The Extraordinary Street Fight of Sir Kenelm Digby
By Paul Kirchner

ARMA presents an intriguing and little known account of a 1623 group ambush in Madrid fought between English gentlemen and Spaniards. While such incidents of sudden urban attack were more common in the era than private duels of honor, they have been overshadowed in fencing history by more formal single-combats. Though the forms of blade used are unknown, the attackers were wearing mail and using bucklers.

Born in 1603, Sir Kenelm Digby arrived toward the end of the Renaissance, but he represented the ideal of the Renaissance man, achieving renown as a courtier, naval commander, statesman, philosopher, scientist, and swordsman. He was large and powerfully built, and, like most gentlemen of his time, a well-schooled fencer.

In 1641, he attended a banquet at which a French nobleman named Mont le Ros insulted England’s King Charles; Digby challenged him to a duel. He wrote that, in the fourth bout, “he run his rapier into the French Lord’s breast till it came out of his throat again,” and he fell dead. Digby was involved in several other affairs of honor that were resolved without bloodshed.

Digby's most impressive work with the sword was performed not in a duel, but in a street fight in Madrid in the summer of 1623. On the evening of the day he arrived in that city, he dined at the home of his uncle, the Earl of Bristol, then England’s ambassador to Spain. By the time Digby was ready to return to his lodgings the hour was late and the streets were deserted. However, it was a clear night with a full moon, so Digby turned down the offer of an escort of torch-bearing servants in favor of walking with Lord Bristol’s son and another friend. As they strolled the streets, enjoying the cool serenity, they heard a woman singing on a balcony. Lord Bristol's son knew her, and as the three of them approached to listen, they were attacked by a party of fifteen armed men. An account of the combat is included in Digby's memoirs.

Throughout the book he relied upon classical allusions and pseudonyms for all proper nouns in order to disguise the politically sensitive individuals involved. Thus, he referred to himself as Theagenes, his cousin as Leodivius, Lord Bristol as Aristobulus, Madrid as “Alexandria,” and the Spaniards who attacked him as “Egyptians.” The other friend accompanying him was not identified. The following is transcribed from the 1827 edition of the memoirs, in which the idiosyncratic spelling of the 17th century appears to have been cleaned up:

The three spectators remained attentive to this fair sight and sweet music, Leodivius only knowing who she was, who coming a little nearer towards the window, fifteen men all armed, as the moon shining upon their bucklers and coats of mail did make evident, rushed out upon him with much violence, and with their drawn swords made so many furious blows and thrusts at him, that if his better genius had not defended him it had been impossible that he could have outlived that minute; but he, nothing at all dismayed, drew his sword, and struck the foremost of them such a blow upon the head, that if it had not been armed with a good cap of steel, certainly he should have received no more cumber [trouble] from that man; yet the weight of it was such that it made the Egyptian run reeling backwards two or three steps, and the blade, not able to sustain such a force, broke in many pieces, so that nothing but the hilts remained in Leodivius’s hand; who seeing himself thus disarmed, suddenly recollected his spirits, and using short discourse within himself, resolved, as being his best [option], to run to his father’s house to call for assistance to bring off in safety his kinsman and his other friend, whose false sword served him in the same manner as Leodivius’s had done, as though they had conspired to betray their masters in their greatest need. Here one might see differing effects from like causes, for a like resolute valour without astonishment that caused Leodivius to run discreetly away for succour, caused him [their friend] to stand still in the place where his sword broke, defending his enemies’ blows with the piece that remained in his hand, as [though] being ashamed to leave Theagenes in the midst of so many that strived to take his life from him: but he was soon out of danger by all their pressing beyond him, whom they saw disarmed, to come to Theagenes, who had interposed himself between Leodivius and them that followed him, of which the master of all the bravos was one, so that the rest seeing him engaged in a fierce battle, they all came to assist him. Theagenes then found himself in great perplexity, for having retired to a narrow place of the street, that he might keep his assailants all in front before him, the overhanging pentises [penthouses] took away the light of the moon, and his enemies having at the top of their bucklers artificial lanterns whose light was cast only forwards by their being made with an iron plate on that side towards the holders, so that their bodies remained in darkness, had not only the advantage of seeing him when he could not see them, but also dazzled and offended his eyes with the many near lights, which made him mistake those objects that dimly he discerned. The number of his enemies, and the disparity of the weapons, might have given him just cause to seek the saving of his life rather by the swiftness of his legs than by an obstinate defence; but he, that did not value it at so high a rate as to think it could warrant such an action, resolved rather to die in the midst of his enemies, than to do any thing that might be interpreted to proceed from fear: with which resolution he made good the place he stood in, and whenever any of them were too bold in coming near him, he entertained them with such rude welcomes, that they had little encouragement to make a second return.

After Theagenes had remained some time thus beating down their swords and wounding many of them, and shewing wonderful effects of a settled and not transported valour, and that their beginning to slack their fury in pressing upon him gave a little freedom to his thoughts, all his spirits being before united in his heart and hands, he considered how it must certainly be some mistake that made him to be thus treated by men that he knew not, and to whom he was sure in his particular could have given no offence, being but that day arrived in Alexandria from very remote parts; wherefore he spoke to them in the best manner he could, to make himself understood in a tongue that he was not well master of, and asked what moved them to use him so discourteously that was a stranger there, and was not guilty of having injured any of them; to which words of his, one that seemed to be of the best quality among them, by a cassock embroidered with gold which he wore over his jack of mail, answered him with much fury in his manner. “Villain, thou liest, thou hast done me wrong which cannot be satisfied with less than thy life; and by thy example let the rest of thy lascivious countrymen learn to shun those gentlewomen where other men have interest, as they would do houses infected with the plague, or the thunder that executeth God’s vengeance.”

These words put all patience out of Theagenes’s breast, so that now he dispensed his blows rather with fury than art; but his hand was so exercised in the perfectest rules of true art, that without his endeavours or taking notice, it never failed of making exactly regulated motions, which had such force imparted to them by a just anger, that few of them were made in vain. But at length his enemies, that had bought with much of their blood the knowledge of his power and strength, attempted to do that behind him, which they durst not do to his face; for some of them running down a little lane that was near the place where they fought, made a circuit and came to assault Theagenes behind, which he perceived by a blow upon his shoulders: but it seemed that the fearful giver of it was so apprehensive lest Theagenes should turn about, that his quaking hand laid it on so softly that it did him no hurt, but served to warn him of the danger he was in. He then perceiving himself thus beset on every side, summoned all his spirits to serve him at this his so great necessity, and choosing to cut his way through the thickest of them, that so it might appear that he wrought his own liberty in despite [spite] of their strongest oppositions, did make a quick thrust at him that was nearest before him, and entering within his weapons before he was aware that he had occasion to ward it, Theagenes accompanied it with the whole weight of his body, running on so violently, as the other’s jack not giving way, and his sword not yielding, he bore him down, and running over him made him serve for a bridge to cross the kennel. He being thus acquit of their besieging him, began to retire himself with a settled pace towards the Ambassador’s house, but in such a manner, that though his feet carried him one way his face looked another, and his hands sent forwards many bloody messages of his angry spirit; but one of them pressed so eagerly and unwarily upon him, that as he lifted up his sword to make a blow at Theagenes, he avoided it with a gentle motion of his body, and gave him such a strong reverse upon the head, that finding it disarmed, for he had lost his iron cap with much stirring in the scuffle, it divided it in two parts, and his brains flew into his neighbour’s face; upon whom Theagenes turned, having thus rid himself of his fiercest enemy, and stepping in with his left leg, made himself master of his sword, and with his own did run him into the belly under his jack, so that he fell down, witnessing with a deep groan that his life was at her last minute.

The other Egyptians by that [i.e., the sound of his voice] knew him to be their master, for whose quarrel only they all fought, so that they left Theagenes, and all of them attended to succour their wounded lord; but all too late, for without ever speaking, he gave up his ghost in their arms: while by this means Theagenes, who received but little hurt, had time to walk leisurely to the Ambassador’s house, from whence, upon the alarm that Leodivius gave, many were coming to his rescue with such arms as, hastily, they could recover; the cause of whose coming so late, for he met them half way, was, that it was long before Leodivius, though he knocked and called aloud, could get the gates open; for all in the house were gone to take their rest.

The next day the cause of this quarrel was known; which was, that a nobleman of that country, having interest in a gentlewoman that lived not far from Aristobulus’s house, was jealous of Leodivius, who had carried his affections too publicly; so that this night he had forced her to sing in the window where Leodivius saw her, hoping by that means to entice him to come near to her, while he lay in ambush, as you have heard, to take his life from him.

According to reports, Digby awoke the following day to find himself the talk of Madrid, and news of it soon carried back to England. There were no repercussions, and Digby remained in Spain until September. In addition to this account, a note was found among Digby’s personal papers which referred to the incident, and mentioned that he had been wounded in the hand during the fight. The cut to Digby's hand was on his right which is interesting as the account suggests that neither Digby nor his companions had second-hand weapons. Digby lived until 1668.

About the author: Paul Kirchner is the author of "The Deadliest Men: The World's Deadliest Combatants throughout the Ages" (Paladin, 2001) and a book on dueling to be published by Paladin in November 2004.

Digby, H. M. Sir Kenelm Digby and George Digby, Earl of Bristol. London: Digby, Long & Co., 1912. Digby, Sir Kenelm. Private Memoirs of Sir Kenelm Digby. London: Saunders & Otley, 1827. Longueville, Thomas. The Life of Sir Kenelm Digby. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896. Petersson, R. T. Sir Kenelm Digby: The Ornament of England. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956.


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