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by

J. Christoph Amberger

J. Christoph Ambergerbio

Any way you cut it, the London Masters of Defence took it on the chin between 1585 and 1625.

First, the ordeals and wagers of battle that not only offered handsome fees but free publicity, had become so rare that the venerable John Stow, in his Summarye of the Chronicle of England (London, 1573) and Lord Chief Justice Dyer (writing in 1585) can't help but chronicle one and the same non-event from 1571 in their respective tomes.1

Then, Italianate interlopers such as Rocco Bonnetti and Vincentio Saviolo thumbed their noses at the Masters' official letters of privilege: They short-circuited the accreditation process (necessary to legally teach the Noble Art) by networking directly among the most influential and prosperous clients.

(Sure, they usually ended up with three feet of "Running foxe" through the belly when called upon to back up gentlemanly and commercial pretension by skill at arms in life-and-death scenarios. But that did little to diminish their appeal to young aristocrats more interested in strutting that imported rapier hilt daddy's allowance had paid for in polite society than getting their ivory hides tanned by an untouchable fishmonger-provost during the 14-year training period it took to become a Master...)

And adding insult to injury, James I revoked the Masters' privileges in the Monopolies Act of 1623/24--opening the doors to any Sean, Jacques, and Antonio who wanted to peddle fencing lessons for the cold, hard coin of the realm in the City.

Give me your brash, your brazen

Among those to enter London in search of fame and fortune during the following century and a half was Domenico Angiolo Malevolti Tremamondo. Born in 1716 at Leghorn, Italy, he was a riding instructor by avocation who during his brief stint in Paris, had taken lessons from the famous Monsieur Teillagory--who also trained the great Chevalier d'Eon...

But even without having himself presented himself for the public trial demanded by the statutes of the Compagnie'des Maîtres en fait d'Armes. (the cousins of the English Masters), he managed to score several impressive victories in public matches against English and Irish social fencers, quickly gaining access to key clients at court and in the royal family.

Anglicizing his name to Domenico Malevolti Angelo, he and the French Compagnie replayed the hoopla between Bonnetti and the Masters when the great French encyclopedist Denis Diderot opted to reprint Angelo's L'École des Armes, avec l'explication générale des principales attitudes et positions concernant l'Escrime (London: R. & S. Dodsley, 1763), better known as The School of Fencing. verbatim under the heading "Escrime" (Fencing) in his Encyclopédie (Paris, 1751-65).

The French masters were besides themselves: As in Elizabethan England, the status of Master as well as the concurrent (and very lucrative) teaching privileges were only conferred on candidates who had submitted to the decade-long training process and passed rigorous practical exams at public trials. Their protests irked Angelo. When Guillaume Danet, syndic of the Compagnie and the best known French master of his time, published his L'Art des Armes (Paris: Herissant Fils, 1766-67) he denounced it as being a poorly disguised plagiarism of his own École.

Danet countered that Angelo's book was outdated, as it still included recommendations on the arcane cloak-and-sword and lantern-and-sword techniques no man would encounter anywhere in civilized Europe.

(A less esoteric confrontation between Angelo and a French master practicing in London was settled first by Angelo breaking his walking stick over the maitre's head, and then in court, when Angelo was ordered to pay restitution in the stunning amount of 100 pounds...)

Conspiracy theory

Angelo ran a tight ship: He dominated London's upscale fencing market, turning his Haymarket establishment into a fashionable meeting place of the British aristocracy and international crack fencers such as Le Brun, Saint-Georges, d'Eon, Léger, and Fabien.

But nature abhors a vacuum. And a free market despises a monopoly. Accordingly, the Angelos were in for a lesson straight out of the book of the old Masters. But unlike the Masters, they appear to have been as good in strategic thinking as they were on the fencing loft.

Domenico's son Henry--who got his final polish at the hands of Motet at the Académie d'Armes de Paris--took over the family business. This included the task of fending off foreign competitors.

A passage from his Reminiscences gives a tantalizing glimpse into the thinking of a high-carat business man:

In 1785, Monsieur Le Brun, a celebrated fencing master (and father of Le Brun fils, one of the co-founders of the Paris Societé) , visited London. The Angelo place at Haymarket was a central rendezvous for all the foreigners who were either masters or amateurs of the science. Henry was his first antagonist:

I soon found out, as the pugilists called it, that he was a "good customer" (a queer one to deal with), so much so, that, however I might have distinguished myself before my scholars, with the number of fencing-masters, &c. whom I have opposed, here I had nothing to boast of. I should observe that he was a left-handed fencer, and in full exercise at Paris; and of course he must have been daily in the habit of fencing with many, while in the course of years I mught not meet with six of superior force.
Finding such an excellent competitor, and as I thought that it would be beneficial to my scholars to accustom themselves to practise against a left-handed fencer, I told him he would be welcome to us all. His next visit was to Lapiere, a Frenchman, who had his academy in Piccadilly, where they fenced together.
A few days afterwards, in the Orange coffee-house, some one said that Le Brun had been to Lapiere, and boasted that he had hit him twelve to one. This came to the ears of Lapiere, and though Le Brun denied that he had ever said so, he did not hesitate to affirm that he could do it.
This threat exasperated Lapiere; and considered as he was, by all, not only an excellent master, but a superior antagonist, and as he had often shown his abilities when opposed to the most skillful, independent of his fine manners and conduct, he was a general favorite, and well established in his profession. Inconsiderately, for he had nothing to gain, he publicly challenged Le Brun, which the latter accepted.
The day was fixed to meet at my room in the Haymarket, which at the hour was crowded with all the first amateurs of the science. Each adversary was dressed in a white jacket, the buttons of their foils were dipped in liquid; that of Lapiere's red, Le Brun's black.
The latter made the first attack, and but a few seconds after they had placed themselves on guard, to the astonishment of the beholders, three black spots appeared within the circle (a certain space to receive hits only) on Lapiere's jacket (a straight thrust, cut over the point, the reprise in low carte.)
This, like the first knock-down blow in a pugilistic contest, so very much disheartened Lapiere, that he was afterwards a lost man. The other, elevated with his premature success, soon after gave nine hits more, when on receiving only one, he made his bow to the company, and declined continuing any longer the assault.
Every one was glad to leave the room, as they were almost suffocated with heat. Poor Lapiere remained deserted by his friends, disconsolate, and covered over with black spots (many that he had received out of the circle).
When he had left the room, Mr. John Trotter, my worthy patron at that time, and who was one of the spectators, and myself, examined the jackets; we counted twelve "palpable" hits within the given place (breast), whilst the other had received only one.2

But let's recap

Henry Angelo not only was an excellent fencer in his time, he also managed to run a high-class service business--at a time when the sword was declining in popularity, in what was a provincial backwater in the fencing world, against popular foreign competitors. He cleverly avoids a public match with the superior opponent, which could have damaged his reputation in case of a dramatic loss.

According to Aylward, Lapiere had arrived in London from Lille in 1782. Henry Angelo "often fenced with him, and therefore knew his powers."3 The subsequent annihilation of Lapiere at the hands of Le Brun--and particularly the vivid image of the defeated, deserted Lapiere--could imply that the rumors that drove Lapiere into the coffee-house in the first place might have been strategically placed by someone close to Angelo.

Professional honor

The question that remains is why Lapiere reacts so strongly to the "rumors". After all, it doesn't seem to matter much by what margin a master would lose or win against another. We have to call on a contemporary of the protagonists to fully understand Lapiere's outrage at the insinuation that he scored only one touch against Le Brun's twelve.

A passage in Martelli explains the enormity of such claim:

Now if one hits twelve before the other hits eight, the conqueror may assuredly (even between good fencers) consider himself superior to his adversary, who can never (upon an average) hit him more than eight. And if a man can hit, at all times, twelve to six, he surely may consider himself, in the same proportion, as possessing double the dexterity of the adversary.
At the same rate, therefore, is one superior to the other, according to the number of hits made by the respective person. Hence we may naturally conclude, that if a man hits another, upon an average, two-to-one, the inferior party must pay great attention, and practise much, to arrive to even two-thirds of the other's ability, (if both parties are of equal courage, and under the same kind of instructions.)
A man, therefore, cannot be called a capital fencer, that is among the first class of amateurs, if he cannot upon an average, hit nine to twelve with any one that he engages.
When this subject is properly considered, how very inferior a man must be looked upon if he cannot hit three or four in twelve. Such a fencer cannot surely be compared to one who can be sure of hitting at the rate of three or four to one. (...) No one, even the best fencer in the world, can be sure to prevent a chance hit (for one or two hits in twelve can only be looked upon as such.4

Damned if you do...

This explains both Lapiere's reaction to the rumors, and his response in ultimate defeat: The former could be interpreted as a predictable, well-crafted and downright Byzantine provocation which in itself posed a hands-on threat to the status and livelihood of a fencing master. (This is on par with "giving the lie" to an Elizabethan gentleman: Lapiere has to respond--or incur ridicule and loss of business.)

But the defeat at the hands of Le Brun is worse than any negative publicity he could have garnered by avoiding the fight, or not responding to the rumors. It not only means the loss of a bout to a fellow master. It means he was outfought, outdone--and even more importantly, hopelessly outclassed! Even his one palpable hit, according to Martelli, no longer is attributable to skill but only to mere chance!

His clients' response is immediate. There's no consolation, no "attaboy". They leave him a broken man, deserted by his retainers. Lapiere is finished--and he knows it.

Aylward mentions that Lapiere was so despondent about his humiliation that he committed suicide.5 Angelo--who not only had the elimination of a competitor take place in his establishment, and thus must have received a considerable boost in publicity--is usually very chatty in relating the vitae of those he came in contact with. But he fails to mention Lapiere's sad ending in his memoirs...

Odd, isn't it?

A shorter version of this article appears in Hammerterz Forum, vol. 4 #2, due out in March, 1998.


Notes:

1I have included the entire episode on page 63 of my The Secret History of the Sword (Baltimore: Hammerterz Verlag, 1997).

2Angelo, Henry. The Reminiscences of Henry Angelo, London: Paul Kegan, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1904; vol. 2; p. 260f.

3See Aylward, J.D. The House of Angelo; A Dynasty of Scientific Swordsmen, London: The Batchworth Press, 1953; p. 150.

4Martelli, C. An Improved System of Fencing, wherein the Use of the Small Sword is Rendered Perfectly Plain and Familiar, Being a Clear Description and Explanation of the Various Thrusts Used with the Safest and Best Methods of Parrying, as Practised in the Present Age. To which is Added a Treatise on the Art of Attack and Defence, London: J. Bailey, 1819; p. 34.

5See Aylward, J.D. The English Master of Arms, London: Routledge, 1956; p. 211.

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Saddle, Lance and Stirrup: The Irish/Roman Connection
The Naked Truth | If I Had a Hammer
The Sabre's Edge | Swordfight at the OK Corral
How to Defend a Monopoly | A Propos d'un Accident
The Dubious Quick Kill part 1 | The Dubious Quick Kill part 2
Review and Commentary | Duels with the Sword | Starting with Foil
Liancour's Tercentenary | The Manuel d'escrime of 1877 | The Military Masters Fencing Program
Analysis of the Patton Fencing Manual | The Red Court Fencing's Royal Connection
| The Practical Saviolo part 1 | Saddle, Lance and Stirrup
Demystification of the Spanish School 1 | Demystification of the Spanish School 2
Demystification of the Spanish School 3
| A Brief Look at Joseph Swetnam
| Ithacan Retains Title | Third Time's a Charm
Cross-Training Not Cross-Purposes | Riposte Direct | Use of the Word "Sparring"
Chivalry Makes a Come-back | Teachings of Marozzo |

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