A little before eight on the morning of March 21, 1829, the Duke of Wellington, England’s prime minister, arrived on horseback at a crossroads south of the Thames, about half a mile beyond Battersea Bridge. Not long after, his cabinet colleague, Sir Henry Hardinge, the secretary of war, rode up to join him, followed, after another small interval, by the duke’s doctor, in a coach.
Once the three men had greeted one another, the doctor walked past a small farmhouse into a large open area called Battersea Fields with a pair of pistols concealed under his greatcoat, and placed the weapons out of sight behind a hedge. Battersea Fields was well known as a site where gentlemen met to fight duels, and anyone who had witnessed this sequence of arrivals would have known what was going on. Almost every Londoner would have recognized the duke, whose face, with the great Roman nose and high forehead, had been famous since his first victories over Napoleon’s armies in Spain, twenty years earlier. Any onlookers would have been curious, as a result, to see who would arrive next.
After all, once a gentleman, his second, and his doctor had appeared, you could anticipate the arrival of an opponent with his second. That the upright duke, who was the epitome of honor, a model of service to king and country, was preparing to fight a duel would naturally raise the question who could have impugned his honor.
And that question was soon answered when the three men were joined by the Earl of Winchilsea and his second, the Earl of Falmouth. Lord Winchilsea’s baptismal name was George William Finch-Hatton. (His grandson, Denys Finch-Hatton, was the handsome English aristocrat played by Robert Redford in the film Out of Africa.) Finch-Hatton was a good deal less famous than the duke, such notoriety as he had being due to his active opposition over the last year or two to the movement to lift some of the legal burdens on Catholics in Britain (burdens that had been in place, in one form or another, since the Reformation). An inspiring orator, he had spoken out often in and out of Parliament on the need to protect the faith and traditions of his fathers. He was a leader among those Englishmen who continued to believe fervently that you could not be loyal both to Britain and, as they saw it, to the Pope in Rome. Winchilsea was tall, black-haired, and powerfully built. He was in his late thirties, more than twenty years younger than the duke. He must have cut an imposing figure as he rode in with Falmouth, who was, like him, a former military officer.
The Duke of Wellington stood aloof while the two seconds, Falmouth and Hardinge, engaged in a heated exchange. Then the doctor loaded the pistols he had hidden behind the hedge – this was strictly speaking Hardinge’s job, but Hardinge had lost his left hand in the Napoleonic wars – while Lord Falmouth loaded one of the two pistols that he had brought with him. Hardinge picked a spot for the duke, marched twelve paces, and instructed Lord Winchilsea to take up his position. Wellington objected to the first positioning. “Damn it,” he said. “Don’t stick him up so near the ditch. If I hit him, he will tumble in.”
Finally, once their places were set, Hardinge gave the duke a pistol, Falmouth took one to Winchilsea, and Hardinge stepped back and, after a few more formalities, said firmly: “Gentlemen, are you ready? Fire.” The duke raised his pistol and, following a brief pause apparently prompted by the fact that the earl had made no preparations, he discharged it. Winchilsea was unharmed. The earl then raised his pistol very deliberately over his head and fired into the air.