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Pistols Owned by English Casanova with Links to Napoleon for Auction at Bonhams

An exceptionally rare pair of gold-inlaid 40-bore flintlock duelling pistols, estimated to sell for £40,000 to £60,000, made for Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Thornton by Joseph Manton of London in 1796 will be sold at Bonhams Antique Arms & Armour auction on November 30 at Knightsbridge.

Thornton was notorious for his succession of mistresses, the first being Alicia Meynell or Massingham known as the ‘Norwich Nymph’ famous in her own right for her horse race against Captain Flint at York racecourse in 1804, and again in 1805 on the Knavesmire when she beat Edward Buckle the crack jockey of his day. Thornton wagered 1,000 guineas on the first race which was lost and he reneged on the bet leading to an inconclusive court case. He then backed 2,000 guineas on the second race which Alicia won, however this led to his being publicly horsewhipped by the disgruntled winner of the first race as reported in the press of the day.

This historic pair of weapons was owned by one of the most colourful sportsmen of his day. Thomas Thornton (1757-1823), self-styled Prince of Chambord and Marquess de Pont, is famous for being one of the most dedicated and flamboyant sportsman of the 18th and 19th centuries, dividing his time between hunting, racing, shooting, angling and hawking. He was also well known for his many mistresses.

The pair of guns being sold have octagonal barrels and bear two French inscriptions: ‘Ne Tirez Pas sans Raison…’ (Don’t fire without a reason), and ‘Retournez Pas sans Honneur’, (Don’t come back without honour).

In the shooting field he was certainly the best equipped man in the land – in his words he had ‘a greater quantity of sporting apparatus of the most valuable and curious manufacture than any other sporting gentleman in England’ – and he favoured air weapons and multi-barrelled guns and rifles, including examples with seven, twelve and fourteen barrels. A portrait of Thornton sold by Bonhams in Sydney last year made AUS$321,636.

He was something of a legend in his own time and was a significant patron of sporting artists, his collection including pictures by Rubens and Van Dyck was auctioned to pay his debts in London in 1817.

Thornton inherited Thornville Royal estate in Yorkshire, but his exuberant lifestyle, which involved keeping two London houses as well as his country seat, taxed his finances and he was eventually forced to sell his estates. Contemporary records chart the progress south of his considerable belongings and retinue after the sale of the Yorkshire property: this included grooms, huntsmen, falconers, kennel-hands and servants, travelling by horse and attended by hounds, following a chain of wagons containing his prize animals. In addition to the live cargo was ‘a fantastic arsenal of sporting weapons drawn by Arab mares of the King’s stud. The procession was completed by several wagon-loads of wine’

Thornton was a Lieutenant Colonel in the West York Militia, a regiment that had been both financed and commanded by his father before him. In 1794 a dispute arose at Roborough Camp, near Plymouth, between Colonel Thornton and some of his officers after he allowed his men to pull him round the camp in a carriage. This was to lead to Thornton’s court-martial and subsequent resignation in 1794.

A Francophile, Thornton visited France with his mistress before the revolution and again in 1802 on a sporting journey made possible by the brief peace created by the Treaty of Amiens following Napoleon’s brilliant defeat of the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo, fought on 14 June 1800. It seems entirely probable that the incident with his regiment (of which his father, an MP for York, had financed and commanded before him) which deeply affected him, acted as the incentive for Thornton to make a presentation of a pistol to Napoleon in an effort to gain support to establish his version as the truth and thereby regain his reputation.

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