Combat in Context – Romeo & Juliet

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 is actually a German scene, but similar to what could have been seen at a prizefight in England

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.

Swords of the period

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.

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. 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.

The Sam Wannamaker playhouse at the Globe Theatre in London is an accurate recreation of the Blackfriars Theatre

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.

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. 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 entirely possible that the opposing families of Montagues and Capulets may in fact also represent opposing schools of fencing theory.