Jay Maxwell: A school of fencing with a special concept

I love travelling and meeting HEMA people, and Dijon and Minsk were perhaps two of the best opportunities to become acquainted with a ton of instructors, fighters and scholars from all around the world.

But among all of them I sometimes meet people who are all of those things, and people who share my ideas more than others – and Jay Maxwell is a prime example of that.

He is a top-level HEMA fencer – in top 100 of every category he is ranked in (namely rapier and dagger, sidesword and sword and buckler), and that is after he retired. He is a scholar, as you will soon find out. He is also an instructor, and just recently, he opened the doors of his new school – Tempus Fugitives, in London, UK.

And it is a school with a very special idea. I thought it would be great for him to present it here and tell us more about it.

Hello, Jay! You are a curious case – you began your practice in HEMA with
British sources, later started practicing Italian swordsmanship, now you are running a new school with a curious framework – the martial arts of Elizabethan London. Before we delve into that, it is perhaps better to tell me how you got here?

Well I guess it started the same way most of us discover swordfighting. Watching old Errol Flynn movies of swashbuckling adventurers, fighting my friends with sticks and – thank goodness – never quite growing up. My father was a history professor and encouraged this behaviour, happily answering any questions I had about the background to these spectacular mustachio bearing figures.

Eventually, during my school years, I discovered the modern sport of fencing; but of course it didn’t quite offer what I was looking for. As far as physical preparation goes you probably couldn’t do much better, but it lacked the connection to those dashing black and white images in my head. Years later, as a bored student in his mid-twenties I was sitting talking to someone in a pub, and somehow the subject of swordfighting came up. And just like that I discovered HEMA.

Yep, that is Jay long ago…

Starting the very next week, I began training with the backsword and threw myself into it with an almost childlike passion. Like the inspiring heroes of my childhood I wanted to be the very best, dedicating myself to training with an energy and enthusiasm I had never thought I could muster. I joined a gym and trained for hours every day, every night I would go through drills on my own until it got dark. I stopped smoking and drinking, I completely changed my diet and got into the best shape of my life. And now I wanted to prove myself.

Being young I still thought the best way to do this was through competition; but it was the mid 2000’s and I was a poor student. Tournaments were few and far between, and I would save up to go to at least one big event a year, like SWASH or Dijon. Today there are more tournament events than weekends in the year, but at the time it was just a sideline at a workshop.

Without having the opportunity to prove myself, I got disenchanted and my training suffered for quite a long time. The schools I had been training at were a long way away, and my attendance became sporadic.

That might have been the end of my HEMA career, until I saw one particular Italian system in use, and was hypnotised by the movements, like an elaborate and complex dance. Wanting to know more I went home and looked into this system, finding a school nearby that taught it and signing up for lessons.

For the next years I would pester my instructors for every bit of information, finding texts and translations and devouring them voraciously. Not as interested in the artificial world of competition anymore, I never found that physical drive of my earlier years again, but replaced it with a deeper understanding of the theory of fencing. Each text seemed more similar than different. Ignoring the endless drills, the principles tended to resemble one another and the movements overlapped and blurred together.

I remembered from my backswording days that the Italian Masters who had travelled to England were not best treated, but I had found, as between the Italian masters, that their greatest English detractors taught very similar systems, and came to the conclusion that this hatred was purely politically and racially motivated.

So you feel that English and Italian systems are quite similar? Despite the fact most people seem to imagine the Brits with bigger, wider swords, and the Italians with pokey sticks?

A sword can be wider but flatter to optimise a specific function, or stiffened with a central rib to improve another. The later English mortuary hilt backsword can weigh as little as 500g, and flows in the hand. This is neither heavy nor clumsy!

In fact, holding one of these in a museum, it feels very similar to another type of blade. Namely the Italian sideswords of the first and second quarter of the 16th c. Furthermore, if you look at paintings of Queen Elizabeth’s court, you will see two types of predominant hilts at the courtiers’ belts.

Detail of a painting by Robert Peake the Elder that shows such examples (ca 1551-1619).

These are the Italian hilt (with finger-rings either side of the ricasso), and what we today would consider the German hilt (with a globular grip and usually a large port ring). The blade lengths and shapes on the other hand seem pretty uniform.

Do you find people have a false idea of these swords, because most have seen them on pictures or have handled only extreme replicas?

I certainly think that people have an entirely wrong impression of basket hilted weapons, considering them big, heavy clumsy weapons. Obviously some were; not every weapon was a masterpiece. But equally I have found rapiers with rehilted longsword blades fitted.

For some reason British blades have entered modern consciousness as butchers cleavers and Italian blades as something more akin to sport epees. Realistically, the hilt was fitted according to preference and the blades were frequently imported.

Having spoken to the instructors at various schools teaching the backsword or broadsword in the UK, they have been almost universal in what they are missing in modern training replicas. Lighter, longer blades to replace the short, heavy ones currently available, and early baskets with crossguards.

Yet pretty much every new basketsword on the market is one type. Why do you think makers go for that option only?

Because it is a safe option. People buy them, after all. If you look at Bloss, the Polish manufacturers, they have a line of Meyer style ‘German’ hilts. Suddenly these are amongst their bestsellers and other manufacturers have started releasing their own lines of Meyer-esque swords. The existing types of swords will remain unchanged until someone takes a chance with something new.

No photo description available.
The Meyer rapier of Bloss, something hard to find a couple of years ago. They now have 3 models, and there are at least 2 other makers out there that have ones of that style.

You define both a specific time period, and a specific place, to an extent, of the fencing you teach. As people with interest in history know, a big city like London in the late 16th C was much more violent, wild and chaotic place. Can you give us a picture of that?

Certainly, but bear in mind that Elizabeth I’s reign was a long one set during England’s greatest period of cultural evolution. It is referred to as ‘The English Renaissance’. Late 16th century London was an exciting and tumultuous place to live, at a time where cultural animosity, conspiracy and religious uncertainty were rampant. No-one was beyond scrutiny, and the eyes of Elizabeth’s spymasters were everywhere as fear of Spanish invasion fed into xenophobic paranoia, and English support for the Protestant revolution in the Spanish Netherlands threatened to wreak havoc across the channel.

Simultaneously, it was an English renaissance, and an age of exploration and artistic development. It was the time of Shakespeare and Marlow, Drake and Raleigh – who spent much of their lives here in Southwark – and most of whom were themselves involved in espionage, privateering or plots, and ended up dead as a result. The English renaissance was naturally inspired by the Italian, and Elizabeth’s court spoke, danced, dressed and, of course, fought according to the Italian tradition, even as Spain exerted influence over Italy itself.

In 1545, Henry VIII issued a monopoly on the training of martial systems of combat to the London based ‘Company of the Maisters of Defence’. Already well established, this royal patronage ensured the livelihoods of the Maisters and raised them to the realms of respectability. Unfortunately, this charter was to be short-lived, as it needed to be renewed by successive monarchs – and these would have far more on their hands than they could manage without dealing with such petty affairs.

Nevertheless, the Maisters continued in an unofficially official manner, having been recognised by the public, and prize-fights would be fought in hugely popular public displays in which professional fighters would compete for positions within the company and authority to teach their own students. Every one of these would provide kickbacks to the Maisters, on top of what they charged for teaching students as well as further charges to former students who now taught in their own right. This comfortable arrangement was thrown into disarray with the arrival of the Italian masters. With the monopoly not being renewed in the Maisters’ interests, and the court’s fascination with all things Italian, tastes shifted in the upper and middle classes.

The clearest record we have for these Italian masters is Rocco Bonetti, who married an Eleanor Burbage in 1571, and leased Blackfriars Playhouse in 1584 to house his new fencing school. He was known to teach the highest society members, charging as much as fifty times as much for instruction as the Maisters could. His students included such illustrious characters as Lord Peregrin Willoughby and Sir Walter Raleigh. The school hall was decked out in finery, the coats of arms of the students being on display, alongside a clock, and a writing desk complete with stationary. When the Maisters asked Bonetti to join the company, he refused due to his status as a gentleman.

Image result for Lord Peregrin Willoughby
Yep. Peregrine Bertie, Baron Willoighby, was a student of Bonetti. Also a soldier and a diplomat, having fought in the Netherlands during the 80 years war.

He died in 1587 as a result of (yet another) challenge outside his school, where he was felled by a cut to the leg by a man by the name of Austen Bagger, who then proceeded to stamp on his fallen opponent. Bonetti later succumbed to his injury.

His school was taken over by one of his students, recorded only as ‘Jeronimo’, and Jeronimo was joined there in 1590 by Vincente Saviolo. Saviolo was a native of Padua, who quickly outshone Jeronimo. Between 1590 and 1593, the polemic critic of all things Italian, George Silver, together with his brother Toby Silver, issued a challenge to Jeronimo and Vincente. They were to attend publicly to compete with various weapons on top of a scaffold. Posters were put up and flyers distributed around the neighbourhood, but the brothers were to be embarrassed when the Italians simply didn’t bother to show up. It is not known whether these two opened another school following the expiry of Bonetti’s lease on the Playhouse in 1593, but we do have records showing that they were known to be teaching at court during this period.

Saviolo definetely did have a love for fancy hats. But one can also see that the swords in his treatises are not really that different from what Silver describes.

Saviolo was said on another occasion to have been challenged to a fight by one of the Maisters, which he refused on the grounds that his opponent was unarmed, whereupon the Maister punched him to the ground and poured beer on him. This story comes from George Silver, however, and should be taken with a certain amount of scepticism. The two continued their cooperation until Jeronimo was killed in a further challenge in 1594. He was chased down on horseback as he was travelling with a lady friend in his coach by an Englishman known only as ‘Cheese’, who had an apparent quarrel with him. Jeronimo was thrust through the body twice, and died.

Blackfriars Theatre as it probably was in the 16th C.

By 1595 Saviolo had published his treatise on fencing named ‘His Practise, in Two Bookes’ and is believed to have died towards the end of the century. For context; Shakespeare’s friend and associate, James Burbage, purchased the lease of the old Playhouse in 1596 in order to create the second Blackfriars theatre – which gives an idea of the grandeur of Bonetti’s school of fencing. When Rocco Bonetti’s wife, Eleanor Burbage, died in 1574, her brother Robert Burbage seized her house and goods, and Rocco had to use his influence with the Privy Council to see these returned to him. It may be a coincidence that it was James Burbage, father of Richard Burbage, who purchased Bonetti’s old school after his death to create the Blackfriars Theatre, but it is likely that this was brought about through Rocco’s family connections to the Burbages through his wife, Eleanor.

This is – surprise – an American reconstruction of the Blackfriats Theatre in Staunton, Virginia.

The Blackfriars Theatre was the most prestigious theatre of its time and was a testament to the grandeur of Bonetti’s school. The Globe, when it was built in 1599 by James Burbage’s son Richard Burbage, along with William Shakespeare, was considered a more traditional throwback by comparison. We know that there had been attempts to shut down Bonetti’s school, and numerous previous attacks and challenges had been made on the Italians by the Maisters, including full street brawls as they were set upon. It is difficult to argue that the Maisters themselves were not directly involved in these acts upon them, as they were the ones who stood to gain the most from dissolution of the Italian masters.

So the beginning of the conflict between English and Italian masters came from the Italians basically selling their lessons as “high-end”, so to speak?

Yes, but also because they were teaching outside of the framework of the guild and thereby undermining their authority. Fortunately, literature was blooming in London at this time and we may be able to glean some insights from certain controversial works.

Take Shakespeare’s classic ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Although set in Verona, we have no evidence that Shakespeare had ever been abroad. We may therefore assume that the play gives a fascinating insight into life in London at the time. In the play, Romeo’s friend Mercutio persistently derides Italian affectations and fencing in his narration, yet we know that all the noble protagonists are equipped with rapiers. The term ‘rapier’ was used merely to characterise the Italian blade, balanced for the thrust more than the cut, and differentiate it from the English style.

Image result for romeo and juliet duel 16th C
Later artists also didn’t help, by depicting Shakespearean duels with what is actually a late duelling epee.

Queen Elizabeth had passed a law to limit the length of the blade within London to one yard and half a quarter (104cm or 41”) however, so there wouldn’t have been much difference from an English blade. It is conceivable, therefore, that Mercutio and the Montagues fought with rapiers but according to the English style, the company of Maisters being known to teach its use as well.

Mercutio further describes Tybalt as ‘the very butcher of a silk button’, which refers to a statement made by the Italian Master Rocco Bonetti, who famously claimed that he could thrust an Englishman upon any button on his doublet.

For that reason, when taking into account Shakespeare’s connection to the dramatic and murderous world of 16th c. fencing schools in London through his affiliation to the Burbages, it is possible, that the opposing families of Montagues and Capulets may in fact also represent opposing schools of fencing theory.

The English sources from the time seem to paint the Italians as very full of themselves, while the Englishmen are shown as more straightforward, and often – more skilled in actual combat. How much of that was propaganda and how much truth?

It was of course entirely propaganda, and reading between the lines it is easy to see that the Italians were more likely to be the victims of vindictive attacks. Italy was drawn as the very heart sinful behaviour in the Christian world, used in such context in literature, and the food was considered very poor. It is interesting to see the contrast as the upper echelons of society eagerly adopt all things Italian.

One could say a random Italian would find English food quite poor even today :D.

I think that is just as inaccurate, although bizarrely it is easier to find traditional Italian food in England than traditional English food.

Your timeframe seems a bit limited compared to other HEMAists. But is that true on a technical level – do you also use early 16th c and early 17th c fencing books to inform your curriculum? How far does the depth of study go beyond the reign of Elizabeth I?

Image result for marozzo
Marozzo is a core source for many Bolognese schools.

I tend to branch from the beginning of the 16th c. to the beginning of the 17th, particularly paying attention to the Bolognese influence on fencing. This is of course a methodology with its roots in the 15th c., but which contains mapped within its voluminous works almost every movement and action found in later sources.

The great advantage to studying the north Italian manuscripts is that, if one master hasn’t given an adequate description of a movement or technique, then another probably has. Shared terminology makes finding these cross references easier, and in these situations I am quite comfortable going earlier or later than the specific period that we focus on.

What is the actual system your students learn? Do you teach through Bolognese terms and concepts?

I use both. The popular systems were Italian, and for students of my school to be able to communicate with the international community of martial artists and researchers that is HEMA they must understand the common parlance.

Every student starts on Marozzo/Manciolino and studies this for at least a year, to get a grounding in correct body mechanics and footwork, before moving into specialised fields. And of course they learn this in Italian. Later we might use the Anglicised terminology, such as laid out by Giacomo di Grassi, but the students already know the Italian names for these movements also.

Di Grassi is much more often ignored by HEMA clubs around the worlddespite the fact it has been available in English since 1594 and it is a very rich fencing treatise.

From a martial perspective, the second half of the 16th c was a period of change – hilts of everyday carry swords got more complex, they got narrower and longer. How do you combine the use of the weapons from the beginning of the period with the end? Do you encourage students to get simpler or more complex-hilted swords?

I have everyone start with simple hilts to learn not to rely on a complex guard to defend their hand, but the idea that blades only got more complex and lighter at the end of the century is not necessarily true. We have light, thrust orientated blades with multiple rings in the early 16th c. As we have heavy military blades on simple hilts in the latter half and on into the 17th c. Complex basket hilted swords were worn in England in the first quarter of the 16th c. also.

Jay fencing with sword and buckler at the May Melee in Gloucestershire, UK.

As bucklers fell out of use, complex hilts became more common. If you try using a complex hilt with a buckler, you will notice that it interferes with the use in earlier systems.

So, after single sword and sword and buckler, what do advanced students focus on?

We specifically start on Marozzo and Manciolino’s single sword before moving on to offhand weapons, such as sword and buckler, to develop the necessary ambidexterity and coordination for other combinations which advanced students might move on to, such as partisan or spadone; but first they practice principles. Later sources don’t as much enhance or add, but rather cut these older systems back to key elements.

Advanced students focus their attention according to their own preferences and are encouraged to do their own research. We do not have beginners classes, we run something called fundamentals. This is a year long curriculum to give a good basis of understanding, and advanced students are expected to continue attending the fundamentals classes regardless of their level of ability. Principles are at the heart of our study and are continuously revisited.

How would you define the difference between your approach, and the average HEMA club that does “Liechtenauer longsword”, “Italian rapier”, or even specifically “Bolognese swordsmanship”?

Something that I found HEMA truly lacked was a grasp of how a proper curriculum is developed for an aspiring athlete. It is still common today to see instruction taking the form of a set of routines straight from a book rather than a progression through from previous classes, based on established principles, and summarising on existing knowledge.

In this respect, HEMA has a lot to learn from the hundreds of years of development invested into training methodologies by modern fencing institutions. Sometimes this can seem repetitive. Although our drills are changed up, some core movements will be revisited again and again, but over time this approach does show results. Especially noticeable is the difference this makes in how our students move.

I know you’ve had a lot of experience on the tournament scene. What would you say the goal of your curriculum is – to create good tournament fencers, capable fighters, or both?

I suppose this comes down to how you view tournaments. I want my students to be able to succeed in tournaments, but using correct form. This may be a handicap, but if they can beat people fighting as a sport by fighting as a martial artist then this will just add to the satisfaction of their success. I remember when all I wanted was to win tournaments. If that is something my student wants, then I will help them to achieve that and trust them to come full circle in the end.

That sounds like a great approach. Thank you very much for this interview, Jay. A final question – what do you get from teaching?

I find there is a serious problem in how instructors are viewed, and in turn see themselves. If your students expect you to be infallible, like some whispy bearded dragonball master sitting on a mountaintop, then sooner or later they will be disappointed. You may subconsciously feel that you can never let yourself be seen as anything less by your students, and this can result in an instructor not allowing their students to progress beyond a certain point. The resultant personality cult is familiar to anyone who was alive in the seventies and eighties from the innumerable mall-dojo’s that sprung up in the wake of the Hong Kong action scene.

In reality an instructor is going to be on his way out, however slowly. His job is to allow his students surpass him, thereby ensuring the survival and evolution of the art. We survive through our teachings and our students.

2 thoughts on “Jay Maxwell: A school of fencing with a special concept

  1. I really had hoped while reading this that we would have been provided some sources to some sources. I have also read of similar quarrels between English and Italian fencers of the time ,but its hardley a one sided affair, the Italian immigrants liked to duel and fight. With that that fighting came trash talk and pissing matched on both sides which escalated to fights, to say the English started most of it and the Italians were merely the victims is just as much a falsehood as the English claiming they were the victims.

    Either way , good article as always.


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