England has one of the longest and most interesting histories and traditions in the world; this includes techniques and styles of martial art – commonly referred to as the ‘Noble Science of Defence’ – that were employed by military and civilians alike in the victories and management of England and its Empire. In days gone by, England was renowned for its military and their fighting skills to the extent that English forces subdued cultures all over the world.
The English had at their disposal an extremely sophisticated martial arts system that was every bit as effective as those originating in the orient, and judging by the history of the English their martial skills were probably superior to those of these other cultures.
English martial arts changed when ballistic warfare became more important than close quarter combat. As with most Western Martial Arts
of the period they survived the changes in warfare, adapting techniques for civilian self-defence, sporting events and theatrical stage combat
(the latter, as it is today, is as far removed from practical combat as can be). What one is oft to forget is that England in days gone by was far from the utopia it is now. Englishman, commoner and nobleman alike, were permitted and usually encouraged to carry weapons for their own defence, as Chronicler Holinshead commented in 1586:
“Seldom shall you see one of my countrymen above eighteen or twenty yeares old to go without a dagger at least at his backe or his side, although they are aged burgesses or magistrates of a citie, who in appearance are most exempt from brabbling and contention. our nobilitie weare commonly swords or rapiers with these daggers, as doth everie common serving man that followeth his lord and master...... Finallie no man travelleth by the waie without his sword or somesuch weapon except the minister, who commonly weareth none at all unlesse it is a dagger or a hanger at his side.”
Similar accounts allude to the social situation of England, in that the Government of the Elizabethan
period was compelled to treat all its citizens with a greater respect than in many other nation states (a lesson hard learnt with the rebellions littered throughout the Tudor
dynasty). Such an environment went far to establish a more democratic society within England.
The English system of defence was practised with a great array of weaponry, but significant emphasis was placed upon the unarmed techniques (the finest art of pugilism that evolved through to the 19th century to create modern ‘boxing
’ can be traced to these antiquarian styles). Such bare-knuckle fighting was far from the crude act portrayed in modern culture, it includes a sophisticated system of combat that evolved into one of the most successful pugilistic
sciences in the world. The science includes techniques for bare-fists, open-palmed manicures, elbows, knees, kicking, sweeping and a most infamous selection of grappling
Weaponry, by far one of the most important principles of the English art of self-defence, included a diverse range of equipment: the broadsword
, sword and dagger
, bastard sword
, and the ever popular sword and buckler
that remained in use for much of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (before the imported Spanish and Italian rapier
schools became more favourable in the latter half of her reign – many interesting stories of contests between foreign Rapier-man and Englishman with the sword and buckler can be found – the English Master invariably the victor). As the art evolved, the short sword
became the variant weapons of choice for the swordsman – following the teachings of men like Sir William Hope
. Similarly, the bare-knuckle sphere gathered much pace in the late 18th and early 19th century (coined as ‘Pugilism
’), creating such sporting greats as Daniel Mendoza
and Tom Cribb
As Terry Brown asserts, the main aspect of the art is the fighting spirit that was imbued into the heart of the scholar of the English Noble Art; for the student is studying an art that is intrinsic with his own culture and the traditions of his ancestors. England reigned as one of the most influential countries in the world for countless centuries, always held as such first by the skill at arms of its populace – indeed, there are still isolated niche groups that study and train in the ‘Noble Art of Self Defence’.