The Canning-Castlereagh duel was fought on the morning of the 21st September 1809 between George Canning and a gentleman, who although now formally known as Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, was at the time known under his courtesy title of the Viscount Castlereagh.

What was especially notable about this particular affair of honour was that both men were in fact cabinet ministers at the time. Canning and Castlereagh were political rivals and contenders to take on the role of William Pitt, the Younger (who died in 1806) as the leading figure in the lower House. In 1807 they both agreed to serve under William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, with Canning as Foreign Secretary and Castlereagh as Secretary for War. Since Great Britain was at war with France at the time their spheres of responsibility naturally overlapped, which inevitably gave rise to friction between the two. Canning in particular got upset when Castlereagh managed to win cabinet approval for the Convention of Cintra against his wishes.

On the 4th April 1809 Canning wrote a letter to the Duke of Portland, in which he expressed his unhappiness regarding Castlereagh’s handling of the War Office, and threatened to resign unless Castlereagh was sacked. Whilst the Duke of Portland agreed to Canning's proposal (or at least purported to agree), he put off taking any action for the time being. Of course, both then and now, many have doubted that Canning was genuine in his condemnation of Castlereagh's ability and believed that he was simply trying to get rid of his rival. Eventually Castlereagh learned of this piece of political intrigue from Spencer Perceval and on the 19th September he penned a letter of rebuke to his cabinet colleague.

You continued to sit in the same cabinet with me, and to leave me not only in the persuasion that I possessed you confidence and support as a colleague, but you allowed me ... in every breach of principle both public and private, to proceed in the Execution of a new enterprise of the most arduous and important nature, with your apparent concurrence and ostensible approbation.

The "new enterprise" being the Walcheren Campaign of 1809, an attempt by the British Army to seize control of the island of Walcheren in the Netherlands and eventually take the port of Antwerp, where Napoleon Bonaparte had been assembling an invasion fleet. This expedition turned out to be a disaster and Castlereagh was particularly annoyed that he was now expected to bear sole responsibility for its failure, despite the fact that Canning had earlier supported the idea and even foisted on the expedition a leader (in the Earl of Chatham) whom Castlereagh regarded as incompetent. He therefore felt justified in issuing a challenge to George Canning, which the latter felt obliged to accept.

They met at Putney Heath on the morning of the 21st September 1809 to settle the matter with pistols. Both men missed with their first shots, but on firing their second shots Castlereagh managed to hit Canning in the thigh. Honour was thus satisfied and the participants went home. The affair however caused a great scandal; the Morning Chronicle got particularly upset and referred to the duel as a "disgusting spectacle" and regarded it as the "height of absurdity" to suggest that the government could continue in office. But then the Morning Chronicle was a Whig paper and thus regarded everything the government did as reprehensible, and absurd as it might well have been, the Tory government remained in office for the next twenty-one years.

Both Canning and Castlereagh resigned in October, but despite the fact Canning was by far the best orator of the two (and thus might have believed that he had the most political support) the House of Commons took the view that he was in the wrong and sided with Castlereagh. The Duke of Portland was badly shaken by the affair as well, and also resigned in October, citing his poor health and was dead by the end of the month. His successor was the very Spencer Perceval who had earlier informed Castlereagh of the plot against him.

Castlereagh returned to office in 1812, when he took a pivotal role in the latter stages of the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna. But there was always a hint of mental instability in his make up, as evidenced by his suicide in 1822 when he slit his throat. Canning eventually returned to office only after Castlereagh's death, when he became foreign secretary once more and was briefly Prime Minister himself for a few months in 1827.

The Canning-Castlereagh duel is belived to be the last occasion on which British cabinet ministers have taken to settling their political differences with pistols at dawn.


SOURCES

  • Paul Johnson The Birth of the Modern (Phoenix, 1996)
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
  • The Age of George III, http://www.historyhome.co.uk

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