a Brawl – Fencing and Grudge Contests in 16th Century
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:
a great fray that happened in
came about that two wealthy Yeomen, Cuthbert of Kendall and Hoskins
of Hallifax, “who dealt much in clothing”, had by chance to come
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
“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,
orders to breake and bring to an end,
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
“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.”
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
all cryed, ‘ "
Some Observations and Analysis:
are many intriguing elements to note within the Pinder of
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
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.
range of weapons used in 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
with the older tale, The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin,
Will Scarlet, and Little John, having trespassed into
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.”
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
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
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.
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
to drinking they went merrily."
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."
might compare the
The preceding was excerpted from a forthcoming book on the English Masters of Defence. © Copyright 2003 By John Clements. All rights reserved.