In 1829, while he was Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington fought a duel with a fellow-nobleman, Lord Winchilsea. This event, which sound so extraordinary to us, was not unprecedented for men of Wellington's generation. Duelling had been illegal for many years, yet two cabinet ministers, George Canning and Lord Castlereagh, had fought a celebrated duel in 1809, in which both sustained minor wounds. In May 1798 the then Prime Minister, William Pitt (who, it is easy to forget, was born only ten years earlier than Wellington) was challenged to a duel by the radical M.P. George Tierney, following acrimonious exchanges in Parliament. The two men went out on Putney Heath in the early morning, fired their pistols at each other, and fortunately both missed. Humorists of the time had fun by suggesting that Pitt's skeletal frame should be marked in chalk on Tierney's rotund body, with the rule that hits outside it did not count. But King George III was most upset, and Pitt's friend William Wilberforce was furious. Pitt himself, who was under great strain at the time, seems to have been prostrated by the experience, and did not reappear in Parliament for several weeks.
Wellington's duel came from his change of mind over the great question of Catholic Emancipation in Ireland. The Tory Party had long been split over the issue, and Wellington had taken the Premiership in 1828 as an opponent of emancipation. The position was that Catholics could vote, but under the Test Acts passed back in the 1670s could not sit in Parliament. This issue came to a head in 1827 when the Irish Catholic leader Daniel O'Connell overwhelmingly won a by-election in County Clare. Wellington, as the son of an Irish Protestant noble family, might have been expected to lead a movement to deny O'Connell his seat, but that did not happen. In war, Wellington had always preferred to retreat rather than fight what could prove to be a losing battle, and he particularly dreaded the risk of disorder and civil war. He had been serving in India during the terrible events of 1798 in Ireland, when many thousands had been killed in an unsuccessful rebellion, but it would have been foremost in his mind. He therefore changed course completely and introduced a Catholic Relief Bill in 1829, permitting Catholic representation.
His more extreme Tory colleagues, nicknamed the "Ultras", were both bemused and horrified. Lord Winchilsea was one of these. The incident which provoked the duel was, however, a comparatively trivial one. Wellington had made a substantial financial contribution to the establishment of King's College, London, and there had been fears that the new college would have no place for religious instruction. Winchilsea, who was clearly not very intelligent, accused Wellington of harboring "insidious designs for the infringement of our liberties, and the introduction of Popery into every department of state". He suggested that Wellington had "disgraceful and criminal" motives.
Wellington was naturally furious, and his temper was not improved by receiving from the Bishop of Salisbury scathing letters denouncing his policy. He wrote to Winchilsea demanding an apology, and when this was not forthcoming, issued a formal challenge to a duel: "I now call upon your Lordship to give me that satisfaction which a gentleman has a right to require, and which a gentleman never refuses to give". A duel was accordingly arranged. Wellington's old army comrade Sir Henry Hardinge acted as his second, with Lord Falmouth acting for Winchilsea; and Wellington's doctor, John Hume, was also asked to attend, bringing a pair of pistols.
The two parties met at Battersea Fields early on Saturday morning. Wellington intended to hit Winchilsea in the leg, but missed. Winchilsea fired in the air. He then produced a letter of apology, which however Wellington considered unsatisfactory. The two then parted on coldly formal terms.
Wellington was deeply angered by the whole affair, and his irritation would only have been increased by receiving from Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the philosophy of Utilitarianism and advocate of reform, a letter berating his conduct, beginning with the words, "Ill-advised man!"
The next cartoon places the duel in the context of the ferocious disputes of the time.
Despite these libels, the Catholic Relief Bill passed the House of Commons with a large majority at the end of March 1829. The opposition Whig party was strongly in favour of the measure, though very many Tory "Ultras" voted against. Wellington expected more problems in the House of Lords, but he delivered one of his best speeches, arguing that there was a straight choice between reform and civil war, and won with majorities of over 100 in the various divisions. Next he persuaded or bullied the timorous and tearful King George IV (whose health was now extremely poor) into signing the Bill into law. Catholics could now sit in Parliament. It is very doubtful whether anyone other than Wellington would have had the prestige to have carried it through.
The Ultras never forgave him for what they saw as a gross betrayal. The pathetic King died in June 1830. There was then a general election, in which the Tories lost ground. In November the Ultras voted with the Whig opposition to defeat the government in the House of Commons. Wellington could perhaps have soldiered on, for it was not in his nature ever to give up, but he had had enough of party politics, which he had never understood (so different from commanding the army, when his orders had been obeyed without question!), and he decided to resign. A Whig government took over, and embarked on a campaign to reform the whole system of Parliamentary representation; a reform which Wellington had always totally opposed.