Monday, November 7, 2016

Elizabethan Swordplay - The Rise and Rise of the Rapier

By Peter Tonkin

In the mid to late 1500’s a new craze swept through the fashionable youth of Europe, arriving in London at much the same time as the young Shakespeare.  It was nothing to do with caps, capes or codpieces.  It was to do with swordplay.  The older generation, with George Silver as their spokesman, (Paradoxes of Defence, London 1599), stuck conservatively to their short swords.  Weapons that their great-grandfathers could have used at the battle of Bosworth, establishing the Tudor dynasty a century earlier.

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The short sword in battle

The younger generation, however, fell in love with the rapier.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this infatuation.  To a certain extent its origins lay in the perfection of new, stronger and yet more flexible types of steel.  A material famously generated in the smithies of Ferrara in Italy, Toledo in Spain and Solingen in Germany.  Which allowed blades to be fashioned that were scarcely wider than your finger, which nevertheless stayed strong and true at lengths up to (and occasionally in excess of ) 4 feet/150cms. (As opposed to short-sword blades of more than twice the width and half the length.)  Blades which could not only hold an edge but also guarantee a point that stayed lethally sharp under almost all circumstances. 

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A Rapier compared with a Short Sword

With the new blades came new fighting techniques.  Inevitably so, for an entirely new level of bio/mechanics had entered the arena.  As the edge was replaced by the point as the most effective mode of killing an opponent. 

With the short sword, the prime mode of attack relied on the cut or slash as opposed to the thrust.  A moment’s reflection makes it clear that the effectiveness of this mode of attack lies primarily on several simple factors.  The weight of the sword, the strength of the arm and the sharpness of the blade.  Unlike the Roman Gladius, designed to stab upward from a low base, the short sword most often cuts downward from a higher one. The wounds inflicted are likely, therefore, to be large and relatively shallow.  Bones broken rather than severed.  The head and upper body are primary targets, exposed by the square-on stance.  Often, therefore, helmeted, armoured and protected by a shield.  Even Silver in praising the effectiveness of the short sword, talks of chopping off hands rather than limbs.  And death in battle often inflicted by the dagger as back-up to the primary weapon.

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Fighting stance with a short sword

With a rapier, however, things are very different. The weapon, although longer, is lighter.  The grip is more complex, including extra elements allowing precise control as well as protective baskets which guard those often-exposed digits and wrists.

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The hilt of a rapier (made London circa 1580)

The balance and control are crucial because the whole method of fighting has changed.  Masters such as Di Grassi, Agrippa, Saviolo, Fabris, Giganti, Mayer and Capo Ferro slowly defined and perfected this fundamentally new method.  Now the swordsman stood sideways-on to his opponent and could use circular motions of the blade to protect his body - rather than a shield.  Sword-fights no longer involved circling the opponent.  They were prosecuted instead along a straight line.  Killing was done by thrusting the point forward with all the strength of the shoulder and arm, guiding the point towards whichever part was exposed.  And, as the point was so sharp, these targets could include eyes, nostrils, mouths, throats – areas which were much more difficult to protect with armour.  It was Capo Ferro who defined the next and supreme step in his process in his Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing (Siena 1604), though it was doubtless already being employed.  This is the lunge.  In the lunge, the thrust is extended so that the power of the arm and shoulder are supplemented exponentially with the full weight of the swordsman’s body – all pushing that deadly point forward in a straight line to its target.

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The thrust

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The lunge

The fatal wound inflicted by these methods is the exact opposite to that inflicted by the edge of the short sword.  It is tiny.  Silver talks of an (apocryphal?) case where a swordsman received half a dozen such wounds and yet survived to kill his rapier-wielding opponent (with his short sword) and make a miraculous recovery.
The lunge (showing foot positions) Illustration from Capo Ferro Art & the use of Fencing

The experience of Shakespeare’s contemporaries tends to counter Silver’s assertions, however.  Fellow poet and playwright Henry Porter died from a single rapier wound in 1599.  Christopher Marlowe and poet friend (and, possibly, co-secret agent) Thomas Watson killed an Inkeeper’s son in Norton Folgate on 15th September 1589 in a sword-fight which could have been taken straight out of Act 3 scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet.

In fact, if we look to Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare shows us a very clear contemporary picture of the new art of swordplay.

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In Elizabethan times, actors would often give exhibition bouts of swordplay.  Richard Tarlton, the ‘Clown’ of Shakespeare’s company in the late 1580’s, was such an accomplished swordsman that he was admitted to the ‘Company of Maisters of the Science of Defence’ in London as a master.  One of the few men ever to be so honoured.  

Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s leading man, was also a noted swordsman.  The majority of actors in Shakespeare’s troupe would have made themselves proficient in the popular art of swordplay with rapiers.  Exhibition bouts were a useful source of extra income.  And, amongst all the other themes and ideas presented in Shakespeare’s great romantic tragedy, a masterclass in the Elizabethan art of rapier play is both discussed and presented.  There is even some speculation that the doomed character of Mercutio (much expanded from the character in Arthur Brooke’s Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (London 1562), Shakespeare’s main source) is a pen-portrait of poet, playwright, spy and swordsman Christopher Marlowe himself.

Although the story follows the irresistible but doomed love affair of the titular characters, as it does so, it presents a series of sword-fights.  And allows characters such as Mercutio and Benvolio ample chance to discuss techniques – particularly those of the sword-school trained Tybalt.  Whose laboriously practised techniques they look down upon from the heights of their untutored, natural abilities.

The play begins with a study of how easily a few contentious words and actions can start a swordfight.  Which rapidly degenerates into a ‘grand melee’ in which everyone on stage is involved.  Out of this emerges a confrontation between Romeo’s cousin and friend Benvolio and Juliet’s cousin the fiery Tybalt.  ‘What, art thou drawn among these heartless hinds...  and talk of peace?  Peace? I hate the word...’  While all around them people are fighting with ‘clubs, bills and partisans’, they engage in a short, unsettled duel with their rapiers. Which Juliet’s (old-fashioned) father tries to join, calling for his ‘long sword’, until the Prince brings it all to a close.  

After the scene at Capulet’s party and the Balcony scene, while Mercutio and Benvolio are waiting for the love struck Romeo, they discuss Tybalt and his fencing technique.  For, typically, the well-trained young man has issued Romeo with a formal challenge to a duel.  ‘He fights as you sing prick-song,’ says Mercutio dismissively.  Punning on the technical term for carefully written (pricked) songs and the wounds delivered by rapier blades.  All of a part with his insistence that Tybalt is no more dangerous than ‘Tibbles’ the cat.  ‘(He) keeps time, distance, and proportion; rests me his minim rest, one, two, and the third in your bosom’  

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This is the precise method used by the fencing schools becoming so popular in London.  The ‘science’ of which is well demonstrated in the illustration from Ferro Capo above. ‘The very butcher of a silk button’ Mercutio persists, referring to the target at which students were taught to thrust and lunge over and over again. 

‘Ah, the immortal passado! the punto reverso!’ he adds, naming popular fencing moves in the rapier canon -  the ‘passado’, like the thrust, advancing the leading foot as the blade moves forward; the ‘punto reverso’, where (especially in rapier and dagger fights) the rapier point moves from right to left, outside the opponent’s guard.  And, finally the ‘Hai!’, which Benvolio pretends not to understand (‘The what?’).  But which is the traditional word shouted as the lunge is engaged.

Soon after this conversation, Mercutio and Benvolio find themselves waiting for Romeo in the Verona’s town square soon after noon on a hot day when ‘the mad blood’ is stirring.  They encounter Tybalt who has challenged Romeo.  When Romeo arrives, however, he refuses to fight Tybalt.  Mercutio is so outraged by his friend’s apparent cowardice that he engages Tybalt instead and the next popular – and very dangerous - set-piece swordfight is presented.  In this one, two opponents fight full-on while a third runs repeatedly between them.  As a result of Romeo’s interference, Tybalt kills Mercutio with a thrust ‘under (his) arm.’  And as he dies, Mercutio delivers a speech that is famously hard to interpret.  And yet, the simple fact is that the dying man is shocked to feel his life slipping away when the wound that has killed him is so tiny.  ‘A scratch, a scratch. Marry ‘tis enough...’

When the shocked and horrified Romeo discovers what he has done, he runs after Tybalt and the third exhibition bout – traditionally rapier and dagger – is presented in a manner later described by Benvolio to the outraged Prince.  ‘And to 't they go like lightning, for, ere (before) I could draw to part them, was stout Tybalt slain.’

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Illustration from Capo Ferro Art and Use of Fencing

Finally, in a scene rarely staged nowadays, there is a fourth exhibition bout.  Between Romeo and the Count Paris outside Juliet’s tomb.  This is important, because, unlike the preceding bouts, it is a formal duel – albeit one fought in notional darkness.  After the anarchy of the melee, the danger of Romeo’s attempts to stop Mercutio and Tybalt and Romeo’s wild slaying of Tybalt himself, this restores due form and order.  Though it results in yet another death.

In conclusion, therefore, we can see that the new fashion sweeping England at the turn of the 1600’s attracted much admiration from the young.  But at the same time proved so dangerous that even the spokesmen for the younger generation like Shakespeare began, in the face of the deaths of friends and colleagues, to warn against its uncontrolled pursuit.

Though, to be fair, Kit Marlowe’s death, largely the result of his reliance on his lethal rapier, came about because, in a room in Mistress Bull’s otherwise quite respectable boarding house in Deptford, the playwright and spy was too cramped – between Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres – to draw his long-bladed weapon when the quarrel over ‘the reckonyng’ began.  And so, in an episode of truly tragic irony, Ingram Frizer was able to stab him above the eye with the least fashionable weapon of all.  A ‘dagger to the value of 12d’.

As the Queen’s Crowner (Coroner) Sir William Danby recorded at the inquest, two days after the death, ‘& so it befell in that affray that the said Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid to the value of 12d gave the said Christopher then & there a mortal wound over his right eye to the depth of two inches & of the width of one inch; of which mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley (Marlowe) then & there instantly died.’ Late afternoon, Wednesday, 30 May, 1593.  

[All illustrations in the public domain.  All photographs by Mark Tonkin.]


Peter Tonkin published his first novel, Killer, in 1978.  Since then he has written 38 other novels. Two traditional spy stories, The Action and The Zero Option.  A vampire story, The Journal of Edwin Underhill. 30 novels in the ‘Mariner’ series of Action Adventures beginning with The Coffin Ship and ending (so far) with Blind Reef.  He researched Elizabethan swordplay for his ‘Master of Defence’ series of Elizabethan whodunits which begins with The Point of Death.  He has recently retired from teaching and has concentrated on researching Ancient Rome for a proposed sequence of Espionage Thrillers under the series title of ‘Caesar’s Spies’.  The first of these, The Ides is due out in the Kindle on 7th November 2016. He is currently at work on his 40th novel, the second in his ‘Caesar’s Spies’ series.


  1. Many thanks for taking the time to share this; it was all quite fascinating.

  2. It was a pleasure. Very pleased you found it interesting.

  3. Dear Linda may I repeat that it was a pleasure now I have established my identity. All the best Peter.

  4. Very informative and very well written piece and quite apart from the historical interest,your specialised knowledge gives us a clearer appreciation of the meaning underlying Shakespear's text.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I have used the research (for Point of Death) as teaching aid in many schools for many years now. My minor thesis (1974) and my Master's (1975) were both on Shakespeare so it's been a long time coming!


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