estimated that between 1685 and 1716, French officers fought 10,000 duels, leading to over 400 deaths.By the late 18th century, Enlightenment era values began to influence society with new self-conscious ideas about politeness, civil behaviour and new attitudes towards violence. The cultivated art of politeness demanded that there should be no outward displays of anger or violence, and the concept of honour became more personalized.

By the late 18th century, Enlightenment era values began to influence society with new self-conscious ideas about politeness, civil behaviour and new attitudes towards violence. The cultivated art of politeness demanded that there should be no outward displays of anger or violence, and the concept of honour became more personalized.

By the 1770s the practice of dueling was increasingly coming under attack from many sections of enlightened society, as a violent relic of Europe’s medieval past unsuited for modern life. As England began to industrialise and benefit from urban planning and more effective police forces, the culture of street violence in general began to slowly wane. The growing middle class maintained their reputation with recourse to either bringing charges of libel, or to the fast-growing print media of the early nineteenth century, where they could defend their honour and resolve conflicts through correspondence in newspapers.

Influential new intellectual trends at the turn of the nineteenth century bolstered the anti-dueling campaign; the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham stressed that praiseworthy actions were exclusively restricted to those that maximize human welfare and happiness, and the Evangelical notion of the “Christian conscience” began to actively promote social activism. Individuals in the Clapham Sect and similar societies, who had successfully campaigned for the abolition of slavery, condemned dueling as ungodly violence and as an egocentric culture of honour.

Dueling became popular in the United States – the former United States Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel against the sitting Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. Between 1798 and the Civil War, the US Navy lost two-thirds as many officers to dueling as it did in combat at sea, including naval hero Stephen Decatur. Many of those killed or wounded were midshipmen or junior officers. Despite prominent deaths, dueling persisted because of contemporary ideals of chivalry, particularly in the South, and because of the threat of ridicule if a challenge was rejected.

By about 1770, the duel underwent a number of important changes in England. Firstly, unlike their counterparts in many continental nations, English duelists enthusiastically adopted the pistol, and sword duels dwindled. Special sets of dueling pistols were crafted for the wealthiest of noblemen for this purpose. Also, the office of ‘second’ developed into ‘seconds’ or ‘friends’ being chosen by the aggrieved parties to conduct their honour dispute. These friends would attempt to resolve a dispute upon terms acceptable to both parties and, should this fail, they would arrange and oversee the mechanics of the encounter.

In the United Kingdom, to kill in the course of a duel was formally judged as murder, but generally the courts were very lax in applying the law, as they were sympathetic to the culture of honour. This attitude lingered on – Queen Victoria even expressed a hope that Lord Cardigan, prosecuted for wounding another in a duel, “would get off easily”. The Anglican Church was generally hostile to dueling, but non-conformist sects in particular began to actively campaign against it.

By 1840, dueling had declined dramatically; when the 7th Earl of Cardigan was acquitted on a legal technicality for homicide in connection with a duel with one of his former officers, outrage was expressed in the media, with The Times alleging that there was deliberate, high level complicity to leave the loop-hole in the prosecution case and reporting the view that “in England there is one law for the rich and another for the poor” and The Examiner describing the verdict as “a defeat of justice”.The last fatal duel between Englishmen in England occurred in 1845, when James Alexander Seton had an altercation with Henry Hawkey over the affections of his wife, leading to a duel at Southsea. However, the last fatal duel to occur in England was between two French political refugees, Frederic Cournet and Emmanuel Barthélemy near Englefield Green in 1852; the former was killed. In both cases, the winners of the duels, Hawkey and Barthélemy, were tried for murder. But Hawkey was acquitted and Barthélemy was convicted only of manslaughter; he served seven months in prison. However, in 1855, Barthélemy was hanged after shooting and killing his employer and another man

The last fatal duel between Englishmen in England occurred in 1845, when James Alexander Seton had an altercation with Henry Hawkey over the affections of his wife, leading to a duel at Southsea. However, the last fatal duel to occur in England was between two French political refugees, Frederic Cournet and Emmanuel Barthélemy near Englefield Green in 1852; the former was killed. In both cases, the winners of the duels, Hawkey and Barthélemy, were tried for murder. But Hawkey was acquitted and Barthélemy was convicted only of manslaughter; he served seven months in prison. However, in 1855, Barthélemy was hanged after shooting and killing his employer and another man.

For those of us who like our romanticism, do no fret for it was only in 1994 that the most recent real duel occurred in Britain.  At the appropriately named Battle in East Sussex,  lutenist Ben Salfield reportedly fought against an unknown adversary with cavalry swords, over an insult allegedly made to a lady. The musician apparently won, and neither party suffered serious injury. He later recalled the incident as happening “on a hillside at dawn, dressed in 17th century clothes”, and described it as “a brutal but fair way to decide a matter of honour.

We could have a more recent duel still in the Brexit referendum when Polish businessman and aristocrat Prince Jan Zylinsky challenged Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party to a duel.  Showing uncharacteristic leanings towards modernity, Mr. Farage declined, preferring to settle the disagreement through political discussion.

“Enough is enough, Mr Farage,” warned the Polish aristocrat, clutching his saber as he stared into the camera. “I’d like us to meet in Hyde Park one morning, with our swords, and resolve this matter.”

“Enough is enough, Mr Farage,” warned the Polish aristocrat, clutching his saber as he stared into the camera. “I’d like us to meet in Hyde Park one morning, with our swords, and resolve this matter.”



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My Film With The CWGC For The 100th Anniversary of Reuel Dunn & The Red Baron

You might remember that in early February I received an impromptu telephone call which had me driving and crawling around the old Western Front in France to do a video for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who had seen my blog posts and were inspired and touched by the story of my relation, Reuel Dunn; and my efforts to follow in the footsteps of the man who impressed the Red Baron so much that the German legend is said to have visited the dying man in a field hospital to honour is bravery.

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The link below explains how I first found the battle sight and his final resting place and there are various links that go on from there.

Well the good news is that it was a great success and we all had more material than there is an immediate need for.  Better news is that I’ve been given full permission to use the video here on my blog and Youtube channels.

The sad part is that this Sunday, 2nd April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of his death just a few hundred yards east of Givenchy En Gohelle, in Arras during his photography mission in preparation for the famous Canadian push at Vimy Ridge.

So now seems as good a time as ever to show everyone my hard work… and those who helped create the video of course, especially the fantastic Tim with whom I ‘ve spent several days with far more laughs than you could ever imagine when you think what we’ve been doing.

First of all, I’ve unearthed a few final unmentioned details about Reuel.  Below is his house, 88 Harrington Road in Workington, Cumbria.    When I went there in October, I wasn’t able to  stop due to parking restrictions and a very observation traffic warden.  So, I approached a complete stranger by the name of Jon Joe who takes plenty of great photos on a Workington Facebook group and as a typical friendly resident of the town where my mother and grandparents came from, was very happy to help.


This is the house that Ruel lived in and left for the last time most likely in the middle of June 1917.  It hasn’t changed at all from the outside, except perhaps for double-glazed windows and a satellite dish.  I’m sure he would recognise it immediately.

Below are copies of his Service Record.


On his Attestation sheet below, you can see Reuel was a Draughtsman and his actual signature towards the bottom of the form.


Finally below, you can see that Reuel actually gained promotion several times before his death was recorded on the 2nd April 1917.


So here it is, my video for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  You can find plenty more great videos on their Facebook pages.  Let me know what you think!   I was told that I was a natural and from the beginning managed to avoid the cardinal sin of staring at the camera or behind the scenes folk.   As is the way with television, my best moment was cut due to excess noise but apparently in 30 seconds I managed to do what Chris Evans failed in an entire year of Top Gear and that is drive a car and talk to the cameraman in the passenger seat in a natural way…. and in someone else’s Automatic car on the wrong side of the road in France.  Somebody snap me up!

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

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Don’t forget my WW1 Concise History book, Lest We Forget… the CWGC don’t use just anyone!

Lest We Forget

My easy to understand but comprehensive history of WW1 in Kindle and Paperback.




And my simple photo book guide to the highlights of the Western Front, In The Footsteps Of Heroes

In The Footsteps of Heroes on Kindle and paperback.

In The Footsteps of Heroes on Kindle and paperback.



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Aleister Crowley – The Wickedest Man In The World

Whilst writing my blog on Bloomsbury recently and following a day spent exploring every single street that I could happen upon, I became intrigued by a man who was once known as ‘The wickedest man in the world’.  This is quite some going for a man who lived whilst Stalin and Hitler were going strong.

Like some other figures I have written about in history, Aleister Crowley seems to have lived quite a life

Of course, Bloomsbury was and still is crammed full with writers of all persuasions and talents but none can quite equal the infamy of Aleister Crowley who settled in Museum Street, a side street almost opposite the entrance to the British Museum.

Like others literary figures in Bloomsbury, Aleister Crowley was a man ahead of his time.  His time was one that couldn’t understand him or at least acknowledge his ‘latent genius’ due to his shocking behaviour.

Aleister Crowley was many things; a writer, painter, prophet, a powerful magician who could almost be said to be the father of the modern tradition of magic and most terribly for his time, he was a prominent Occultist and he was the self-declared Beast 666.

Aleister Crowley was born on the 12th October 1875 in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire to a wealthy and eminently respectable family.   They were devout Christians and staunch members of the Plymouth Brethren sect.  They brought up young Crowley in an atmosphere of pious Christianity, against which he constantly rebelled.

After the death of his father when Aleister was just 11, Crowley inherited the family fortune and went on to be educated at Trinity College Cambridge.  There he wrote and studied poetry.  He loved the out-doors life and was a capable mountain climber, in pursuit of which he attempted some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas.  In 1898 he published his first book of poetry called “Aceldama, A Place to Bury Strangers In”, a philosophical poem by a ‘Gentleman of the University of Cambridge’ in 1898′.  In the preface he describes how God and Satan had fought for his soul and states:  “God conquered – and now I have only one doubt left – which of the twain was God”?

It was while he was at Trinity that Crowley became interested in the occult Crowley soon discovered that he was excited by descriptions of torture and blood.  He liked to fantasise about being degraded and abused by a ‘Scarlet Women’, one who was dominant, wicked and independent.


One of the books he read about this time was by the author ‘Arthur Edward Waite’, entitled “The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts”.  It hinted at a secret brotherhood of occultists and Crowley became even more intrigued.  He wrote to Waite for more information and was referred to “The Cloud upon the Sanctuary – By Karl von Exkartshausen”.  This book tells of the ‘Great White Brotherhood’ and Crowley determined he wanted to join this group and advance to its highest levels.  Later that year on the 18th November 1898, he and Bennett both joined the ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’, the elusive Great White Brotherhood (see ‘S.L. MacGregor Mathers and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’).

Other members of Golden Dawn included Brahm Stoker who of course worte Dracula and WB Yeats (a member of the Bloomsbury Group mention in my last post) Many of the more conservative members of Golden Dawn believed that a magician should abstain from sex, drink and drugs to keep his mind clear. Aleister Crowley however was a keen advocate of all three and it being all too lightweight for the Beast 666, who was soon accused of black magic.

Aleister Crowley in Shanghai, China.

Aleister Crowley in Shanghai, China.

This is likely true as he took up residence on the shores of Loch Ness and in Scotland and performed the Abramelin.  This is a six month long black magic ritual that was thought so powerful, it had not been performed for centuries.  The aim of the ritual is to invoke the magician’s Holy Guardian Angel, to do so he must also evoke the twelve Kings and Dukes of Hell – including Lucifer, Satan, Leviathan and Belial – and bind them, thereby gaining command of them in his own mental universe. The ceremony has an introduction which states that nobody should perform it.

However before the six months was up, he left Loch Ness and returned to London.  No doubt the most powerful evil deities in history would wait until he was less busy.



As well as being dismissed and outcaste by the New Forrest witches, all was not well within the Golden Dawn.  By this time Crowley had moved out of Trinity Collage without earning his degree, and taken a flat in Chancery Lane, London.  There he renamed himself ‘Count Vladimir’ and began to pursue his occult studies on a full-time basis.  Crowley had a natural aptitude for magic and advanced quickly through the ranks of the Golden Dawn though rivals quarreled constantly with Crawley being attacked by an astral Vampire and so responded with an army of demons led by Beelzebub himself.   

However much one might believe in such magic, it was obviously getting out of hand and bringing unwanted attention to the order and so Aleister Crowley was expelled. He began to travel around the world to Egypt, Mexico and San Francisco where he recognised that the Chinese immigrants in Chinatown there were spiritually superior to their Anglo-American brethren.

After a disastrous attempt to climb one of the world’s highest mountains, Kangchenjunga, where he is said to have ignored the pleas for help of his party during an avalanche which killed four men, preferring to sit in his tent drinking tea, and then being forced to leave India after shooting dead a man who had tried to mug him in Calcutta, Crowley headed for China.



Aleister Crowley, Egyptian style.


By now Crowley was fast becoming infamous as a Black magician and Satanist, he openly identified himself with the number 666, the biblical number for the antichrist.  He also kept with him a series of ‘Scarlet Women’; the best known of these was Leah Hirsig, the so-called “Ape of Thoth”.  Together they would indulge in drinking sessions, drugs and sexual magic.  It is believed that Crowley made several attempts with several of these women to beget a ‘Magical child’, none of which worked and instead he fictionalised his attempts in a book called “Moonchild”, published in 1929.

Aleister Crowley eventually attempted to put all he had learned to practice, founding a commune in the Abbey of Thelema in Palermo, Sicily in 1920. His sex magick was too much for even Mussolini though, who threw him out of the country three years later amid rumors of an orgy involving a goat, and a young Oxford graduate dying after the ceremonial drinking cats blood.

Crowley was never to reach such personal highs again and after losing a high profile libel case in court he was bankrupted and  drifted into full-blown heroin addiction, eventually dying in a boarding house in Hastings, England in 1947, after his doctor had refused to continue his opiate prescription. The doctor died within 24 hours of Crowley. It is believed the Beast 666 had put a curse on him.


In a final snub at the society that had so misunderstood him, he left instructions that he was to be cremated and instead of the usual religious service, his ‘Hymn to Pan’ and other extracts from his writings was to be proclaimed from the pulpit.  Finally his ashes were to be sent to his disciples in America.

In many ways Aleister Crowley was not a well-liked man, but he influenced and had an effect on the build up to the new era of modern witchcraft.  His knowledge of witchcraft and magick was profound and without question, and he has passed on that knowledge through his books.  In today’s more liberal society more and more of Crowley’s books are being reprinted as we begin to appreciate his strange genius.  Indeed some of his books have now gained classical status including Gnostic Mass and The Book of Law. Other books include: Magick in Theory and Practice, 777 And Other Qabalistic Writing and The Book of Thoth.

Just a few doors down from where Aleister Crowley lived is The Atlantis Bookshop, possibly the ‘finest’ bookshop dedicated to magic and the occult anywhere in the world.


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Westminster Terror Attack

A terrorist attack has taken place in London, England near the Houses of Parliament and Westminster bridge. Several people have been injured.  At least four fatalities and 20 catastrophic injuries.

Just a quick update as I have had a few people message asking me if I am ok.  I was actually in that area this morning but was a few miles away at the time of the attack. It’s actually an area I visit very often indeed so I know it all off by heart.

Anti-Terrorists barriers

As you can see, large area of Parliament already have anti-terrorist protection against vehicles but I guess they can’t go everywhere or else no-one could cross the roads.

According to the latest reports at 2.40pm, approximately a 20 victims were struck by a small 4*4 SUV four wheel drive vehicle on Westminster Bridge near the Houses of Parliament.  The victims were intentionally “mowed down” whilst walking on the pavement with one lady ending up badly injured in the River Thames.  The vehicle then crashed into the heavy cast iron railings to the side of Parliament  and a knife-wielding suspect exited the vehicle and stabbed up to three police officers, one of whom has now sadly died.



Out of respect to the victims, I won’t put any photos up of the injured but the suspected terrorist is below.  After being warned by undercover police to stop, he continued his attack and was shot 3 times.


Here, seconds after the attack, the gunshots can be heard… fired just next to the tree behind the railings.


It is now reported that the terrorist has died after several hours of emergency medical treatment.

Parliament was locked down and the surrounding buildings and area are still behind Police cordons, 6 hours later,  after rumours of a possible secondary attacker in the vehicle.

It’s a reminder of the tremendous brave job that the police do every day of the year.






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Bloomsbury – The Literary Heart of London

Bloomsbury is one of my very favourite parts of London.  I’m a little biased as I spent four years studying at SOAS, a college in the University of London during the 1990’s and in recent years have been spending quite a lot of time doing guided tours such as my Sherlock Walk or my Bloomsbury Literary Walk.

Lots of foreign visitors come to Bloomsbury albeit the busiest corner of the district without even knowing it when they hurry to and from The British Museum from the nearest tube station without ever thinking of exploring the wonderful streets and parks that abound here.

Most of the land in Bloomsbury was owned by the Duke of Bedford and as such, many of the streets and squares are named after his family or various points in and around his country estate.

The photo below is of the imaginatively entitled Bedford Square and is a relatively quiet oasis right in the middle of London.  In some ways, Bloomsbury could be said to be the very first suburbs of London… now a good 25 miles away from the nearest modern suburbs.


As you can see, it is a somewhat picturesque district, the large park in the middle of the square remains accessible to the people who live on the square.  So for a photo inside, someone needs to give me probably around £10 million for a fighting chance of grabbing even a bedroom.

Right from the beginning, Bloomsbury was artsy with the Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood becoming based here in the mid 19th Century.  A collection of poets and artists who shook the artistic world with their romantic inspired works that deemed the work of artists who followed Raphael to be too mechanical.  Their aspirations were summarised by their four founding principles:

  • to have genuine ideas to express;
  • to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
  • to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and
  • most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
The Death of King Arthur by James Archer (1860)

The Death of King Arthur by James Archer (1860)


It is very hard to walk around Bloomsbury without noticing and beautiful parks and garden squares.  Historically, Bloomsbury was a hotbed of English literature, not just for those from Great Britain but for visiting writers from overseas such as Mark Twain.

In fact Bloomsbury was to literature as to what Montmartre was to painting in Paris and the streets are littered with plaques to writers, poets and playwrights.  Thanks to the British Museum and London University, many scientific writers spent much time here too such as Charles Darwin who wrote his pivotal work, The Origin of The Species or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who decided to supplement his authoritative medical writing with novels on some oddball deer-stalking hat wearing detective.


Above is Senate House, the very first skycraper in London which dates from 1932.  It houses one of the finest libraries in the world and its art-deco styling often features in TV shows and even Hollywood movies.  I guess it does look rather like an old fashioned tower you might have once seen in a North American city.

The very top of the building was used as a look-out and observatory during WW2 and its dominant nature inspired local resident George Orwell to feature it as the Ministry of Truth in his seminal work, 1984.


Now as then, Bloomsbury attracted some of the greatest minds in the world.  The district still has a very literary and cultured atmosphere and is a very relaxed place for people to spend their spare time whether in one of the grand squares or one of the smaller intimate locations.

Each square and park has its own story and history and you never know quite what you find.  Above in Tavistock Square is a statue commemorating the stay of Gandhi in London around the year 1890.  His peaceful philosophy has resulted in the square becoming an unofficial peace park with memorials to the victims of Nuclear warfare in Japan and another to Conscientious Objectors throughout the world and throughout time.



No visit to Bloomsbury can quite be complete without looking up the Bloomsbury Group.  They included writers, philosophers and even economists and had a pioneering vision with regards to feminism, pacifism, economics, sexuality and literature.    They would meet up to exchange ideas and discuss their outlook on life and their works as well as being rather liberal with their own relationships.

A stroll around Bloomsbury makes it easy to imagine what it must have been like in the 1920s, relaxing in the garden squares whilst pushing forward the human condition beyond the norms for the world at that time.


Everywhere you go in Bloomsbury you see the blue or in some cases brown plaques denoting with people of historical significance lived and in most cases these for people in the arts and particularly literature.

In its day, Bloomsbury was also home to many of they figures of the Suffragette movement.


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As is the case today, those in the arts today often concern themselves with social projects that would otherwise go unnoticed or unsupported.   Not too far from beautiful Russell Square is Corams Field which was once the spot of the Foundling Hospital and which provided pioneering care for the most wretched children in London and often supported by the big names of the day.

The hospital may now have relocated to the country and the original become a building but the fields remain a sanctuary for children.

Practically across the world is the modern day equivalent in the shape of the world famous Great Ormond street hospital for children.  Local resident J M Barrie gave over the royalties of his wonderful book Peter Pan in perpetuity to help fund pioneering health care for children everywhere and both he and the boy who refused to grow up are remembered prominently.


It would be easy to say that no visit to Bloomsbury would be completed without a trip to the British Museum.  However, there are lots of museums and galleries in Bloomsbury along with many other cultural highlights and the British Museum just cannot be properly seen in a day.

It’s hard to imagine that for nearly a century, access to this universal museum was by appointment only but these days around 7 million visitors come to this free museum every year to see just some of the 233 million items (many at  partner museums such as the Natural History Museum and the British Library).

I spent many hours in my four years at university grabbing the odd hour here and there in the British Museum and though I know the layout and roughly where everything is, I’d be lying if I could say I knew it all off by heart.  Though I probably do know the Egyptian, Middle-Eastern and Iranian sections it is true.


The streets around the British Museum retain a unique feeling that drifts between the academic and the curious.  Lots of dusty old book shops, antique shops, pubs and cafes including the one below which is no doubt influenced by Aleister Crowley, local resident and world-famous magician, writer and occultist.



You can see my new Youtube video on Bloomsbury below or you fancy a private literary tour around Bloomsbury then be sure to check out my tour page.



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The Knights of St. John found in London

My last post was all about the Knights Templars and the re-discovery of a possible long-lost religious centre in caves beneath Shropshire.  In passing, I mentioned the Knights of St. John or the Knights Hospitaliers.

Unlike the unfortunate Templars, the Hospitaliers are still very much alive and kicking in Malta but whilst planning out a new walking tour in London last week and also doubling up and researching a new book, I came across some incredible remnants of the Knights Hospitaliers right in the middle of London, well a bit into eastern London, in Clerkenwell to be precise.

I already was aware of their excellent museum but whilst out exploring you can imagine my surprise to find this what to me at least was something incredibly new and interesting. Right amongst the maze of old terrace streets was the old gate house to the Grand Prior of the Knights of St. John.



The Gatehouse entry to the Knights of St John


Like many other religious buildings, King Henry VIII decide to appropriate all of the property of the Knights in England.


These days Clerkenwell is very much an inner-city and not too glamorous district of London but in the times of the Grand Priory, it was no doubt different.  In fact the amount of land that fell under the Priory was immense as can be seen on the old map below.


Clerkenwell, then a village outside of London. The Grand Prior holding almost everything on the map.

The Priory was so big that I continued wandering around the streets working out my tour route.  I was more than happy with the gate house I had found and made a note to return one day when I had more time.

However, a few minutes walk away I found a very active church of the order of St. John of Jerusalem.   The Hospitaliers aren’t just a religious order but are famous for the St. Johns ambulance service, a voluntary medical organisation that provide First Aid at public events.

The poor Knights of St. John may be around today and fared better than the Templars but it took until the late 1930s for them to manage to obtain their church which King Henry VIII had taken away from them.  Tragically, it was then heavily bombed and all but destroyed in the Second World War.


As you can see from the photo below however, it was patched back together with a modern 20th century roof sitting atop the original beautiful walls.   I did try to get into the church but it was not open at the time and I didn’t want to sneak around the complex… though long-time readers know that I am not above such a thing when out and about 🙂



Adjoining the old church was a lovely old garden which is a garden of remembrance for all those who have served in the Order and particularly the volunteer Ambulance service.


Leaving the best to last, in the far end of the garden I found something I never imagined I would find just laying around in London.  I’m going from memory as I was actually too excited to remember what the white notice board said behind me but I am pretty sure it is an old cannon ball from the Knights.  Once the Christian Crusaders had been ejected from the Holy Land, the Knights Hospitaliers remained a potent force in the Mediterranean not just in Malta.  They also had a very strong power base in other places including the Greek island of Rhodes.  When the Ottoman Empire came a knocking, the Knights saw it as a continuation of their Christian duty to defend the island and in 1480 they were very successful in doing so, something not many can say against the Ottomans of that time who are actually one of my great historic favourites.


This giant granite ball weighed around 260kg or 573 pounds and would be fired around 100-200 metres (300-600 feet) by the Knights at the attacking Ottomans.   You can probably tell by the fact that I never appear in my blog posts that I was quite delighted to find a bit of my favourite history in such an unexpected location.



An identical cannon ball and giant cannon that was used by the Knights of St. John at Rhodes.





The Knights of St. John successfully fighting off the might of the Ottoman Empire in 1480…. they weren’t so successful in 1522.

Anyway, it just goes to show that you never quite know what you will find if you just go off exploring London, especially the non-touristy parts.   It’s just a co-incidence I found an excuse to use these new photos as they tie in so well with the last post on the Knights Templars.


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