George Canning and Lord Castlereagh
Backstabbing is nothing new to politics, and British politicians of the 19th century were so adept at it that it could have been a national sport. In 1809, an act of backstabbing between two British cabinet ministers backfired when one, at the last moment, metaphorically turned around. As Minister of War, Robert Stewart (better known as Lord Castlereagh) had his work cut out for him with Britain at war with France and Napoleon still looming (figuratively) large. George Canning held the equally stressful position of Foreign Secretary, but he believed his job and aspirations were being impeded by Castlereagh.
Though friendly to his face, behind his back Canning conspired to Castlereagh removed, and in April he wrote a letter to the Prime Minister threatening to resign if Castlereagh wasn’t asked to leave office. The contents of Canning’s letter were, however, leaked to Castlereagh, and with his honour besmirched and desperately seeking satisfaction, he wrote to Canning, challenging him to a duel. Like all correspondence of the time, Canning’s reply was straight and to the point:
“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.”
In other words, yes, let’s. Canning drew up his will, wrote a final letter to his wife, and prepared for their encounter. The two met on London’s Putney heath, near Wimbledon, at first dawn on September 21 1809. Castlereagh had some experience in duelling, and this may have explained his calm demeanour as he hummed sound bites from contemporary popular arias while taking up position. Canning, who had never fired a gun before, was also reportedly calm as he prepared for pistols at dawn.
Both missed their first shots, but Castlereagh demanded a second round. This time Canning landed his shot, shooting off his opponent’s coat button. Castlereagh inflicted slightly more damage with his, however, wounding his opponent in the thigh, and both men agreed that they were satisfied (though how Canning claimed to feel satisfied with a lead ball lodged in his thigh will forever be beyond me).
The duel didn’t go down too well with some of the big political names of the time. King George III expressed his fury that two secretaries of state should have broken the laws they swore to uphold while still carrying the seals of office. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Spencer Perceval, wasn’t very happy with the PR fallout either, writing, “Terrible all this, for public impression”. Indeed it was, and both Canning and Castlereagh unceremoniously resigned in October the same year.