English Martial Arts

What are English Martial Arts?

English Martial Arts as a term was first coined by Terry Brown, a martial arts instructor and researcher who published a book entitled “English Martial Arts” in 1997. As a term it is now in widespread usage, though different groups interpret the term in different ways, most agree that it refers to the collected fighting systems that originated in England.

Within the category of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) English Martial Arts refers to those collected fighting systems that either have a living lineage (such as Catch as Catch Can Wrestling) or those which died out, and have been recreated from surviving instructional material.

Some groups practice arts that have neither a lineage, nor surviving instructional sources, such as Anglo-Saxon weapons like the Seax. Whilst these systems may well be effective there is little in the way of historical authenticity about them, and are largely reconstructed from other, more modern systems.

The Backsword in English Martial Arts

Within the umbrella of English Martial Arts the most common weapon is probably the backsword. This originated in the Tudor period and is characterised by a long straight blade, usually single edged, with a complex hilt to protect the hand. There are a number of surviving examples of Tudor backswords, the most famous of which was found on the Mary Rose when it was raised from the Solent in 1982.

The backsword went through various iterations, and is extremely closely related to the singlestick or cudgel – a hazel or willow stave with a hardened leather hilt. These were used at country fairs as a safer form of competition, though split heads, and concussions were extremely common. There are a number of historical sources for Backsword fighting, the earliest of which is that of George Silver from 1599. Others include Zachary Wylde, William Hope, and George Hale.

At the English Martial Arts Academy we study and practice the works of George Silver, and have done since 1995.

Other Weapons in English Martial Arts

There are a variety of other weapons contained within the concept of English Martial Arts. From the nearly indecipherable two handed sword of the three earliest manuals – Cotton Titus, The Man that Wol, and the two handed sword system attributed to J. Ledall, through to the combative knife fighting of the Command training schools of World War 2.

Some of the most common weapons are Rapier, Quarterstaff, and Smallsword, though Sword and Buckler, Sword and Dagger, Rapier and Dagger, and polearms such as the English Bill are also studied.

Classical Pugilism

The term Classical Pugilism describes the art of boxing as it was carried out before the introduction of the Marquess of Queensberrys rules in 1867.
The one characteristic that is shared with all the systems and manuals available is that the art was carried out without the use of gloves for competition. Gloves, or “mufflers” were often used for training and sparring, but never in serious competition. In fact this is where the phrase “the gloves are off” comes from to imply that something has just got serious.

At the English Martial Arts Academy we practice the art of Classical Pugilism as it was carried out in the Broughton’s Rules era. Grappling and throwing was allowed, elbow strikes were allowed, in fact the only things that were not allowed was taking hold of your opponent below the waist, and striking a man who was down. From time to time we experiment with the early era of pugilism where both of these things were perfectly acceptable.

Traditional Wrestling

There are a large number of wrestling systems that originated in England. From the close grip styles like Cornish, and Norfolk, to the loose grip of Catch as Catch Can.

Most of these systems were competing to effect a successful throw, though the details of what was classed as successful differ. Modern Cornish wrestling for example starts from a specific hold on your opponent’s jacket and finishes when one person’s back hits the floor. The flatter your opponent’s back when they land the better a throw it was considered to be. This was classed as a fall, or a pin-fall.

Traditional Catch as Catch Can however differs in that the fight is by no means over when one or both antagonist hits the ground. A person’s shoulder blades must be held and controlled in contact with the ground for it to be considered a pin, but it is equally valid to force an opponent to submit, or give in. And so Catch wrestling has a large number of extremely painful techniques designed for no purpose other than to encourage your opponent to either verbally submit, or to roll into a pin position.

At the English Martial Arts Academy we also train in Scottish Backhold Wrestling, which, whilst not English in Origin, is extremely close in style and technique to some of the early close grip systems that were practiced in England historically.