Thursday, 20 January 2011

elizabethan swordsmen

from Malgwn Dda
Picture yourself in a crowded restaurant. Two well-dressed, upper-middle-class gentlemen are discussing politics at the next table. One of them tells a scandalous anecdote about a prominent political figure, and the other man calls him a liar. They step out into the street, draw swords, and kill each other. This is the Duello.

You are walking down the street and you bump into someone. You immediately apologize, explaining that you meant no offence, but if he demands satisfaction, you will meet him behind the Abbey at sunrise with a rapier in you hand. This is the Duello.

You discover one morning that your best friend has been killed by your cousin in a dispute over the quality of a bottle of wine that they had shared. This, too, is the Duello.

It is difficult for modern people to understand a culture in which mortal combat was an accepted part of the lifestyle of the elite. The Duello may only be understood when it is seen in its historical perspective and in the context of the culture in which it existed. I intend to look at the culture of Elizabethan England, and the responsibilities of a gentleman in that culture with regard to honor and combat, bearing in mind both historical precedent and contemporary influences.


One way of understanding the Duello is to look at its roots as a judicial institution. The duel first appears in 510 A.D. when the King of the Burgundians instituted trial by combat as a means of settling disputes. The theory behind this "trial by battel" was not that justice would always prevail, but rather that anyone slain while defending a just cause would be blessed in Heaven. while anyone defending an unjust cause would be rewarded in an opposite manner. Out of this custom rose the duel of chivalry: the meeting of two knights to contest a point of law, ownership, or honor. The duel of chivalry was much like a medieval joust or toumament, but the weapons were sharp and the contest was often to the death. This public display was much criticized by the church, and eventually fell out of practice. One reason for the decline of the duel of chivalry may have been a change in military technology which made the heavily armored knight on horseback obsolete on the battlefield.

During a transition period between the early fifteenth and mid sixteenth centuries, disputes between noblemen were settled by means of great feuds where each lord armed his men with "backswoorde and buckeler." As historian Lawrence Stone observes, "these weapons allowed the maximum muscular effort and the most spectacular show of violence with the minimum threat to life and limb." These conflicts excluded the ever more numerous and powerful gentry, who had no gangs of retainers with which to enter the fray.

At the same time other changes were taking place, both in fashion and in military technology. On the battle field a long, thin weapon called an estoc was developed to penetrate the joints of plate armor. The nobility, who were required by custom to go armed, began to carry this lighter, more comfortable weapon. The demands of both fashion and efficiency caused the weapon to be lengthened and the hand guard improved until it took the form of the classic cup-hilted rapier.

The concurrent growth of towns caused a concentration of wealth and population, which in turn led to an increase in thievery and brigandage. It became more and more important for gentlemen to carry an effective weapon for discouraging assaults upon his purse or his person. The rapier filled this need very nicely. It was light and comfortable enough to carry at all times, and yet more swift and deadly against unarmored opponents than the more traditional sword. This weapon having become the fashion, it is little wonder that the gentlemen of the day expressed a great interest in learning the proper technique for wielding it.


Where could the English gentlemen find instruction in rapier combat? Certainly not in England. Not yet, anyway. The rapier was commonly carried in England beginning in the mid 1500's, but the English Masters of Defense were too conservative and tradition bound to learn or teach the use of "frog pricking poniards and rapiers."

The solution to this problem was for wealthy families to send their sons away to Italy or France, where they might learn first-hand all of the refinements of Renaissance culture. It was mentioned by an Elizabethan chronicler that in Paris, "The fencing masters have their schools full of English gentlemen of quality."

In 1576 an Italian gentleman and sword-master named Rocco Bonetti established a school of arms in London. One contemporary writer reported, "He caused to be fairely drawne and set round his Schoole all the Noblemen's and Gentlemen's armes who were his Schollers."

Bonetti appears to have taught the use of other weapons in addition to the rapier and dagger, most notably the two-handed sword. In 1590 Vincentio Saviolo arrived in London. He was a professional swordmaster from Pauda who had studied systems of rapier combat both in Italy and in Spain. Saviolo wrote a two-volume treatise on the Duello which was published in 1595 entitled, "Vincentio Saviolo his Practise. In two Books. The first intreating of the use of the Rapier and Dagger. The second, of Honor and honorable Quarrels."

Once the gentry had acquired these sharp deadly rapiers and learned to wield them, the custom of feuding became intolerable, due to the horror of such widespread carnage. The "Code of the Duello" was developed in order to limit the bloodshed caused by these dangerous weapons. As John Seldon wrote in 1610, "truth, honor, freedome and curtesie being as incidents to perfit chivalry upon the lye given, fame impeached, body wronged, or curtesie taxed, a custom hath bin amongst the French, English, etc. To seek revenge of their wrongs on the body of their accuser and that by private combat sul a' seul, without judicial lists appointed them."

A person who was challenged to a duel would select time, place, and weapons to be used. Each combatant would choose a second, a person to come along and observe that no treachery or foul play was committed. The seconds also served to seek any possible means of reconciliation without bloodshed, although this was rarely successful.

One important custom was that a duel ended any dispute, and further combat over that issue was forbidden. Another aspect of the Code was that no man of sound body could refuse a challenge without severe consequences. Examples of this include Sir William Wentworth, who was publicly proclaimed a coward when he refused a challenge, and Antony Felton, who received lasting public disgrace for refusing to avenge a beating, despite the efforts of the Earl Marshal's Court to clear his name.

What constituted sufficient grounds for a challenge? One contemporary wrote that, "it is reputed so great a shame to be accounted a lyer, that any other injury is cancelled by giving the lie, and he that receiveth it standeth so charged in his honour and reputation, that he cannot disburden himself of that imputation, but by the striking of him that hath so given it, or by challenging him the combat." Vincentio explained that. "All injuries are reduced to two kindes, and are either by wordes or deeds. In the first, he that offereth the injurie ought to be the Challenger: in the latter, hee that is injured."

Injury by word included any form of slander, either of a man's honor, or that of his lady or his friend, or his judgement and good taste. Such statements were to be answered by the giving of the lie. In the case of injurie by deed, however, "whosoever offereth injurie by deede, as striking, beating, or otherwise hurting anie man, ought presently without anie further debate or questioning to be challenged to the Combat, unlesse hee refuse the same by making satisfaction for the offence of offered injurie."

This is because there can be no question as to whether a blow was struck, but the question was whether such a blow was delivered justly and honorably. For example: I strike you. You state that I did so unjustly or in a dishonorable manner. I call you a liar, you challenge me, I choose weapons, and we proceed merrily from peccadillo to bloody mayhem in accordance with the rules.


Thus we can see that according to the rules of the Duello. Each man of noble or gentle birth is charged with maintaining his honor at all cost, for as Vincentio points out. "What is to defend your reputation. but so to hurt your enemye, as your selfe may escape free?" But why did the Elizabethan gentleman value honor and reputation so highly? There are a couple of important factors to consider. First we should note that gentlemen of quality were forbidden by custom from engaging in anything that might be considered "work". Their only socially acceptable ambition in life was to gain noble rank by winning the favor of their Soveriegn. Only a few out of hundreds of gentlemen in each generation would attain this ambition, so the competition was fierce. Dueling provided each gentleman with a means to demonstrate his skill and courage, prove his willingness to die for noble ideals, and dissuade anyone from disparraging his other virtues (including his good judgement or "taste").

Second. we should remember that the life being risked was already in peril . If you are fairly likely to die soon from plague or warfare, why not gamble your life on a chance for glory and honor? One Elizabethan observed, "For these and such like offenses the law can make no adequate retribution - in such a state life is a burden, which cannot be laid down or supported, till death either terminates his own existence or that of the despoiler of his peace and honor."


The Duello should not be thought of as an entirely bloodthirsty institution. It was in many ways more civilized than the feuds and killing affrays that came before it when noblemen would settle their quarrels through sending armed gangs of henchmen out to fight their feuds. This placed the risk of injury upon the commoners and not on the noblemen who were responsible. The Duello changed that, making each man personally responsible for his actions. This seems to have resulted in a distinct improvement in the manners and humility of the nobility.

Another result of the Duello was a leveling effect amongst the gentry and the nobility. The gentleman no longer needed a private army to deal on an equal footing with the nobility. Patrick Ruthven, in a challenge to the Earl of Northumberland, pointed out, "though Nobility makes a difference of persons, yet injury acknowledgeth none," Thus the gentry gladly accepted the Duello. As the modern historian Lawrence Stone put it, "The traditional ambition of the propertied classes to demonstrate their personal courage and avenge any disparagement of their virtue or their honor was given an outlet which at last affected no one but themselves."

The evolution of the Duello may also be seen as an out-growth of the Humanistic philosophy of the Renaissance. Whereas trial by combat was deeply rooted in the Concept that God would reward the just, the Duello placed the defense of justice and honor in the hands of the individual. Each man, through the perfection and exercise of his own skills, could win honor and renown, not "by the grace of God" but through his own efforts.

This, then, was the Duello. The gentry and nobility of England, armed with long, sharp rapiers and short, deadly poniards or daggers, trained by Italian masters, were driven by custom, peer pressure, and personal ambition to defend their honor and good name against anyone who would besmirch it. They placed their trust not in God, but in their own skill and efforts, ready to engage in mortal combat over any slight or insult, lest the failure to do so should cause them to lose the respect of their peers.

The Elizabethan era was a time associated with Queen Elizabeth I's reign (1558–1603) and is often considered to be the golden age in English history. It was the height of the English Renaissance and saw the flowering of English poetry, music and literature. This was also the time during which Elizabethan theatre flourished, and William Shakespeare and many others composed plays that broke free of England's past style of plays and theatre. It was an age of exploration and expansion abroad, while back at home, the Protestant Reformation became more acceptable to the people, most certainly after the Spanish Armada was repulsed. It was also the end of the period when England was a separate realm before its royal union with Scotland.

The Elizabethan Age is viewed so highly because of the periods before and after. It was a brief period of largely internal peace between the English Reformation and the battles between Protestants and Catholics and the battles between parliament and the monarchy that engulfed the seventeenth century. The Protestant/Catholic divide was settled, for a time, by the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, and parliament was not yet strong enough to challenge royal absolutism. England was also well-off compared to the other nations of Europe. The Italian Renaissance had come to an end under the weight of foreign domination of the peninsula. France was embroiled in its own religious battles that would only be settled in 1598 with the Edict of Nantes. In part because of this, but also because the English had been expelled from their last outposts on the continent, the centuries long conflict between France and England was largely suspended for most of Elizabeth's reign.

The one great rival was Spain, with which England clashed both in Europe and the Americas in skirmishes that exploded into the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585–1604. An attempt by Philip II of Spain to invade England with the Spanish Armada in 1588 was famously defeated, but the tide of war turned against England with an unsuccessful expedition to Portugal and the Azores, the Drake-Norris Expedition of 1589. Thereafter Spain provided some support for Irish Catholics in a debilitating rebellion against English rule, and Spanish naval and land forces inflicted a series of reversals against English offensives. This drained both the English Exchequer and economy that had been so carefully restored under Elizabeth's prudent guidance. English commercial and territorial expansion would be limited until the signing of the Treaty of London the year following Elizabeth's death.

England during this period had a centralised, well-organised, and effective government, largely a result of the reforms of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Economically, the country began to benefit greatly from the new era of trans-Atlantic trade.

The Diamond Rose is committed to high quality training and development of combatants in the art of historical rapier combat. Using the Schlager or the Del Tin practice rapier, along with various secondary weapons such as cloak, dagger, cane and buckler participants will recreate the style and techniques used by the duelists of the 15th and 16th centuries. Students undergo a full training program before being allowed to engage in actual combat with others, learning not only how to ensure their own personal safety, but that of the other participants as well. When a student has been instructed and tested, they will be allowed to don protective armor, which gives this sport it's high degree of safety without encumbering their abilities-see their web page

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