Just off the B1149, Norwich to Holt Road at Cawston, Norfolk stands a stone urn. It marks the scene of the last duel fought in Norfolk.
Early on a Saturday morning in August 1698 Sir Henry Hobart of Blickling Hall, 4th Baronet and former MP for Kings Lynn, met at with Sir Oliver Le Neve, a lawyer from Great Witchingham, at Cawston Heath. In a time when a gentleman’s honour was a matter of life or death, they fought a duel that proved fatal. Behind this Tale lies a sub-plot of Norfolk politics, plus an unlikely victory for a left-handed underdog!
Henry Hobart owned Blickling Hall and its Estate; his ancestor the 1st baronet, having made his fortune through the law, spent a fortune building his magnificent mansion near Aylsham. Despite the family of Old Commonwealth Hobarts being stubborn and supporters of republicanism, it continue to thrive over the generations. Young Henry, 4th baronet and the other half of this said Duel, had been knighted by Charles II in 1671 aged just 13. In adulthood he became a politician after serving as William of Oranges Gentleman of Horse at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland; he also 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. He was Tory-supporting lawyer, a country sportsman, fisherman and well-known local drinking man – every inch the Tory king and country squire. Oliver was, to his credit, also easy going and better-liked, an attribute that was eventually to stand him in good stead. His personality was in striking contrast to that of Henry Hobart, the court sophisticate, renowned as a swordsman but also argumentative, dictatorial and headstrong, with a record of disputes with his neighbours.
So what was the argument?
In 1698 a bitter political battle broke out in Norfolk. Hobart had splashed out heavily on an election campaign spending enough to increase his family’s 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”.
Former soldier, renowned swordsman, versus fisherman lawyer – but left-handed! – what betting man of the time would have noticed this for they had their money on Hobart. However, neither man had engaged Seconds and the only witness was apparently a servant girl hiding in the bushes. Nevertheless, the Duel went ahead and, according to rumour, Hobart wounded his opponent in the arm but, unfortunate for him, his sword got caught up in Le Neve’s coat. Le Neve took advantage with a quick reply, thrusting his sword into Hobarts stomach. This was to prove a mortal wound, after the baronet had been carried back in agony to Blickling. He died the next day, leaving a widow, heiress Elizabeth Maynard, and a five year old son. The widow’s anger was less intense and possibly satisfied when she later remarried; her son inherited, the family regained its fortune and her son eventually become Ambassador to Russia.
What happened next?
Because no Seconds were involved, the Duel was deemed illegal and Le Neve fled to Holland, fearing that the Hobart’s powerful and vengeful family would secure a murder conviction for him. There he stayed until the heat had died down then, having lived under a series of assumed names, he returned to stand trial. Oliver was duly acquitted at the Thetford assizes in April, 1700, a verdict that maybe had much to do to a favourable jury and his good reputation with his neighbours, all of which came to his aid at the right moment – Who knows?
Le Neve, settled back into his country squire life and, apart from fishing, horse-racing and gardening, his main occupation was his prized pack of hunting beagles – supposedly the best in England. He also maintained his positions of Justice of the Peace and a captain in the militia. Tragedy though marred his final years. His second wife Jane, who he married just a few weeks before the duel, died in 1703 and he remarried a few years later, again for money. He chose a London heiress, but she died soon after the marriage.
Oliver Le Neve died of apoplex on 23 November 1711 at West Harling, shortly after the death of his only surviving son, Jack. As for Oliver Le Neve, he was buried with his first wife Anne Gawdy at Great Witchingham. Because his sons had predeceased him, his Estate passed to his elder brother Peter who in his Will intended the Estate to pass back to his three nieces, Oliver Le Neve’s daughters—Isabella, Anne and Henrietta. However, after legal battles, with accusations by the Le Neves of conflict of interest, the state was taken through reversion of the Will by the trustees of a John Norris, whose grandfather, a Norwich lawyer of the same name, had acted as trustee for the young Oliver Le Neve. The three daughters of Le Neve were ejected from the estate. These three surviving daughters by Anne Gawdy inherited the Gawdy Estate at West Harling instead. They, in turn, erected a chancel marble wall monument to their parents in St Mary’s Church at Great Witchingham.
The monument inscription reads:
How did duelling work and how long was it in fashion?
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 with honour and life intact.
Gradually, society’s attitude to violence changed. By the mid 19th century it had gone out of fashion but that did not stop the Duke of Wellington, when Prime Minister, fighting a duel in 1829 with Lord Winchilsea. On that occasion both men deliberately fired wide, and Winchilsea grudgingly apologised. Honour was satisfied. By the Victorian era courts took a less lenient attitude to duels, and the practice died out.
POSTSCRIPT: A stone urn marking the Norfolk Duel was later put up in the garden of the Woodrow Inn which, in time, became the present Woodrows petrol station – the monument itself became known as the Cawston Heath Duel Stone and, having been previously moved, is now maintained by the National Trust. You can find the stone urn just yards from the Woodrow garage. Henry Hobarts home at Blickling is also owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.