Swordsmen turn back the centuries

Robert Brooks and Mick Skelly fencing.
Robert Brooks and Mick Skelly fencing.

A SPECTACLE not seen locally in centuries will be hitting the stage – literally – during Alnwick’s Olympic celebrations this summer, when swordsmen from Britain and possibly beyond will descend on the town for a series of thrilling duels.

As part of the Festival of Alnwick, the Hotspur Invitational Tournament is being held on Saturday, June 9, which will pit combatants against one another in the traditional discipline of English Backswording, a forerunner of modern sport fencing.

Playing under rules dating back to the 1500s, they will be armed with a singlestick – a stout hardwood cudgel with a leather basket to protect the hand – and fight to three hits. While only the head counts for scoring, blows can be made to the whole body, in an attempt to make the opponent drop his guard.

In the past, the victor was the first to draw an inch of blood from his adversary’s forehead or scalp which, in some cases, resulted in serious skull fractures and even death. But despite sticking to the ancient methods, the fencers taking part on this occasion will wear full protective headgear to spare their good looks.

Gazette reporter Robert Brooks is the brains behind the tournament, which is being hosted by the Alnwick-based Hotspur School of Defence, the historical fencing school he runs in his spare time.

“It’s a thrilling sport which began as an earnest training method for the baskethilt broadsword and backsword,” said Robert, who founded the school in 2003 after more than a decade of studying traditional western swordsmanship. “We thought a contest of this kind would be ideal for Alnwick’s Olympic celebrations. Not only does it reveal the roots of modern sport fencing, but it also ties in handsomely with the county’s rich history.

“Backswording was a massively popular spectator sport during the 17th and 18th centuries, but was all but dead by the end of the 19th century. However, it was an event in the 1904 Olympic Games at St Louis, alongside the modern foil, epee and sabre, which ultimately replaced it – the loss of a sporting legacy we hope to reverse.”

So far, competitors from across England and Scotland have declared their intention to take part in the Alnwick tournament and there has even been interest from practitioners in the United States.

Robert said: “There is a massive revival in traditional European swordsmanship under way, which I have been lucky enough to be involved in from its beginnings in the early 1990s. Our school now has four chapters, covering an area stretching from Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders, to Newcastle and into County Durham.

“As well as backswording, we study the medieval longsword from surviving fighting manuals of the period. Contrary to popular belief, these are highly-skilled and subtle arts which require an intimate understanding of timing, distance and judgement rather than relying on raw, brute force.

“We hope that the Hotspur Invitational Tournament will become an annual fixture and put Alnwick firmly back on the backswording map.”

A venue for the contest will be announced in due course and it will be open to spectators. Demonstrations of European swordsmanship will also happen throughout the week.

The contest is part of a wider programme of events still being mapped out, which will take place around the town between June 9 and 15. Groups which want to stage an event as part of the Festival of Alnwick can contact Karen Larkin at www.festivalofalnwick.co.uk

Anyone interested in learning historical swordsmanship can contact the Hotspur School of Defence via www.hotspur.org.uk