The London Masters of Defence - Playing the Prize in Elizabethan England

by John Clementsjcbio.jpg (2938 bytes)

One of the more obscure areas of renaissance martial-arts is that of the London Masters of Defence. During the 1500's, "The Corporation of Masters of the Noble Science of Defence", or the "Company of Masters", was an organized guild offering instruction in the traditional English forms of self-defense. Training consisted of the personal use of swords, staffs, and other weapons. But it also included wrestling, pugilism, and disarming techniques. In keeping with the renaissance spirit of the times, the English Masters of Defence rigorously studied their craft and openly plied their trade. This was not the case in previous centuries. An edict from as early as 1286 in England had forbade private schools of fence within the city of London --ostensibly to "control villainy" and "prevent criminal mischief" said to be associated with such activities.

Centered around London, the English guilds essentially followed in the centuries old practices of the traditional Medieval master-at-arms, but adapted to the changed times. Each public school or "Company of Masters" had special rules, regulations and codes that were strictly upheld. For example, no student could fight for real with another student or harm a Master. No Master could challenge another. No Master could open a school within seven miles of another or without prior permission from the Ancient Masters (senior faculty). No student was to raise his weapon in anger, be a drunkard, criminal, or a traitor. As well, no one could reveal the secret teachings of the school. Most of the rules were to preserve the school's status, prestige, and economic monopoly on the trade. Similar conditions existed in later 18th century small-sword salons, feudal Japanese sword schools, and even among contemporary sport fencing halls.

The English fighting guilds, following the format of scholarly colleges of the age, had four levels of student: Scholar, Free-Scholar, Provost, and Master. Only four Ancient Masters were allowed at any one school. New students were recruited, paid a tuition, and apprenticed themselves before being graduated. There was also a system of fines and penalties for violations of regulations and custom. For the advancements of students the schools of defence held public tests called Playing the Prize. When time came to test their skill and advance to the next grade (after years of apprenticeship) the student, depending on level would have to fight a series of test bouts.

Two bouts had to be played with a number of different weapons against as few as four and as many as ten opponent's each. To "Play their Prize" as it was called, a student might face in a single afternoon an average total of sixty bouts or more. These were all against more senior opponents, with little rest in-between. The job of the opponents, or "answerers" as they were known, was not to break or beat the "Player" but to seriously test them. The "Prize" meant promotion and the respect and acceptance of one's peers. A Scholar would set their own training pace until a time they then felt ready to request their first public Prizing.

Time and place for a Prize bout was determined by the four Ancient Masters of the school. Notices called Bills of Challenge were posted of the event and a wooden scaffolding was erected in a public square. A good number of formalities were observed and at one time rules were endorsed by the Crown. On the appointed day and time, following a procession of drums and flags the Player was paraded to the raised scaffold with much fanfare. The public gathered close to watch and cheer. Of course, the crowd would throw coins onto the platform and the student would end up making a profit at the end of the day. Prize events also attracted new students --from which the Company earned the major part of its income.

At the start, a senior Master would declare the name of the Player, the rank being sought, and then announce "The first bout to be at (whatever) weapon". Bouts were fought using "blunts" (dulled and rounded weapons) and played to a number of "hits" rather than to a "victory". The term "play" at the time referred to competing or practice sparring, as opposed to a life and death fight. Although not real, the fights were not mere displays or exhibitions. They were free-sparring practices just earnest enough to properly evaluate the Player and not arranged as public spectacle. The contact was limited, but it was at full speed. The bouts could sometimes be bloody, but never lethal. No armor was used and blows were limited to above the waist, but even the bare head and hands were targets. Only a few instances are recorded of students failing their prize, with none ever being killed. Interestingly, the student had to pay for the travel expenses of answerers (opponents) coming from outside of London (all Masters within 36 miles were required to attend).

The fight itself consisted of those traditional English weapons as taught in the "Schole" and dating back to the early Middle Ages. For the challenged Scholar, the weapons to be judged on were fixed at long-sword and back-sword. For the Free Scholar, there was a choice of any three weapons (usually long-sword, back-sword, and short-sword & buckler). For the Provost, there was a choice of any four weapons (usually the same as the Free Scholar but also including at least one pole-arm). Provosts playing for their "Master's Prize" would face an agonizing ten bouts with eight weapons each, including single dagger, quarter-staff, and two-handed sword. It took an average 14 years to attain a Master's title, although this time-span varies according to the records.

Of the weapons, the back-sword was a single-edged cut & thrust blade with a compound, swept-hilt. The short-sword was the contemporary name given to the form of narrow, lighter, renaissance cut & thrust blade (also with a compound hilt). The buckler was a small, maneuverable, hand-held metal shield for punching and deflecting blows. The long-sword was basically the older form of wide Medieval hand-and-a-half or bastard-sword or possibly even a great-sword. Among the other weapons sometimes played were Morris-pike (a long metal tipped staff), flail, sword & dagger, and sword & gauntlet. Later on the rapier and rapier & dagger were included starting around 1580. Of Hispano-Italian origin, the civilian rapier with its vicious, deceptive manner of "foining" fence (.i.e., thrusting), was considered a dastardly "foreign" weapon. As with similar fighting guilds in Germany, its introduction was gradual.

Once all the bouts were over, judgment of passage was made by the four senior Masters. A victorious prizer might be declared "a well-tryd and sufficient man with divers wepons". After collecting thrown change, the Player was escorted back to the school, again with great fanfare, took his oath, paid his fees, and did much drinking (of which he was also expected to pay for). The whole event might even last two days.

Unlike his continental peers, the essentially "blue-collar" English Master-at-Arms had to earn his title through rigorous public trial of his skill. Generally, the profession of private instructor of arms was customarily looked down upon in England and early fencing schools had generally unsavory reputations as hang-outs for ruffians and rogues. Nonetheless, prize playing was popular with the common folk. Although Henry the VIII granted charter to an English school of fencing in 1540, the guild's monopoly was not entirely official. Though, this did not stop them from publicizing it as such. Several Prizes were even played before royalty. Sadly, no records survive of the traditional methods of training in the schools or much detail of their actual fighting methods. However, similar English fighting systems are described in various manuals such as the Pallas Armata, or those by gentlemen masters George Silver and Joseph Swetnam.

During the late 17th to mid 18th centuries in England, long after the London schools and true Masters had faded, a revival of Prizing took place. But in these bouts mostly common, unskilled brawlers and street ruffians would fight for money against all comers. They were also called "prizefighters" in reference to earlier days. Though also using blunted weapons, most of these fights were quite bloody affairs with some ending in deaths. They are today often confused with the old Masters and their students Playing the Prize. These later prizefighters were little more than gladiator showmen. Eventually, pugilism was added to the shows and it became so popular that weapons were finally dropped from the contests altogether. This of course, is the origin of today's modern boxing "prizefights".

The Noble Science, as these martial-arts were known, within the old schools relied on time-honored lessons of battlefield and street duel. But due to historical and social forces, chiefly having to do with the introduction of firearms and industrialization, the traditional skills and teachings of the Masters fell out of common use. With each generation, fewer students arrived and the old experts died off. Prize Playing declined and by the end of the 1600's the Schools of Defence faded or became mere sporting salons. As a fighting tradition in Europe, renaissance martial-arts became virtually extinct and no direct lineage back to historical teachings or traditional instructors exists. Although, their skills have mostly been lost to antiquity and no true schools or masters survive, today many enthusiasts are hard at work reconstructing and replicating these Western martial-arts. Through the efforts of modern practitioners studying the works of the Masters and training with replica weapons, our martial heritage is slowly being recovered.

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