Fencing history

Fencing's Royal Connection

In 1545, the year the Mary Rose sank so spectacularly in Portsmouth harbour, a book on archery was published complaining about the neglect of that sport in favour of fencing, which had masters to teach it in every town. The popularity of fencing in Tudor times was largely due to Henry VIII who encouraged displays of swordplay and who had, in 1540, given the London Masters of Defence a monopoly of teaching arms. Fencing became the passion of high and low. A "prize" fight, or public examination of candidates by the Masters, halted business in the City of London for the day.

During the three reigns following that of Henry VIII there are many references to prizes fought before royalty. In 1606 James I commanded a display for Christian IV of Denmark at the Palace of Greenwich and on a second visit, eight years later, Christian saw feats of arms performed by the most skilful fencers in London.

However, the Monopolies Act of 1624 put an end to the teaching privileges of the Masters of Defence and with the Civil War the guild was disbanded (not to be officially reformed until 1931). Although there was an attempt to revive trials of skill following the Restoration, fencing displays in the latter half of the 17th century degenerated into gladiatorial combats. Samuel Pepys confided to his Diary in 1663:

“I, with Sir J. Minnes . . . to the New Theatre which ... is this day begun to be employed for the fencers to play prize at. And here I came and saw the first prize I ever saw in my life, and it was between Matthews, who did beat at all weapons, and one Westwicke, who was soundly cut several times in the head and legs that he was all over blood; and other deadly blows did they give and take in very good earnest, till Westwicke was in a most sad pickle. They fought at eight weapons, three bouts at each weapon. I felt one of their swords and found it little, if at all, blunter on the edge than common swords are. Strange to see what a deal of money is flung to them both upon the stage between every bout. But a woeful rude rabble there was and such noises. So, well pleased with the sight. I walked home.”

Teaching the Royal Princes

Royal interest in fencing only revived in the mid-18th century when the leading fencing master of the day, Domenico Angelo, was appointed to teach the Prince of Wales (later George III) and his brother the Duke of York in 1758. The following year two younger brothers, the Dukes of Gloucester and Cumberland, also started to fence. In a letter dated 5th May 1776 Angelo wrote,

“Their Royal Highnesses [Gloucester and Cumberland] having signified to me that a Treatise of Fencing, with engravings [L'Ecole des Armes], would contribute much to their amusement, I instantly applied myself to the undertaking. I engaged that gentleman [James Gwynn] to draw all the positions of fencing, for the model of which I myself had the patience to stand and afterwards got executed by the first artists. As the Princes had given occasion to my treatise, I thought it my duty to ask their permission to dedicate it to them, which they granted in the most flattering manner. Some time after this, I was informed by the Duke of Queensbury that his Majesty would be very glad to see the original designs. I ordered them to be arranged with all possible expedition, and every one to be adorned with an elegant border, and the book to be bound in the most superb manner. The king was so good as to examine it, and conversed with me some time on the subject of the book with considerable knowledge. In the year 1771 I had the honour to be appointed fencing master to their Royal Highnesses, the Prince of Wales [later George IV] and Prince Frederick.”

A plate from Angelo’s L’Ecole des Armes, 1763

The special presentation copy of the original drawings for L'Ecole des Armes, published in 1763, was later acquired by Lord Farnham. In 1961 it was sold at Sotheby's to the American collector, Paul Mellon, and is now in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. The Royal Library at Windsor has a proof set of reduced plates commissioned in 1765 for Diderot's encyclopedia. Hand-coloured, mounted and bound in red morocco with a cusped yellow leather border, the plates are prefaced by a manuscript dedication by Angelo to the Prince of Wales.

Angelo also presented specially bound copies of the book to members of the Royal Family; the Prince of Wales had one bound in red pigskin with extensive gold tooling on the borders, his coat of arms embossed in the centre and his feathers badge in each corner (now in the Royal Collection); others bound in olive morocco with the same gold tooling and the Prince of Wales feathers badge in each corner were given to the Dukes of York, Gloucester and Cumberland and two Princes of Mecklenburg, brothers of Queen Charlotte.

The Roaring of a Bull

The Prince Regent's active participation in fencing is well documented. An engraving by James Gillray shows him and his common-law wife, Mrs. Fitzberhert, attending a match at Carlton House in 1787 between the two most famous fencers of their time, the enigmatic transvestite Chevalier d'Eon and the half French half West Indian Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Newspaper reports said d'Eon, who had been taking lessons from his old friend Domenico Angelo,  completely vanquished his formidable opponent, beating him by seven hits to one. The result is all the more extraordinary considering that he was 58 and Saint-Georges some 17 years younger and generally considered to be the finest swordsman in Europe. But supporters of Saint-Georges claimed his movements were restricted by having snapped his Achilles tendon 2 years earlier. Henry Angelo later recalled, “the Prince of Wales was much gratified at the performance, and smiled at the violent noises of Saint-Georges during his attacks, which resembled more the roaring of a bull than sounds emanating from a human being!” The Morning Herald of 9th April 1787 reported in traditional sycophantic style that “the Prince did Monsieur Saint-Georges the honour to thrust with him in carte and tierce, and astonished every beholder with his amazing grace”.

Gillray’s engraving of the match between the Chevalier de Saint-Georges and the Chevalier d’Eon before the Prince of Wales

In 1789 another exhibition of fencing, this time between the master Joseph Roland and Saint-Georges, was held before the Prince of Wales at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. Afterwards the Prince asked for a set of foils, masks and gloves, for which Roland was suitably rewarded. These objects are no longer in the Royal Collection and seem to have vanished without trace.

In the mid-19th century a fresh impetus was given to the sport with the arrival of Prince Albert. In 1838 while at Bonn University, he received a certificate for fencing and his fellow student Prince William of Lowenstein later recalled, “In fencing and the practice of the broadsword he was very skilful. In fencing especially he excelled so much that once in a fencing match he carried off the prize from all his competitors.” This interest was passed on to his children, the Prince of Wales [later Edward VII] and Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who were members of the London Fencing Club from 1865 until the end of the century. In the LFC's 1866 ledger of members' vital statistics, the Duke of Edinburgh (who was then aged 22) is recorded as weighing 10½ stone and having a 38 inch chest, 12 1/8 inch upper arm and 10½ inch forearm. His elder brother does not appear to have submitted to measurement.

The princes were taught fencing by Pierre Prevost until his death in 1869 and then by Baptiste Bertrand, the first of three generations of fencing masters, who later taught the three daughters of the Prince of Wales, Louise, Victoria and Maud. Their example was followed by many younger members of the Court circle and made fencing for women fashionable.

The King Wins a Bet

In 1903, when a British epee team fenced at an international match in Paris for the first time, Edward VII sent a telegram expressing his interest in the occasion. At the Athens Olympics of 1906 he and Queen Alexandra watched the British epee team beat Germany 9-2 and rumour had it that the king won a substantial bet on the outcome from the king of Greece. After the Games Edward VII announced his pleasure to become the patron of the Amateur Fencing Association and, in memory of the Tudor Masters of Defence, permitted the Association to adopt the Tudor rose. Ever since, the reigning monarch has been patron of the British Fencing Association, although in recent times it has been a rather passive patronage.

The last member of the Royal Family known to have tried fencing was Prince William, who took lessons from John Llewellyn while at Ludgrove School in the 1990s. Today the sole contact between British Fencing and its patron is a ritual exchange of greetings at the time of the AGM when the Chair, on behalf of members, sends loyal greetings to the Queen who in reply returns good wishes for an enjoyable and successful meeting.

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