The Compleat Sword-Man:
An Introduction to the Teachings of Sir William Hope

While William Hope represents an area of fencing history outside of ARMA’s focus of study, we are happy to offer this material because of it’s unique value in representing aspects of the transition from rapier to small-sword and cut & thrust blade to military broadsword that reflect upon the earlier methods of fighting in the 1600’s.

By Milo Thurston

For those interested in a short biography of Sir William Hope and details of his better known contributions to fencing, I would recommend Egerton Castle's Schools and Masters of Fence. Castle's excellent book covers only what Hope later came to call the "common method", i.e. the standard French system of the period. Hope was somewhat dissatisfied with this system, claiming that it offered a poor defence, especially against blows. I will therefore discuss his attempts to remedy this situation, which though effective, seem to have been overlooked by modern sword-men. Unfortunately, since Hope wrote such a large volume of work I cannot cover all of it in this essay. However, most of it is easily available to anyone interested in studying it (1).

Firstly, a brief overview of the books on swordplay written by Hope (he also wrote or translated two books on horsemanship). His first title was The Scots Fencing Master (1687), a book covering the standard French system for the small-sword that was in use at this time, with various idiosyncrasies peculiar to himself. This book is the one best known to modern fencers, and is the only one mentioned in that (in)famous book The Martini A-Z of Fencing, which is so often quoted as a source. Hope's technique is represented therein as essentially modern fencing, the main point of interest being the quaint and archaic terminology. In 1692 this first book was re-issued under the title The Compleat Fencing Master, printed in London. It is almost entirely the same book, with only very minor changes. As far as I am aware, The Fencing Master's Advice to his Scholar was also published at this time. This book, which is set out in an entertaining "dialogue" form, covers the strategies to be used when fencing at the school.

A particularly useful and important book of Hope's was published in 1691; a small volume entitled The Sword-man's Vade Mecum, or, a Preservative Against the Surprize of a Sudden Attaque with Sharps. As the title suggests, this work is concerned primarily with the correct techniques to employ in serious fighting in a brawl or duel (the latter being referred to as an "occasion"), rather than what Hope refers to as "school play". The Vade Mecum is not illustrated, being more on tactics than technique, but does mark the appearance of Hope's "abstract", the essence of the art that makes an appearance in subsequent books he wrote. The book was intended as a supplement to The Scots Fencing Master (SFM), and anyone unfamiliar with terminology mentioned (such as the "most excellent contra-caveating parade") is referred back to it for guidance.

Hope described in Advice how these first three books form a complete system, which will prepare a sword-man for any of the three circumstances he will most likely find himself in. These are taking lessons from his master, fencing with colleagues at the fencing school and defending his life in a duel. The relevant books for these circumstances are, respectively, the SFM, Advice and the Vade Mecum.

In 1707, Hope produced a new work, combining elements from all these previous works; The New, Short and Easy Method of Fencing, or, the Art of the Broad and Small-Sword Rectified and Compendiz'd. This was intended to supplant The Scots Fencing Master et al., but rather than reject the older work entirely, Hope re-defined its contents as the "common method". He considered the common method suitable for use in schools for enjoyment, but of far less use than the new method in a serious encounter, particularly when fighting in battle or amongst a crowd; situations in which an officer or gentleman could well find himself. This book was also interesting in that he has tried to produce a sort of "grand unified theory" of swordplay, so that any type of single handed sword then in use could be employed with the same technique. He also describes the terminology of the common method, but only so that young gentlemen can see that it is not nearly so arcane as fencing masters would have them believe.

Hope's final work was published shortly before his death, and reprinted a few years after. This was A Vindication of the True Art of Self Defence, consisting of a discussion on the evils of duelling, suggestions for forming a court of honour and some technique according to the mew method, with a little of the common thrown in for good measure. It is interesting to note that in this book Hope wrote that he was of the opinion that his works would be more popular once he was mouldering in the grave than during his lifetime.

Castle mentions one other book, as does Hope himself; Observations on the Gladiator's Stage Fighting. Unfortunately, I have so far been no luckier than Castle in tracking down this work, which would be of very great interest given Hope's developing liking for the back sword. If any copies exist, they are probably hidden away in private collections or perhaps exist only in manuscript form.

Having briefly mentioned Hope's major works, I will attempt to describe his system in more detail. One feature than becomes clear from reading them is a gradual development in his ideas over the course of the "near 50 years" he studied the art of fencing. He is constantly revising his system based on both experience and research. Two developing themes are obvious in his books; the importance of learning technique for use with sharps and the importance of a strong defence, compared to the usual emphasis on thrusting and offending.

There does seem to be something in common with Silver's attitudes in Hope's later work, and it is obvious that Hope has been influenced by the English system. This is most obvious in the New Method, but it can also be seen in his earlier books. A good example of this is a major theme that Hope frequently returns to; the "contretemps". This is initially defined (SFM) as a double hit, but later (NM) becomes a term meaning an attack into one's adversary's attack. Under this latter definition, only a well trained sword-man (an "artist") may get away with it by design, but an unskilled fighter (an "ignorant", a term not meant as an insult) will not be able to defend himself as he does this. A likely result of the use of contretemps attacks is a double hit, known as an exchanged thrust. Hope is very much against the use of contretemps and time thrusts, as he recognises exchanged thrusts as a serious failure on the part of a sword-man. Rather than condemn the rapier/small-sword outright, as did Silver, he instead recommends a method based upon binding, beating, circular parries and left-hand parries (VM). He states that although this does not give much variety for one's amusement in the schools, it is the true secure play for a man's life. Thus, someone using Hope's version of the common method would attempt to bind or beat his opponent's sword out of line, keep it there with his left hand and give a plain thrust if pursuing (attacking). In defence, the circular parry (contra-caveating parade) would be used, thrusting from the riposte with the left hand protecting against a remise. Feints were not recommended, and lunges were to be kept short. This method, as expounded in detail in the Vade Mecum, is in fact an extension and clarification of some rules found in The Scots Fencing Master concerning tactics for a duel with sharps.

This is the method that was in use in the DDS, and it is very effective at avoiding exchanged thrusts compared to the normal techniques employed in contemporary French small-sword fencing, i.e. simple parries, feints and time thrusts, that have been carried through into modern epee fencing. In fact, Hope could conceivably have been referring to something like a modern epee game when he states in the Vade Mecum that "[when observing school fencing] one might almost think that the highest art that they aspire to is to see who can contretemps the oftnest".

In addition to the small-sword, Hope also developed a liking for the broad- or back-sword, which he later confessed, in the Vade Mecum, he was ignorant of when he wrote the Scots Fencing Master. He goes on to recommend that all small-sword fencers also get tuition from a good master of the back-sword, in order to get used to dealing and receiving cuts. His liking for the broad-sword developed to such an extent that in the New Method, he abandons the earlier quarte and tierce entirely in favour of a defensive guard in seconde derived from "the common hanging guard of the back-sword". His opinion as to the relationship between the back- (or broad-) and the small sword is rather interesting:

"For without all doubt, the art of the back-sword, is the fountain and source of all true defence; and that of the small, only a branch proceeding and separat from it; and had the improvement of the small, been kept within its just bounds, it would certainly have been a very great addition to the art: But so bent are some people, after the prosecution of anything that is new, and so fond of pushing their own inventions to the greatest heighth, that by their daily refining upon it, that which was first designed as an aid to, and improvement of the true Art of Defence, hath had quite this other effect, that it has tended much to its disadvantage; by lessening (by reason of its fickle and uncertain defence) a great deal of its reputation: so that it may be but too justly asserted, that the greatest benefit, the Art of Defence reaps now a-days in most schools, is that by having the parade or defensive part, too much neglected, and the benefit of the point or thrusting, too far pusht; the generality of masters, are like to push and thrust any true defence out of their schools"

A letter at the end of the New Method, from one William Machrie (a fencing master involved in certification of instructors) (2) is also relevant to Hope's argument;

"The small-sword, or rapier, was formerly confin'd to too narrow bounds; 'twas judged only proper to engage a weapon, of its own size and strength; but you have after a most convincing manner undeceived the world, and turn'd it loose, to stand and maintain its ground, both a-foot and on horseback, against the strongest, and most bloody weapons, such as sheering-sword, sabre, battel-ax, &c. Arms it durst never encounter with till now, without a too too visible disadvantage; all of which is wholly removed, by this new and excellent method of yours; for which, every one who reads it, and is a lover of the art, will pay an everlasting respect to your memory."

Machrie perhaps overstates the advantages of this method a little, but his letter makes it appear that Hope has tried to re-invent the small-sword in the image of the broad.

The intended effect is to make small-sword fencing more secure in the defence, useful against other swords, and also to make the learning of it easier. A sword-man could also learn the new method, and then handle a small-sword, spadroon or broad-sword without having to train separately for each weapon. It is important to note that, whilst the hanging guard does improve the small-sword's ability to resist other weapons (except, perhaps, the battel-ax &c.), it doesn't change the status of the weapon from that of a civilian arm for self-defence. Still, some ability to defend against heavier swords, at a time when a surprise assault from a differently equipped assailant was a possibility, is certainly worthwhile.

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In addition to the basic techniques, Hope's "abstract" explained the fundamentals in an easy to remember form. The earliest version, from the Vade Mecum, is reproducted by Castle (p. 278), a much revised version appearing in the New Method. The final, slightly modified, version of this was printed in his Vindication (1724), and is reproduced below.

With Calmness, Vigour and Judgement,

Use;

  1. Chiefly the guard in seconde with a sloping point, your body for the most part moving circularly and sometimes fix'd.
  2. A good crossing parade, with a firm dry beat, assisted by the left hand.
  3. A brisk half-pursuit, until you make a true and full one, commonly preceeded with a dry beat or binding.
  4. Plain and easy offensive lessons, briskly performed; and alwise opposing the left hand, to prevent a contretemps, an exchanged thrust; or one from the riposte.
  5. A moderate and judicious breaking of measure, circularly and otherwise, until the violence and fury of your adversary's pursuit be over; when you find that he will force a pursuit upon you.

Prevent;

  1. Being decoy'd or deceived by feints, as much as possible.
  2. Being catcht upon time, when advancing to thrust.
  3. Being without distance when thrusting.
  4. Resting upon a thrust after it is delivered.
  5. A contretemps, exchanged thrust, or one from the risposte, by making sesonably use of the left hand, as either you your self, or your adversary shall thrust.

Left-hand parries, mentioned earlier in this essay, are most strongly recommended in the NM. Hope was originally of the opinion that they should only be used in a duel or against ignorants at the school (Advice, SFM), but later (NM) specifically encourages their use even in school play. The reason he gives is that the left hand is of such great assistance in fighting (my emphasis), against contretemps or thrusts from the riposte, that its use should not be entirely discounted. He does make clear from the beginning (SFM) that the left hand is only to be used as an aid to the sword, however. Commanding the sword was also permitted, except in prize playing, and one of the benefits of the hanging guard that Hope points out is that commanding is made much easier. However, he advises that upon one's sword being commanded, it is best to release it, as the first action of an enemy upon commanding will usually be to deliver a thrust. If he is a gentleman, he should immediately accept that as a surrender...

It would appear that Hope has based his work upon research, fencing with blunts and experimentation rather than any great deal of fighting experience (3). There are thus some limits in what he covers, but his theory certainly appears to be sound. It is also interesting to note that in a battle or crowd situation, he says to make use of downright blows, intermixed with smart plain thrusts, stopping only to defend oneself as and when necessary. Hope seems aware of the need to be as direct as possible in such dangerous situations, experience possibly gained in his period of military service, about which I know nothing. This ties in with advice going as far back as the SFM, to keep one's techniques very simple when fighting in earnest, and to save more complex maneuvers (or "lessons") for the fencing school. 

As I have mentioned downright blows above, I would be worthwhile to explain a little about Hope's attitude to the use of cuts and thrusts. In the SFM, he mentions that the thrust is deadlier than the cut, and seems to imply that it may even be worth taking a cut in order to be certain of giving one's adversary a thrust in return! Of course, he meant no such thing, and takes great pains to clarify this apparently dangerous advice in the Vade Mecum. His opinion of cuts is best seen in the New Method, where he considers the downright blow to the head or neck the surest way to inflict mortal wounds with a cut. Blows to other parts of the body are presented as being best to make an opening in one's opponent's defence, by wounding him or making a feint, in order to deliver a much deadlier thrust or a downright blow. This latter tactic is even recommended for those using triangular small-sword blades, which will not cut, but may force a parry if a blow is used as a feint. Hope therefore insists that the blow and the thrust are always taught together, at all weapons, and recommends a sword capable of both cutting and thrusting, a spadroon (or sheering sword) being favoured due to it's convenience for carrying. If a spadroon is not available, gentlemen are recommended to carry a "rapier with a good edge on it" (Vade Mecum). 

Hope's belief in the superiority of the thrust for killing was shared by others, notably Mcbane (4), and does seem to contradict Silver's advice. One possible reason for this contradiction is the different circumstances in which Silver and Hope will have seen cutting swords used. Silver is describing battlefield combat against armoured opponents, whilst in Hope's day armour was little used. Hope had also seen English gladiatorial fights, where cuts were frequent and usually not too severe. Due to the lack of need to penetrate armour, the types of swords then in fashion, and adaptation to the stage, it is likely that cuts were no longer delivered with such force as in Silver's day; this would not necessarily mean a decline in skill, but a change in technique. The use of the "French" style of holding the sword with the thumb extended along the back of the grip, as used by Hope, was advocated by at least one stage back-sword fighter, this method of holding the sword being less well suited to limb-severing cuts. Whatever the truth of the matter, Hope does not reject the blow, and even recommends the English back-sword as "absolutely the best sword for the wars, either a-foot, or on horseback". As a final word on the blow vs. the thrust, Hope's words from the Vade Mecum (p.81) are worth repeating;

"...so that in my opinion, to deserve the name of a compleat sword-man, a man must understand both blow and thrust, otherwise that title doth no wayes belong to him, neither can he with any confidence pretend to it."

Overall, Hope was a master who had a good understanding of the theory behind the art, and has produced a system (the New Method) based upon sound and traditional foundations. I would therefore recommend his books to anyone interested in fencing techniques of the late seventeenth century, and especially to those interested in the small-sword as a serious weapon for self defence.


NOTES

1. The Compleat Fencing Master, Sword-Man's Vade Mecum, Vindication and New Method are all available from the Royal Armouries library. It is also possible that some will appear on-line in the near future.

2. Machrie is mentioned in Advice, where the master explains to his pupil how Machrie is one of the best teachers, at both weapons, to be found in Scotland, as well as being a "public arbiter of any who profess to teach the art of defence". A letter from Machrie recommending the Vade Mecum appears in that book also.

3. Hope raises this point himself in his Vindication, as part of the possible objections people may have against his system (something he is always concerned about). He says:

"[some may wonder]....how I come to give such positive directions for fighting, when it is not well known if I ever drew a sword in good earnest all my life? And if not, how I can know, so exactly as I pretend, the true rules so strictly to be made use of, when engaged for the life?

"To which I answer, that whether I have ever been engaged in good earnest or not, is none of the querists busines to know; neither will I let them at present into that matter: For I never much approved of being vain-glorious, especially where the victory is obtained, for the most part, at the expence, less or more, of the vanquisher: but if I have ever been engaged, when I might have prevented it, I am now very sensible that I ought not to have done it, according to the principles of true honour laid down in the fore-going Vindication; nothing but being attacked, and necessary self-defence, being what can vindicate any man's running the hazard, as well as the sin, of taking away another man's life.

"And if I have never fought, yet I have had the practice of near 50 years with foils..."

4. Mcbane (a well-known contemporary) was influenced by Hope's system, as can be seen from reading The Expert Sword-Man's Companion. Mcbane covers some material that Hope does not, though this is mostly the use of unusual weapons and styles, as well as dirty tricks, which one might encounter.


Milo Thurston started fencing in earnest in 1989, taking part in various competitions throughout Scotland. In 1997, he gave up modern fencing and joined the Dawn Duelist's Society in Edinburgh to study serious historical swordplay. He has returned to Oxford to study for a D. Phil in plant virology, and while there has set up the Linacre School of Defence, a historical fencing society within the University for the practice of Hope's and other 18th century master's techniques. Whenever possible, Milo takes lessons from English Martial Arts author Terry Brown. 

*Pictures of Milo Thurston and the Linacre School of Defence can be found on the HACA Sword Trip Report.

 

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