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.
At a time when the Italian systems of combat were considered to be the most elegant and efficient, the Italian masters came to England and settled in London to teach their arts. And they found students. Always provided, of course, that those students could afford the exorbitant fees…
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 at the same venues as Shakespeare performed his plays. 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. 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 one 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 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 slain 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.
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 – giving some idea of the grandeur of Bonetti’s school of fencing.
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.
With cheap foreign trade goods flooding London as a result of developing colonial markets and privateering, the City was emerging as one of Europe’s greatest economic centres, even as cottage industries and businesses across the country fell apart. As a result, London was crammed with an enormous casual workforce waiting for an opportunity to work the warehouses and docks, while the upper and middle classes saw unprecedented financial growth. To take advantage of the crowded docklands and the influx of wealth a burgeoning entertainment industry sprang up, along with an equivalent explosion in criminal enterprise.
Most thefts were carried out by the impoverished young. Under the Elizabethan class system, it was almost impossible to move up in the world – you remained in your social caste. In order to control such thievery the Poor Laws were passed. Thieving was punishable by death. Begging, including fortune telling, minor street performances, or in some cases just being young, would get you whipped or locked up in one of the many workhouses. In these workhouses, excessive working hours were combined with unbelievably poor living conditions in the name of public improvement, which was in fact intended to make the poor profitable to their social betters. Obviously, this did not work and if anything drove more people to desperate measures.
We know that in nearby Billingsgate thieves were professionally trained like something out of Oliver Twist and attained actual ranks within their organisation, such as ‘public foister’ or ‘judicial nipper’.
Elizabethan London was a dangerous place, the murder rate being ten times higher than today, and few parts more so than Southwark. Although the elite would travel here for pleasure in order to attend the baiting pits, prizefights or theatres, the entertainment was found on this side of the river because land was cheap and regulation low. Other than the occasional warden armed with a bill and a lantern, there was no such thing as a regular police force or street lighting, and gentlemen would often only walk out with a retinue, including a lantern bearer. Chance encounters with inebriated ‘gentlemen’ armed with swords were bad enough, but everyone carried a knife regardless of status. And the irredeemable poor were everywhere…
Southwark is rightly famed for its theatres, having been home to The Globe, The Rose and The Swan – names which some theatres bear to this day.
The audience at the time, however, would have differed significantly from what you might expect in a modern theatre crowd. Eating, drinking, jeering and cheering from the stands was the norm. In fact it may help to imagine the fans at a local football match emptying into a theatre without checks or searches. Not only was everyone armed, but any man who would call himself such would be expected to go about his business in such a manner.
This public would therefore have been very conscious of the differing applications of violence at the time, and a performance involving a duel on stage that did not live up to lifelike expectations would have suffered as a consequence. This was something of which the writers were, of course, aware, and so both the writing and the performance reflected this.
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 complex hilted italian blade, and differentiate it from the English style. 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 it is possible, that the opposing families of Montagues and Capulets may in fact also represent opposing schools of fencing theory.