wcav.jpg (71914 bytes)The Truth of the Sword
– The 'Lost' Fencing Book of the Marquis of Newcastle, c. 1650

By J. Clements




“I wish the hyghte off this Arte you maye have
Butt doubt Itt will bee buried in my Grave”

- William Cavendish
Marquis of Newcastle

An addition to the unique finds in the history of fencing literature is the brief text by William Cavendish, Marquise of Newcastle, which only recently has come to the attention of martial arts historians.  Cavendish, 1593-1676, was one of the most accomplished men of his era.   As a result of his being a Royalist general during the English Civil War his estates were confiscated and Cavendish was forced to live in exile in France. In the wars he had been recognized as a competent swordsman and able leader. He was made Earl of Newcastle between 1628 and 1631, Marquis of Newcastle in 1643, and eventually Earl Ogle and Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1665.  As Marquise, he moved around Europe, finally settling in Antwerp in 1648. In 1660 he returned to London with the restoration of King Charles II.  The playwright Ben Johnson even wrote an epigram dedicated to Cavendish, “To William, Earl of Newcastle, on his Fencing”.  Johnson noted: “In the Art of Weapons (in which he has a method beyond all that ever were famous in it, found out by his own Ingenuity and Practice) he never taught anybody, but the now Duke of Buckingham, whose Guardian He hath been, and his own two sons.”  

Cavendish is known for two works on horsemanship. His, General System of Horsemanship (La Methode et Invention Nouvelle de dresser les Chevaux, Antwerp, 1657), is said to be one of the most beautiful illustrated books on horses ever published as well as reportedly having influenced the further development of equestrian techniques.  Yet, sometime while in exile, Cavendish also produced a short treatise, The Truth off the Sorde, By the Marquise off Newcastle.  The work is listed as Harliean Manuscript 4206 in the British Library and can be dated to c. 1650.  Documented in 1890 as having been found, it nonetheless sat in obscurity until very recently. In his landmark, Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, Dr. Sydney Anglo, leading scholar of historical fencing texts and senior advisor to ARMA, lists the work as being by one “Henry Cavendish”. The dedication of The Truth of the Sorde however is, “To my deerly Beloved Sons Charles The Lorde Viscounte Mansfield & Lorde Henerye Cavendysshe”.  Thus, Henry was the son and the work is actually by his father, William. According to Dr. Anglo, another surviving fencing document produced by William Cavendish, Mathematical demonstration of the sorde, (MS 5219), is actually only a fragment of the larger Truth Off the Sorde

Although Dr. Anglo considers the Truth Off the Sorde to have not have made any great contribution to fencing literature, information would suggest it is a particular significant work. The text appears full of fascinating material that offers a rare glimpse into swordplay of the mid 1600s and particularly an English nobleman’s take on the earlier Spanish school. Written for his sons, his dedication stated he warned them against using their skill in private “Dewell”.  He wanted them to study the art of fence as “iff not the onlye yet I dare saye the Hieste & fitteste profession for a Gentleman”.  The work begins with a poem:  

“This is the fronts piece for the sorde or the Booke of weapons:
Heer fortetude’s well ordered whatt to doe,
Butt Hercules neare faughte yet agaynste too
Truth a Cleare flame devine shines like brighte daye
Falsehood a misleadinge fire frome truthes waye
Wisdome thinges justlye wayes with Egles sighte
Follye moste Bussarde like thinkes wronge is righte
Knoledge demonstrates thatt none can denie itt
Bolde Ignorance oposes Scornes to trye itt
Ans simple nature Inosente heer Lies
Till arte and Shee shake handes so both made wise.”

lordlady.jpg (22999 bytes)Cavendish’s wife, Lady Margarette, herself a prolific writer, noted in her 1667 own work, Life of William Cavendish, that the Marquis was never interested in academic learning –which no doubt explains his terribly inconsistent spelling and grammar throughout the text.  The manuscript contains several draft stanzas and edited paragraphs.  An erased paragraph interestingly noted “wayes of Scill off the Sorde hereto knowne” and then mentioned Spanish masters such as Carranza, Don Lewis (i.e., Narvaez), and inexplicably “Antonio and the Moore of Spayne” followed by Thibault the Dutchman.  There is no apparent mention of a “mysterious circle” in his teachings. So he was clearly familiar with other Spanish fencing books, but he does not mention having been trained by anyone in particular.  

Most intriguingly, Cavendish remarked on “What blades are beste”, and “those thatt I shoulde wishe you to chuse”.   He warned of forgeries of older blades, something which may bring greater question to surviving pieces today.  He declared “Of all blades the olde Spanishe blades are the beste as for example these following…”. He then names eight of them adding that there are many more but none as good or as olde as those he lists.   Presumably is referring to true rapiers, the long especially slender swords of the 1600s, yet he could very well mean earlier ones of somewhat wider and shorter blades.  He noted, “The olde blades are so rare to gett Even in Spayne thatt theye are both hileye Estemed & att greate prises In Spayne…”. 

He then added, “The newe blades thatt are made in Spayne are of little Estemation, both because they can nott give the righte temper nor indeed the shape.  Ther usede to bee good blades made in Italeye as att Milane, Pitchemenio and other plases but the good Masters are worne oute.”  The coment about their shape may refer to a preference for wider, flatter blades with an edge as opposed to narrower ones of thick cross-section.  Oddly, he declared. “The Morions head weare not ill blades thatt weare made in Germanye butt for newe blades trewlye ther was never better made then was att Hounslowe in heath in Englande.”   Coincidentally (or perhaps not), Henry Blackwell in his 1702, English Fencing Master, also recommended against using Spanish tucks in favor of lighter German blades. We might consider if this view was common among the English or if Blackwell had read the Truth of the Sword?

Also intriguing is Cavendish’s advice on testing a blade, stating: “The trialls off them comoonlye is to laye a well-riveted Shirte off Male upon a Cushion & so run att itt with a thrust…The Comon triall is uppon an Andiron with blowes & Another trial thatt is amise which is sett the poynte agaynste a wale or wanscote the sorde in your right hande &bende itt the Contrarye waye with your lefte hande beinge bente towe severall wayes stronglye att one time iff it bee nott a verye good blade Itt will nott holde.”  In Chapter I of his 1686, Le Mistre d’armes, the great French fencing master André de Liancour described a similar method for choosing a small-sword. 

We might well wonder that this “common” test was being performed on armor with thrusting swords in the 1650’s then what test might have been done on blades in decades or centuries earlier?  Newcastle in general tells us this was a standard “test of a blade” and does not apply it exclusively to a rapier. We can speculate that stabbing and cutting at mail wrapped around soft materials might perhaps have been in Europe for a standard test for a considerable time.  The Marquise also wrote on the modes of sword manufacture during the early 1600s as well as giving advice on choosing a proper hilt and scabbard.  

Like earlier Spanish fencing masters, Cavendish’s instructions assume the opponent is also using this same “Spanish ward” with the arm outstretched horizontally from the shoulder.  What happened when an opponent adopting a different method refused to play the same he does not say and he did not offer any advice on those using a different guard.   Presumably then, two opponents using the guard would then naturally move around one another in a circle as each tried to maneuver their point over the other’s hilt. 

Cavendish noted early on that, “For fensinge: Iff keepe the plane, the line that is the Center, Fight thus butt once none more with yoou will venter, As Independente thus your Arte & Scill, Nott fowlowe himm butt hee forste to your will, You have the power, the time, the plase, the strength, Still hits him Gratis & your Sorde the Length, Ande iff hee dares butt stande soone Endes the strife, bloud drawinge still no Endinge off his Life.”  This description of fighting by counter-thrusting is also noteworthy for its reference to “the time” and “the place”, terms used in George Silver’s English fencing text some 50 years earlier.  Concerning distance and measure –two of the crucial principles of all fencing and fighting, Cavendish described familiar concepts: You have three distances, one out of distance of the Sword, the second when you have touched the Sword of yor poynt would goe over his hilt And the third distance to hit his Body.” 

In describing his main guard, Newcastle tells us something intriguing when he states:  “First I put my thumbe upon the Sword & claspe my fingers round about the handle which is the fastest holding the Sword.”  This is interesting in that our modern exploration into quickly drawing a replicas rapier from a hanger worn on the hip has revealed exactly this understanding.  By putting the thumb on the écusson [what Cotgrave in 1611 called the Core or “The broad peece thats betweene the crosse-bars of the hilt of a sword”] at the first instant of attempting to grab hold of your weapon it enabled the hand to more easily and quickly enter the hilt and find the handle.  This has led to our speculating the core/ecusson was specifically designed with this purpose in mind.  Again, this method is also sound and resembles what we have developed in our interpretation of Camillo Agrippa’s method from 1553, wherein some illustrations his fighters too appear to place the thumb upon the flat. Though he has little to say regarding edge blows, Newcastle went on to say “And hold itt flat because I use both edges”.  

Thibault PrintThe Marquis described how he closed on the opponent diagonally then suddenly straightened his arm to hit. This is the idea of the so-called “Spanish-cock” principle of walking around the opponent to gain a preferred range and angle of attack.  Attacks to one side are parried to the other and attempts by the adversary to disengage and thrust are parried back to the opposite side using the flat of the blade.  Cavendish’s use of the flat of the blade to parry with a slender thrusting sword is unique for rapier fencing and could be attributable to his manner of gripping the sword with “the thumbe upon the Sword” [–a technique which we came across independently but were unsure of until now].  Interestingly, this method of gripping by putting the thumb on the ecusson (or the flat of the ricasso) is one that allows for both edges to be employed in making quick slashing cuts in any of the eight cutting directions.  It is even applicable with late Medieval arming swords.  

wpe19.jpg (5327 bytes)Similarly, we can note that later Blackwell also described for his light 36-inch transitional rapier the parry of Tierce as being “parried with the Flat, dropping your point down, which comes with a great weight on your Adversary’s Foile”. Blackwell also noted: “some masters teach to parry upon the Edge, but in my Opinion, it is not so good; for if a Thrust come to be forced, or with any Strength, the Parry is so narrow, that no Parade [parry] can be made; when on the Flat, there comes such a weight by dropping a little of the Point, and narrow from the Wrist, that the strongest Thrust that is made can’t be forced, and still on as good a Guard as the other.”  Later, he added, “You must parry on the Edge when you make use of this, for it cannot be done on the Flat; it is on this Thrust that I esteem the Parrade on the Edge, and for no other.” (Henry Blackwell, The English Fencing Master, London, 1702, p. 7-8, 35.) While receiving blows on the flat was common with earlier cutting swords, it was unusual for deflecting thrusts from narrower blades.

In his attacks, the Marquis describes: “But that weth is the mayne business is the power of the Sword which belongs to the shoulders And those shoulders absolutely belonginge eyther to the inside or outside of the Sword and this is ye true strength & Power…Then you must understand that the right shoulder master the inside of the Sword & belongs onely to it And the left shoulder to the outside of the sword and belongs onely to it and will master heir owne sides these Shoulders eyther standing still or goeing to the Sword.”  He adds that “this posture on the outside of his Sword & the outside of myne wth my left shoulder a little in, brode to his hand, outing his poynt a litle from my Body & from the Conjuncture of the sword makes me that I can throw it downe if he stay As I have told you if he thrusts from the Conjuncture of the swords to my hand makes me defend it and then being wthin my sword, the right shoulder as I told you formerly belongs to that side so that I bring in my right shoulder wth putting up & out my hand wth the point downe weh gets my inside of my hand to the outside of his alwayes steping wth my right or left legge upon all the motions eyther he or I doe…”.  This appears to be in keeping with an interpretation of Thibault’s version of the Spanish rapier method. 

Newcastle adds I “hold my hand in the middle of my Body the Sword directly crosse beyond my Body & walke to his sword hand oblikely one Legge after another the right Legge comeing a Little before the Left & ye Left Legge a Little wide & oblike my hand allwayes ayminge at his Sword hand Looking allwayes at his hand wth both my Eyes weth keepes my Body almost even & brode to his hand onely the right [read “left”] shoulder a Little before”. 

In his advice Cavendish included a lengthy criticism of the idea –a familiar one in fencing literature –that an unskilled valiant novice could successfully fight a skilled swordsman.  This issue was frequently raised because of the difficulty of facing an earnest and determined foe that moved unusually and without a predictable style. A fencer use to fighting with a particular system or against a similar or identical one would conceivably have problem adjusting to the dynamic (George Silver for instance called for Italian rapier teachers in London to prove their skill against valiant untrained men, both drunk and sober).  This issue arose perhaps because of the especially careful and controlled mode in which, for safety, foyning fence had to be learned and practiced.

What influence Italian or other masters of the Renaissance might have had in turn upon fencing in proud, conservative, Catholic Spain is hard to determine but there were several non-Spanish fencing masters who taught variations of Spanish swordplay. The lavishly illustrated tome of “Hispanified” fencing, Academie De L'Espee, by the Flemish master Girard Thibault d'Anvers in 1628 is the best example of this.  Others such as Frederico Ghisliero in 1587 borrowed directly from or were strongly influenced by the Spanish styles without actually adopting them.   Another possibly influenced by Spanish methods was Ludolf van Ceulen, a mathematician and fencing master. He held numerous posts teaching fencing and mathematics in Delft then in 1594 opened a fencing school in Leyden. In 1600 he was appointed teacher of arithmetic, surveying, and fortification at the engineering school there.

As Cavendish was not actively teaching as a Master of Fence, he apparently felt his knowledge would be lost with his death, writing at one point, “I wish the height of this arte you may have, but doubt it will be buried in my grave.”  Regrettably, the work ends rather abruptly in the eighth chapter and would seem to be unfinished, possibly due to the interruption of his return from exile. While the work was aimed at his sons there is reason from the introduction to believe he intended it to eventually be published as were his riding books. It apparently contained illustrations at one time, as Cavendish apologized in the text for their inadequacy, but the artwork unfortunately has not survived.

This “lost fencing book” is highly deserving of scrutiny by today’s researcher-practitioner student of rapier fencing.  We hope to have more on this unique “lost” work appear in the future on the ARMA site.


© Copyright 2001 by J. Clements.


Note: The word "ARMA" and its associated arms emblem is a federally registered trademark under U.S. Reg. No. 3831037. In addition, the content on this website is federally registered with the United States Copyright Office, © 2001-2022. All rights are reserved. No use of the ARMA name and emblem, or website content, is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and its respective authors is strictly prohibited. Additional material may also appear from "HACA" The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999-2001 by John Clements. All rights are reserved to that material as well.