The Castlereagh-Canning Duel
The two politicians fought on September 21st, 1809.
Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, was not entirely inexperienced in duels. As a young man, he had fought one in Ireland, over a girl, with her guardian. Shots were exchanged, but neither man was hurt and by that evening Castlereagh told his alarmed father he had already forgotten the details. The situation in 1809, however, was altogether more serious. With Britain at war with Napoleon, Castlereagh was war minister in the government under the Duke of Portland.
Also in the cabinet was George Canning, as foreign secretary. Canning was devouringly ambitious and for some months he had been intriguing with colleagues and with Portland to get the war minister dropped. This had all been behind Castlereagh’s back and he had no idea of what was going on until September. Outraged at being betrayed by a colleague and apparent friend, he wrote a long letter to Canning, reproaching him for damage to his honour and reputation, and ending: ‘Under these circumstances, I must require that satisfaction from you to which I feel myself entitled to lay claim.’
Receiving this bulky missive, Canning said he would sooner fight than read it and replied: ‘The tone and purport of your Lordship’s letter (which I have this moment received) of course precludes any other answer, on my part, to the misapprehensions and misrepresentations, with which it abounds, than that I will cheerfully give to your Lordship the satisfaction that you require.’
The duel was organised for the following day, at 6am on Putney Heath, where Castlereagh’s second, Lord Yarmouth, owned a cottage. Canning, who had never fired a pistol in his life, wrote his will and a farewell letter to his wife. When the parties reached the appointed spot, his second, his friend Charles Ellis, tried to patch up the quarrel, but in vain, and the seconds agreed the distance and measured out the ground. Ellis was so nervous trying to load Canning’s pistol that Lord Yarmouth did it for him. The first shots both missed and another attempt to compose the quarrel failed because Canning still refused to apologise. His second shot was deflected by a button on Castlereagh’s coat and Castlereagh’s second struck Canning in the thigh. Castlereagh helped Canning limp away and afterwards told his father that Canning’s conduct ‘was very proper on the ground’.
The two men soon adopted a polite civility and Castlereagh would go on to be one of Britain’s greatest foreign ministers, but Canning’s career was badly damaged. It was generally felt that he had behaved thoroughly badly and this was part of the reason why he failed to achieve his ambition to be prime minister until the last few months of his life, in 1827.