Thoughts & Ideas:
John Waller

Head of Fight-Interpretation
Royal Armouries, Leeds UK

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John Waller is likely the most skillful and knowledgeable Western swordsman we have ever met. He is an accomplished fencer, fencer, plate-armored fighter, archer, staff fighter, horseman, jouster, falconer, fight arranger, and much more.  He began studying swords and weapons as a youth and as a result of his recognition in the field of experimental archeology with weapons, especially longbows, did some respected work in fight arranging before acquiring his present position. We asked Mr. Waller to share briefly some of his views on the reconstruction and replication of historical fencing for the RA's public performances. With decades of experience and now the resources of the Royal Armouries, John Waller, is one of the leading forces in the study and practice of historical European fighting arts today. He can be seen in the video "Master’s of Defence" and the short film "How a Man Shal Be Armyd". He was kind enough to take time form his busy schedule to offer us a few thoughts and ideas regarding the unique challenges of their fight interpretation exhibitions. Courtesy of Keith Ducklin --Mr. Waller’s right-hand man for fight-interpretation (featured in the Arms in Action series' Sword episode) the following was produced as a result of discussions between John Waller, his son Jonathan, Keith, and fellow Senior Interpreter Andrew Deane. As John Waller is the master of the Royal Armouries’ system and the subject of the ARMA interview, he took the final voice. Because many points we inquired upon have overlapping answers, rather than specifics to questions on historical fencing he set down a broad range of intriguing comments for us. ARMA is proud to present this exclusive narration by Mr. Waller and associates offering a brief look behind the Royal Armouries Fight Interpreters:

The term (fight) "interpreter" is used by the Royal Armouries to denote a staff member whose task is to ‘interpret’ the collection for the public, i.e. bringing objects in the collection to life by means of live performance or lecture. However the Royal Armouries combat training programme does not differ substantially from that which I and some of my team had previously used to train and direct stage-fighters. Regardless of who we teach, actors, historians, re-enactors or martial artists, the system is based on my original concept of "reality first, theatricality second". It was the proven results of this approach which convinced Guy Wilson, Master of the Armouries, that European weaponry and martial arts could be viably demonstrated within the museum. The principle is simple: no action should be choreographed which does not have its basis in the realistic opportunities open to the combatants at any given point in the fight using the weapons at their disposal. The only exceptions are those techniques which may be judged too dangerous for combatants and visitors during public performances. I believe the precepts we teach have a great deal in common with many traditional (Asian) martial arts: we are, after all, attempting to re-discover a number of traditional arts ourselves.

We presently demonstrate long-sword based on dei Liberi and Talhoffer (armoured and unarmoured), pollaxe from "Le Jeux de la Hache" (armoured), sword and buckler and rapier and dagger synthesised from a number of Elizabethan masters, and smallsword from Angelo’s "Ecole des Armes". These manuals are used as source material but since they communicate information in an esoteric manner any attempt to interpret them is clearly fraught with problems. Imagine a group of people like ARMA attempting to learn our system, purely from an instructional publication, with none of us there to instruct you. How many similarities would your eventual version bear to our original system?

So far, we have not found anything in the texts of those manuals so far interpreted which contradicts our beliefs as to what constitute the basics of attack and defence. Clearly our core of interpreters will continue to prove an asset in interpreting manuals, but each will be a major undertaking needing much planning, research and experimentation, as is the projection to publish a book and film an instructional video detailing the basics of our system. (Regarding 1.33 we have not yet concluded our work with (translator) Jeffrey Singman, but once again the text must have been esoteric, even in its own time.) JW&JCatRA.jpg (41187 bytes)

Regarding the use of the sword in attack and defence I refer back to the principles stated (above). I believe that attacks should be made with the weapon followed by the body and defenses by the body followed by the weapon. Blows should be avoided (with or without a time-hit) or blocked according to the realistic opportunities afforded the defender at any given point in the combat. I have known and respected Ewart Oakeshott for thirty years, but on the question of blocking with the flat of a medieval broadsword the two of us must differ (though I should make it clear that he and I have never discussed the point). Receiving the blow against the flat means opposing the force of the attacker’s weapon with both the defender’s blade and hand-grip in their weakest positions.* Our belief is that parries were taken where possible against the edge but on the forte, where the blade was strongest: medieval blades showing evidence of extensive use are generally worn deeper a short way down from the point and a little below the cross.**

Bearing these points in mind, I believe our training programme is as near as it gets to reality, short of going out and testing the techniques in the barely controlled conditions of a duel, tournament or battle, which of course medieval warriors accepted as the ultimate stage in their training. I know (from reading John’s book on Renaissance Swordplay) that sparring is central to ARMA’s system but we never allow this: our belief is that swords are designed to maim and kill and any free-sparring system must inevitably moderate its techniques to avoid these dangers.+ Our system rather encourages the interpreters to attack and defend according to which has the advantage after each stroke. Combatants learn to initiate attacks with their weapons and defenses with their bodies, maintaining constant balance and never over-committing when attacking. At all times eye-contact is maintained, to allow the development of peripheral vision. Thus a series of moves are built up logically and progressively. These are then practised repeatedly without losing the original intent and focus and, no matter how they are presented in performance, remain in themselves useful training sequences.++ Furthermore, our public demonstrations are based on the concept of showing a broad range of those techniques suggested by the masters of each period and precise choreography allows us to deliberately juxtapose any number of these within a single sequence.

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(Note: one of the strongest reasons we avoid contact sparring is that we have not yet come across any conclusive evidence that fighters practised in this fashion. Even when fighting in armour, attacks should be aimed at the least protected areas, and a fighter’s training must reflect this. You can’t wear armour over armour. …I am not, I hasten to add, in any way decrying belief in sparring as I can grasp what [is seen] as its advantage. - Keith Ducklin)


I have not found that fighting in armour lends itself to much subtlety. Different styles of armour afford different levels of protection, the shortcomings of which will be exploited by an attacker using his weapon accordingly. The long-sword techniques of Fiore dei Liberi, for instance, are designed for use in three different ranges: cutting attacks for use at long and medium range; clubbing and stabbing attacks delivered with one hand on the grip and the other on the blade, in order that once distance was closed the sword could be held close in to the body; and seizing and grappling attacks, with or without weapons, for extreme close-range. Fiore illustrates more techniques for use against an unarmoured or lightly-armoured opponent than he does for use against full armour, but I would not describe any of them as subtle: they are fast, vicious and decisive. mod2.JPG (12696 bytes)

Moving onto the 16th and 17th centuries, Renaissance rapiers were broad-bladed cut-and-thrust weapons, yet (also) specially designed thrusting swords, estocs, had previously been developed in the later medieval period to attack the areas of the body unprotected by plate armour. Bucklers had been used for several centuries and continued to be used in conjunction with broad-bladed weapons as late as the Elizabethan period. The overlap of weapon, period and technique is therefore considerable. George Silver was only the most vocal of English teachers who argued the advantages of the more versatile cut-and-thrust style even after the lighter-bladed thrusters had become popular and Silver’s argument was essentially a sound one: that cut and thrust should be made as necessity demanded and not for stylistic reasons (our philosophy reinforced). In addition, Silver was a pragmatist and since it appears he took care to read Saviolo’s Practise, it seems unlikely that he would not have absorbed what was useful. However the thrusting style itself would not have enjoyed continuing patronage without proving an effective system of self-defence. Though Silver records that the old cut-and-thrust masters gave the thrusters a trouncing whenever they actually fought, we have only his word for this and besides, the winning of a swordfight may have to do with many other factors than the validity of the techniques alone.

All scholars seem to agree that the Renaissance and Elizabethan eras were actively transitional in terms of sword development, with more defined differentiation’s becoming established between military and civilian weaponry. What is often overlooked, I personally believe, is the inevitable parallel change in the attitudes of the combatants, some continuing to favour the long-established broader-bladed weapons for cut-and-thrust and others who favoured developing what they saw as the advantages of a thrusting style utilizing the emerging lighter and purely civilian weapons. In other words, the cut-and-thrusters took the position that there was no reason to question an efficient and well-established tradition of weapon and style which had its routes in medieval military swordsmanship (and which, in a military context, would never entirely outlive its usefulness), while the thrusting schools were actively working to develop and promote what would become the civilian style throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, discarding auxiliary weapons altogether and virtually abandoning the cut.

I can only offer a very brief summation of my views on the question of teaching and training methods during these periods, as I do not believe that sufficient evidence exists to make anything more than a speculative conclusion. I believe that warriors in the medieval period trained by developing or learning previously developed fighting drills of varying lengths and when they wished to (or had to) went out and fought in duels, tournaments or battles to test their skills. The survivors might sometimes find themselves training those they favoured or who came under their charge. Some veterans (like Fiore) found favour with great lords, allowing their ideas for a more formal training system to develop. By the Renaissance period many who had learned to fight, whether respected or not, turned to managing schools of fence, catering sometimes for the nobility, more often for the rising civilian population, yet still teaching in the time-honoured fashion. Therefore, while the environment might have become formalised, only the practicalities of the techniques taught are likely to have changed, not the structure and manner of that teaching.

John Waller

Leeds 1999

Editors Notes:

* ARMA and the RA have a mutual view of defensive movement, but differing interpretations about the utility of edge parries with long-swords. Flat-side defense does not seem to us to "be on the weak portion of the grip" at all since the action is less a resistant obstruction block or direct opposition parry than a deflecting move that permits an immediate counter.

**By this he means that they would use the edge when the opportunity called for it, rather than intentionally trying to receive a blow with the forte as a deliberate defensive action (ala’ standard stage combat performance). We note that the edge of the forte would indeed be the location of most of the binds and close-in trapping actions take place with force. We also note several deflecting and defensive counter-striking actions described by German Fechtmiesters as landing edge-on-flat when performed in earnest.

+ARMA agrees entirely that any free-sparring system must inevitably moderate its techniques to avoid these dangers, but we feel that’s the whole point of drilling and practicing and exercising –to understand that sparring practice is not killing and maiming but only supplemental tool to gaining understanding of principles and techniques.

++While we consider drills important as exercises and teaching tools, we believe it’s crucial to at all costs avoid programmed or patterned movements. This is done to ensure appreciation of the value of broken rhythm in the spontaneous and fluid application of techniques. Again we feel this is related directly to the importance of free-play or sparring, for all one has to do is encounter an opponent who say s "Well, I’m not gonna’ fight that way" and your in trouble if you can’t adapt to use whatever works. A similar situation exist with the Asian martial arts community wherein some styles in their focus on forms and preset routines have been criticized for being too artificial or impractical in real fights.

There’s no evidence that historical warriors actively "sparred". But then…they did go around trying to kill one another by earnestly hitting at each other while trying not to get hit in turn, which is the same core idea in loose-play or sparring.

In summary, ARMA’s differences with the RA Fight Interpreters while fascinating appear vastly outweighed by our similarities.

Our gratitude to Royal Armouries Senior Fight Interpreter, Keith Ducklin for assistance with this material

End Note:
ARMA had the privilege of meeting with personally with the Royal Armouries Fight Interpreters in July, 1999. We were able to practice first hand with John Waller and Keith Ducklin and see something their method as well demonstrate some of our own. 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. One difference we noted was that practicing in a semi-theatrical arranged mode created some assumption of certain movements and responses, whereas in earnest play, opponents move more unpredictably. Thus, ceratin aspects of physical mechanics of certain actions may be missing. Our ARMA approach therefore emphasizes the elements of perception and timing/distance that are gained from free-sparring combined with other forms of practice.

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See the ARMA England Sword Trip Report featuring our visit to the Royal Armouries with John Waler and Keith Ducklin.

See his recent book here
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