Thursday, April 15, 2010
Just off the B1149 Corpusty to Norwich road stands a stone urn. It marks the scene of the last duel fought in Norfolk.
Early on an August morning in 1698, Sir Henry Hobart, 4th baronet, former MP for Kings Lynn, of Blickling Hall, and Sir Oliver Le Neve, a lawyer from Great Witchingham, met at Cawston Heath. In a time when a gentlemans honour was a matter of life or death, they fought. Although duels were not always fatal, this one was. Behind the story lies a sub-plot of Norfolk politics and an unlikely victory for a left-handed underdog.
Hobart owned Blickling. His ancestor, the 1st baronet, having made his fortune through the law, spent a fortune building his magnificent mansion near Aylsham. Despite 3rd baronet Old Commonwealth Hobarts stubborn espousal of republicanism, the family thrived. Young Henry had been knighted by Charles II in 1671 aged just 13. Hobart was a politician; after serving as William of Oranges Gentleman of Horse at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland, he represented the borough of Kings Lynn in Parliament. As a member of the Whig party, he prospered in the political climate of the 1690s. Oliver Le Neve, by contrast, was of more humble station. A Tory-supporting lawyer, he was a country sportsman, fisherman and well-known local drinking man, every inch the Tory king and country squire. Hobart, the court sophisticate, was renowned as a swordsman. He was also argumentative, dictatorial and headstrong, with a record of disputes with his neighbours. Easy-going Le Neve was better-liked, which stood him in good stead.
In 1698 a bitter political battle broke out in Norfolk. Hobart had splashed out heavily on an election campaign spending enough to increase his familys already impressive debts but had been defeated. He attributed his failure to rumours circulating about his conduct in Ireland during the 1690 Boyne campaign. It seems accusations that Hobart had been a coward were circulating and Hobart blamed Le Neve. Hobart issued a challenge by letter and in person, but Le Neve denied being the author of the rumours. He wrote to Hobart: I am ready and desirous to meet you when and where you please to assign... for the matter shall not rest as it is though it cost the life of your servant, Oliver Neve.
The practice grew out of the medieval legal tradition of trial by combat. As long as the rules were followed, the courts usually took a lenient view. Participants were meant to issue formal letters to one another and appoint seconds to make sure fair play ensured. It was considered a disgrace if a man did not answer a challenge, so Le Neve had little option but to fight if he wanted to retain his reputation. Sometimes when opponents met an apology was offered and both parties went away, honour and life intact.
Former soldier, renowned swordsman, versus fisherman lawyer, and a lefthander to boot. A betting man would have had his money on Hobart but he would have lost. As neither man had engaged seconds, the only witness was apparently a servant girl hiding in the bushes. The duel was fought on a Saturday morning; apparently Hobart wounded his opponent in the arm, but his sword got caught up in Le Neves coat. Le Neve riposted, and thrust his sword into Hobarts belly. This proved a mortal wound, and the baronet was carried back in agony to Blickling where he died the next day. It is said his dying groans still occasionally ring out around the house.
As no seconds were involved, it was an illegal duel. Le Neve fled to Holland, fearing Hobarts powerful and vengeful family would secure a murder conviction, and stayed there until the heat died down. After living under a series of assumed names he returned, stood trial and was duly acquitted at the Thetford assizes in April, 1700. Perhaps it was thanks to a favourable jury, his good reputation with his neighbours coming to his aid. Hobart left a widow, heiress Elizabeth Maynard, and a fiveyear- old son. The widows anger was assuaged when she remarried; her son inherited, the family regained its fortunes and his son later became ambassador to Russia. Le Neve settled back into his country squire life. Apart from fishing, horse-racing and gardening his main occupation was his prized pack of hunting beagles, supposedly the best in England. A Justice of the Peace, he was also a captain in the militia. Tragedy marred his final years. His second wife Jane, who hed married just a few weeks before the duel, died in 1703 and he remarried a few years later. Once again wedding for money, he chose a London heiress, but she died soon after the marriage. Oliver died of apoplexy in 1711, shortly after the death of his only surviving son, Jack. The duel stone was later put up in the garden of the Woodrow Inn. This is now a petrol station, still bearing that name. The Le Neve family home, Great Witchingham Hall, was bought by turkey tycoon Bernard Matthews in the 1950s
Gradually, societys attitude to violence changed. By the mid 19th century it had gone out of fashion. That didnt stop the Duke of Wellington, when Prime Minister, fighting a duel in 1829 with Lord Winchilsea. On this occasion both men deliberately fired wide, and Winchilsea grudgingly apologised. Honour was satisfied. By the Victorianera courts took a less lenient attitude to duels, and the practice died out.
The Cawston Heath duel stone is maintained by the National Trust. You can find it just yards from the Woodrow garage. Henry Hobarts home at Blickling is owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.
Website www.nationaltrust.org.uk; telephone 01263 738030.
Norfolk Portraits, R W Ketton-Cremer