1999 Sword Research Trip to England

Viewing & Handling Swords

Visiting with
Ewart Oakeshott


Consulting with
Professor Sydney Anglo


The Fitz William Museum

At the Victoria & Albert Museum

The Royal Armouries
at Leeds


The Royal Armouries
Fight Interpreters


Historical Fencing Event
at Oxford


Meeting with Terry Brown

The Wallace Collection
and David Edge


Post Trip Thoughts

 

ely3.jpg (52343 bytes)Over two weeks in July, six members of Houston ARMA (then "HACA") traveled to England at the invitation of swords and armor expert Ewart Oakeshott. He had arranged for us to visit several of his colleagues and we also scheduled a number of meetings with our fellow associates and peers in the UK. This first group trip to Europe was a huge success. We accomplished great strides toward cultivating contacts at arms collections and meeting assorted colleagues. This incredible opportunity allowed us unprecedented access to materials, weapons, and experts all for the direct purpose of furthering our understanding of Medieval & Renaissance swords and their proper use. We were able to accomplish a great deal of hands-on research and study. We came away with a treasure chest of detailed information gleaned from our many days of observations, inquiries, and conversations. The contacts we established, networking we forged, and the plans we arranged for further research will allow us to expand our study of Historical Fencing. Below a brief outline is provided of some of the highlights of our excursion.

 

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Swords at the RA

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Weapons in the V&A

Viewing & Handling Swords

The most significant piece of information we came away with from the sword tour was just how bloody awful so many of today’s replicas are compared to the real things. Even the best of our favorite Del Tins felt twice as cumbersome (in balance and weight). Only a few of the Ravens Armoury swords come close to exactly matching the lightness and agility of the real swords we handled.  It is always amazing how light and agile historical pieces handle making it so painfully obvious that there is still a large quality gap between real weapons and even the better replicas available today.

And for rapiers, the distinctions were even greater. We handled and played with several rapiers (thick hexagonal and diamond cross sections) that although weighing in on our scale at 2.25 pounds, felt as light as epees. Small swords we handled felt as if they weighed less than foils (no kidding) despite weighing in at just over 1 pound. What was also quite noticeable on a large number if not most all of the rapiers we viewed was how the bars of their hilts were somewhat thinner than those on most replicas now made. This would noticeably alter their weight and balance.

One other important aspect of swords which we noted with consistency was the thickness of tangs and ricassos (particularly on rapiers). Virtually all the ricassos were noticeably thicker than on any modern replicas (as much as 25% thicker). We also noted that on the exposed tangs, they were also wider at the end than on many replicas (perhaps only tapering to half their total width as opposed to a thin tail. Along this same line the tangs were peened over far more heavily and thickly than on most all replicas (thereby securing the pommel more tightly). During discussions, David Edge of the Wallace Collection speculated with us that many of today’s replicas (created by grinding down thick steel) are overly heavy and so feel poorly balanced because they do not have sufficiently thick tangs/ricassos in relation to blade cross section (Oakeshott also noted and pointed out the more acute thinness of blades on actual swords, compared to many of todays replicas as well). Manufacturers cannot start with a sufficiently thin piece of steel since it would require grinding down even more material to create the necessarily thin edges. It is apparently easier to start with a bar of steel that is more convenient compromise between tang and blade center thickness.

The "mystery" of why so many real swords feel so light compared to modern (and even 19th century) replicas of equal weight was explained thusly: A blade that is slightly too thin at the tang and slightly too thick at the blade is going to have a noticeably different balance and so feel much heavier than it is.

Another explanation for one previosuly unconsidered factor in the problem of poor replica hilts was offered to us by David Edge. He noted that virtually all real swords have tapering rectangular slots in their handles that specifically fit the rectangular shape of the tang their entire length. Yet most replicas today use a round hole drilled through the wood. Fit a square peg in a round hole and naturally it just won’t be very secure or stay very tight for long. If the handle does not fit perfectly, the small gaps and space will allow the tang to vibrate when the weapon is weilded.  Plus, many real swords have tangs that stop tapering and are more parallel at the end to create a very solid fit.  Many replica tangs often continue to taper their entire length and end in simple round or square rat-tails. Real sword handles were also made of tight-grained hardwoods rather than softer wood.  David also suggested that many pommels were placed while still red hot around their tangsto create a very solid fit. Wereas today, pommels are only solid blocks of metal with holes drilled through and then slipped over the end of the tang.

In the opportunity to freely wield actual authentic swords, particular impressions and subtle differerences could be perceived. There is no doubt that the swords we handled not only allowed for all the techniques and actions we practice, but encouraged even demanded them …as well as suggesting still others…

Overall, the hundreds of blades we viewed all over South and Central England included approximately 200 rapiers, about 60 cut & thrust swords, at least 50 renaissance swept-hilt swords of indeterminate classification, about 25 excellent bastard swords, and a few hundred assorted blades of every description and type. Once again, handling real swords underscored dramatically just how incredibly light and well balanced they were.

At one point we played with a Toledo rapier c. 1590 that was unbelievable, a bastard sword of c. 1500 that was phenomenally light, a great back sword of c. 1490 that was extremely agile, numerous small-swords that were foil light in their balance (and a few that were very short).

We played some with a ring-hilted bastard sword of c. 1480, and Medieval short swords from c. 1150 and 1230. We handled a Saxon-rapier or tuck, some choice swords of c. 1450, several bastard swords of c. 1500, and one long-sword dated 1400.

We saw dish hilt rapiers with long estoc blades, small-swords with hexagonal deep fullered rapier blades that had been shortened, and long swords with solid filled side ring plates. We saw an incredible variety of basket and cage hilted swords with narrow tapering blades c. 1525, and then a huge number of swept hilt swords c. 1500 that had very wide cutting blades their entire length. The variety of rapier blades we observed was astounding. It is no wonder neither A. V. Norman nor Oakeshott ever attempted a classification of them. Of the civilian swords that were clearly (clearly?) narrow thrusting blades, their cross sections ranged from hexagonal to octagonal, diamond, lozenge, star-shape, and triangular (both right and isosceles). Some were flat with high risers and others thick and deeply grooved. Some were as short as 40" overall and others incredibly long at perhaps 56" total length. Their hilts too ranged from simple side and finger rings to common swept-hilts (half, full, three-quarter), plate/shell hilts, to basket/cage hilts, and familiar cup hilts and dish hilts. The size of their hilts ranged from boy-size to giant too.

Of the rapiers we observed, perhaps one third were clearly cut & thrust sword blades simply labeled "rapier", while another third were noticeably slender blades with very narrow points and thick edges. The remaining third consisted half of very narrow and edgeless rapiers of thick cross section, while the other half were thin blades of a wide variation in edge shape. Of all the rapiers that were not merely wide sword blades, the points of nearly all were quite thin and acutely pointed. Their cross sections of their forte consisted of everything from diamond to hexagonal and octagonal to triangular, square and even flat-lozenge shapes.

Another observation was the great variety of early Renaissance military ("cut & thrust") blades with shell or plate hilts as well as wider bladed swept hilts of the late 1500’s we saw in each collection. At the Royal Armouries in particular we noted many wide compound-hilted cut & thrust swords, English and German ones of c. 1500 - 1580 and several Spanish ones of c. 1550-1580. They were lovely and impressive. It underscored both how popular these forms of sword were and disappointing it is today to find so very few cut & thrust replicas available (John Waller remedied this in a admirable way himself by mounting a Del Tin 2161 blade on a Del Tin 2171 hilt!). Many of these cutting blades are difficult to classify. The wide variety of these swords gave us a renewed understanding of how much experimentation was underway during the 1500’s to devise effective swords.

We learned of how in the Victorian era and continuing into the early 20th century there was an enormous amount of rehilting and refitting of antique swords that occurred. This has made it even more difficult to categorize and identify actual historical sword forms. Regrettably many blades were damaged as a result of this eagerness to match blades and hilts with the ideas of curators and the desires of collectors. Historically, blades had always been remounted, especially in the 1500’s and 1600’s, so it generally not easy to tell in the first place if a hilt is of the same period as its blade (which may be much older).

One of the most interesting things discovered on our sword trip was at least five ring-hilted bastard swords c. 1500 (at the Wallace and the Fitz William) that were in actuality backswords. They were single-edged with a wide flat spine for 3/4 their length on some and 2/3 their length on others, before turning at the center of percussion into a distal tapering double-edge. Not having seen this in any reference book, I pointed them out to David Edge, the Wallace curator, who said he honestly had not given much thought before to the significance of ‘two-handed back swords", or as we started calling them "great-backswords" (coining a new term perhaps?). David said he could not recall previously seeing these style of swords as having been classified as anything separate from others of the same hilt style and that the now outdated Wallace catalog merely listed them incidentally as being "single edge" swords --but did not note the significance of their essentially being straight-bladed backswords existing in the 1400’s (which may very well mean that the later backe-sword is clearly a single-hand version descended from larger blades). Compared to a more common double-edge blade, having such a blade can significantly affect the manner in which such a long sword could be used by allowing for a few particular techniques. Since such blades cannot be easily noticed except by direct inspection it may very well be that some drawings in Medieval manuals of great-swords and long-swords might possibly be these "back sword great" --which means some re-interpretation of the techniques in manuals may be in order.

 

 

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Matt Hauser & Todd Palmer measure

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Mark Bertrand and Matt measuring

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Close side view of a 13th century hilt

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Measuring a rapier

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Trying out a
fine piece

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Measuring blades

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An incredible sword

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John Clements chatting with Ewart Oakeshott
Visiting with Ewart Oakeshott

We had the privilege of twice meeting with sword expert Ewart Oakeshott and his wife Sybil Marshal at their home, spending considerable time with him discussing swords and examining choice specimens. His knowledge, passion, and his genuine warmth were impressive and inspiring.

Though at 84 physically frail and increasingly weak, Mr. Oakeshott’s spirit was keen and his mind sharp. His wife Sybil, herself a noted author and educator, was equally entertaining and interesting. She too has an interest in arms. We discussed a range of sword topics and managed to take measurements on several fine blades. It was a great honor to have Mr. Oakeshott expressed his sincere excitement and thrill over our brief demonstration for him. Sybil and Ewart were most generous and colorful hosts. We were able to listen to several interesting anecdotes about sword study and gain first hand insights into material from his many superb books. It was a very personal experience and an unforgettable one for sword fanatics such as ourselves.  To his sincere delight, we even had a quick chance to indulge Mr. Oakeshott with a brief sample of our skills.

In our conversations and questions the esteemed Mr. Oakeshott revealed several interesting details about a number of swords and described many intriguing aspects about arms and armor.  A great deal of information was garnered from our valuable time with him.

*See an earlier exclusive interview with Ewart Oakeshott here.

 

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Mark Bertrand consults 
Ewart Oakeshott's expertise
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Prof. Anglo &
John C.
Consulting with Professor Sydney Anglo

We were able to spend a highly productive afternoon with Professor Sydney Anglo, F. S. A., unquestionably the leading translator of historical fencing manuals. Professor. Anglo was a lively, intelligent, and humorous man with a wonderful disposition. There is no question as to his being the leading expert scholar of period fighting texts. His impressive knowledge of the old manuals seems endless. We learned considerable amount of data and received considerable feedback on our own materials and information. We also conducted a brief fighting demonstration for the good professor at the Walbergh Institute for studies of renaissance culture. Continuing into the late afternoon we discussed his unequaled familiarity with the works of the Masters of Defence and his many insights into rare material of which only he has acquired. Prof. Anglo has been anxious to see professional academia begin to study the historical manuals as a legitimate area of cultural and artistic study as well as see it reconstructed martially rather than for sport or stage.

Historical Western martial arts are only in their infancy and will surely soon explode as a field of study. Prof. Anglo feels strongly that this is overdue for scholars of history and culture to take part. There is absolutely no question that in the coming years tens of newly rediscovered historical manuscripts on renaissance swordsmanship, either thought lost or previously unrecorded, are going to reappear. He is fortunate to have to enviable exclusive access to a now closed library in Glasgow of what he says is catalog of over 4000 fencing titles! (more than twice the number at the Corbel Collection library in the Belgium Throughout our meeting, demonstration, and subsequent lunch Prof. Anglo was extremely excited at what ARMA (then "HACA") is doing in contrast to strictly historical reenactment. Prof. Anglo sees eye-to-eye with us on several fundamental and keys elements of our subject. ). Since his views on the subject parallel ARMA’s so closely toward this end ARMA will consult with him now on several special projects. Our special martial consultation with the good professor is to continue in the future and as material becomes available we will uniquely be able to examine material.

 

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The good professor going over John’s Medieval Swordsmanship book, elaborating on and refining many key portions.
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Only a few of the rapiers at the V&A
The Fitz William Museum

In Cambridge we toured the small but very important collection of swords and weapons at the Fitz William museum. Here we noticed a few incredible specimens and several unusual blades. The Fitz William contains some rare pieces that were very different from anything in arms books. The curator was unfortunately out of town the week we were there and sadly, no catalog was available of the collection and photography was also not allowed! Oakeshott had assisted in setting up this collection and his influence showed on several of the title cards for some of the pieces.

At the Victoria & Albert Museum

At the famous Victoria & Albert Museum’s fine sword collection in London we did considerable documenting and filming of many unique pieces as well as noting a few measurements and dimensions. The collection is somewhat neglected and is also desperately in need of a catalog (!) but sadly, as with most collections today it does not have a full-time curator of arms. Still, it has a remarkable number of rapiers and small swords and several choice long swords. The museum itself is stupendous, both architecturally and artistically. But as we spent most all of the day with the rooms of weapons, we barely noticed the rest.

 

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Blades at the V&A
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Rapiers & smallswords at the V&A
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One of many such walls at the RA
The Royal Armouries at Leeds

Our visit to the Royal Armories (RA) in Leeds over two days was a highlight of the trip. This was by far the best collection we saw. It is well worth the long train ride up to Leeds. We were astonished at the size and scope of the collection and the well designed layout. The museum covers five floors and several other sections. We were informed that Ewart Oakeshott's book Archaeology of Weapons was instrumental in how Guy Wilson, master of the armories conceived of the museum as one that celebrated the martial character of arms & armor over the traditional dry artistic object view.

The collection’s areas range from War, to Self-defence, Tournament, Oriental, and Hunting. An excellent job was done in the presentations by incorporating information about the historical use of arms and armors with the objects themselves. Touring the exhibits and closely observing the collection is an all day event.

 

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Swords & bucklers
at the RA
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The RA's
long-sword display
The Royal Armouries Fight Interpreters

At the Royal Armouries (RA) we were privileged to meet with head of fight interpretation, the respected John Waller, and senior fight interpreter Keith Ducklin. Keith and John both were extremely good-natured and energetic hosts and their colleague Andy showed us great consideration. It was extraordinary how much time and energy they offered to us. Their hospitality was among the most valuable time of the entire expedition. Later we had the rare opportunity to practice with them. Some great information and advice flowed freely.  John also told us fascinating things about his and Keith’s trip to Japan where they put on several demonstrations.

We were honored to be shown extended examples of their fight presentations and were able to compare notes on several Medieval Masters with Keith. We also, talked with John Waller about their methodology of instruction, and the training methods and fighting styles they do outside of the public performances of the museum. They told us of plans to eventually do an instructional book and video. While they both come initially from a stage background and have studied a variety of sword styles, they both feel they moved long ago into the realm of authentic European martial arts.

We had several fascinating discussions on blades, armor, the old Masters, and the transition from military to civilian fencing with these highly knowledgeable experts. We also discussed a great deal about the differences in fighting in full plate harness compared to lighter armor --especially as described in period manuals. We also demonstrated our understanding of parrying, and discovered that we each have a mutual grasp of the concept with far fewer differences than previously thought. There were several striking similarities and few differences among our methods and techniques and theirs. Indeed, what was most amazing was how in such a brief exchange we learned our respective interpretations from the same sources are nearly identical styles using the same stances, cuts and movements. We also discovered we each even had similar gaps and unanswered questions in our respective study. It was a very reassuring experience to learn others of such distinction have reached the same conclusions and the same questions.

Kieth Ducklin and John C. go over some techniques

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The fight interpreters at the RA have some unique and enviable positions. Surrounded as they are by thousands of specimens and supported (barely) by the museum, they are everyday focused on their craft. The needs and demands of putting on educational displays of historically correct martial techniques does have its limits, but it is a noble and admirable calling.

One limitation we feel we noted was that by practicing in a semi-theatrical arranged mode, there is the assumption of certain movements and responses, whereas in earnest play, opponents move somewhat differently. Thus, aspects of the physical mechanics of certain actions may be missing. Our ARMA Approach also emphasis the elements of perception and timing/distance that are gained from free-sparring.

We were shown their great-sword fighting based on Talhoffer, plate-armor long-sword based primarily on Dei Liberi, and their sword and buckler based primarily on Silver. We also discussed rapier, small-sword, polaxe, and shields. On our second day Keith Ducklin suited John C. up in full 15th century Italian plate harness, accurate down to the stitching and arming points and complete with maile gambeson. John C. experimented in the tournament gallery with movement and displayed the range of motion possible by executing a few rolls on the floor before practicing for a few minutes with polaxe and long-sword. While playing and demonstrating, John Waller dropped in and shared some thoughts about the method of interpretation they use at the Royal Armouries and the unique fighting of Medieval plate armor. 

Our time with them was enlightening and insightful. Getting the chance to also cross swords for a bit with them was good fun. We had the chance to exhibit some of our own interpretations and a few techniques in the museum’s tournament pen.

Later, in the Asian gallery we saw another exhibition, this of Elizabethan sword and rapier, and then later closed off the ropes to play around at some of their  sword & buckler by trying our hand at a little of their arranged performance fighting (to the watchful eyes of gathered security personnel not accustomed to the unusual sight of armed outsiders with the interpreters!).

John Waller is likely the most skillful and knowledgeable Western swordsman we have ever met. He is an accomplished swordsman, fencer, plate-armored fighter, archer, staff fighter, horseman, jouster, falconer, fight arranger, and much more.

*See an earlier exclusive interview with John Waller here.

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Andy, Keith, John C.
& John Waller
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John Waller shows John C. some of their moves for armored combat
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John C. tries out the RA's fine plate armor
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John C. with polaxe
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John C. in armor
with Keith
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Kieth Ducklin of the RA Fight Interpreters
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John C. and Keith engage in impromptu consultation
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Discussing theories and moves in the Tournament Gallery
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John C. and Matt Hauser demo a few moves at the RA
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Displaying close-in techniques
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Playing sword & buckler with the RA
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All the groups at the Oxford event


Historical Fencing at Oxford

On our very first day in the UK, still dragging from jet lag and the burden of hauling our equipment all around by train, subway, and taxi we attended an invigorating historical fencing demo at Oxford University. In addition to our demo, the Dawn Duelist Society (DDS) and Milo Thurston's Linacre School of Defence gave also gave short talks and samples of skill. Everyone then joined in for all manners of sparring and fencing. It was not only a blast and informative, but a number of theatrical fighters and even Japanese sword stylists were also on hand among the spectators.

Paul MacDonald of the DDS and his fellow merry Scots were quite the riot. They are an enthusiastic and martial lot with some of the best blunt training blades we have seen. Paul’s weapons are finely made and only slightly thicker on the edge but still handle very well. We found some of them a bit too pommel heavy (which encouraged lighter play in the point) but recommendable for light contact practice.

The opportunity to cross swords a little with them and others offered another unique opportunity to contrast our various styles. It was highly interesting even if hindered by differences in sparring guidelines and certain assumptions. There were clearly great similarities in approach but of course, also some significant differences in techniques and style evident. We video taped the entire afternoon’s sparring from three different cameras. Everyone had good and fortunately a safe time with only a few scrapes and bruises. While light-contact sparring with blunt steel has admirable merits and is a valuable training aid, we feel there is limitations to touch sparring in light padding and that it can create false impressions and its necessarily restricted techniques can lead to habits of incorrect mechanics (hence, why we emphasize the addition of contact-sparring).

John C. demos some long-sword moves
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DDS demo some of their blunt weapon sparring
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See more pictures from the Oxford historcial fencing event here.

 

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Paul MacDonald & DDS with John C.

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Milo Thurston, Linacre Schoole of Defence,
and John C.
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With Terry Brown
Meeting with Terry Brown

John C. had the privilege working in a most enjoyable but all too brief visit with Terry Brown, author of "English Martial Arts". It was an intriguing meeting as Terry is immensely cordial, friendly and calmly intense. Terry possesses considerable martial knowledge. Unfortunately it was not possible to see him in action or visit his English martial arts classes at the time.  John and Terry discussed an array of martial topics and exchanged a wide range of thoughts on masters, styles and martial arts.   

 

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Relaxing with Alan Willaims
& David Edge
The Wallace Collection and David Edge

At the  Wallace Collection’s famous  horde of superb swords we roamed around for a full afternoon taking notes and making close observations. Some of the finest blades we saw on the trip were on display in this museum. On our second day there we met with the Wallace’s extremely knowledgeable and personable curator, David Edge (author of the excellent Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight). David told us also that his own impressive book was unfortunately full of several errors and mistakes, but did not elaborate. David took the time out to show us around a little and gave us the rare and splendid opportunity to handle a half-dozen choice swords we selected from among the collection (there is simply nothing like swinging an antique 13th century sword around in the middle of a museum after-hours!). We discussed at length a number of pieces and were able to learn unusual facts about several popular pieces.

David Edge s a devoted re-enactor and exceptionally knowledgeable on swords and weapons. Our dicussions and examinations of weapons with him proved extremley useful.   He has a genuine interest in aiding ARMA’s own goals and we are excited to say we have several special possibilities  now planned with him and the Wallace.

We also met with the Wallace Collection’s metallurgist, Alan Williams, author of the recent monograph on the Royal Armoury At Greenwich (highly recommended).and gained fascinating insight into the construction of armor. ARMA webmaster Mark Bertrand had the opportunity to spend some time in front of the microscope with the pleasant Dr. Williams, looking at samples of amour. Dr. Williams later joined us for lunch with David Edge and then again at the pub at the end of our day.

 

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More superb blades
of the V&A
Closing Thoughts

The information we obtained over more than 12 total days of visits, meetings, demonstrations, networking, and study is astounding. ARMA was very fortunate to have been given unique opportunities to examine weapons, study materials, and interact with a distinguished list of fellows peers and experts. Throughout our trip we were treated with overwhelming cordiality and enthusiasm by our UK colleagues. It was wonderful to be so well received and eagerly accommodated. We acquired several original pieces of information and were able to discern a number of first time observations. We are also excited to announce we acquired material from two new manuals that until now have been previously unexamined and unavailable by the Historical Fencing community.

While we had no real time for site seeing or vacationing, during our excursion we made a few stops at used bookstores and militaria shops in London to search for titles of interest to add to our library (we also managed a peak at the Royal Armory’s research library and Ewart Oakeshott’s private library). We even took some time here and there to get in some excellent sparring and rapier fencing at a few picturesque spots in the English country side.

Overall, the opportunity to exchange in person our ideas and views with such diverse individuals, eminent authorities, and learned colleagues was invaluable. It was a remarkable experience for us not as curios or historians, but as martial artists. That we, as Amercian historical fencers, made such an impression with our skills and knowledge to be so well treated by everyone, we think gives great credit to our unique ARMA Study approach. As a result, there is no question we came back with an even deeper   knowledge of Medieval and Renaissance swords. 

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Pratice in front of a 900+ year old cathedral

 
 

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