Whitsunday, 27 May 1798. Four men arrive on Putney Heath in hackney carriages. Their meeting is supposed to be secret, but somehow word has got out and a small crowd is already gathering.
The crowds watch as two of the men choose pistols and take their places opposite each other. One of the other gentlemen raises his hand; the other holds the pistol case and chews a thumbnail.
On the first man’s signal the two antagonists fire without effect. After a short deliberation the process is repeated, the taller of the two duellists firing into the air. This time everyone seems satisfied, and the party return to their respective vehicles.
The duellists were none other than the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, and the leader of the parliamentary opposition, George Tierney (Charles James Fox had seceded from Parliament more or less completely in 1797, and would not return until 1800). Pitt had accused Tierney of a deliberate attempt to obstruct the defence of the country during a debate on an emergency bill to secure additional manpower for the Navy; Tierney had demanded an apology, Pitt refused to back down, and the next day Tierney had issued his challenge.
The country was either fascinated or horrified (and possibly a combination of both) at the prospect of the wartime prime minister putting himself deliberately in harm’s way. William Wilberforce, Pitt’s friend, was doubly incensed by the duel’s taking place on a Sunday, and actually gave notice of a motion on duelling in the House of Commons (he later withdrew it on Pitt’s insistence). Wilberforce said “he had felt more solicitude upon it [the duel] than upon almost any other occasion”.
But how did Pitt’s family react to the duel? Pitt’s brother, Lord Chatham, almost certainly disapproved of his brother making a fool of himself, but if he did he kept his opinion to himself. All we know is that Chatham told Henry Addington, the Speaker, that he had been right not to try and stop the duel taking place: “Lord Chatham remarked that I [Addington] could not have taken any step so injurious to his family … my interfering would have looked too much like collusion”.
It’s clear from a letter from the King to Pitt, however, that Chatham had (probably quite cheerfully) passed on a stern royal message on the subject of duelling with members of the opposition. “I certainly said nothing to Lord Chatham but what my mind dictated, and I trust what has happened will never be repeated,” the King wrote on 30 May. “… Public characters have no right to weigh alone what they owe to themselves; they must consider also what is due to their country.”
As for Pitt’s elderly mother, aged 77 and not in the best health, I can’t imagine how she must have felt on receiving the following letter from Pitt written on 28 May (Pitt’s 39th birthday):
You will be glad, I know, to hear from myself on a subject in which I know how much you will feel interested, and I am very happy that I have nothing to tell that is not perfectly agreeable. The newspapers of to-day contain a short but correct account of a meeting which I found it necessary to have with Mr Tierney yesterday, on Putney Heath, in consequence of some words which I had used in the House of Commons, and which I did not think it became me to retract or explain. The business terminated without anything unpleasant to either party, and in a way which left me perfectly satisfied both with myself and my antagonist, who behaved with great propriety. You will, I know, hear from my brother on the subject, but I could not be contented without sending these few lines from myself.
In fact Chatham had already written to the Dowager Countess. He did so on Sunday night, so on the 27th, immediately after the duel, so Pitt was a day behind: his letter was old news. Perhaps he had counted on this to an extent, but he must have wondered what his brother said.
Judging from the following letter from Chatham’s wife Mary to the Dowager Countess’s companion, Mrs Stapleton, the Chatham household was all in a flap:
My Dear Mrs S.,
Not knowing that L[ord] C[hatham] had sent to dear L[ad]y C[hatham] by the Mail Sunday night, I would not, for fear by chance, any Letter should have been opened first, say any thing of what had passed. Thank God all is well over, I knew nothing of it till it was so, & the shock it would be to our dearest Dear friend, was my very first thought. I never wrote a more uncomfortable Letter in my life to you than I did yesterday. I did not dare touch upon what was uppermost in my thoughts, & every other subject appeared so trifling. We all say there must be an Embargo laid upon his ever venturing such a thing again. The lower people all say that the King might as well fight as Mr Pitt. Report says that Sheridan is very angry with Tierney on the subject. But what is more important to me is dear Lady Chathams health, send me one line to let me know how she has borne this business. I heard the King tell Lord Chatham from one card table to another last night that Mr Wilson [Dean of Windsor and Pitt and Chatham’s former tutor] who had just come from Burton gave a good account of her, adding how much pleased he was at knowing that she was just now well enough to bear this excitement.
Oh to be a fly on the wall at that royal card-playing session… Or indeed a fly on the wall when Chatham told Mary about his brother’s duel.
“Good evening, dear. Had a good day?”
“Uhm. Not really. Er. My brother fought a duel with Mr Tierney.”
“Oh dear, that’s — wait. What?”
 Express and Evening Chronicle, 31 May 1798
 George Pellew, Life of Lord Sidmouth I, 205
 Lord Stanhope, Life of Pitt III, appendix XIV
 Lord Stanhope, Life of Pitt III, 132
 National Army Museum Combermere MSS 8408-114
I don’t know if it’s more depressing or reassuring to know that politicians were as idiotic then as they are now. The world survived them, so I suppose we will survive the current batch.
I do love your ending.
Pitt was under a lot of strain and acting erratically… He was ill for much of the summer and the opposition even spread whispers he’d gone insane. He hadn’t, but I suppose fighting a duel could suggest that he had!