Yet despite the legal prohibition, the deadly game was widely tolerated. During George IIIs long reign, only eigh teen cases were ever brought to trial; just seven participants were found guilty of manslaughter and three of murder, and only two suffered execution. This lax approach by authority was scarcely surprising, given that duels were fought primarily by the titled, the rich, and the powerful, including two prime ministersWilliam Petty Shelburne and William Pitt the Youngerand a leader of the opposition, Charles James Fox. Public opinion largely condoned the practice, which was frequently glorified in romantic fiction, too.
Yet despite the very real risk that he might swing on the gallows on account of the condition of his opponent, the second duelist in the Adelphi Tavern that night declined the offer of escape. Certainly, the wound to his thigh meant that he was in little shape to run. But it was also the case that he was too well known to hide for long.
As the parlor filled with friends and onlookers, including the two seconds belatedly arriving on the scene, many recognized the fashionably attired figure of the apparent victor of the contest as the Reverend Henry Bate. Although attempted murder was hardly compatible with his vows to the church, the 31- year- old parson had already established something of a reputation for bravado. Educated at Oxford, although he left without taking a degree, Bate had initially joined the army, where he acquired valuable skills in combat. But he promptly swapped his military uniform for a clerical gown when his father died, and the young Bate succeeded to his position as rector of the country parish of North Fambridge in Essex, in the south of En gland. Before long he had added the curacy of Hendon, a sleepy hamlet north of London, to his ecclesiastical duties. Comfortably well- off but socially ambitious, Bates impeccably groomed figure was a more familiar sight in the coffee- houses and theatres of London than in the pulpits of his village churches. Indeed, it was his literary, rather than his religious, works for which Bate was famed.
Friendly with the capitals theatrical community, Bate had written several farces and comic operas that had met with moderate acclaim, but he employed his pen to much greater effect as editor of the Morning Post. Set up in 1772 as a rival to the Morning Chronicle, the Post had developed a pioneering combative style that contrasted sharply with the dull and pompous approach of its competitors. Since his appointment as editor two years previously, Bate had consolidated his newspapers reputation for fearlessly exposing scandal in public and private life, boosting circulation as a result. While taking full advantage of the recent hard- won freedom for journalists to report debates in Parliament, the Post took equal liberties in revealing details of the intrigues and excesses of Georgian societys rich and famous, the so- called bon ton. Although strategically placed dashes supposedly obscured the names of the miscreants, the identities of well- known celebrities of their day, such as Lord Dre and Lady Jsey, were easily guessed by their friends and enemies over the breakfast table.
At a time when the importance of the press in a constitutional democracy was becoming increasingly recognizedas was its potential for abusing that freedomBate stood out as the most notorious editor of all. Flamboyant and domineeringsome would say bullying Bate had recently sounded the death knell of a copycat rival of the Post in characteristic style, by leading a noisy pro cession of drummers and trumpeters marching along Piccadilly. Horace Walpole, the remorseless gossip, was appalled at the scene that he watched from his window and described to a friend: A solemn and expensive masquerade exhibited by a clergyman in defence of daily scandal against women of the first rank, in the midst of a civil war! he blustered. Samuel Johnson, as a fellow hack, at least gave Bate credit for his courage as a journalist, if not for his merit. This was something of a backhanded compliment, however, since as Johnson explained: We have more respect for a man who robs boldly on the highway, than for a fellow who jumps out of a ditch, and knocks you down behind your back.
Excerpted from Wedlock by Wendy Moore Copyright © 2009 by Wendy Moore. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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