‘Very Little Law in the Case’: Contests of Honour and the Subversion of the English Criminal Courts, 1780–1845

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The paper explores the role of honour in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century courts through the medium of the prosecutions of gentlemen for murder in the course of a duel. The author argues that such prosecutions demonstrated how deeply the principles of the English common law were subverted by the values of honour culture. Whilst all parties formally adhered to the rules of evidence and the principles of penalisation the paper demonstrates the many ways in which legal doctrines were subtly perverted by prosecutors, defendants and crucially by complicit judges in order to render the law ineffectual. Symbolic concessions to the defendants accompanied by a particular choice of language served to transform the courtroom into an arena for an assaying of honour the outcome of which proved invariably determinative of the verdict reached, irrespective of both the evidence given and the legal principles avowed.

Keywords: Duelling; Honour; Murder; Provocation

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2008

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  • Until 2007 the King's Law Journal was known as the King's College Law Journal. It was established in 1990 as a legal periodical publishing scholarly and authoritative Articles, Notes and Reports on legal issues of current importance to both academic research and legal practice. It has a national and international readership, and publishes refereed contributions from authors across the United Kingdom, from continental Europe and further afield (particularly Commonwealth countries and USA). The journal includes a Reviews section containing critical notices of recently published books.
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