The Founding of the College
King's College London was founded in 1829 by a group of eminent politicians and churchmen. They wanted to see a Church of England alternative to what would later become University College London (UCL, founded in 1826), known as 'the godless college in Gower Street.' King's was granted a royal charter by King George IV on 14 August 1829. When the University of London was established in 1836 King's and UCL became its two founding colleges.
The famous Duel
The Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister, chaired the public meeting to found King's College London on 21 June 1828. Early in 1829 the Earl of Winchilsea publicly challenged Wellington about the Duke's simultaneous support for the Anglican King's College and the Roman Catholic Relief Act.
Winchilsea, and his supporters, wished for King’s to be like Oxford and Cambridge, a Test Acts College – in other words one where only members of the Church of England could matriculate, but this was not Wellington’s intent. Winchilsea then sought to link the College’s open admissions policy with the Catholic Relief Act that Wellington was pressing through parliament. In a letter to Wellington he wrote ‘I have come to view the College as an instrument in a wider programme designed to promote the Roman Catholic faith and undermine the established church.’
The result was a duel in Battersea Fields.
The duel took place at 8 am on the morning of Saturday 21 March 1829. Present were the Duke of Wellington, accompanied by his second, Sir Henry Hardinge (1785-1856), a Peninsula campaign veteran who had lost one of his hands at Quatre Bras and was now Secretary for War in Wellington's government, his opponent the 9th Earl of Winchilsea with his second, Edward Boscawen, the first Earl of Falmouth (1787-1841). Also physician, John Hume, stood ready in case the worst might happen.
Unsurprisingly, considering the huge publicity the story eventually generated, all the participants were sworn to secrecy. Hume had received his summons the night before and was told only that the duel involved men of considerable rank. He was then conveyed to the undisclosed venue the following morning in a carriage belonging to Hardinge. Hume arrived in Battersea between seven and eight o'clock in the morning. The physician greeted Wellington and Hardinge who were already present on horseback. Hume was entrusted with a set of duelling pistols - probably Hardinge's, as Wellington's were considered old fashioned and unreliable - which he concealed beneath his coat to avoid attracting attention. By this stage, the overdue Winchilsea and Falmouth had at last appeared, their coachman having mistakenly driven the men to Putney instead of Battersea Bridge. The five men walked further into the fields to find suitable ground but were distracted by a group of workmen and to avoid drawing further attention to themselves were compelled to jump across one the many drainage ditches into another, quieter, field alongside the river bank.
In the end deliberately off-target shots were fired by both and neither man was hurt. The Duke received a full written apology from the Earl for questioning his honour.
Why did Wellington fight a duel in 1829?
Wellington was under enormous political pressure as Prime Minister throughout 1828 and 1829. This centred on the proposal to grant emancipation to Irish Catholics when faced with the threat of civil war in Ireland, and which provoked fierce political controversy across the nation and among Wellington's Tory colleagues. Daniel O'Connell's Catholic Association led the popular movement for reform in Ireland and the crisis came to a head with the County Clare by-election of July 1828 when O'Connell was elected but debarred from sitting as an MP on account of his religion. The Duke, hitherto a critic of emancipation and generally suspicious of popular reform, eventually recognised the urgent need for change, concurring with his more progressive Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, who wrote that 'partial concessions would be of no use: they would give power to the Roman Catholics without giving satisfaction'. The 9th Earl of Winchilsea (1791-1858), a political firebrand and a staunch defender of the protestant party, was a vocal critic of O'Connell and was especially hostile to Catholic emancipation.
As a result of Wellington’s stand on Catholic Relief, and with the added problem for the Winchilsea party, of the College’s prospectus stating that King’s College should allow "nonconformists of all sorts to enter the college freely" up to 150 supporters cancelled their subscriptions. This meant that King’s paid for its open policy by starting out with significantly less than it had hoped for, and it was unable to buy its original intended home: Buckingham House, now Buckingham Palace.
Early Duel Day Celebrations
In the early 1900s a re-enactment of the Duel was the crowning event of the College’s annual Commemoration Ball. The ball-goers would assemble on the terrace of Somerset House after the last dance where the duel was re-enacted. This is because the Duel had a key place in the College’s foundation.
*With thanks to Steven Rhodes for his input