Joseph Swetnam

Joseph Swetnam was an early seventeenth century English Master of Defense, and his fencing represents a unique point in the evolution of English martial arts.  The indigenous English martial tradition in the sixteenth century was a practical one dealing with both personal self-defense and war, using multiple types of weapons and cross-weapons training.  The introduction of the rapier to England in the later part of the sixteenth century was a serious challenge to this system.  The rapier was a flashy dueling weapon intended for an arranged single combat with a like-armed opponent.  Italian and Spanish teachers of the rapier brought both the weapon and its accompanying focus on aristocratic dueling to England, displacing both native fencing teachers and the native weapons such as the English “shortsword” (a basket-hilt cut-and-thrust sword).  The outraged reaction of the English traditionalists is evocatively captured in George Silver’s 1599 work, Paradoxes of Defense:


“…[Englishmen] may by casting off these Italianated, weak, fantastical, and most devilish and imperfect fights, and by exercising their own ancient weapons, be restored, or achieve unto the natural, and most manly and victorious fight again, the dint and force whereof many brave nations have both felt and feared.”[1]


Over time, the rapier and its successor the smallsword began to dominate personal combat in Englandas they had elsewhere in Europe.  Zach Wylde, an early 18th century Englishman, described the progression as follows:


“Rapier or Small-Sword, which is the first Subject I design to treat on: We find it according to some Historians, has its original from the proud Spaniards, stately Italians, modish French, or truly I know not who, however we borrow it from some Forreign Place or other.  And now ‘tis become so common, that I suppose it is practiced throughout Christendom, all Nations making such a wonderful improvement of the Art, that I believe ‘tis grown near to perfection,  … especially in the Metropolis of this Kingdom.”[2]


Swetnam’s place in this story is in the middle.  He maintains the English tradition of teaching multiple weapons and cross-weapon techniques, and his lack of aristocratic pretensions is very much in keeping with other English masters.  His advice on dueling involves suggestions on keeping one’s temper and avoiding insult in taverns rather than detailed instructions on “honourable quarrels”[3].  Like Silver before him, he is scornful of foreign fencing teachers:


“Even so, he that knoweth many guards, and the true skill at many weapons may be the better able to answer any stowt bragging forreiner or stranger when they come with their challenges into our country…”


However, Swetnam is teaching the rapier, calling it “the finest & the comliest weapon that ever was used in England“[4], and only grudgingly mentions the traditional English “short sword” so beloved of George Silver.[5]  Swetnam is neither the beginning nor end of the English fencing tradition, merely a unique point in the process.


The central piece of evidence we have about Swetnam’s life outside of fencing is a pamphlet published in 1615 entitled The Arraignment of Lewd, idle, froward, and unconstant women.  While this misogynistic work does not mention fencing, it is probably the best known thing Swetnam wrote and thus I feel obliged to mention it no matter how much I disagree with its thesis.  This unfortunate work was published under the pseudonym “Thomas Tel-Troth”, but it seems to have been an open secret that Joseph Swetnam was its true author.  A representative quote from this tract is as follows:


“[Women] will play the horse-leech to suck away thy wealth, but in the winter of thy misery, she will fly from thee. Not unlike the swallow, which in the summer harboreth herself under the eaves of a house, and against winter flieth away, leaving nothing but dirt behind her.”


Reprinted more than fifteen times, the pamphlet seems to have been quite popular and sparked a number of counter-arguments, including a play entitled Swetnam the Woman-Hater, Arraigned by Women.  One of the woodcuts from the published version of the play shows Swetnam on trial, the only image I have been able to find of Swetnam, but there is no way of knowing whether the man pictured resembles Swetnam at all.


Figure 1.  Swetnam the Woman-Hater, Arraigned by Women

We have little historical evidence as of his qualifications as a fencer, so we are mostly forced to take Swetnam at his word.  He was a former soldier and claims to have been the instructor to Prince Charles’s dead brother Henry Fredrick, Prince of Wales.[6]  He says that he has studied weapons for “twenty yeeres” but that he has almost no formal education:


“[I] am no Scholler, nor have no learning; but only a little experience, which God and nature hath bestowed upon me.”


“Now (gentle Reader) I doe intreate theee to beare with my rudenesse, I am no Scholler, for I do protest I never went to Schoole six months in all my life…” (p. 195)


It’s interesting to note what Swetnam doesn’t claim in his qualifications.  While Italian and Spanish masters were beginning their manuals by boasting of their mathematics instructors, Swetnam says he has had little formal schooling.  He does mention the “science of defense” in his title, but his actual text is devoid of the lines, angles, and geometric frippery present in other manuals of the time.  Instead, his analogies are mostly religious, and his book is filled with unabashedly Christian moral advice.  Swetnam’s manual represents the intersection of the rapier with early seventeenth century English culture, and provides a unique perspective on both the weapon and the culture.

[1] George Silver, Paradoxes of Defense, 1599

[2] Zach Wylde, English Master of Defense Or, The Gentleman’s Al-a-mode Accomplish, 1711

[3] Vincentio Saviolo, His practice in two books, 1595

[4] Joseph Swetnam, Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defense, 1617, pp. 2.

[5] “In describing of this weapon [the shortsword] I shall account the time ill spent, yet because Short swords are in use and worne of many that would leave them off if that they knew what an idle weapon it were” – Swetnam, Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defense, 1617, pp. 171

[6] “Most Gracious and Noble Prince, the many great and kinde favours which I received from the hands of your late brother deceased, unto whom I was tutor in the skill of weapons, to my no little credit…” – Swetnam, Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defense, the Epistle Dedicatory.