On 13 April 1829 the Roman Catholic Relief Act was passed by Parliament. It was guided through the parliamentary process by the Prime Minster the Duke of Wellington and the Home Secretary Robert Peel, overcoming vehement opposition, including from the King George IV.The act represented the legislative move towards Catholic emancipation and for Catholics to be able to take a seat in the Parliament at Westminster. Daniel O’Connell, who had won the by-election in Clare in 1828, and who was leader of the Catholic Association and in the campaign for Catholic emancipation, was now able to take his seat as MP.
Wellington had not originally supported the move for Catholic emancipation and was harshly criticised by those most vehemently opposed. None more so than George Finch-Hatton, tenth Earl of Winchilsea. Winchilsea accused Wellington of “an insidious design for the infringement of our liberties and the introduction of Popery into every department of the State”.
Stung, Wellington challenged him to a duel:
“… Since the insult, unprovoked on my part, and not denied by your lordship, I have done everything in my power to induce your lordship to make me reparation, but in vain. Instead of apologizing for your own conduct your lordship has called upon me to explain mine….
… I now call upon your lordship to give me that satisfaction for your conduct which a gentleman has a right to require and which a gentleman never refuses to give.”The duel took place at 8am on Saturday 21 March at Battersea Fields, South London. Wellington was accompanied by his second Sir Henry Hardinge, whilst Winchilsea’s second was Edward Boscawen, first Earl of Falmouth. The physician, John Hume, attended in case of injury and subsequently sent a detailed report to the Duchess of Wellington.
“Lord Falmouth … gave his pistol to Lord Winchilsea and he and the Duke remained with them in their right hands, the arm being extended down by their sides. Lord Falmouth and Sir Henry then stepped back a few paces when Lord Falmouth said ‘Sir Henry I leave it entirely to you to arrange the manner of firing’, upon which Sir Henry said, ‘Then, gentlemen, I shall ask you if you are ready and give the word fire, without any farther signal or preparation’, which in a few seconds after he did, saying, ‘Gentlemen, are you ready, fire !’ The Duke raised his pistol and presented it instantly on the word fire being given, but as I suppose observing that Lord Winchilsea did not immediately present at him he seemed to hesitate for a moment and then fired without effect.
I think Lord Winchilsea did not present his pistol at the Duke at all, but I cannot be quite positive as I was wholly intent on observing the Duke lest anything should happen to him, but when I turned my eyes towards Lord Winchilsea after the Duke had fired his arm was still down by his side from whence he raised it deliberately and holding his pistol perpendicularly over his head he fired it off into the air….”News of the duel was met with shock, with some newspapers carrying censorial reports.
Jeremy Bentham was moved to write to the Duke the following day:
“Ill advised man ! Think of the confusion into which the whole fabric of the government would have been thrown had you been killed, or had the trial of you for the murder of another man been substituted in the House of Lords to the passing of the emancipation bill !”
[MS 61 WP 1/1004/17]
Generally, however, Wellington found that this event enhanced his reputation and he was praised in various accounts for his “manly forbearance”.