This is one of those tales which falls into the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category. Though, in the end, there is some suggestion that this duel did not come off, and it happened almost five years before the Regency began, it really did take place in England. In addition, it took place publicly enough that quite a few sporting gentlemen were aware of the particulars and would have remembered it during our favorite decade. Regency Authors may, or may not, choose to take inspiration from that curious event for a duel they may be planning in an upcoming story of romance.
The particulars of the Naked Duel . . .
This remarkable duel took place in Brighton, during the summer race meeting of 1806. There had been horse racing in Brighton even before the Prince Regent began to patronize the seaside town as his favorite resort. In fact, horses had been raced on the downs near Brighton from the reign of Queen Anne, in the early eighteenth century. However, in 1783, the Duke of Cumberland, uncle to George, Prince of Wales, established a race course on Whitehawk Down. That is now roughly the site of the current track, which is located about a mile northeast of the centre of Brighton. In the early days, most of the races on that course were between soldiers who were garrisoned nearby. But by the turn of the nineteenth century, horse racing had become firmly established at Brighton, on the course the Duke of Cumberland had laid out on Whitehawk Down. Early in the new century, the race meetings attracted large crowds of fashionable and sporting gentlemen from all over the country.
The principle race meeting at Brighton took place in July or August of each year. The schedule was set so as to coincide with the Whitehawk Fair, which had been held on the down near the racecourse since 1791. The race meeting at which this unique duel took place was held in the last week of July of 1806. As was usual at such race meetings, during the day, most of the gentlemen spent their time placing wagers, discussing the merits of the various horses and watching the horses race. Some of them even managed to find the time to enjoy at least a few of the diversions which were on offer at the nearby Whitehawk Fair. But once the sun went down, there was little to do on the race course or at the fair.
In the evenings, most gentlemen tended to gravitate into Brighton in search of other forms of entertainment. One of the most popular venues for evening activities in the town was the Castle Inn. This was a large inn, located near the Royal Pavilion and overlooking the Steyne. The Caste Inn had large, elegant assembly rooms where the inaugural ball of each Brighton race meeting was usually held. In addition, the Castle Inn had rooms for travelers and offered meals and alcoholic refreshments for their guests. Another popular feature of the Castle Inn was the card room. Many gentlemen whiled away long hours, well into the night, playing cards and usually imbibing the various spiritous beverages which were available.
One evening during the Brighton race meeting, in late July of 1806, Humphrey Howarth, the MP for Evesham, sat down with Henry Barry, the 8th Earl of Barrymore, in the card room of the Castle Inn, to play a few hands of whist. Both gentlemen were known to drink deeply at every opportunity, so, within a few hours, both of them were thoroughly inebriated. They continued to play, until the wee hours of the morning, when the Earl of Barrymore accused Mr. Howarth of cheating. Enraged at the suggestion, Howarth punched Barrymore in the eye. The Earl did not return the punch. Instead, he challenged Howarth to a duel in order to resolve their differences. Howarth accepted the challenge and the two men agreed to meet at dawn. The location they chose was the middle of the Brighton race course, and the weapons were to be pistols.
By the time the challenge to duel was issued and accepted in the card room, dawn was barely four hours away. That left neither man with much time to achieve any semblance of sobriety before they were to meet on the field of honor. However, they each did manage to find seconds to stand up with them, as well as a pair of dueling pistols. Remarkably, within those four short hours, word spread among many of the residents and visitors to Brighton that a duel would be taking place on the race course, soon after sunrise. As the sun rose, a crowd began to gather at the appointed place, all of them there in the hope of being able to view the planned duel in person.
The Earl of Barrymore arrived first, chatted with his second for a few moments, then stripped off his jacket and waistcoat in preparation for his engagement. Soon thereafter, Mr. Howarth arrived on the field of honor. He, too, spoke for a few moments with his second, then began to strip off his garments. But Mr. Howarth did not stop with his jacket and waistcoat. Much to the amusement of the watching crowd, he continued removing garments until he had removed everything but his smalls. When his second chided him for his completely shocking behavior, Howarth explained that, in his younger days, he had served as a physician with the army of the British East India Company. During that time, he had had occasion to deal with a great number of pistol shots. From his experience, he had determined that death from such wounds was not usually caused by the bullet. His observations convinced him that most deaths from bullet wounds were the results of infections caused when the bullet forced soiled bits of clothing into the wound. Therefore, Howarth was determined to remove his clothing, thus increasing his chances of survival, should he take Barrymore’s bullet.
By the time the duel took place, Mr. Howarth was an older man, who had long enjoyed substantial meals. Thus, he had become quite obese. Initially shocked, the crowd began to roar with laughter at the sight of the nearly naked, fat old man checking his pistol in preparation for the duel. Some versions of the tale have it that both men fired at one another, but were too drunk to hit their marks. However, most versions of the event state that, even still somewhat inebriated, the Earl of Barrymore thought it quite ridiculous to take a shot at a fat old man. Barrymore stood his ground and waited until Howarth fired. The bullet missed him by a wide margin. Barrymore then deloped, that is, shot into the air, and declared that honor had been satisfied. As the crowd looked on, the two duelists collected their respective clothing and retired from the field of honor, probably to nurse monumental hangovers.
Dear Regency Authors, might some aspects of this singular duel provide inspiration for a duel in an upcoming tale of romance? Will your hero strip down for a duel, unaware that the heroine has hidden herself nearby? Will the sight of his well-muscled frame arouse within her feelings she had never before experienced? Perhaps the villain has challenged an older man to a duel, with murderous intent. Will the crafty older man, remembering the Howarth/Barrymore duel, strip down before he faces his opponent, thereby embarrassing and disconcerting the villain so much that the duel comes to naught? Mayhap an older female character scandalizes a group of ladies by discussing the Howarth/Barrymore duel in front of them. How else might the Howarth/Barrymore duel feature in a Regency romance?