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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Noble Art of Defense, and the Valiant Trooper

From The Norwich Gazette of 1724 came two curious adverts.

The first advert appeared in the issue of the 4th January:

"Whereas I have receiv'd a Letter from Mr. Charles Hill, (commonly known by the Name of The Valiant Trooper) who professes himself to be Master of the Noble Science of Defence, and has therein given me an Invitation to fight him at ...
      • Back-Sword,
      • Sword and Dagger,
      • Sword and Buckler,
      • Falchion,
      • Case of Falchions,
      • Quarter-Staff
... being the whole Weapons generally fought on such Invitations, according to the Order of the Noble Science.
Secondly, Having another Invitation from Mr. William Flanders, being the most singular Scholar that was ever taught by that Famous and Celebrated Master James Figg, (whose Character declares him the Greatest Master of the Science in Europe) and if I am not disabled in my Limbs by the Battel with Mr. Hill, or have Blood enough in my Veins to support my Strength, am also ready to fight Him at the aforesaid Weapons, in any City, County, or Town Corporate, where Leave may be obtain'd of the Magistrates of such Places.

This being a full Answer to these Gentlemen's Letters by me Andrew Read, at the Two-Swords-Men on Hog-Hill ; where all Gentlemen may be Taught a Lesson, or have a Trial of Skill.
N.B. If it should be my Fortune to fight One, or Both these Gentlemen, I hope they will behave themselves more like Men of Honour than Mr. Hayes lately did, who reported Falshoods to my Prejudice, only to make himself appear Greater than he really was, tho' every Person of Judgment must say, that no Man ever wanted Shelter in a Battel more than he did."

A Falchion, one out to explain,  is a type of machete but much thinner and lighter than a double-edged blade and used for slashing. A Buckler a small round shield held by a handle or worn on the forearm. The Quarterstaff was wooden pole with a with a metal tip, ferrule, or spike at one or both ends. These weapons could do a lot of damage.

The other advertisement appeared the following week; it would seem that Charles Hill, the valiant trooper,William Flanders,  and Andrew Reid had arranged a meeting, hopefully with the Magistrates' permission.

"I Charles Hill from Lynn, Master of the noble Science of Defence, commonly known by the Name of the Valiant Trooper, do inyite Andrew Reid, Swords-Man for the City of Norwich and County of the same, to exercise the following Weapons with me, at the Dolphin in St Giles's, on Monday the 20"" Inst.
      • Back-Sword,
      • Sword and Dagger,
      • Sword and Buckler,
      • Falchion,
      • Case of Falchions,
      • Quarter-Staff
I Andrew Read, now living at the Two Swords-Men upon Hog-Hill, (where I keep my School) shall not fail (God willing) to meet this Great Hero at the Time and Place above mention'd; and do hope to give all Persons of Judgement entire Satisfaction, having never yet been defeated by any Man. 

N,B. There will be very good Conveniency for the Gentlemen and Ladies to stand above the Crowd."

That last sentence will give you the clue as to what is really going on. This was a performance rather than a rough fight to the death. The objective for the fighters was to impress the gentlemen of their skills in self-defense. The 'players', all masters of their art,  derived the bulk of their income from tutoring the gentility in these skills that were a necessary part of a young person's education. You will have noticed the carefully-placed mention of his 'school'.

This bloodthirsty sport is now an Olympic sport, called Fencing, Fencing is short for Defencing, and was, in Henry VIII's reign, regulated by the London-based Company of Masters of the Science of Defence. This organisation regulated the teaching of the Arte of Defence or fencing, using a range of weapons, including the rapier and the other weapons listed in the advert. The organisation awarded the title of Master to the most expert of the 'players'

The grudge tones to the adverts were fake, done to ensure that a good crowd came, looking for a hot-tempered fight. It is very like the pantomime posturing of today's boxers and wrestlers. The whole object of Noble Science of Defence was actually to avoid getting mutilated or killed. James Figg, mentioned in the advert, died of natural causes in his fifties, bruised but whole. The public fights were somewhat  gruesome though, because the losers occasionally got hurt before they yielded.

These adverts in the paper were called 'Bills of Challenge'. When the venue was fixed, wooden scaffolding was erected in a public square. On the appointed day and time, with much ceremony and fanfare, the fighters were paraded to the raised scaffold with much fanfare. The public gathered close to watch, cheer, and throw coins onto the platform.

Bouts were fought using 'blunts' (dulled and rounded weapons) and generally played to a number of 'hits' rather than to a 'victory'. The term “play” at the time referred to competing or practice sparring, as opposed to a life and death fight. Although not real, the fights were not just displays or exhibitions. They were free-sparring practices just earnest enough to properly evaluate the combatants and  to provide a public spectacle. The contact was limited, but it was at full speed. The bouts could sometimes be bloody, but never lethal. A dead master of defense would be an acute embarrassment for a profession who were promoting the art of avoiding getting killed in combat.

Masters of the Noble Art of Defense had to prove themselves in tournaments that could last days. They knew it was worth it, because their main income was in tutoring the sons of the nobility who, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, liked to make sure that they had acquired skills in 'Defencing'.  Unfortunately, the whole performance became degraded as the eighteenth century progressed. The rich lost interest in the art of defencing, and public fights gradually descended into prize-fighting where the losers really got hurt. 

Defencing evolved into the art of fencing, which is now an Olympic sport. Nowadays, the protection now ensures that the combatants don't get hurt. It is hard to realise that the sport evolved from the 'Noble Science of Defence', encouraged by the Tudor monarchs as a sport of the aristocracy, a good training for the military, and a useful skill for self-protection in Tudor England.


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