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'When amity was dead', 1613
Only one can live to tell the story.
Through my day job as a nonfiction editor and publishing consultant, all sorts of interesting projects and authors come my way. I’ve now worked a few times with a leading expert in historical martial arts, for example, who has forged an impressive career as a ‘consulting swordsman’ – Guy Windsor, who has his own newsletter too. It occurred to me to ask him if there were any good first-hand accounts of swordfights, and of course he knew exactly where to find them. So with thanks to Guy for setting me off on another trail, this week I give you a dash of derring-do – or suicidal madness, if you prefer.
Guy helpfully pointed me to Paul Kirchner’s 2004 book Dueling with the Sword and Pistol, which tells the tale I’ll recount this week – I’ve now followed a trail of documents leading back to a first-hand account by one of the participants (you might begin to guess about what happened to the other one).
The year is 1613, and the story begins, as so many do, with an affair of the heart. Picture two friends, both called Edward. One of them is Edward Bruce, Baron of Kinloss (b.1594), who only inherited his title from his late father, a notable Scottish lawyer, two years beforehand. The other is Edward Sackville (b.1591), an English courtier, educated at Oxford and the second son of the Earl of Dorset. But accounts differ over the name of the woman they fought over – Kirchner says their quarrel began over Sackville seducing Bruce’s sister, but others say it was over Venetia Stanley (1600), a celebrated beauty of the era (there were rumours at the time that she had had a relationship with Edward’s brother Richard, too). And others still say in fact that Bruce was infatuated with Sackville’s sister Clementina, and a drunk Sackville humiliated him over it, striking Bruce in the face. This version is somewhat compromised by the complete lack of evidence that Sackville (who had married in 1612, by the way) actually ever had a sister of that name… The dispute – whatever its cause – escalated during 1613, and in May, Sackville struck Bruce again when they encountered one another at Canterbury (the letter recording this, by an eyewitness, refers to “the old quarrel”).
Clearly it was complicated – but for whatever reason, the two Edwards fell out badly, and Bruce demanded satisfaction. He ‘threw down the gauntlet’ in a letter he wrote from France:
… your honour gives you the same courage to do me right, that it did to do me wrong. Be master of your weapons and time—the place wheresoever I will wait upon you; by doing this you shall shorten revenge, and clear the idle opinion the word hath of both our worths.
Sackville promptly and boldly responded: “as it shall always be far from me to seek a quarrel, so will I always be ready to meet with any that deem to make trial of my valour”. He promised that within a month he would send “a strict account of time, place, and weapon, where you shall find me ready disposed to give you honourable satisfaction”.
On 10th August, Sackville said he was in the Netherlands, with a ‘second’ ready to attend him, and Bruce said he would attend “with all possible haste”, and thus their direct correspondence ends. Note that duelling was not welcome in England – James I was vehemently against it, and only weeks after Bruce and Sackville clashed, Francis Bacon (attorney general at the time) was tasked with abolishing the practice. It became common, therefore, to sneak across the Channel and seek resolution on foreign soil.
If it’s the victor’s privilege to write the story thereafter, we must accept Sackville’s word, for he is the one who survived (not without serious injury), and his the account that has passed down through history, which he wrote in a letter sent from Belgium to an unknown friend on 8th September, so only short weeks after the duel. Below I share with you some of the key parts.1 Sackville has a gift for recounting the twists of events.
To our seconds we gave power for their appointments, who agreed that we should go to Antwerp, from thence to Bergen-op-Zoom… It was further concluded, that in case any should fall or slip, that then the combat should cease; and he, whose ill fortune had so subjected him, was to acknowledge his life to have been in the other’s hands.
… At the delivery of the swords, which was performed by Sir John Heydon, it pleased the Lord Bruce to choose my own; and then, past expectation, he told him that he found himself so far behind-hand, as a little of my blood would not serve his turn; and therefore he was now resolved to have me alone, because he knew (for I will use his own words) that so worthy a gentleman, and my friend, could not endure to stand by, and see him do that which he must, to satisfy himself and his honour. Thereunto Sir John Heydon replied, that such intentions were bloody and butcherly, far unfitting so noble a personage… The Lord Bruce, for answer, only reiterated his former resolution…
Together we rode… about two English miles; and then Passion, having so weak an enemy to assail as my direction, easily became victor; and, using his power, made me obedient to his commands. I being very mad with anger the Lord Bruce should thirst after my life with a kind of assuredness, seeing I had come so far and needlessly to give him leave to regain his lost reputation, I bade him alight, which with all willingness he quickly granted; and there, in a meadow (ankle-deep in the water at least), bidding farewell to our doublets, in our shirts we began to charge each other, having afore commanded our surgeons to withdraw themselves a pretty distance from us… we being fully resolved (God forgive us) to despatch each other by what means we could.
I made a thrust at my enemy, but was short; and, in drawing back my arm, I received a great wound thereon, which I interpreted as a reward for my short shooting; but, in revenge, I pressed in to him, though I then missed him also; and then received a wound in my right pap [breast], which passed level through my body, and almost to my back; and there we wrestled for the two greatest and dearest prizes we could ever expect, trial for honour and life; in which struggling, my hand, having but an ordinary glove on it, lost one of her servants [i.e. a finger], though the meanest, which hung by a skin, and, to sight, yet remaineth as before, and I am put in hope one day to recover the use of it again.
But at last breathless, yet keeping our holds, there passed on both sides propositions for quitting each other’s sword. But, when Amity was dead, Confidence could not live, and who should quit first was the question, which on neither part either would perform; and, re-striving again afresh, with a kick and a wrench together I freed my long-captive weapon, which incontinently levying at his throat, being master still of his, I demanded if he would ask his life or yield his sword? Both which, though in that imminent danger, he bravely denied to do.
Myself being wounded, and feeling loss of blood, having three conduits running on me, began to make me faint; and he courageously persisting not to accord to either of my propositions, remembrance of his former bloody desire, and feeling of my present estate, I struck at his heart; but, with his avoiding, missed my aim, yet passed through his body, and, drawing back my sword, repassed it through again through another place, when he cried, “Oh, I am slain!” seconding his speech with all the force he had to cast me.
But being too weak, after I had defended his assault, I easily became master of him, laying him on his back; when being upon him, I redemanded if he would request his life? But it seems he prized it not at so dear a rate to be beholden for it… I could not find in my heart to offer him any more violence, only keeping him down, till, at length, his surgeon afar off cried out, “He would immediately die if his wounds were not stopped!” whereupon I asked, “if he desired his surgeon should come?” which he accepted of; and so being drawn away, I never offered to take his sword, accounting it inhumane to rob a dead man, for so I held him to be.
This thus ended, I retired to my surgeon, in whose arms, after I had remained awhile for want of blood, I lost my sight, and withal, as I then thought, my life also. But strong water and his diligence quickly recovered me; when I escaped a great danger, for my Lord’s surgeon, when nobody dreamt of it, came full at me with his Lord’s sword; and had not mine with my sword interposed himself, I had been slain by those base hands, although my Lord Bruce, weltering in his blood, and past all expectation of life, conformable to all his former carriage, which was undoubtedly noble, cried out “Rascal, hold thy hand!” So may I prosper…
Bruce died shortly afterwards (his heart was buried in a silver case at Culross Abbey) but Sackville did indeed prosper: despite James I’s disfavour after the duel, Sackville was made a Knight of the Bath three years later, became MP for Sussex, and was involved in the colonising of America. In 1624 he became Earl of Dorset, later supporting Charles I in the Civil War; but he then declined, isolating himself from everyone after Charles was executed, and died himself three years later (1652).
The original is held at the British Library (Add. MS. 18644) headed ‘All the passages concerninge the Combate betweene the late Lord Bruce deceased, and the then Sir Edward Sackvill…’ I found the letters and Sackville’s account in various 19th century books, the earliest being The Military Mentor by Richard Philips (“being a series of letters recently written by a general officer to his son on his entering the army”, 1808); Kirchner found it in The Romance of the Peerage from the 1840s.