Books: High dawn in the 18th century

High Life, Low Morals by Victor Stater John Murray pounds 19.99
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On 15 November 1712, two leading scions of the British aristocracy met in a deadly duel in Hyde Park. After two minutes of brutal swordplay, the Whig Lord Mohun and the Tory Duke of Hamilton were dead and their seconds were fugitives from the law. This famous encounter forms the basis for Thackeray's Henry Esmond. As in a classic western, where the culminating gunfight resolves tensions that ultimately lie deep in the culture, this duel brought to a head a host of convergent political, financial and cultural issues. It is the awareness of this subtext that makes Victor Stater's story so rich and allows a historical narrative, operating at the level of contingency, to have all the power of structured drama.

At the most basic level, Hamilton fought Mohun over money. The second Earl of Macclesfield, in possession of a vast fortune, died in 1701 and willed his property away from his blood kin, the Gerards, to Lord Mohun, a dissolute debauchee who had been tried for murder in the House of Lords in 1694 and acquitted only because he was a favourite of King William III. Mohun received an estate valued in contemporary terms at between pounds 40,000 and pounds 100,000 (between pounds 2 and pounds 5m in our money); the jewel in the crown was the Old Hall at Gawsworth in Cheshire. The Duke of Hamilton, whose wife was a Gerard, was in desperate financial trouble and badly needed the inheritance. He therefore took up the cudgels on behalf of his extended family. The burden of his complaint was that Macclesfield, allegedly of unsound mind, had been imposed upon by an unscrupulous adventurer (Mohun) whom everyone knew to be a thug who happened to enjoy a lord's privileged status.

There followed a succession of lawsuits in Chancery, with the outcome predictable to all readers of Dickens's Bleak House. Eighteenth-century lawyers were just as good as their 20th-century descendants at piling up costs, stalling, prevaricating and delaying, using the legal villain's favourite formula "further and better particulars". Swift summed it up well in Gulliver's Travels: "It will take thirty years to decide whether the field left me by my ancestors for six generations belongs to me or a stranger 300 miles off." The legal battle see-sawed one way, then the other: after 1707 and the Act of Union, the advantage shifted to Hamilton who could now make his political base in London; before that, as a Scottish duke, he was denied a place in the House of Lords.

The Mohun-Hamilton struggle for mastery also had a political dimension. Mohun was a diehard Whig, committed to the Revolution of 1688, the expulsion of the Stuart dynasty and the Hanoverian succession. Until 1702 and the death of William, he held all the cards. But when Queen Anne came to the throne in that year, the Tories enjoyed a political revival and there was even talk of a Stuart restoration. Hamilton was on the Jacobite wing of the Tory party and had feelers out to James, the "Old Pretender" at his court at Saint-Germain-en-laye. Particularly after 1710, when Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, was the real power in the land, a Jacobite restoration seemed imminent. When Anne appointed Hamilton her ambassador extraordinary to France in 1712, with orders to make peace with Louis XIV after 10 indecisive years of the War of Spanish Succession, alarm bells rang in the Whig camp. The Duke of Marlborough, the victor of Blenheim, was Harley's real target. In the event of a Stuart restoration, the money-grubbing and venal Marlborough would lose the vast estate at Blenheim and all his other ill-gotten gains. He and his cronies, like Mohun, who had staked everything on the Whigs and the Hanoverian succession, would be ruined. Hamilton would win the battle for Gawsforth.

There was only one way out, if Hamilton could be gulled into taking it. As Stater explains, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 ushered in a new age of wealth and a culture of violence, of which the chief beneficiaries were the aristocracy. After their prominence during the Wars of the Roses, the aristocracy had been cowed for much of the Tudor and Stuart period. But at the beginning of the 18th century they were back almost to their full power and with them they brought a new emphasis on duelling or the "code of honour". Duelling as a custom first took hold in England during the late Elizabethan period, was popular in the Restoration period but enjoyed its golden age in the 18th century. Although such private warfare was illegal, aristocrats reserved the right to defend their "honour" with sword or pistol. Duels took place for the most trivial reasons - not just over women and money but as a result of mindless arguments over who had played an incorrect card at the gaming table, who had more game on his estate, who was wearing the wrong kind of cloak. A denunciation in Parliament or a bad review in the press were routine excuses for pistols at dawn.

To prevent Hamilton going to France and making the final arrangements with Louis XIV and the Pretender that would doom Marlborough and the Whigs to penurious exile, Mohun tried the desperate expedient of picking a fight and provoking the Duke to a duel. Hamilton held all the cards: he was winning the battle in the law courts, he was now a favourite with Queen Anne, duelling was illegal and the Queen was known to detest it. Yet he allowed his debased notion of honour to prevail over all reason and commonsense and fell into Mohun's trap. It has long been speculated that the Mohun- Hamilton duel was part of a massive conspiracy orchestrated by Marlborough to prevent a Stuart restoration, and Stater is sympathetic to the view.

Stater's book is full of good things. He has an eye for interesting detail and points out that although Hamilton, at 56, was 20 years older than Mohun, they shared the same birthday, 11 April. Stater also provides a very good overview of English society at the moment of the duel. My one quibble is his confusing use of the word "Stuart". It was not "Stuart" society that was shaken by this duel, as he himself concedes when he refers to a possible Jacobite restoration as "the return of the Stuarts". Probably the best description of Britain in the years 1688-1714 is "pre-Hanoverian". But that society was shaken by this affair in the way that 1963 Britain was by the Profumo scandal cannot be seriously doubted. Stater also points a contemporary moral. All the evidence suggests that politics is camouflage for money. Who can doubt, surveying the contemporary scene, that many (most?) politicians are driven by insane greed for filthy lucre rather than "public service"? By his merciless dissection of the careers of Marlborough, Mohun and others, Stater shows that the culture of the "freebie" was alive and well in Queen Anne's reign.