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A Brief Look at Joseph Swetnam
 
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By

William E. Wilson

William Wilson is a Software Support Analyst, Senior working for Computer Technology Services at Northern Arizona University. He began working for the University in 1984. He also graduated with an M.A. in Anthropology from NAU. He has been fencing for over two decades and began his fencing learning under Master Bella from Canada and Mr. Silverberg in Buffalo, New York. Mr. Wilson currently runs the Tattershal School of Defence in Arizona.


Swetnam published his book "The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence" in 1617. Little is known of this fencing master and what has been gleaned out may be seen as placing this master in a reasonably good light. One very important assignment in Swetnam's career was being the instructor of Henry of England (brother of Charles I) and it is the author's opinion that he was most likely a member of the Masters of Defense of London. In Swetnam's book, which was dedicated to Charles I, he reminded Charles of "your late brother deceased, to whom I was a tutor in the skill of weapons." A bold statement of this sort would probably not be fiction due to the ease of checking out the facts. The book was prepared as a tool to use in the instruction of the Royal pupil and unfortunately was published five years after Henry's death.

Swetnam was teaching fencing and general swordplay at a time when the rapier was making a distinct change from a cut and thrust weapon to that of a primarily thrusting weapon. He espoused the use of "foils"; being specially designed rapiers that were bated and had buttons "about the bigness of two pence" attached to the points. The buttons were covered with a stuffed leather ball (about the size of a tennis ball). This in his words "lest someone should lose an eie." Another new philosophy taught by Swetnam was keeping in a straight line instead of circling around one's opponent. He considered circling useless in that it wasted time and did not help with distance. Unfortunately for Swetnam, it appears he did not know of the lunge which was being taught at the time by some Italian Masters (Capo Ferro for one).

Most of what we know of Swetnam may be gleaned out of his own book. He was, by his own word, a Plymouth man who served in the army, primarily abroad. He noted that he studied mostly in London. And, he mentions that he had instruction from English, French and Italian masters. Unfortunately he does not give their names.

His Theory

Arthur Wise in his book "The History and Art of Personal Combat" had this to say:

"Swetnam can hardly be said to have advanced the theory of personal combat in England. In fact, at this time it seems that the English still persisted in rapiers and daggers of disproportionate length which were certainly disappearing elsewhere. Swetnam thinks that a rapier with a blade-length of at least four feet is 'a reasonable length', and recommends a dagger two feet long. It seems surprising that such weapons should have been so superior in use to those that Silver advocated."

Wise, although correct in his quotes of Swetnam, failed to mention that although Swetnam taught the use of the rapier, he also advocated and taught the use of the staff, backsword, longsword and short sword. His teachings were written in such a fashion that a military man or a gentleman could take advantage of the teachings. He did ground his teachings in the use of the rapier and started his practicals with the learning of rapier and dagger which were still prevalently used in duels at the time.

In order to be proficient, Swetnam indicated that the following forms must be learned: rapier and dagger, staffe, backsword, single rapier, longsword and dagger, and shortsword and dagger. These are the primary weapons that were used by the Masters of Defense of London during Elizabethan times (also included by the MoD was the two-handed sword). Swetnam's manual basically follows this order.

Many of the masters of the 16th and early 17th Centuries taught similar theory behind fence. Swetnam is not much different as he taught seven Principal rules on which defense is grounded:

1) A good gard
2) true observing of distance
3) to know the place
4) to take time
5) to keep space
6) Patience
7) often practice

Silver's "four governors" was similar: judgement, distance, time and place.

The rapier and dagger guard of Swetnam is also similar to others of the time. He taught to keep the right foot forward with the rapier held in the low guard and with the arm not bent. The point should be high and to the left. The dagger is held with the arm straight and just above parallel, the point towards the opponent. The tips of the dagger and the rapier should not have much space between them for fear of a cut delivered between the two. He then goes on to discuss differing attacks and how to defend using this guard.

The point where Swetnam diverges from many other masters is in the use of feigns (feints). He stresses the use of feigns in opening up an opponent for an attack in another line similar to some techniques used in modern fencing. His techniques are fully useable with some modifications for schlager bladed weapons, but they still will work. Utilizing a more proper weighted and dimensioned rapier will give even more credence to his work.

Even though Swetnam was published in the 17th C, he is still a good guide to how fence was done in the late 16th C. He would have learned and possible became a master during the last decade of the 1500's and the first in the 17th Century. More study and practice using his techniques should be done to round out the questing student of the Art of Defense. I for one will be studying his work over the coming years to gleen out those techniques that will give my students a better understanding of the Art and possibly even the botte segretta...

A copy of Swetnam's Book may be obtained from Patri Pugliese.

References

Swetnam, Joseph
Schole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defense. London, 1616.
Wise, Arthur
The History and Art of Personal Combat, London, H. Evelyn, 1971.
Aylward, J.D.
The English Master of Arms. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956


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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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