An introduction to
George Hale’s
The Private School of Defence, 1614
ARMA Exclusive!

By J. Clements

ARMA is proud to present George Hale's The Private School of Defence.   The rare English text offers us a unique view of the English use of the rapier. Coming a mere 15 years after George Silver’s rapier-critical writing and three before Swetnam’s own rapier and sword treatise this rare short text presents a wholly different attitude. In his 1614 text, English master George Hale comes across as a pragmatic fighter much like Silver, but his brief text has some thing of the flavor of Swetnam as well. Though not very technical or detailed, it seems to hint at a solid understanding of swordplay. There is an element of class distinction in his work that reflects his status as a Gentleman. Remarkably, Hale also appears to be critical of sporting notions and public performances interfering with sincere martial knowledge.

In a theme familiar among martial masters, they tend to critique their contemporaries and praise past masters. Hale is no exception. In the opening he declares his intention to "examine the defects of teachers, and to resolve upon the worth of their Knowledge." He then offers a "definition of the Science of Defence". He lays out his opinion of the "defects" of teachers of Defence. The text is a short critique of practices of the time, commenting on his perceived deficiencies of what must surely be referring to the public Prize Playing of the English fighting guilds. The English guilds of the London Company of Maisters had already somewhat deteriorated by the early 1600’s and this may be reflected in his comments. Or perhaps his view is that of a gentleman trained in Italian rapier viewing with some disdain the working class traditional styles. Whatever may be the case, his reasoning seems fair and valuable to understanding not just the English adoption of the rapier, but of personal combat at the height of the renaissance.

By a series of "Objections" and "Resolutions" he presents criticism of the failings of other teachers and schools, which he does not name. He then proceeds to offer a very brief section of his own "Recommendations" or advice on fighting and at the end states a few sound "Principles Belonging to a Fight". Hale also reveals what may be the first occurrence in an English fencing manual of a few interesting terms and phrases, such as: "foyle", "Professor of Defence at Foyles", "shift", "stuck", "close at advantage", and "disarm". He also uses the terms "passage" and "cross-passage". He even uses the term "recovery in reference to the need to do so in offensive actions.

It’s notable that he makes passing reference to "Giovan de Grassi the Italian". George Hale states, "The Science of Defence is an Art Geometricall", showing influence perhaps from Italian swordplay. Interestingly, in his dedication Hale declares the Italians the "first inventors of Foyle-weapon, and the cunningst practisers". While clearly a rapier man of some Italian training, Hales does stop to state " country can afford more able and sufficient Professors of this Science than our owne in their performance."

Hale may very well be the first English writer to express the idea of a good defence being a good offense when he states: "And there is no surer principle then this; there is no good defence without offence: neither good offence without defending, which since onely the Rapier or Sword can most certainly doe, the mayne of both must necessarilie cast up on them."

Fascinatingly, Hale is one of the few masters to point out that the rapier’s preferred attack is to hurt and wound closer targets, In this way a follow-on killing attack may then be made at the opening thus created.

He also repeats an important idea heard elsewhere, that "…at blunt, a man comes boldly on, and is not troubled with any such considerations, as at sharpe…". He criticizes the unrealistic habits acquired by foyle practice, especially the problem of overextending because real weapons, instead of safely bouncing off as practice blunts do, will penetrate the target and in the process expose the attacker to his opponent’s own weapon: "…for a rapier enters, and doth not as the Foyle doth, helpe the offender off againe, but rather thereby fals himselfe…". Yet, Hales seems to be one of the first ever to claim a man may fight equally well at sharp or blunt so long as he is properly trained and prepared.

In support of the idea of the voiding defence in rapier fence, as opposed to dui tempo opposition parrying, George Hale states that "...neither then in Longe or Passage is the force required so much as shift of body, to which the Eye must like faithfull centinell give warning, and the Feete nimbly give performance".

Among his criticism of the "Publique Schooles", Hale also makes the point that they teach only the blow with backe-sword or sword and dagger. He warns this is as wrong and bad as teaching only to thrust with rapier while not teaching also to evade, or "disorder" as he puts it. He also complains that lunges or "stucks" are taught by "Public Professors" without teaching of disordering. This somewhat odd, since it is hard to believe the English guilds would be entirely without of some thrusting , as George Silver certainly discussed the advantages of both cut and thrust. Hale then describes his understanding by pointing out that "To my knowledge, there is no offending Longe" that can be made "without disorder" or any "passage that is done without shift".

He eventually says, "for their nice trickes in Schooles, or Player like fights at many Weapons upon Stages, are mere shadowes without substance". He complains "Their knowledge is accidental, not material, they have some general notions." He scathingly suggests that if their Schollers are any good its out of "accident of practise" not "certain demonstrations of their teachers". He claims he was "taught more in a week by an understanding Artist then I could learn in seaven years practise in publique Schooles". He also admonishes the public revelation of teaching and emphasizes the importance for personal safety of not revealing your style: "…let every man make his owne Practise private", he warns.

Hale considers the "rapier and the quarter-staff the primary and most useful weapons and then lays out a few "rules of practice". He offers some interesting and very concise advice by stating: "The chiefest way to force a man to good practise for play or fight, is to make him maintain a single weapon against all advantages. First let him learne single Rapier then to maintaine single Rapier against Rapier and Dagger; likewise against Sword and Dagger; and lastly, to maintain short Sword against all the aforesaid advantages." In somewhat traditional fashion he does make mention of a gentleman’s need to prepare against other weapons and situations with the rapier. Hale wisely advises to practice against dissimilar weapons or as he terms it, "unequal opposition". At one point he even asks of a practitioner, "how is hee provided with his wearing weapon, being for the most part, a single Rapier or short Sword, to defend himselfe from the advantage of a Sword and Dagger, Rapier and Dagger, or Halberd?" Interestingly, he even writes "…as I have seen upon the publique Stage, a single Rapier most shamefully foyle both Halberd and halfe- Pike".


In his Induction, Hale presents the question as to whether skill at arms gives its possessor the advantage in a fight. To modern readers, the answer may seem obvious, but Hale’s audience would have been familiar with arguments both for and against. Many would argue that a good hearty Englishman could, without tutelage, prevail by virtue of his strength and spirit in a fight against a "skilled" foreign opponent. Hale here presents the opposite view, which corresponds with modern sensibility.

Interestingly, Hale brings also up the issue of the argument that skill at blunts is no measure of the outcome with sharps, and no doubt backs it up with anecdotal evidence. Essentially, the argument is that the stress of combat "of necessity" disorders remembrance of skill—i.e., no matter what you’ve been taught, under stress you will revert to what is instinctive. Hale seems to respond that the exception proves the rule. Despite single anecdotes to the contrary, whose outcome is the product of chance, the principle of skill at arms cannot be discounted. In other words, just because a particular exponent under certain circumstances could not embody the principle does not mean that the principle itself is invalid. Hale later notes the value of practice and repetition in "re-training" instinct—a trained man will react in accordance to his training, even if the reaction is somewhat impaired by his individual capacities. He adds that with the right training, the right man will have a distinct advantage. In other words, he makes the most of what he has. The individual’s Nature, shaped by Art, determines the advantage.

Hale’s brief reference to Geometry could be read as an indication of the influence of the Spanish or even Italian school. A more likely reading, however, would be that the connection between the "Science of Defence" and the most spatially-related of the true sciences was common by this time (which is supported by Fillipo Vadi’s reliance eon Geometry as far back as c. 1482). Overall, Hale reveals a fairly intellectual grasp to the subject and offers that the distinction between Nature and Art is paralleled by a discussion of Strength and Judgement. He also makes reference to the "Circle"—which is tempting to interpret as a reference to Spanish teaching (as he does state he has read "Coranso"), but it is perhaps more likely a reflection of common knowledge, since Italian writers outside the Spanish tradition, and possibly pre-dating it, make the same connection.

Towards the end Hale begins to discuss how a fighter can and must overcome his "defects" and then states that "two conditions must concurre to make a Fencer absolute, Art and Nature." Earlier he had stated, "Therefore let Art and Nature be joyned in one". Hale emphasizes the differences between fighters of different builds having to move and fight differently and advises how each should pass or close. He considers a forward full breast inferior to a more sideways stance and reminds the fighter to keep his right side toward the opponent and the point no higher than the shoulder.

He concludes by saying his material does not "reaches to all Masters of Defence". Finally, he offers a few comments on "our commonly applauded rude and buffeting play "and of his countrymen "able to bare blowes then avoyed them". Though brief, Hale’s text contains much worth studying closely. It is a welcome addition that will surely become a valuable reference for the reconstruction and interpretation of Historical Fencing. We can only wonder what more this interesting master might have had to offer had he wrote more.

J. D. Aylward, in his excellent, The English Master of Arms - From the Twelfh to the Twentieth Centuries (Routledge & Regan Paul. London, 1956, p. 90-91), states that no existing copy of Hale's work is known (so it is with particular satisfaction that we offer it here).  He relates a comment from Izaak Walton's first edition of his 1653 The Complete Angler, in which Walton declares: "…Mr. Hales, a most valiant and excellent fencer, who in a printed book called A Private Schoole of Defence, undertook to teach that art or science, and was laughed at for his labour.  Not that many useful things might be learned from that book , but he was laughed at, because that art was not to be taught by words but by practice."

The Private Schoole of Defence
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