Fencing grew out of the long tradition of dueling, which has been going on for as long as history has been recorded. It wasn’t until the 15th century that fencing really became a codified thing, the artform that we think of with fencing masters – one that is beautiful and noble. This really began with the publication of the Treatise of Arms by Diego de Valera in 1471.
It’s true that fencing was practiced by royalty across Europe as well by other members of the upper class, although it was also practiced by many tradesmen and lower class men who sought more money, fame and the thrill of the fight. Of course kings are famously the heads of armies, so it was natural extension for fencing to become a big deal for royalty. However fencing has proved to be more than fighting, as the technicality and finesse required to fence effectively is far different that the requirements of the battlefield. Fencing separated the nobleman from the soldier.
But how did this all come about? Fencing as the sport of kings evolved over a long time through many iterations to become transformed into what it is today.
France Develops the Sport of Kings
Fencing has perhaps most notably been enjoyed by the French monarchy. Fencing was first recognized all the way back in 1587 (over 400 years ago!!) by King Charles IX of France, after his mother Queen Catherine de Medicis brought Italian fencing masters in to found the French Fencing Academy. French fencing masters went on to earn honorary titles from the monarchy, and fencing was developed as a sport that it is today, rather than the deadly duels that it evolved from. This is all important because the French Monarchy will go on to develop fencing into what we recognize today!
How did the French monarchy influence fencing?
In the 17th century the foil was developed in as a lighter weight training weapon in France, much easier to learn with and so much safer for practice. Unless there was an actual duel in progress, fencers were of course not interested in hurting their opponents! Of course this is really the heart of the change that happened for fencing. In addition, the French developed the right of way rules, which allowed the monarchy to further indulge in fencing as the sport became less dangerous and marked a serious change in fencing!
Louis the XIV, the famous “Sun King” of France who ruled just before the French Revolution and who made Versailles what it is, was a master fencer himself. He was tutored by the great French masters as a child, and went on to have a tremendous influence on Fencing, which was a passion for him. The shorter sword was developed in his court, as it was deemed to be more fashionable and to match the brocade jackets and silk stockings. As it turned out, the shorter “court sword” turned out to be quick and effective! It was soon adopted as the standard in fencing.
One last French innovation in fencing that came as a boon to the monarchy was the invention of the fencing mask by French master La Boessiere, which made fencing even safer! It sparked the development of even more non-fatal techniques and strategies.
England’s Strong Ties to Fencing
Fencing came into fashion in the courts of Great Britain during the famous reign of King Henry VIII in the 16th century, when his passion for swordplay spilled into the nobility around him. Fighting quickly became a popular sport among people of all classes – both high and low. There was even a point at which the fencing masters shut down the business of London due to their fencing! During the reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I and her son, James I, fighting before the throne continued to be an incredibly popular form of entertainment for the monarchy during court. The most skilled fencers in London performed amazing fencing tasks before Christian IV of Denmark on his numerous visits to James I.
Surprisingly, it was not long after that fencing was nearly lost for a time in England as the Masters of Defence were outlawed through the Monopolies Act of 1624. Several decades later when fencing returned during the English Restoration period, it had unfortunately lost much of its skill and perfection.
During the 18th century, fencing truly rose to the rank of a royal sport once again in England as it became the sport of the English princes. The prominent fencing master Domenico Angelo taught the future king George III and his brothers the art of fencing. The young princes loved the sport and fought heartily as well as arranging many matches between fencing masters for royal events.
The tradition of English fencing went on into the following century as not only princes, but also princesses began to learn the sport. Fencing master Baptiste Bertrand taught fencing to King Edward VII and then to his three daughters Louise, Victoria and Maud. After this breaking off a huge fencing barrier in the late 19th century, it became fashionable for noblewomen across Europe to take up the sword! By this point fencing was in the modern form that we recognize today, with the monarchy no longer being entertained by prize fights but now by Olympic matches. However training in the combative arts is still a hallmark of the monarchy, with both Princes William and Harry having trained with a sword.
Russian Tzars learn to Fence
France was not the only place that fencing was enjoyed by the monarchy. The Russian monarchy as well valued the sport of fencing, and the legacy of the great Russian masters lives on today in the dominance of Russian fencing.
Ivan Siverbrik, one of the first fencing coaches in Russia, was a tutor to Alexander II and his father Nicholas I in the art of swordsmanship. The rise of Russian fencing came later, in the 19th century, but the sport was nurtured by the tzars of Russia much as it had been nurtured by the kings of France.
This is only a small history of the sport of fencing and its ties to royalty! The development of fencing was truly driven by the elite, though today it is enjoyed by everyone.
The last serious royal swordfighting headlines were made just earlier this year when Polish prince Yanek Zylinski challenged a British politician to a duel in London over an immigration issue (the duel never did happen!).
Crown, A.A. (2015) Classical Fencing. Retrieved from http://www.classicalfencing.com/