Anatomy of a Duel in Jacobean England

Dr Lloyd Bowen introduces us his new book, a fascinating look at an infamous duel which took place in Highgate in 1610. But was it a fair duel, fought according to strict rules, or was it in fact plain murder? Dr Bowen’s research uncovers the workings of a manhunt, the legal system and coroner’s court, and the power of aristocratic patronage.

My book, Anatomy of a Duel in Jacobean England, arose out of a mistake.

I was in the National Archives at Kew and was looking for material on John Egerton, first earl of Bridgewater: the man who ran the Council in the Marches of Wales during the 1630s. I came across some manuscripts relating to John Egerton in SP46, ‘State Papers, Additional’. I knew that this was a collection of miscellaneous and disparate material and I quite liked ordering up the documents and not knowing what I was going to get. In the end, I got a lot more than I bargained for!

The John Egerton who was discussed and described in the confused and partly damaged jumble of papers was not, in fact, the man who would become the earl of Bridgewater. Instead, he was the victim of a duel.

This John Egerton was the younger son of a wealthy Cheshire dynasty (and thus a relation of the earl of Bridgewater), and he had been killed in a duel in Highgate in April 1610. The manuscripts which comprised the State Papers material were an extraordinary survival: legal testimony and depositions from the Middlesex coroner’s court and the court of King’s Bench which took evidence and tried to piece together how John Egerton had died, and, moreover, explored how a case for murder could be brought against his killer, a headstrong Welsh gentleman, Edward Morgan. The archive had been compiled by his father, Sir John Egerton, an influential man who was sitting in parliament as an MP at the time, and who was bent on seeing Morgan executed.

After more digging in the archives in Kew, Aberystwyth and the Huntington Library in Los Angeles (where, ironically, duel material ended up among the family papers of the earl of Bridgewater), I pieced together the origins, course and aftermath of this fatal duel. The dispute between the Morgans and the Egertons emerged from that perennial fixture of early modern gentry society, an inheritance dispute. However, this confrontation spun out of control as challenge letters flew and both sides looked to defend their honour. The documentary survivals surrounding the inheritance dispute, the fatal duel as well as its legal investigation and prosecution, resulted in the most richly-documented duel in early modern England.

The fight itself occurred at Highgate, then a quiet Middlesex village to the north of London and a favoured spot for high status duellists in this period. John Egerton and Edward Morgan came together with all the ceremony of a formal duel – including having two seconds present to see that the encounter was conducted fairly. Controversy surrounded this aspect of the duel, however, as the Egerton clan claimed that these men, who should have been impartial arbitrators, were, in fact, part of a conspiracy to murder the Cheshire squire. The narrative ran that John Egerton had stunned Edward Morgan with a blow to the head, but the Welshman’s second, who was actually his brother, William, charged into the fray, pursued John Egerton into a hedge and there killed him. The Morgan defence had to deal with the uncomfortable presence of three entry wounds in John Egerton’s body that were revealed at the Highgate inquest the day after the fight; one would expect only a single fatal thrust in such an encounter. To many it did not seem like an accidental killing arising from a duel of honour. Instead, this was a murderous conspiracy whose survivors deserved to hang.

Anatomy of a Duel explores the remarkably rich material surrounding the case to discuss and dissect the Egerton-Morgan clash, but also to understand and contextualise the fight more fully in the contemporary worlds of gentry honour, violence and the law. The book argues that duels such as this one should be seen as components of an aggressive culture of gentry feuding which was not, despite scholarly opinion to the contrary, eradicated by the early seventeenth century.

Anatomy of a Duel tells a complex and compelling story which moves from family squabbles in the Welsh Marches to the fatal field in Highgate, and from the coroner’s inquest in a London inn to the corridors of power in the Court of King James I.


This guest post was written by Dr Lloyd Bowen, Reader in Early Modern History, Cardiff University.

Anatomy of a Duel in Jacobean England
by Lloyd Bowen
9781783276097, Hardcover, £45.50 or $74.75