Sir John Reresby: Seventeenth-Century Scrapper

By Paul Kirchner

Exampling the frequent necessity among gentlemen in the 17th century for armed self-defense in street-fighting as well as duelling; ARMA is pleased to present this little known diary account.

Born in Yorkshire in 1634, Sir John Reresby found it necessary to trust to his sword many times during the tumultuous years of the Civil War, Restoration, Popish Plot and Glorious Revolution in England. He described a number of these occasions in the diary he kept throughout much of his life, painting, as editor Andrew Browning put it, "a true, if rough, picture of the era in which [he] lived."

From an early age Sir John found himself prone to quarrels, being "too apt to take notice of any carriage or word that looked like a disrespect," and, as he put it, "I have found that the best way to prevent [disputes] for the future is not to seem too backward in seeking reparation." He wrote:

One of the first [in 1653] was with one Mr. Spencer, who seeming to take it ill that I drew my sword to show it [to] a gentleman, one Sir Thomas Spencer, who desired to see it, we first fell to wordes, and from that to fighting in the room, till three falling upon me (being all the company but myselfe), my sword was broaken and taken from me that night. The next day I sent him a challenge by Sir William Poultney, who accepted it at the first, but upon better thoughts sent a gentleman with the offer of any other satisfaction than fighting, which I was prevailed with by Mr. Anstorther to accept, on condition that he made publique submission before the same company and such others as I should appoint to be ther, wher the whole company was to be entertained at his charge, which he willingly accepted and performed accordingly. [5]

A fervent royalist, at age 20 Sir John Reresby moved to the Continent rather than live under Cromwell's rule. There he studied fencing in both France and Italy. He also made the acquaintance of numerous ladies, and in 1656, after overhearing a French gentleman disparage one of his amours, he sent him a challenge. The challenge being ignored, he did what a gentleman often did to shame an opponent-he caned him. As Reresby described it:

The day following I took my friend and a servant with me, and meeting him as he came from mass gave him severall blows with a cudgell, which he went his way with without drawing his sword.

The night after, three or four of us being together in the street when it began to be dark (going to give a serenade to some of our acquaintance), the said gentleman with ten or twelve more sett upon us with their swords drawn, which obliged us to defend ourselves as well as we could, but retreating all the while, till we gott into a hous without much harm, and then they fled. [9]

Learning that his opponent planned to bring charges against him for the earlier assault, Reresby took sanctuary with a French nobleman who sympathized with his plight. Generally, Reresby trusted to his sword not only in affairs of honour, but for defense against ordinary street crime as well. In January 1657, while he was walking in Paris, he was bumped by a well-dressed man, and moments later he realized that a large silver buckle had been cut from the back of his belt.

This gave me presently suspicion that it was the man gone just before, though his appearance and dress (for he had a sword and a good cloake) spoake him noe man to doe such an action. However, I thought the best way to succeed was to be bold, soe overtakeing him I drew my sword and bid him restoor my buccle which he had cutt off, which without any denyall he produced and restoored, begging that I would not expose him to publique shame, but lett him goe. After some stripes with the flatt of my sword I lett the rascall run his way, and the rabble shouting after him. [21]

In 1658 Reresby returned to England, and noted in his entry for May 10:

The citizens and common people of London had then soe far imbibed the custome and manners of a Commonwealth that they could scarce endure the sight of a gentleman, soe that the common salutation to a man well dressed was "French dog," or the like. Walkeing one day in the street with my valet de chambre, who did wear a feather in his hatt, some workemen that were mending the street abused him and threw sand upon his cloaths, at which he drew his sword, thinkeing to follow the custome of France in the like cases. This made the rabble fall upon him and me, that had drawn too in his defence, till we gott shelter in a hous, not without injury to our bravery and some blowes to ourselves. [21-22]

In September 1660, while he was traveling to York, his party began quarreling with another at a ferry landing. A melee broke out.

I was struck over the head with a cudgill, which provouked me to wound one or two with my sword. This gave soe great an alarme to the country people ther met togather upon the occasion of the markit that I was encompassed [surrounded], and two gentlemen with me and our servants, and after a long defence pulled off my hors, and had certainly been knocked on the head had I not been rescued by my Moor, who gott hould of the man's arm that had me down, as he was going to give the blowe. Being gott up again, I defended myself till I gott into the hous of an honest man, that gave us protection till the rabble was appeased. [33-34]

In April 1663, Reresby and his cousin William Tindall were knocking on doors on a London street trying to find a man with whom they had an appointment.

After enquiry for him in severall houses, as we came out of one we met a gentile kind of a man [a gentleman] in an alley, who tould me I came from a baudy hous. Not likeing the salutation I tould him he lied, for we knew it not to be such; but he making a forward reply, I gave him a box on the ear. It should seem he had been shooting in a great cross-bow, which he had under his cloak, with which he struck at me before I could gett out my sword, but missed me. By this time my cozen Tindall comes up to him, whom he also struck at, and hitting on the head knockt him down. By this time I came up, and makeing a pass he wounded me with the end of the bow-last in my sword hand, that I had much to doe to hould my sword, till, recovering myselfe a little, I ran in upon him and wounded him in the belly. By this time the rabble came about us, and seized of us and carried us before a justice of the peace, who bailed us upon Citty security for 2,000 £. [44-45]

The crossbowman was in danger of death for six weeks from the sword wound, but finally recovered, sparing Reresby further legal repercussions.

In June 1666, the Duke of Buckingham, with whom Reresby had long been friends, quarrelled with Lord Fauconberg at a party. Fauconberg challenged him and the duke accepted.
In his July 6 entry, Reresby wrote:

I, suspecting something of the matter by what I had heard at dinner, went and offered the Duke my service for a secound; but he tould me he knew not whether it would come to fighting or not, if it did he had made choice already of Sir George Savile. Soon after, as I was in the Minster, Sir George came by and desired me to provide him a longer sword (his being too short), by which I found the challenge was accepted, and, watching the Dukes motion, followed him and the rest at a distance to the field, soe as I was not perceived, and by the benefit of a hedge was soe near wher they stood to fight that I heard and see all that passed. Sir William Francland was secound to my Lord Falconbrige [sic]. Three of the four drew their swords, but the Duke I found had more mind to parley than to fight, and kept his in the scabard, till takeing some verball and superficiall satisfaction of my Lord Falconbrige, the dispute went noe further. [59-60]

Reresby spoke of his disappointment to his close friend Henry Bellasis, who spread the story around, causing a rift between Reresby and Buckingham. While it was true that almost all of Reresby's own quarrels were reconciled before a duel was fought, it was always on his own terms, and he was contemptuous of those who apologized because they were reluctant to fight. After one gentleman with whom he quarrelled told him he neither desired to court his friendship nor enmity, Reresby wrote, "I tould him we were very equall in that perticular, for I thought his friendship was very little to be valued nor enmity to be feared."

Out of at least a dozen quarrels Reresby recounted, only one, in July 1663, went the full distance:

Sir Henry Belasis sent to invite me to dinner at the Bear at the bridge foot, where one Mack de Mar, an Irish gentleman, was to give him a venison pasty. After dinner he provoaked me to give him some language, which he soe farr resented that he demanded satisfaction, either by my denying I had meant any injury to him by the saying of the words, and asking his pardon, or by fighting with him. I denied the first, and so being challenged was obliged to fight him that afternoon in Hyde Park, which I did, an Irish gentlemen that he met by the way being his second, and Sir Henry Belasis mine. At the first pass I hurt him slightly on the sword hand, and at the same time he closeing with me we both fell to the ground (he haveing hould of my sword and I of his). Sir Henry and his man were fighting at the same time close by, and Sir Henry had gott the better, wounded the other in the belly and disarmed him, and was comming in [to help Reresby] as we were both risen and I had gott [Mack de Mar's] sword out of his hand, which I took home with me, but sent it to him the next day. The secound to Mac de Mar was in danger of death by his wound for some weeks, which made us abscond. I was with the Duke of Buckingham the best part of this time at Wallingford Hous. But at last it pleased God he recovered. [46]

[The Sir Henry Belasis mentioned is the same one whose death in a duel is described by Samuel Pepys in his diary entries for July 30 and August 8, 1667. Available online at]

Five years later in 1668, this same Duke of Buckingham was challenged by the Earl of Shrewsbury, as a result of his lengthy and flagrant affair with the earl's wife. Arrangements were made for a duel of three against three, which was fought on January 21. Alongside Buckingham were Sir Robert Holmes and William Jenkins, the latter said to be a fencing master; Shrewsbury was seconded by his kinsmen Bernard Howard and Sir John Talbot. After a few quick passes Buckingham ran Shrewsbury through the right breast. Shrewsbury fell instantly (though it would be two months before he died). Buckingham then went to the assistance of Jenkins, who was fighting Howard. Howard beat aside the duke's blade with his left hand and "ran furiously upon Jenkins and killed him." Holmes put Talbot out of the fight with a thrust that entered his right arm near his wrist and came out at his elbow. Holmes and Buckingham then turned on Howard, who surrendered, the only one to emerge from the fight wholly unscathed. Holmes had a cut on his hand, and the duke a scratch on the shoulder.

The duke soon took Lady Shrewsbury into his home, and, when his wife protested, sent the latter back to her father. The king speedily granted a blanket pardon to everyone involved. Though the duke had secured his reputation as a fighting man, many were scandalized by the affair. Samuel Pepys wrote, "This will make the world think that the King hath good councilors about him, when the Duke of Buckingham, the greatest man about him, is a fellow of no more sobriety than to fight about a whore." A widespread rumor claimed that Lady Shrewsbury attended the duel in the guise of a page, held Buckingham's horse, and afterward bedded him in the shirt stained with her husband's blood. A diabolically delicious tale, but untrue--Lady Shrewsbury was in France at the time.

In 1673, Reresby was appointed High Sheriff of Yorkshire, and later became Member of Parliament for Aldorborough and Governor of Bridlington. In his entry for November 21, 1678, he wrote about a duel in which he very nearly was a participant:

My brother, Sir Henry Gooderick, haveing then a regiment of foot in the army, one of his captains threw up his commission upon some disgust and challenged his collonel [Sir Henry]. He accepted the challenge and came to seek me to be his secound; but not finding me at home he took Sir Thomas Mauliverer, who ran his adversary thorow [through] the body, and Sir Henry wounded and disarmed his. [160]

On another occasion, in January 1679, he played the role of peacemaker:

Being at a play wher I sate near Collenel Macarty, who was shortsighted, a gentleman in drinke quarelled with him, and drawing his sword passed at him before Macarty was ready, or indeed saw it, and had certainly wounded him, had not I putt by the sword with mine that was drawn whilst he recovered himselfe; but they were then parted without harm. Macarty was to fight him the next day, but I tould the King of it, who caused them to be both secured and made friends. [168]

In his role as justice of the peace, Reresby sometimes punished men for street assaults, as he mentioned in his December 10, 1681, entry:

I sent one Mr. St. Johns to the goale for wounding another gentleman whom he drew upon, being drunke in the street. The poor gentleman that was wounded dyed the same day. [240]

Shortly afterward, he noted that no less than ten duels had been fought in London the previous week. Two years later, Reresby himself was involved in a duel, this time as a second:

December 18 [1683]. Dineing in the Citty with six gentlemen of quality, comming away with two of them after dinner, they quarrelled in a coffy hous, wher we stayed to drinke coffee, and though I did what I could to reconcile them, went presently out and drew in the street, and made a pass one at [the other], but missing one another, closed. By this time I gott into them and broake one of their swords, and soe they were parted. The one of them, which was Major Orbe, eldest son of Sir Thomas Orbe of Lincolnshire (the other's name was Bellengeambe, of the north, the chiefe of that familie), not thinkeing this full satisfaction, notwithstanding all my endeavours to make them friends, challenged Bellengeambe a second time; and takeing coach, and I with them, bought new swords by the way, and came towards Hide Parke to fight. As we came by the way I offered to be secound, since they would fight, to either of them, and the other should look out for another to be his. Mr. Orbe chose me, and bid Bellengeambe seek his friend. Bellengeambe said he never would make use of any secound, but would decide it presently by moonshine, for it was nine a clock at night and very light, and said he would confide in my honour to see fair play done between them; which at the last I accepted at both their entreatys, and by the mercy of heaven missing one anothers bodys as they passed one against another the secound time, and closeing togather, I came in to part them, and Mr. Orbe's footman doeing the same with me, we held their swords soe as noe mischiefe was done, only Mr. Orbe had a slight prick in the thigh, Mr. Bellengeambe had a race [scrape] on the forehead, and myselfe a slight hurt as I came in to part them. After this we went all to supper, and parted good friends. [325-6]

In command of the garrison at York, Reresby regularly had to discipline soldiers who fought with each other. He described one of the worst such incidents on February 7, 1687:

That afternoon as I was going to visit the main guard, seeing a great croud and disorder in the streets, I found it was occasioned by six souldiers, three of each regiment, who had quarrelled and fought, two of them being fresh killed upon the place, and a third desperately wounded. I took all the speedy care to gett the last man dressed by a chirurgien [surgeon], and to persue the murderers that had escaped. One of them we soon took. For the other two I doubled the guards, and caused search to be made for them that night, but ineffectually. [443]

The following day he added:

At night I had some notice that Doningfield, the person that wounded him that was not yet dead, was in such a hous. I sent a file of muskiteers to take him, but he being locked in a chamber denyed to render himselfe, soe that I was forced to send more men, and was going myselfe as I had newes he was taken. I sent him to my Lord [Mayor], who took his examination and committed him. He denyed that he had wounded the party, or that he had a sword, but it was prooved that he got his comrades sword and made use of it in that fray. [443]

On February 13 he noted that the third wounded soldier had died. He attended the assizes the following month, and wrote:

The two souldiers that had been of the nomber which had killed the three of my Lord Huntintons company were tryed; but noe malice appearing the jury brought it in manslaughter, and they were burnt in the hand. [445-6] (Note: Branding on a commoner's hand was the standard punishment for manslaughter.)

Soldiers also sometimes fought with civilians. In his entry for August 19, 1687, Reresby wrote about a trooper who "quarelling upon the road with some reapers of corn, was cutt into brains with a scith or reaping hook by one of them after he had killed one and wounded severall of them." [466] A month later, he wrote that when a serving girl refused to acquiesce to a lieutenant's wishes, "he was soe angry that he drew his sword and run her into the belly below the navel, of which if not dead…it is believed she can scarce recover." [470]

To the modern reader, Reresby might seem unusually quarrelsome, violent, and intemperate, but he was not regarded as such by his contemporaries-his truculence was hardly unusual for the time, not the man. He managed his estates carefully and left the family finances in sound order. Unfortunately, after his death in 1689, his heir squandered the fortune, finally staking his title at a cockfight and losing it. After 600 years the Reresby baronetcy was no more.

All quoted material from: Reresby, Sir John. The Memoirs of Sir John Reresby. (Andrew Browning, ed.) Glasgow: Jackson, Son & Co., 1936.

Paul Kirchner is the author of The Deadliest Men (Paladin 2001) and Duelling with Sword and Pistol - 400 Years of Single Combat from Paladin Press, November 2004.


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