The System of English Martial Arts

In Anglo-Saxon times one of the names by which a folcwiga (warrior) would have known martial arts was ‘wigraeden’ (way of warfare). By Tudor times there were two main titles in use, the Art Militaire and its civilian relative the Science of Defence. In the Stuart era the latter was often called the Noble Science of Defence or the Noble Art of Defence (these titles being later inherited by boxing). The Science of Defence was a combat art that was concerned with individual self-defence rather than the military scenario but it was so closely related to the battlefield system as to be interchangeable with it. Indeed, the ‘civilian’ system used by the English included usage of many battlefield weapons (see below). One of the major differences between the military and civilian experience was that in the packed ranks of the battlefield there often wasnl enough room to use the methods or apply the principles that were available when fighting one-on-one (a fact noted by contemporary maisters of defence). Another difference was that military conflict did not require its participants to follow the strict code of conduct that the civilian practitioners of the Science of Defence were expected, on oath, to follow. For example, followers of the civilian system were forbidden to kill a defeated opponent. Clearly, such an obligation would not be realistic in times of war.


Weapons taught by the maisters of defence included: the broadsword, backsword, two-hand sword, the bastard sword, battle-axe, billhook, half- pike, pitchfork, threshalls, quarterstaff, longstaff, sword and dagger, sword and buckler, flachion, case of falchions. This list is by no means comprehensive but it is sufficient to show that the English, and Europeans in general, were as versatile with weapons as their Oriental counterparts. To the use of weapons had to be added the skills of boxing and wrestling, at which the English excelled. The weapon-fighter was trained to use boxing and wrestling in conjunction with the weapon he was wielding as well as using them separately. For example a sword-fighter, given the opportunity, would punch with his empty hand, or effect an arm-lock, throw, kick or leg-sweep.


For fighting methods to be defined as a martial art system there have to be in place a definitive set of principles that govern the usage of weapons, be they natural weapons, that is to say fist, foot and so on or artificial weapons as described earlier. English martial arts utilised a sophisticated set of principles by which the Science of Defence was governed. To attempt to describe in depth the entire set of principles is beyond the limited confines of a magazine article. None the less, it is worth touching upon a small number of them to give the reader an insight into the methodology involved.

English maisters of defence held that all actions, whether with or without weapons, were governed by the principles of the True Fight. These included such things as: True Times, False Times, The Four Grounds, The Four Governors, Wide Space, Narrow Space and so on. If you followed these principles when in combat you would be fighting the True Fight. If you fought without using the principles you would be fighting a False


Zonal Defence

It is worth noting that English martial arts utilised what is nowadays described as a zonal defence system with guards specific to each zone or body area. This fact will become clearer after looking at the following photographs of some of the stances used in the English system. It is worth noting that, although the guard positions are demonstrated with the broadsword, the same guards are used with all the primary weapons, as will become apparent in the article about the quarterstaff which appear soon in Martial Arts Illustrated.

The True Gardant was held by some maisters of defence to be the truest, I.e. most effective guard of all, especially when being pressed hard or attacked by more than one person at a time. This is because with very little hand/arm movement the weapon could be carried back and forth across the body and therefore ward off thrusts or cuts with very little loss of time. This guard was also known as the Prime (first) Guard because it was the first guard formed when the sword was drawn from its scabbard.

Principles In Action

Let us look at a typical English sword technique to see how these particular principles apply in action: figure 1.

Both swordsmen are in the Outside Guard.

The Press or Attack

The First or Ready Position Figure 2.

Outside Guard

The Outside Guard (also known as the Dexter Guard) defends against attacks towards the right side of the body. Low cuts to the right or thrusts to the face, body and legs are defended with the Low Outside which is formed by rotating the wrist and arm almost 180 degrees anti-clockwise so that the point of the sword is at the bottom lying just outside (but forward of) the ankle of the leading leg.

The Inside Guard, also known as the Sinister Guard, defends against attacks from the left. The Inside Guard in the illustration is the High

Inside. It too has a low line equivalent where the point of the sword would be inside and forward of the ankle of the leading leg.

Deliberate Openings

The first thing that probably springs to mind is that the guards depicted appear to leave the body exposed to attack. This is in fact quite deliberate. The explanation is as follows: if you look at, for example, the Outside Guard it becomes apparent that to reach the body or legs an opponent must attack beneath the sword. Or, as the English used to say ‘attack through the lurch’ (lurch = opening). If the agent attempts to do so the patient agent is ideally situated (see below) to block or deflect the incoming weapon or cut at the agent’s weapon arm or body.

Principles Of The Art

Of course, this is over-simplifying the situation because also brought into play would be the various principles such as True Times and False

Times. Space does not suffer a complete description of pricinples that take students many months of practise to understand and perfect. None the less, a quick explanation of the principles of True and False Times at play in the above scenario will give some insight into the theories behind them. English Maisters of Defence made use of the fact that different parts of the body had different reaction times, for example, the hand is faster than the foot. The English referred to this in the context of True and False Times and listed them as follows:

The Four True Times 1. The time of the hand 2. The time of the hand and body 3. The time of the hand, body and one foot 4. The time of the hand, body and both feet.

The Four False Times 1. The time of the foot 2. The time of the foot and body 3. The time of the foot, body and hand 4. The time of both feet, body and hand.

The agent (right) aims an inside cut at the patient agent’s neck. To close the distance he must step in, The Time of the Foot. Now, even though he is using the fastest of the False Times it is still slower than the Time of the Hand thus the patient agent is able to use the superior speed of his hand to nullify the attack, by warding from the Outside Guard to the Inside Guard and stopping the incoming blow with a true cross before it is in full force.

Figure 3.

Having stopped the attack the patient agent now counters by wrenching his sword backwards (anti-clockwise) and delivering an outside cut underneath the agent’s sword aimed at the leading leg. Note that as the patient agent’s sword surrenders its defensive role he brings his left hand forward to control the agent’s sword hand.


The Science of Defence didn’t rely purely on stopping. It also utilised deflecting and voyding (evading). The ratio of their usage depending partly on your opponent’s tactics and partly on the type of weapons being used. For example a quarterstaff practitioner facing a swordsman would not need to block or deflect as much as the swordsman. However, if he were facing another quarterstaff then he would need to make much more use of stops and voyds.


The following technique not only shows voyding but introduces Threshalls (corn flails) England’s own version of the nunchaku.

The First Position figure 1.

The agent (right) is in the Outside Guard whilst the patient agent is holding the Threshalls in the Reverse Gardant position.

The Press figure 2.

The agent gathers forward and aims an inside cut at the patient agent’s leading hand.

First Counter figure 3.

As the agent attacks, the patient agent passes back with his left foot and simultaneously wrenches an overhand blow at the agent’s sword wrist.

Figure 4.

The patient agent now wheels the Threshalls around his body to generate power in preparation for the secondary attack.

Second Counter figure 5.

The patient agent finishes the technique with an oblique blow to the neck.


It is hoped that this brief introduction to English martial arts has whetted your appetite as well as alerting you to the fact that England has its own extremely effective, indigenous martial arts system.

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