A Study of the London Masters of Defense
[by Don Dylan, formated to WORD by Harald Isenross] Originally published in the Online Bird of Prey, Volume 5, Third Quarter 2002
Who were the London Masters of Defense?
The Company of the Masters of Defense of London was an officially recognized guild of teachers of fencing in England (centered mostly around London). Henry VIII gave the guild a charter in 1540 granting it a monopoly to teach proficiency in all of the weapons of war that a gentleman should know.  The concept behind the guild was not unique: there are hints of similar schools to teach equestrian, painting, dancing and song.  The charter, like most Court documents, needed to be renewed by each new monarch. It was renewed by Edward VI, but there are no documents showing that Mary, Elizabeth or James I renewed it.
This guild divided its membership into 3 ranks: Free Scholar, Provost and Master. At the top of the structure were the Four Ancient Masters, who ran the business of the guild itself; below them were all of the other Masters. The Four Ancient Masters apparently changed as time progressed, but there is no mention in the manuscript of a ‘changing of the guard.’ Each Master had students from the lower ranks who swore an oath of loyalty to their master. To advance through the various ranks a student, or scholar, would study weapons for a minimum specified time, then, with permission of their superiors would ‘play the prize’ for advancement to the level of Free Scholar. The next level for the prize was Provost, which allowed Provosts to open up a school in their master’s name, where they would pay their master a small fee for each student. The last level was that of Master. The prizes for each level generally involved more and varied weapons than the previous. Incidentally, this is where the term ‘prize fight’ evolved.
The best source of information we have on the guild is a book entitled: ‘The Noble Science’ which is a study & transcription of the Sloane Manuscripts 2530, Papers of the Masters of Defence of London, from the 1540s to the 1590s. The author, Herbert Berry has published several works on Elizabethan England/London, including one on Shakespearean Playhouses. The book contains the Sloane MS, and Berry’s interpretations and commentaries on the MS. The Sloane MS 2530 was collected by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) and donated to the British Museum in 1754.  It was written by 11 or 12 people; through hand-writing analysis Berry estimates that ~80% written by one person. The MS contains 3 primary forms of info: prizes, challenges, and formal documents (charters, rules, etc.) It mentions 78 men and 108 prizes: some dated, some without dates and others only partially dated.  The MS is far from complete; Berry states that there are omissions of prizes/agreements by which 20 men became Free Scholars and Provosts, and between 1558 and 1578 there is a gap in prizes for masters, but there are hints in other areas that at least 15 advanced in those years. 
There are conflicting opinions about the intent of the manuscript. Berry believes that it is an informal document and that the first hand was hired to copy older documents sometime in the 1580s and that others finished it.  Craig Turner states that it was commissioned by William Mucklowe in 1573 , calling it a Book of Minutes, which conflicts with Berry’s supposition that this is not a register of the Company’s affairs. I lean more toward Turner’s interpretation; there are enough official documents and rules to make it official, or at least Muckelowe’s official version. I call it this because it has Muckelowe’s school charter in it, and is therefore more representative of an individual than of the entire guild.
First and foremost, the guild was a business. This business made money in three areas: charging money for lessons in various forms of combat, through a fee structure (for both normal business as well as penalties) for the guild, and by charging for attendance to it’s public functions (prizes).
Master William Mucklowe’s school charter stated that a scholar must pay half of his tuition up front for learning, and half at some unspecified later time. His charter suggests 30 or 40 shillings for the fee, which was quite a bit of cash back then. In addition to paying out all of this money, the scholar must bring own weapons or make prior arrangements for their procurement.  Since the manuscript only mentions 78 people in the guild, beginning students, or ‘scholars’ were probably the main source of income for the company, which depended on high turnover, much like today’s health clubs do.
The second form of income for the guild was fees charged to members and schools. A scholar had to pay 12 pence upon taking an oath to a master, and 4 pence for entrance into the guild. When a candidate successfully played the prize, he also had to pay a fee in order to advance to the next rank.
The Company benefitted from the success of the individual members in a profit sharing system, almost like a multi-level marketing scheme, much like Amway today. The provosts gave 2 pence to their master for every student they had, and all masters put 2d. per scholar in a box and gather twice a year, presumably to divide it (the rest of this piece cuts off in the manuscript.)  Unfortunately, we are left to our own speculations as to how the money was divided.
In addition to the regular fees that the Company charged for it’s day to day affairs, it also charged penalty fees to members who failed to carry out guild business in a proper manner. A penalty fee of 5s. per Provost was charged to prize candidates who did not properly notify other members of the Company about the upcoming prize. A penalty of 6s. 8d. was charged to Provosts who did not show up to prizes without a valid excuse (such as illness, service to the crown or distances involved). 
Playing the prize was also quite lucrative. The Company charged the public for attendance of the prize, and the public was encouraged to throw money if they liked the bouts as well. The candidate had to pay for the posting notices about the prize, and in some cases had to pay half of the travel expenses of Company members, but the candidate also received some of the money generated by the prize. There is no direct evidence of how much money a prize generated, but in one prize, a tavern owner demanded a cut of the procedes and received 40 shillings, which was more than he earned for most plays. 
Prizes were more than just a direct revenue stream; they were also a form of advertising for the masters and provosts. The teachers had the opportunity to publically display both their skills, and the skills of their students for the benefit of the audience. This would then draw interest in their individual schools and hopefully attract more students. 
Playing of Prizes
Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the actual playing of prizes. Prizes were held in public places like markets, inns and theatres and that they were a popular form of entertainment, drawing a paying audience. In fact, prizes were banned in times of plague or infection for fear of spreading disease through the crowds.
Playwrite Ben Johnson included a posting of a Prize in his play, Cynthia’s Revels:
BE IT KNOWN to all that profess arms that we, A.B., Master of
the Noble science of Defence, do give leave and licence to our
Provost, C.D. to play his Master’s Prize against all Masters in their
subtile mysterie at these weapons, viz: longsword, sword and
buckler, Morris pike, and rapier and dagger. These are to give
notice that our said Provost will be present the …th day of the
present month to perform and do his utter most for the acheivement
and bearing away of the prize.
GOD SAVE THE QUEEN
Prizes usually began with a procession, very often starting in BlackFriars, going through the Ludgate and into the City Proper. Company members marched in the procession by rank. It tended to swell as it went along, with people joining and following it to it’s destination. This caused problems for merchants who either had no business or too much business as a result. 
Many of the earlier prizes were played in market places, which had no rent, but as things evolved, the theatres and inns seemed much more popular, probably because the raised stage/scaffold gave access to larger audiences. The area that the fencing took place could be anywhere from 20-60 feet on a side.
After arriving at the prize site, there was an intentional delay in activity while speeches were made: words were spoken by the Prizor, the answerers to his challenge, and the ‘sticklers’ or seconds. This tended to be a long drawn out process that continued on until enough money was thrown on stage. Drummers then drummed until the crowd was relatively quiet. The Prizor’s master then read the bill of challenge, introducing the Prizor, the answerers and sticklers by name and accomplishment. The four ancient masters then announced “the first bout at such and such a weapon.” The prizor fought two bouts per weapon per answerer, fighting each weapon against all answerers before starting with the next weapon. Four challengers and 3 weapons at 2 passes per weapon would mean about 24 passes for the prize. Many prizes had more challengers and weapons, and could conceivably have 70 or more passes. The four ancient masters then announced the next form, and so on. It is possible that more money was collected during the breaks. At the end of the prize, the four ancient masters decided and announced the result during a flurry of drums. The Company then recessed back to Blackfriar’s where the Prizor would take the necessary oaths and pay appropriate fees.
Although there is remarkably little information about the actual conduct of the prize, we do have some small glimpses. On conduct during the prize, the Sloane manuscript has the following:
And at anny prize Whether it be maisters prize Provosts prize or
fre schollers prize who soever dothe play agaynst ye prizor, and
doth strike his blowe and close withall so that the prizor cannot
strike his blowe after agayne, shall Wynn no game for anny Veneye
so geven althoughe it shold breake the Prizors head
which can be paraphrased as:
at any prize, at any level, if whoever is fencing against the prizor
hits him while closing so the prizor can’t riposte, he doesn’t score
the point no matter how hard the hit was
(my paraphrase, with help from Jay Rudin)
This would suggest that there was a definite code of conduct during the prize. In this particular case, it seems that while effective, infighting was frowned upon in the prize. It is hard to figure out why such a rule would be in effect. Possibly it was considered to be less skillful, or maybe it would make it difficult for the candidate to show his skills in such a situation, or maybe it was considered to be too dangerous. Keeping the audience in mind, it would certainly be difficult for the audience to follow.
There were other codes of conduct as well. Aylward says that there were no blows allowed below the waist; there was also the scholar’s prerogative which banned blows to the face. Another code of conduct is mentioned by George Silver in his book. He writes about the ‘evil rules or customs’ of the London Masters. Specifically, he claims that the London Masters did not allow the thrust with a broadsword and did not allow the cut or blow with a rapier.
There is one other hint at the prize in the period sources, this time more factual. In “Noble Science”, Berry quotes “The Summary of the Chronicles of Englande … abridged” by John Stow, 1573 in an incident concerning a judicial duel. In 1571, there was a land dispute in the civil courts. The defendant requested a trial by combat, which was legal in England (although rarely used) until 1819. An interesting side note is that this was a civil suit, not a criminal one, nor was it a manner of honor or insult. Both sides chose champions for their cause. Henry Naylor, a Master in the Company was chosen by the Plaintiffs, George Thorne was picked by the defense. At the Duel, the judge gave the land to the defense without combat. Naylor then challenged Thorne “to playe with him halfe a score blowes.” Thorne refused, saying that he had come to fight, not play.  Like the example in Hamlet, Naylor, a member of the Company has suggested the idea of swordplay to a counted number of blows or bouts without intent of injury, and for the benefit of an audience.
The scant information about the prize means that we have scant information about injuries during the prize (Hamlet not withstanding). The only concrete information we can find is in the Sloane MS where we find that Izake Kenard’s prize was postponed a few days due to injury , but there is no other information about what kind of injury it was. Turner mentions broken bones and cracked skulls as common outcomes.  Aylward claims that Thomas Overbury asserts that a lucky master had both eyes, and that Overbury harps on bruises in fencing (admitting though, that the bruises were only skin deep). 
Bated weapons were commonly used during the period but nothing mentions their use in prizes. Considering that the weapons used for the prize included pike, it is doubtful that all of the weapons were bated, although it is conceivable that they made a pike with no edge. It is also uncertain if participants wore armor during the prize, but it is reasonable to assume that they wore at least some armor, perhaps a buffcoat. Terminology here is also confusing. Foils were blunted and had no edge, but none of the manuscripts that I have looked at use the term foil. The only use of the word foil that I am aware of, comes from a reference stating that King Philip took 2nd place for ‘fairest and most gallant entry’ and first in the combat with foils. Shakespeare used the term foil interchangeably with sword and rapier, making interpretation of their usage of the words difficult.
The weapons that were used in the prizes and challenges were quite varied. They include the long sword, bastard sword, dagger, back sword, two handed sword, staff, sword and buckler, rapier and dagger, sword and dagger. Some of the forms were reserved for the higher level members of the guild (like pike and bastard sword). It must be remembered that the Company was teaching the weapons of war, not just the Art of the Duel. The Elizabethan concept of ‘fencing’ is far different than our modern/SCA concept of the same term (more than just a foil/epee/rapier). Some interesting things to note: Rapier was not added as a prize until 1578 or so, and it was only added for the Master’s prize, however, they were using the rapier in challenges 25-30 years earlier.
Not all of the candidates played the prize to advance a level. Several candidates for the prize were advanced upon the agreement of the Masters. Why this occurred is uncertain; its hard to understand why they’d give up the potential cash that a prize would bring in. In any case, we don’t know exactly what the Masters looked for in a candidate, but from the manuscript we know that the candidate had to show the Masters that they had the skills necessary and that they would cooperate with the guild (see rules below). Since a Provost or Master could open up schools of their own, new members would bring in money for everyone under the profit sharing arrangements of the guild.
The guild had several rules governing the playing of prizes, including fees paid, weapons forms used and the process of getting permission for the prize.
Here are most of the rules for the playing of prizes:
The order for playinge of a schollers Prize
To play a scholars prize, the candidate had to do the following:
1) notify his master of his intentions
2) master will notify other masters & set up prize upon agreement of the other masters
3) Master will set up the time and place
4) the candidate must play with 6 scholars minimum at long sword and backsword as a trial or proof
5) if the masters concur, a prize will be set
6) at the prize, the candidate will play with as many schollars as possible at long sword and back sword
7) if the masters agree & he can pay all orders and duties, he is allowed to be a FS.
8) the candidate cannot play the provost prize for 7 years
The order for playinge of a provosts Prize
To play a provosts prize, the candidate had to do the following:
1) ask master to play
2) master & FS/candidate go to the 4 ancient masters
3) if the 4 masters agree, they pick a day
4) must play at 2 handed sword, back sword and staff against all provosts who come
5) must notify at own cost all provosts within 60 miles of the site of the prize 4 weeks before the prize there is a penalty of 5 shillings PER unwarned provost paid to the ancient masters
6) if no provosts within 20 miles of the site can come to the prize and the candidate has not given the proper 4 weeks notice to those beyond the 20 miles, the candidate must pay 1/2 travel cost for those outer provosts nb: this contradicts [f.16 of Sloane] which states that any provost more than 20 miles gets 1/2 travel cost regardless
7) must pay the duties set before him
8) cannot keep a school within 7 miles of any master without permission
9) cannot teach any scholar who doesn’t swear to his master
10) must pay master 2d. for every scholar taught and 2d. to each of the 4 ancient masters
11) must show his books quarterly
12) must go to any prize within 60 miles with proper warning, or get permission not to go penalty for non-attendance: 6s, 8d. must be sick or on queen’s business to not attend
13) not play masters prize for 7 years (5 yrs mentioned elsewhere)
The order for playinge of a maisters Prize
To play a maisters prize, the candidate had to do the following: more of the same, modified by the following:
1) weapons include: 2Hd Swd, Bastard Sword, pike, backsword, rapier and dagger
2) 60 mile radius, 8 week warning
Rules are made to be broken, and the rules for playing the prize were broken on several occasions. The Sloane MS clearly shows many candidates advancing to the next level way before the proscribed period, in some cases only one year after their last advancement. Again, we are left to speculate why this is the case. The most obvious benefit to the guild would be money: it is quite possible that the candidate had potential students and could open up their own school.
Oaths for Advancement
After playing the prize, the candidate had to take an oath upon advancement: (below is a summary of most of the oaths)
Swear as a christian to the following:
- be true to the church
- be a true subject of the queen [because the Sovereign at the time was a Queen? Harold Kraus], and report all traitors within 24 hours if possible, even if its your father, and serve the queen with life and property
- obey and work with the other masters
- don’t teach suspect peoples (murderers, thieves, drunkards, quarrelers) and don’t associate with them
- in any game, prize, or play at weapons, give true judgment without favor or hatred
- any scholar must take oath to you and charge same amount as other masters
- do not challenge any English Masters or your master & pay your master all of your debts and duties to him
- be merciful when you have the upper hand (no weapon, on ground, back turned) exept in self defense or in service to the crown
- give aid and strength & help all masters & provosts, widows and fatherless kids, and help any poor Masters at each prize (pass the hat or something)
- do not teach another master’s scholar without permission and only if that master was paid in full
- call all masters to set up a prize
- do not set up any prize for a year and a day after becoming a master
- cannot advance anyone without 2 other masters
- do not allow others to keep school in your name and other masters/provosts that allow you to do so shall lose their license as well
swear as a christian
- uphold & be true to the church
- uphold the queen & turn in all traitors
- be a true provost, agree with masters and provosts; obey your master
- don’t teach suspect peoples (murderers, thieves, drunkards, quarrelers) and don’t associate with them
- don’t teach anyone without oath to your master
- don’t challenge any master or compare yourself with any master especially your master
- be merciful when you have the upper hand (no weapon, on ground, back turned) exept in self defense or in service to the crown
- do not train others without masters permission & only if scholar has paid his master in full
The manuscript also records several challenges, all of which were played before the crown. Challenges are recorded as taking place before Henry VIII, Edward VI, Philip & Mary, and Elizabeth I, with a wider variety of weapons than was used in the prizes. Weapons used include axe, pike, rapier, rapier and target, rapier and cloak, dagger, and two swords, a far greater mix of weapon styles than played in the prize. At least one prize was fought as part of a challenge: Richard White fought his scholars prize before Henry VIII. Given the middle-class status of the Company, one can imagine the Crown giving It’s time to It’s chartered guild as mostly a formal piece of business, much like our modern politicians at a ribbon cutting ceremony, or touring a factory. It is far more likely that these interactions were part of the job of the Crown than that the Crown was directly interested in what the Guild was doing.
Silver mentions challenges in two separate places in his books. In the first one, he makes a challenge to all strangers and ‘false teachers’ (his description for the Italians and their rapier play) to fight 9 bouts, broken into 3 groups of 3 bouts each. Three bouts were to be against English Masters, who knew their swordwork, three against unskilled men, although stout of heart and the last three against drunks. Silver noted that if challenger couldn’t win then they should be killed for their false teaching.
His second mention of a challenge is the one that he and his brother, Toby set up against Saviolo and Ieronimo. He proposed the use of the following weapons: Single rapier, rapier & dagger, single sword, sword and target, sword and buckler, two handed sword, staff, battle axe and morris pike – nine weapons in all.
I took a look at Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2, the duel between Hamlet and Laertes as an possible example of a challenge. This fit in with Turner’s notion that Shakespeare wrote for his audience.  The following is from Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2, where Osric, a servant of the King is arranging Hamlet’s duel with Laertes:
(Osric, a servant speaking to Hamlet)
Osric: The king, sir, hath laid, that in a dozen passes
between yourself and him, he shall not exceed you
three hits: he hath laid on twelve for nine; and it
would come to immediate trial, if your lordship
would vouchsafe the answer. 
This is not so much a duel as a challenge. Originally I took it to be a prize, but the number of passes (bouts) mentioned leads me to believe otherwise, especially in the light of Aylwards information on the prize (2 passes/person/weapon). It is not to the death (or at least Hamlet thought), but to touches, the king betting 6 horses vs. 6 french rapiers (an interesting equivalence) that Laertes not exceed Hamlet by 3 hits, and switching the challenge from 9 to 12 passes. A little later in the scene, the duel takes place:
Set me the stoops of wine upon that table.
If Hamlet give the first or second hit,
Or quit in answer of the third exchange,
Let all the battlements their ordnance fire:
The king shall drink to Hamlet’s better breath;
And in the cup an union shall he throw,
Richer than that which four successive kings
In Denmark’s crown have worn. Give me the cups;
And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,
The trumpet to the cannoneer without,
The cannons to the heavens, the heavens to earth,
‘Now the king dunks to Hamlet.’ Come, begin:
And you, the judges, bear a wary eye.
Come on, sir.
Come, my lord.
A hit, a very palpable hit.
Stay; give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine;
Here’s to thy health.
(Trumpets sound, and cannon shot off within)
Give him the cup.
I’ll play this bout first; set it by awhile. Come.
Another hit; what say you?
A touch, a touch, I do confess.
Note that there are judges (Osric) for this duel, and that there are no actual blows struck that could result in injuries to either party (at least not yet). This sounds very much like it could be a challenge or a prize could being conducted.
The London Masters and the Italians
Elizabethan London was the scene of two conflicting movements: The renaissance, which moved into England later than the rest of Europe, bringing with it European influences; and a certain ultra-nationalism, manifesting itself in the intense competition with the other European powers (the Spanish Armada comes to mind), and possibly as a backlash toward the newer styles and attitudes that competed with English tradition. The Company definitely reflected this attitude in its manuscripts and history. The Sloane manuscript shows a challenge that was fought before Edward VI against all aliens and strangers, but does not record who, if anyone fought in the challenge on the part of the foreigners. The oath that members were required to take for advancement also included loyalty to the crown. It appears that the guild took this quite seriously.
By most accounts, the English Masters were very stuffy, conservative and tied to their traditions. Anglin says that this lead to a lack of English Manuals on the defensive arts and virtually guaranteed that any new trends in the Art of Defense would occur on the continent. Silver’s manual was a response to the Italian influence, and was the only English originated manual, for several reasons: 1) the guild members were middle class and most likely didn’t have the resources to write and publish books; 2) If they did so, teaching revenues would most likely go down; and 3) the guild had nothing new to say.
For a while, the Company had a monopoly on teaching weapons to the public, by virtue of its letters patent from the crown. This warrant had to be renewed by each monarch, and it was probably not signed by Mary or Elizabeth. This probably allowed teachers from Europe to move into a previously closed area, competing with the Company.
The Company was a middle class guild in an extremely class conscious society, teaching their craft to the middle class, but the Italians were drawing wealthier students, and behaved as if the members of the Company were below them in station. Saviolo’s stated goal was to teach the nobility and gentry, a far cry from the middle class. While the London Masters were charging 40 shillings for instruction , Silver indicates that Rocco Bonetti was charging 20-100 pounds. To give an idea of how different these amounts of money were, a laborer’s wage was about 5d a day, a craftsman about 1s, a gentleman about 2s 6d. (12pence = 1 shilling; 20 shilling = 1 pound). As a reference, basic entry to a theatre was 1d. The fees charged by the London Masters were about a month’s wages for a craftsman, but the fees charged by the Italians were clearly out of reach of most of the populace, including the London Masters.
One of the Italians that we have decent records of was Rocco Bonetti. He set up a school in London in 1576, calling it a “colledge”. His students were typically “Noblemen & Gentlemen of the Court”, and his colledge reflected this. It was decorated with the devices of his students and there was a writing desk with stationary and even a clock, clearly reflecting a clientelle beyond the hopes of the London Masters.  Bonetti’s patrons included Sir Walter Raleigh, and one of the Queen’s best swordsmen, Lord Peregrin Willoughby, both men of high stature. 
The London Masters did not have the same kind of patronage. While there is evidence where the Earl of Warwick wrote on behalf of his servant, John Davis to arrange for his provost’s prize, this is far different from patronage. In fact, many of the Masters had other jobs. Richard Tarlton was a comic actor, who later became ‘groom to the ordinary of the Queen’s chamber,’ and another master was a master gunner at the Tower of London. While some may have been able to live off of their income as masters, clearly all were not able to do so (or will unwilling to try). In our modern world, with our modern concepts of class, it is hard to comprehend what this means, but there was a near insurmountable wall between the multiple class levels and it must have been extremely frustrating to the London Masters to see the Italians parading around at the next level, and possibly even the level beyond that.
Bonetti was at one time a Captain in the service of Venice, which is probably where he learned his swordplay. He came to England in 1569. There is some evidence that he was involved in low level espionage, carrying messages at some point during his stay in England. Sometime after Bonnetti opened his colledge, the London Masters, unhappy with Bonetti’s success, offered to allow him to fight a master’s prize (generously offering to waive the requirements for scholar & provost). Bonetti declined on grounds of class. Shortly after, two provosts (identified by Aylward as Francis Calvert and Isaac Kennard – ) apparently tried to provoke Bonetti into a fight, which he managed to avoid. To add to Bonetti’s troubles, his landlord, the Earl of Oxford was upset to find out that his property had been leased to Bonetti without the Earl’s knowledge or approval, and sent men to cause Bonetti trouble. This harassment was so bad that Bonetti asked his patrons on Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council to intercede on his behalf.  Other sources say that Bonetti went to Scotland while things cooled off. The Council eventually directed the Mayor to jail the offenders, which shows that Bonetti’s patrons had quite a bit of influence, but there is no evidence that anything was actually done to Bonetti’s harrassers.
In 1587, Bonetti fought in a brief duel with Austen Bagger. The fight took place outside of Bonetti’s colledge, and Bagger managed to wound him in the legs. Bagger then “trode upon him” – a direct violation of the spirit of the rules of conduct for the Company. Bagger spared Bonetti’s life. Anglin claims that the Italian died of his wounds sustained in the duel. Aylward found some evidence of Bonetti’s death in Thospital, but no information tying it to his fight with Bagger. Bagger is not mentioned in Sloane, but Anglin says that he is a member of the Company ; Anglin also claims that Silver was a member of the Company, which I find highly questionable since Silver was in a much higher social class than the London Masters.
Silver also mentioned a time when Bonetti drew his rapier upon a boatman and was soundly beaten upon by the other boatmen using their oars.
Bonetti was succeeded by Ieronimo, who was either Bonetti’s son or close assistant. Vicentio Saviolo joined Ieronimo at the school in 1590, and the two taught fencing throughout England, much to the annoyance of the Masters. Saviolo was a professional teacher of the sword in Italy, and had more humble roots than Bonetti did, but still seemed to look down upon the English from a professional standpoint. In response to a comment attributed to Saviolo and Ieronimo about English running away, George Silver and his brother Toby issued a challenge to the two, to prove once and for all which was better. The Silvers didn’t get an answer from the Italians before they printed up the handbills and were quite embarrassed when the Italians didn’t show. Silver later accused the Italians of cowardice.
George Silver then talkas about Saviolo and his confrontation with a master of defense. Saviolo was in Somersetshire, outside of London, and was asked to play with Rapier and Dagger by Bartholomew Bramble, a local Master. Saviolo is reported to have said, “If I play withe thee, I will hit thee 1, 2, 3, 4 thrusts in the eie together” and later saying “by God me scorn to play with thee” when Bramble would not relent. Bramble was so incensed by Saviolo’s attitude that he boxed Saviolo in the ear and knocking him down. Fearing Saviolo’s response, Bramble reached for a blackjack, half full of beer. Saviolo fingered his dagger and claimed that he could have Bramble thrown into jail for his actions. The Englishman, in turn, called Saviolo a coward and poured the rest of the beer on him. Saviolo again refused to respond to the provocation, since Bramble had no weapon, other than the blackjack. When he met Bramble on the street the next day, the Italian bought him a present of a dozen silken points from a mercer’s shop, and promised to teach Bramble how to thrust further than his fellow Englishmen. Silver finishes the story by calling Saviolo a better Christian than a fighter 
Silver then tells of the time that Saviolo and Ieronimo were set upon by members of the London Masters. A wench (as Saviolo calls her) who was with the Italians ran screaming for help, and townsfolk showed up and broke up the fight, which the London Masters claimed was only a little brawl. Evidently this added to the Italians’ prestige in Court.
The last story that Silver tells is of the demise of Ieronimo. Ieronimo was in a coach with a wench, when a man named Cheese rode on horseback after the coach and calling out Ieronimo to fight him. Ieronimo finally relented and was killed by a thrust with Cheese’s broadsword. Silver uses this opportunity to show why Ieronimo and his rapier teachings were false.
The Italians believed that they were far ahead of the London Masters in class, and behaved that way. The fees they charged and the patronage of influential people certainly told the London Masters that this was the case. It is interesting to note that while Silver did not like the Italians, and called them false teachers, every single story that he tells has the members of the Company, or at least Englishmen provoking the fight.
The London Masters are far more complex than I ever expected to find. It is a fascinating, and unfortunately incomplete tale. We have somehow latched upon the Company of the Masters of Defense of London as a model of how to do things in SCA rapier combat (playing the prize, rankings of the EK Cord structure and the Atlantian Academy, etc), without truly understanding what they were about. Their definition of fencing included many many more weapons forms that we would define more as SCA heavy weapons. It was a business, and it seemed to do rather well as such. It wasn’t a school, rather it was a set of schools throughout London. It provided entertainment for the masses (which was also a form of self-promotion for more students). It was also very middle class, and due to its own mechanisms, very conservative, which lead to inevitable conflicts with rival teaching and weapon styles.
Understanding all of this gives us a better feel for how rapier combat fit into society at that time, and can hopefully give us a better sense of persona play, as well as appreciation of what came before us.
A table showing the LMOD’s Prizes
A table showing an analysis of weapon frequency in LMOD prizes.
A sample of text from Sloan MSS. 2530, courtesy of William Wilson.
1. Anglin, pg 395
2. Anglin, pg 394
3. Berry, pg 15
4. Berry, pg 27
5. Berry, pg 27
6. Berry, pg 23
7. Turner, pg 14
8. Sloane, f. 36, pg 113
9. Sloane, f. 21, pg 83
10. Sloane, f. 19, pg 79
11. Berry, pg 3
12. Anglin, pg 402
13. Aylward, pg 33 (add Scene and Act for play, if possible)
14. Aylward, pg 34
15. Aylward, pg 35
16. Sloan, f. 16, pg 73
17. Aylward, pg 36
18. Silver, pg 23
19. Berry, pg 11
20. Sloane, f. 3, pg 47
21. Turner, pg XX
22. Aylward quoting Overbury, pg 36
23. Young, Tudor & Jacobean Tournaments, pg 31
24. Sloane, f. 17, pg 75
25. Sloane, f. 18, pg 77
26. Sloane, f. 20, pg 81
27. Sloane, f. 22, pg 85
28. Sloane, f. 27, pg 95
29. Turner, pg XIV
30. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2
31. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2
32. Sloane, f. 37, pg 115
33. Anglin, pg 396
34. Sloane, f. 36, pg 113
35. Silver, pg 64
36. Silver, pg 64
37. Turner, pg 17
38. Anglin, pg 404
39. Aylward, pg 44
40. Turner, pg 16
41. Anglin, pg 409
42. Turner, pg 16
43. Aylward, pg 45
44. Silver, pg 65
45. Anglin, pg 410
46. Aylward, pg 49
47. Anglin, pg 403
48. Silver, pg 66
49. Berry, pg 4
50. Silver, pg 66
51. Silver, pg 68
52. Silver, pg 67
53. Silver, pg 72
Bibliography and Observations on my Sources
The Noble Science: Sloane Manuscripts 2530, Papers of the Masters of Defence of London, from the 1540s to the 1590s. author Herbert Berry, Univ. of Delaware Press, 1991. ISBN 0-87413-441-0.
I found this to be an excellent source, both the manuscript portion as well as Berry’s research and interpretation.
Methods and Practice of Elizabethan Swordplay, by Craig Turner and Tony Soper, Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-8093-1562-9
This had some good information, but I found direct conflicts with Berry, who I tended to believe more since Berry quoted period sources directly (ie, claims that the first prize to use Rapier was in 1583, but I found it to be 1578 in Sloane; Turner and Soper also claim that the Judicial duel that involved Henry Naillor was cancelled when the opponent didn’t show up, which is not true.) The purpose of this book was not research into historical rapier combat, but rather to make the ‘Three Elizabethan Masters’ (DiGrassi, Saviolo and Silver) more accessable for stage combat.
The Schools of Defense in Elizabethan London, Jay P. Anglin, Renaissance Quarterly, Volume XXXVII, Number 3, Autumn 1984, ppg. 393-410
A good source with lots of interesting, juicy information. I believe that Anglin makes a couple of potentially wrong assertions (Austen Bagger being a member of LMOD is neither proven or denied, yet Anglin says that he is a member without giving proof. He states the same about Silver, but I have seen other more credible assertions to the contrary).
The English Master at Arms, J.D. Aylward, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956
A good source of information, but there are no footnotes/end notes per se. Instead, there is a chapter by chapter bibliography, so there is no way to determine what information came from which sources
The Paradoxes of Defence, George Silver, 1599
Silver has about 5 pages of stories about the Italians and their interactions with the London Masters. These stories are about the only period sources outside of Sloane I have seen regarding the LMOD and fencing at that time.
Tudor and Jacobean Tournaments, Alan Young, Sheridan House, 1987. ISBN 0-911378-75-8
An excellent text about Tournaments on the time, but only scant reference to fencing, with no references to rapier.
As of 9 May 1997, I have one other source that I cannot locate, which helped me better interpret Hamlet. I will add it to the bibliography as soon as I find it. That’ll teach me to put my toys away when I’m done with them
Jeffrey L. Singer