Having a Brawl – Fencing and Grudge Contests in 16th Century Rural England

By J. Clements

Intriguing hints at early 16th century English prize playings and fencing skills can be found in much English literature of the period.  The following is a particular case.  From the little known anonymous work, the Pinder of Wakefield, published in 1632, but believed to have been compiled from ballads written over a century earlier, we find a retelling of the folkloric character, George a Greene, and a grudge contest arranged between the common men of the villages of Kendall and Halifax (p. 42-45).  Although the work is ostensibly fictional, one section of the narrative is told with a view that suggests a working knowledge of the nature of the non-lethal fighting undertaken in such rural fencing contests. This portion of the tale concerns a quarrel which results in the arranging of a prize playing fights between the men of three villages and how the bouts of the contest unfold. The material reveals some interesting things about such events and also raises several questions.  In doing so it provides students of historical fencing a rare glimpse into a previously little known aspect of early English Prises: 

“Of a great fray that happened in Wakefield betwixt Kendall men, Hallifax men and George and his companions.”

It came about that two wealthy Yeomen, Cuthbert of Kendall and Hoskins of Hallifax, “who dealt much in clothing”, had by chance to come through the village of Wakefield with their waine-men [wagon men]. All carried “their long staves on their necks.”  Tobit the Thresher seeing this open carrying of weapons through their territory as an affront to the rules and the dignity of the locals, “called unto them, saying, ‘Down with your staves, for you must not beare them so.’”  Stepping to them he “shewed them their orders, saying, ‘If that you cannot reade I will reade them unto you, and if you cannot understand them I will make you to understand them.’”  The men tell Tobit that a knave such as he does not know what he is talking about and ask him, “Art thou out of thy wits?”   "Just wait and see," Tobit tells them, before taking off to “fetcht out the Quarter staves, and long staves with the other of the weapons.”  Tobit then tells them, “Down with your staves I say, or else you must have a bout or two with me at these weapons.” At this the men stay their carts and are more than willing to give Tobit his due. 

One of the men “happily bouted with him.” “And so to it they went stiffely; but Tobit layd about him so stoutly that he made the Kendall man give over and lay downe his weapons. ‘Come another’, quoth Tobit, ‘stay not.’  Another came and to their business close they went, but Tobit behaved himselfe so well, that he broke the pate [head] of him, which the Kendall and Hallifax men perceiving their fellowes to be beaten, all of them at once came upon Tobit. But he defended himselfe stoutly against them all.”

“In the meane time came Miles the Miller, Tom the Taberer, Smug the Smith with the rest of the crue, and seeing all upon Tobit, this is foule play and amongst them they all rushed, insomuch that such a fray was hardly seene in Wakefield many yeeres before.  The Townsmen they rung the Commonbell, which George a Greene perceiving, he came running to know the newes, and knowing it came amongst the hottest of them laying about him manfully, untill at last he had made the poore Kendall men and Hallifax men to lay downe their staves, and yet they were in all a dozen of proper fellowes.”

“‘Nay you have not done yet’, quoth George, ‘looke upon the orders, down with your staves, and dril and draw them after you through the Towne.’”  This the “poore men they willingly did, and so they departed with heavy hearts and broken Pates and shinnes, vowing to be revenged withall threatning them to come againe; and withall challeng’d George and his companions to play with them on Midsummer day next comming at all manner of weapons whatsoever, especially these that follow: 1. The Cudgels. 2. Quarter Staffe. 3. Sword and Buckler. 4. Back Sword. 5. The Halbert. 6. The Fawcheon. 7. Sword and Dagger. 8. The Pitch-Forke.”

“And the morrow after they would play a match at footeball with them in the morning, for an angell [gold coin] a man; and in the afternoone to wrestle with them for the like tenne shillings a man, or any other exercise whatsoever. ‘God have mercy my brave lads’, quoth George, doubt not but you shall be answered to the full; come saith my bunny bulchins [dear young bulls], for this your challenge I love you, you shall [go] along with me to my host Bankes his house; I have a five shilling piece to bestow on you, with that they agreed, and they said they had their dozen of ale apiece for him, quoth Tom the Taberer, and the rest of George his Souldates [soldiers] we will have our dozens apiece also, and so away they went together, where they did liquor there insides as well as they had their outsides basted, and so they departed, each taking leave of one another in kindly manner with a faithfull promise on each side not to faile on Midsummer day.  For quoth George, I know that the Countrey will take notice, and I doe meane to have printed bils, and because we will have it done in ample forme and order, and be sure that you bring of your primest men, for I doe assure you that you shall heere finde your match.”

“And so the Kendall and Hallifax men departed, but George and his Souldates [soldiers] had the other round in good Liquor, quoth George, I am glad my brave blades you have so bravely behaved your selves this day, I like it well it is a good beginning to our orders.  Come honest Tom thou shalt keepe the Register of all our pastimes and merriments.  I Captain, quoth he, it is done already, because those that come after us in latter ages should heare of our brave deedes.”

Kendall and Hallifax men did contend
Our orders to breake and bring to an end,
But such a bad banquet we gave them that day,
We basted them soundly, and sent them away.

“How the Kendall men and Hallifax men, according to promise, came to play their Prize with George and his Companions.”

In the challenge “made against George, to bee plaid on Midsummer day, there were eight to eight.”  So that, “George hearing of their comming, was wondrous glad, bidding them welcome with a dozen or two of Ale. In the morning, as the order is, the Drumms and Colours went up and down the streets, which made such a great concourse of people. The weapons were brought and throwne downe, George and his Companions on the one side, and the Hallifax and the Kendall on the other side; and to it they went. George, he began with a lusty Kendall man at Back-Sword, but he did so cut him both on the leggs and the head, that all the company cryed, ‘Wakefield, Wakefield hath got the Prize.’”

“Stitch the Taylor was the next of the Cudgels, to whom came a lusty Hallifax man, but Stitch was so nimble, that he broke the head of the Hallifax man at the second bout, that he could not play the third.” “Then came Tom the Taberer, he tooke up the Quarter-staffe, against whom a Kendall man came, at which they both played stiffely two bouts, that one could hardly tell which would get the better, but at the last bout Tom gave him such a knock o’the costard [head] that downe came the poore Kendall man.”

“Then out steps Smug, to whom came a Hallifax man, and to Sword and Buckler they went close, but Smug did cover himselfe with his Buckler, being a little man, that the Hallifax man swore hee could see no part on him, but one of his great toes, the which he gave a wipe at; but Smug in the meane time gave him such a cut from the eare to the cheeke, that they were forced to give over before they had played out their three bouts.”

“Then steps in Miles the Miller, against whom come a Kendall man, and to the Halbert they went, and the first and second bout was played well on both sides, but at the third bout Miles hoskt the Kendall mans Halbert out of his hands, and with the but end of his owne threw him cleane off the Stage; that there was a great shout among all the people.”

“Then out comes Cuthbert the Cobler, against whom came a Hallifax man, and the Fawlchion were then throwne out for them, whereat they had a civill bout or two, whereon both sides had sound knocks, but at the third bout Cuthbert being somewhat angry received a knocke of his left hand, but with his Fawlchion on the right hand he clave the Hallifax mans head that downe he fell for dead.”

“The last weapon to be plaid was the Sword and Buckler, and then stept out my Host Bankes, for at that he was expert, and a Kendall man out to him, at which they both parted at reasonable termes the first bout, at the second the Kendall man cut my Host a little cut in the legge, which made him so mad, that at the third bout he followed on so close, that he cut the Kendall man all the side of the head and his right eare off; whereat all the people did shout, and crying, Wakefield hath got the Prize.”

“Then out steps George a Greene, whereat all the people were hush’d, and challenged both Kendal and Hallifax men, if they durst to answer him at any of these weapons that were played before or any other. None a great while durst stirre, at the last, quoth a Kendall man, ‘it shall never bee said that I was here, and durst not have one bout or two.’ ‘Choose thy weapons’, quoth George. ‘That I will’, quoth he, and that is ‘the Pitch-forke, that daily I handle.’ ‘So doe not I,’ quoth George, ‘but come, let us to it.’ But George at the first bout striking his Pitch-forke aside, got so neere to him, that he ran him into the forehead, whereat the people shouted, telling him George had made a paire of holes for his hornes. The second bout George ran him into the arme. And at the third bout George ayming at his eye, whips with his left hand the others Pitch-fork away and ran him into the thigh, and presently turning himselfe round, the Kendall man made a thrust at him, when his backe was toward him, which George feeling it smart, got a little within him, and strooke up his heeles, and fell just on him, with that the people gave a great shout, the Drums did beat, the Trumpets did sound, and the Masters of Defence, gave the Prize to the Wakefield Townesmen.”

“Then all cryed, ‘Wakefield, Wakefield.’ Then George againe stept out, asking if there were any that durst challenge him or any of his Soldates [soldiers], at any weapons or any of the liberal Sciences, they were ready to answer them. None durst stirre, whereat the people cryed, ‘Saint George for England, and George a Greene for Wakefield’, and so the gamesters departed, but the Townesmen of Wakefield and other Kendall and Hallifax men, fell one against the other to the Cudgels, where there was brave knocking of each side, that the like was never before seen in Wakefield. But the gamesters they went to my Host Banks where kindly embracing one another, the Kendall and Hallifax men confess they had the worst of the day, and so they that were hurt were drest, and to drinking they went merrily; for the Towne of Wakefield had given George for this brave Prize, by them so well performed, twenty Markes, which George vowed should all be spent betwixt them, before the Kendall and Hallifax men should depart. A good supper being timely provided for them, all to it they went roundly, and after supper all things taken away; Quoth George, my Masters when wee were here last wee had many pretty Jests told, and then I prayed you to be provided of some more against another time. Come to beguile the time a little, lets every one have his Jest and a Catch or two, and so we will to bed. Agreed, quoth every one, Captaine you shall begin: Well, quoth George, I will, and therefore silence."

Some Observations and Analysis:

There are many intriguing elements to note within the Pinder of Wakefield’s ostensibly fictional account of rural prize playing among the Wakefield, Halifax and Kendal men.  It is certainly conceivable that this amusing tale is based around a true and not at all uncommon occurrence that was altered in subsequent retellings.  The combat is ritualistic, and not intentionally lethal –despite severe injuries and even a death.  Yet, oddly the author gives no indication these are particularly troubling.  Even though the “sport” is bloody and begins over a real scuffle (and indeed, ends with one it seems) the factions conclude by drinking together without apparent animosity.  

Worth pointing out is how the main character of George a Green, the local pinder (so named for his occupation of controlling stray animals and herding them into a pen or “pinfold” out upon the “green”) is at first interceding between the quarrelling parties.  But out of the situation George quickly arranges a contest among them (even participating in the event himself).  Does he do this out of ritual and tradition as a way of channeling such violent energy into a more-or-less martial contest?  Or does he seize on it more as a way of making money by commercially promoting the event?  Either way, at the end the town of Wakefield gives him “twenty Markes” for the performance.  George a Green is actually a 14th century character often associated with having fought successfully against Robin Hood and his men.  It is not inconceivable that he was later fused into another story of a particularly exciting local Prize Playing among several villages.  Nevertheless, the consistency between this tale and the details of urban Prize Playing among London fighting guilds is strong, even among descriptions of the acceptable level of violence and types of injury (See for example Pepys and others 17th century writers on this as described by Aylward).  Much like descriptions of the London Company of Maisters of Defense in the Sloane Manuscript 2530 (a Minute Book collection of various papers recording portions of 45 public examinations of their students from 1549 to 1590), the event is arranged for a holiday (midsummer day), advertising bills are printed (at whose costs?), and begins with the fanfare of drums and flags marched in the streets.  The event itself also takes place on a stage we are eventually told at the end and, if a literal reading is taken, starts with the weapons being unceremoniously thrown down before the challenged side. Can we rely on the Pinder for insights into how 16th century English fighting guilds conducted their public contests and trials?   If we note the similarities between this and several other mid-17th and early 18th century eyewitness accounts of later gladiatorial prizefights, the answer would seem to be yes.

Most interestingly for modern students of historical fencing is how we are told that when the final bout ends, and the drums and trumpets sound, we are suddenly told how the “Masters of Defence gave the Prize to the Wakefield Townesmen.”  It’s not unreasonable that these events were associated with the London fighting guilds, but whether this was true for all such rural events or was worked into the story by the anonymous author (as any element of the tale could surely have been) is unknown.  Either way, the reference to the presence of fencing masters at the end here would seem to provide some level of officialdom or officiating to the event in a way that is not expressed earlier in the text.  We might recall Roger Ascham’s comment in his 1545, Toxophilus, how that in England, “For of fence, all mooste in everye towne, there is not onely Masters to teache it, wyth his Provostes, Ushers, Scholers, and other names of arte and Schole, but there hath not fayld also whyche hathe diligently and favouredly written it, and is set out in Printe that every man maye rede it.”  That English country yeoman such as these villagers were armed and skilled with weapons was a commonplace.  In Thomas Deloney’s folkloric novel, Jack of Newbury (from c.1597), for example, we read of a gathering of rambunctious rural English serving men and how the title character, a doughty commoner and wealthy clothier, waited with his fellows to greet the arrival of the King’s retinue: Jack of Newbery cloathed 30 tall fellowes, being his houshold servants, in blew coates, faced with Scarcenet, every one having a good sword and buckler on his shoulder…[and] who knowing the King would come over a certaine meadow, neere adjoining to the Towne, got himselfe thither with all his men; and repairing to a certaine Ant-hill, which was in the field, took up his seate there, causing his men to stand round about the same with their swords drawne.” (Deloney, Jack, p. 37).  The cocky Jack of Newbery and his men guarded his anthill “kingdom” with pride.

The range of weapons used in the Wakefield contest is important to note and is again consistent with other sources for similar events.  At the initial first encounter in Wakefield, Tobit calls for “the Quarter staves, and long staves with the other of the weapons” to be brought out for fighting.  But in the later call for an actual contest George states it will be “at all manner of weapons whatsoever.”  He then lists eight: the cudgels, quarterstaff, sword and buckler, sword and dagger, backsword, halberd, falchion, and pitchfork.  Whether the cudgels referred to using a single stick (such as with a basket hilt and popular as a sport in the 18th and 19th centuries) or two fighting with two sticks against two sticks, is unclear.  Besides the cudgels, all the other weapons are familiar military tools with the exception of pitchfork –an understandably rural implement (and one George admits to being used to during his bout with the final Kendal man). Interestingly enough, there is no apparent inclusion of a longsword, bastard-sword, greatsword, or two-handed sword –all of which were common arms and ones used by the London guilds.  Yet, the sword with dagger is included but shields or targes aren't.  Based on the styles of fighting then known to be more common in England we might infer a date to the tale’s event as being from sometime in the early 1500s, but prior perhaps to the introduction of the rapier (adopted by the urban London guilds and incorporated into their events by at least the mid-1560s as evidenced by the Sloane MS).

The Masters of Defense and indigenous English fencing methods were first brought to attention by Joseph Strutt in his 1801, Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. Strutt was the first to write about the London Masters of Defence and the Sloane Manuscript 2530.  Fencing historian Egerton Castle in the 1880s was the next to write on the subject and it was addressed again by Dr. J. C. Cox in his 1903 work on old sports and then by Norman Wymer in his 1949 work.  Herbert Berry in the late 1980s did some of the most thorough work researching the history of the London company of masters as found in the Sloane manuscript and is one of the few modern scholars to write on the topic. From the Sloane manuscript we know that the London prize events occasionally did involve students of other schools competing against one another.  So the events at Wakefield may have more than a ring of truth to them.  As Fitzsimmons wrote in the 12th century, young men in London, both nobles and commoners, would on holy days in summer and every Friday during Lent exercise themselves in sham fights as practice for the real thing.  So, whether the urban combats of the later London company were themselves part of an older tradition that influenced rural events such as those that at Wakefield, or whether such rural contests were instead later taken to the cities and adopted into schools of defence, is likely unanswerable.  As with the London guilds, the fencers in the tale are all common working men.  Among the contestants are a taylor, a taberer, miller, cobbler, and presumably farmers – all of which George, himself a pinder, calls soldiers.  Of the Halifax and Kendal men we are told they are lead by “two wealthy Yeomen” clothiers.

As with the older tale, The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin, Will Scarlet, and Little John, having trespassed into Wakefield, are forced to try their hand against George, eventually failing in inviting him to join them.  So, the similarity with this tale is evident. As described, the contest appears to originate with a disagreement and the resulting challenge issued out of the grudge of the Halifax and Wakefield men.  It’s not quite clear whether the scuffle is over disrespect to the Wakefield men at the travelers openly carrying weapons through their village or whether there is some actual law restricting what kind or how they are carried.  At first, Tobit is set upon by several of them and manages to defend himself alone for some time until his fellows come running to join him.  George then arrives and manages to break up the fight.

Oddly enough, George tells everyone that on the morning after the challenge there will also be a football match between the two groups for a monetary prize followed by a contest at wrestling (or “any other exercise whatsoever”) in the afternoon which would also be for money as well. This raises the question that perhaps the “Prize” in prize playing evidently does refer to a monetary prize collected by the victor or victorious side.  Regardless, it is remarkable that after such a violent activity as non-lethal ritual (or agonistic) armed combat it would be followed by such clearly sporting events (although, anyone familiar with early English football knows how rough a game it is).  This would suggest again the common “sporting” nature of the whole affair and despite its angry origin, its violence, injuries, and lone death, the contest does indeed end peacefully.  In fact, when the challenged side actually arrives on the appointed day, we are told George a Green greets them “with a dozen or two of Ale.”

The use of term “bout” to refer to each separate hit within each match and the term “bouted” to refer to this playing of three bouts is significant.  For example, Stitch the Taylor plays three bouts with his opponent at cudgels and Tom the Taberer two against his with the quarter-staffe.  Because of his injury, we are told Stitch’s opponent “could not play the third.” After already fighting two bouts, we read that Tom’s opponent went down “at the last bout.” Smug also so injures his opponent that the bout ends before “they had played out their three bouts.”

There were eight against eight fighters in the contest we are told and seven fights are actually described, each with a distinct weapon, with George a Green’s then being the last.  In George’s bout, he makes an open challenge to use any weapon against any opponent, but ends up using the one weapon not yet played, the pitchfork. The earlier bouts seem to be pre-set with each combatant selecting before hand what weapon he’ll be using.  A number of specific types of injuries are incurred during the fighting.  At first, after the initial encounter between the two groups, the Halifax and Kendall men we are told leave with “broken Pates and shinnes.”  In the actual contest on midsummer’s day we read of sword cuts to the legs and head, how Stitch being “so nimble” “broke the head of the Hallifax man” with his cudgel so that he drops and can’t continue, and following “sounds knocks” to each fighter, Cuthbert in his third bout killed his opponent by a blow to a head with a falchion after himself being hurt in the hand. With his sword Smug gives his opponent “a cut from the eare to the cheeke” and Miles the Miller grabs his opponent’s halberd out of his hands then to the cheers of the locals knocks him off the stage. In his second bout Blankes is “a little cut in the legge” and then in his third cuts the head of opponent so that he takes off the man’s right ear to the cheers of the locals. Finally, in George’s bout with the pitchfork man he is able to get so close that he runs him into the forehead –we might presume it was with the shaft of the weapon and not the two prongs yet the crowd makes fun of the blow in a way that informs us he indeed hit with the points (“a paire of holes for his hornes”). George then runs him in the arm in the next bout and at the third bout, George “ayming at his eye whips with his left hand the others Pitch-fork away” stabbing him in the thigh.  But this blow does not end the fight, and “turning himselfe round, the Kendall man made a thrust” so that a wary George turns out of it and kicks his legs out from under him “and fell just on him.”

So, during the course of the bouting we read of a range of blows and cuts to the head, legs, and hands, bruised shins, face slices, and thrusts to the face, arm, and thigh as well as techniques of disarming, closing, and sweeping.  Curiously, nowhere are we told anything about the condition of the weapons and whether their edges are blunt or sharp. There is no question that certain controls were in effect to prevent undue injury and ensure the fighting was not intentionally lethal. Yet, the level of violence and the degree of impact employed with the weapons caused injuries enough to stop several of the combats and kill one competitor.  Arguably, the apparent lack of reaction to these things could be interpreted as an indication that such occurrences were not unusual.

Interestingly enough, we read in one passage that after the contest, while the participants retired with good sportsmanship and camaraderie, others took to brawling with sticks: "and so the gamesters departed, but the Townesmen of Wakefield and other Kendall and Hallifax men, fell one against the other to the Cudgels, where there was brave knocking of each side, that the like was never before seen in Wakefield. But the gamesters…where kindly embracing one another…and to drinking they went merrily."

We might compare the Wakefield challenge to that of a little known printed bill from 1629 advertising a one-on-one match in London, the Challenge from Richard Gravner:  A Challenge. From Richard Gravner, Gentleman, and Souldier, Scholler to Thomas Muskgrove, & Servant to Robert Battell, Provis Masters of the Noble Science of Defence, against Thomas Blunne, Shoo-maker and Scholler to Thomas Turpin, Master of the Noble Science of Defence; this to be played at the Red Bull in St. John’s Street, on Tuesday, Being the 20th of October, if God permits.”  In Gravner’s challenge to Blune, the only known independent example outside the Sloane MS 2530, we read of a soldier (also calling himself a gentleman) calling out a shoemaker (shades of Deloney’s Peachy of Fleetstreet).  Both men are apparently of the “scholar” rank to senior members of the London fighting guild (mentioned in one of their very last public references). Gravner’s bill reads: “Judicious Gentleman and others being a Souldier, from me expect no complementall phrases, for in my opinion, that more sulles the eare, then please the ere, then to leave off this empty outside of verball threatnings, I in plaine termes challenge the said Thomas Blunne at these eight severall weapons hereundernamed, wishing him to bring his best skill and resolution with him. This to be performed at the time and place named, desiring from the spectators stage-room, and from him his uttermost of his malice, while then I rest.”  The terse bill then lists the arms to be so sternly contested: “The names of the Weapons: Long Picke, Backe Sword, Single Rapier, Sword and Dagger, Halfe Picke, Sword and Buckler, Rapier and Dagger, Holberd.”  The bill concludes with Blunne’s reply: “And I the said Thomas Blunne will be ready at the time and place appointed, to answer this Challenger, if God permit.”   Gone is the informal rural frivolity and good-natured team camaraderie of the Wakefield challenge. 

The preceding was excerpted from a forthcoming book on the English Masters of Defence. © Copyright 2003 By John Clements. All rights reserved.


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