The Real George Silver is Dead

‘so I refer myself to the censure of such as are skilful herein’ – George Silver, Brief Instructions

I have taken the decision to comment on an article that was written a few years ago and caused something of a hoo-ha with some people who didn’t much want to hear what it had to say.1 Since it was written I have myself taken to the study of Silver, during which time I deliberately did not interact with any other interpretations of his works. Not the original article no videos, books or internet forums. This was to ensure that my interpretation of the work was my own and was not affected by any other interpretation.

My interpretation is born of my own martial arts experience of nearly 20 years studying Wing Chun kung fu and historical fencing, consistently discussed with and ideas bounced off a dear friend of mine who is a very excellent martial artist and instructor of broadsword. It was only after I had put together my own interpretation and opened my own school that I looked at other people’s interpretations.

I have seen very old videos from various schools as well as the old interpretation and Winslow/Edelson’s own videos. I found that indeed there seems to be only one interpretation before Winslow/Edelson. I am not aware of the ‘Oz’ interpretation as I didn’t notice anything different so perhaps there is something I missed there. What I did notice is that everyone seems to have given up making videos on Silver years ago…2

The only voice still remaining is the old interpretation as even Winslow/Edelson seem to have vanished, perhaps shouted down, hopefully still training.

The reason I chose to respond to this article was based on the responses that the original article received from the old interpretation which often lacked manners. It was primarily a fairly recent video in which it was stated that this article had ‘reared it’s ugly head again’. So here, once again is this article, rearing it’s ugly head once more.

The author has recently posted an updated version of the article in which all references to the old interpretation are removed, changing the article instead to presentation of their own interpretation alone.3 I have chosen to continue this article as a response to the original so I may still present a critique of both the current interpretations in conjunction with presenting my own. My intention is to support an alternate interpretation of Silver’s works by adding my own, which does not always agree with this one.

Winslow/Edelson are correct in their view that there is currently only one interpretation and that it has remained unchallenged since its inception. Whether or not challenge is the correct word to use is up for debate and essentially rests upon the responses of the arbiters of the current interpretation. If they are willing to accept further interpretation from differing perspectives in the knowledge that we are all interpreting a language that no-one currently speaks from a discourse on one method versus another and some brief instructions. As such there is no complete knowledge of the truth of Silver’s true fight to be had.

‘And consider that learning has no greater enemy than ignorance, neither can the unskillful ever judge the truth of my art to them unknown, beware of rash judgment and accept my labors thankfully as I bestow them willingly, censure me justly, let no man despise my work herein causeless, and so I refer myself to the censure of such as are skillful herein’ – G. Silver, Brief Instructions.

A History of the Modern Controversy

Winslow/Edelson start by saying that Silver’s work has been a cause of contention since it’s creation however there is no evidence to suggest that Silver’s work was controversial in it’s own time. It certainly wasn’t when found and published by Cyril Matthey in 1898. It is important to note two things with regards to this myth.

First, If it was controversial in its day there would very likely be contemporary responses in the record. Consider the following pamphlet written by Joseph Swetnam in 1615



ward, and unconstant women: Or
the vanity of them, choose you whether,
With a Commendation of wise, virtuous, and
honest Women,
Pleasant for married Men, profitable for
young Men, and
hurtful to none.’

This pamphlet elicited multiple responses in its time in the form of pamphlets, plays and more from both men and women alike. Swetnam, like Silver, held a position high in the court of London. In fact he was the martial tutor for Henry, the Prince of Wales and his fencing treatise is written to Charles, the prince of Wales after the death of his brother.

These men lived in a time when it was no issue to publish your opinion. Roger Ascham, a prolific anti Italian voice of the 16th century wrote often of how the gentry should stop sending their boys to be educated in Italy as it was ruining them. Not forgetting of course Henry VIII executed his favourite advisor Sir Thomas Moore for his publications against protestantism and Henry VIII’s claim to be head of the church. Regardless of consequence, both parties published their opinions. There can also be found in 16th century literature many titles that would be considered inflammatory by today’s standards and may have been in their time. Often their titles did not hide their intention.

Although it may seem contrary to the above point, publishing was an expensive affair in 16c England and so was not taken up lightly. As such publishing was unlikely to be taken up by someone who was not supported by their peers. If Silver was not respected as a swordsman and if he did not have the opinion of at least some of his peers on his side he would not have published. More likely than not Silver was encouraged to publish his work.

George Silver lived in a society that had two distinct circles in the upper levels of the court. One was pro-Italian and the other pro-English. It is important to know that the pro-English circle was not anti-Italian. The politics of these circles were not related to race or nationality rather to the power struggles between the Catholic and Protestant churches. The pro-English circle were trying to create a head of the protestant church and and to restore the former international power of England. This pro-English circle were trying to encourage Elizabeth to become what can essentially be described as the protestant pope.

These circles often intersected. This can be shown by people such as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester attending the funeral of Sir Philip Sidney. Sidney was one of the big players in the pro-English circle and Dudley the same for the pro-Italian. Also Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex was not only a player on the pro-English side but was the reason that James Stewart was looking at the throne of England. Although Devereux was militantly protestant and pro-English we also know that he was a patron of Saviolo and possibly other Italian fencing masters of the time.4

Regardless of political intent, fashion was still paramount in Elizabethan England and as such even those who we might incorrectly view as anti-Italian still engaged in much Italian culture such as fashion, food, fencing and literature. The pro-Italian circle simply indulged much more freely and readily in Italian culture with poetry readings, dinners and language exchange groups.

Although we don’t know for certain what side Silver was on we can’t ignore that he has made a statement. With his wife’s family working in the Dudley household, Silver was known on both sides of the divide. Whilst he could well have dedicated his book to Dudley, this made no sense as Dudley was no warrior. Devereux on the other hand was a famous and much loved warrior whose legend continued even after he had been executed for treason.

We see that Silver must have had some response to Paradoxes causing him to write Brief Instructions because he cites ‘my paradoxes of defence is to the most sort as a dark riddle in many things therein set down’ as a reason for writing his second book. What we do not see, though absence of evidence does not equate to evidence of absence, are any repercussions for Silver until the late 19th century with Egerton Castle. So rather than any controversy or contention in it’s time, Paradoxes was likely supported by Silver’s direct peers as well as a large portion of Protestant England. It would have been read by every high ranking gentleman who had an interest in fencing which would have included all Italian fencing masters still practising in England at the time.

The old interpretation

The single interpretation discussed by Winslow/Edelson has indeed been uncontested and this risks the practitioners of that interpretation settling into a comfort zone of believing they are right by dint of no contest. Whether they are right or wrong is entirely irrelevant but as Winslow/Edelson state there are now far more sources giving greater context to Silver, his surroundings and society as well as many new findings and translations of other treatises that give a view of martial arts of the time. For as much as it ought not, history changes on a daily basis and so any interpretation should be revised time and time again.

There is mention that several other alternative interpretations have been put forward and heavily criticised by the prevailing interpretation. This does not mean that the current interpretation is correct, only that it is louder or more aggressively fights against any newcomer. This is a strange situation for HEMA, though not for martial arts as a whole.5 Such petty behaviour has existed in martial arts for a thousand years! Anyone who has studied any kung fu will know how politics is constant and only you and your master do it right. However in every other corner of HEMA this is not seen. There are huge numbers of schools who study the 1.33, the Leichtenauer longsword tradition, the bolognese side-sword tradition and quite happily exist together. Whichever tradition or masters/texts that are studied by any of these schools there seems to be very little argument and each is happy to allow others to interpret the works in their own ways. Quite why the old interpretors of Silver feel the need to disallow any other interpretation is beyond me other than their interpretation is so fragile that it must be defended rather then being allowed to stand on its own two feet in the company of other interpretations.

It is a shame that an article is attacked and requires defending but this does seem to be the M.O. of the current tradition. Martin Austwick offers an alternative explanation and is heavily criticised, Vincent Le Chavalier offers an alternative and is attacked, The responses to this article (Winslow/Edelson) have been far from polite and even I myself have been challenged. In which I have not been challenged on my interpretation or how I came to it but rather challenged for being incorrect from the point of view that the current interpretation is unchallengeably absolute and correct.

I refer to my statement at the beginning for this matter. We are all interpreting an ancient work written in a language that feels familiar but holds the subtleties of over 400 years separation from us and is giving only ‘brief instructions’.

Why Silver Matters

There are many reasons why Silver matters. In the context of interpreting the art presented in the works it can be easy to think only of the martial techniques mentioned by Silver. To be able to fully understand the art the whole work must be viewed in its proper context. This portion of the article seeks to look into that context though it has a few minor misconceptions of its own. I hope here to add a little detail on some of them.

Being a member of the gentry was not necessarily the reason that Silver received a method of training separate from the fencing schools but it is seems from his language that he did and this is likely due to the advantages of his social rank. Although we do not have any contemporary treatises from fencing schools of the time, primary sources do suggest that military fencing and fence-school fencing were not the same thing. It can also be shown that gentlemen at the highest echelon of the court were trained in fence-schools as we see John Norris achieving his Provost’s prize in 1588 in the records of William Mucklowe.6 The same John Norris, cousin to Queen Elizabeth I, sailed as second in command to Sir Francis Drake in the English Armada in 1589.

The short sword that Silver describes was a very common weapon in the 16th century for civilians and soldiers alike and was likely the weapon that the English took to battle with them.7 There are English soldiers writing on war who also lament the bringing of rapiers to war for similar reasons to Silver. He was not alone in his opinion that the rapier was not military.

‘so our such men of war …do now a days prefer and allow that armed men Piquers, should rather wear Rapiers of a yard and a quarter long the blades, than strong short arming Swords; little considering that a squadron of armed men in the field…that after they have given their first thrush with their Piques…they must presentlie betake themselves to the use of their Swords and Daggers; which they cannot with any celerity draw if the blades of their Swords be so long:

for armed men in such actions, being in their ranks so close one to another by flanks, cannot draw their Swords if the blades of them be above the length of three quarters of a yard, or a little more:…Rapier blades being so narrow, and of so small substance, and made of a very hard temper to fight in private frays, in lighting with any blow upon armour, do presently break, and so become unprofitable’ 8

‘ For if in the middest of Encounters and Skirmishes, they be driuen to vse them, their length is an occasion they cannot be drawen, vnlesse hee abandon his Peece or Pike, whereby hee shall either loose his Pike, or want his Rapier’ 9

‘for all these 5000. a good strong sword of a yarde in blade, and no hilts but crosse onely, a dagger of ten or twelue inches in blade and the like crosse hilt’ 10

‘The blades of their swordes I would haue to be verie good, and of the length of a yard and not aboue; with their hilts only made with. 2. portes, a greater and a smaller on the out side of the hiltes, after the fashion of the Italian and Spanishe arming swordes’ 11

These soldiers all agree that the length of the sword should be similar to that described by Silver, one even pointing out that the rapier would break upon armour due to its temper.12 One of these soldiers served under the Spanish King so it can be seen that this is not only an English lament but rather a military one. More importantly we see that there must have been support for Silver’s opinion and though his opinions may have been paradoxical in civilian society, the military would have been in great agreement with him. As gentlemen, these military men existed in the same circles as Silver himself.

There is a prevailing myth that the company of masters was incorporated in 1540, however no evidence that Henry VIII gave any legal recognition to the masters of defence exists. He did give warrant to a select few fencers to act on his behalf in closing down schools that were operating without the correct license but a warrant is merely permission to act on behalf of the crown in the specific terms set out within the warrant. In Elizabethan England the rule was that a fence-school had to have license from at least two justices of the peace from their locality or be deemed vagabonds and punished as such.13 Elizabeth however left this up to local authorities to deal with rather than giving fencers the warrant to act on her behalf.

Winslow/Edelson are entirely correct in the conclusion that Silver was lamenting the culture of duelling. Of course, Silver explicitly tells us this himself but it is a fact that is often overlooked, regardless of being clearly defined, as the reason for both books. I believe that Silver did not go to war himself, though his art is offered as military. The language he uses doesn’t match with the language of the soldiers who wrote at the time nor have any records been found to suggest he had.

If Silver had been to war he would have mentioned it. It is very common for soldiers who write to do so, this is how they qualify their opinion. Silver simply qualifies his by saying that he is a gentleman and has the true knowledge of all manner of weapons.14 Of course, this is of note as it once again suggests that he is known in society. Soldiers seem to incorporate many more foreign words usually relating to the places where they served. William Garrard tends towards many Spanish and French references and John Smith, many Dutch.

Silver’s intention appears to be to have his work to be read by the young gallants that he admonishes in the beginning of his work rather than any military men who need not be told the contents therein.

The notion that Silver is sharing an ancient form of fencing that is unique to any other is prevalent in all interpretations. Silver tells us;

‘And this is the ancient teaching, and without this teaching, there shall never scholar be made able, do his uttermost, nor fight safe.’ 15

This, however seems to be taken a bit too far and the word ‘ancient’ is being defined in modern terms rather than the manner in which Silver was likely using the word in the 16th century. Bear in mind that the masters of defence have four ‘ancient’ masters. Are these masters supposed to be hundreds of years old? Of course not. They are simply the ones who came before. Silver speaks of ancient weapons and ancient teachings but this does not make anything unique at all.

The weapons of war in Silver’s time were the pike, bill and shot, for which they used longbow and musket. In the time of Henry VIII the weapons of war were Pike, Bill and for shot, the longbow with occasional arquebuses. Prior to this the weapons of war were Spear, Bill and longbow. There is no real ancient weapons as spear, bill and bow are the ancient weapons.

Perhaps Silver is talking about the sword? He describes the basket hilted sword with a blade of 37 inches for the average person. These weapons were very common in the time of Henry VIII however. The images The Field of the Cloth of Gold, The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover, and the Battle of the Solent, all show these weapons being carried commonly by civilians and soldiers alike.

Prior to the development of the complex hilt people would carry a fairly standard cross hilted arming sword. These swords are still used in Silver’s time with Humphrey Barwick suggesting the use of such a sword in the quote seen above. The basket hilted sword on the Mary Rose was one of four swords found in relation to the wreck of the ship. The other three swords were only remains, just stains in the wood unfortunately, all of which were much more simple in their hilt design. Silver is writing for the basket hilted sword as he mentions the ‘rapier of convenient length’ having no protection for the hand. He cannot be speaking of swords hundreds of years old because he is writing for a sword that is not known to be older than 70 or 80 years.

The sword is not unique, and the manner in which to use it is not unique. Martial arts are and have always been a progression. One person either finds a technique that works well and incorporates it into their system or a development in the tactics of the opponent requires a development in the defence of the opposed.

Both interpretations understand that Silver’s work shares techniques and terminology with later English texts. The later texts show development from Silver’s art due to progress in warfare, sword type and sword use but essentially share the same source and can be seen as similar. Unless Silver is talking about an art that is thousands of years old there is unlikely to be a great difference. As Silver presents an art based on principles it is likely that the art is hundreds of years old. The principles do not change and continue into the later texts. The ancientness of the art does not equal uniqueness.

Winslow/Edelson attribute the uniqueness of Silver to his understanding of time and distance, the way he presents it and the fact that he is one of the earliest non-Italian sources to present such an approach. This is partially true. Any martial artist knows the importance of time and distance and so, even if it is not explicitly described, the idea can be extrapolated from earlier texts.

However, where Winslow/Edelson are correct is that Silver has specifically given certain times a terminology so that they can be discussed outside of the fight itself. The true and false times are terms to use for discussion of how an advantage has or can be achieved. This is clearly an effect of the way Silver was taught and is indeed fairly unique from our point of view and compared to other historic treatises on fencing. However it may well have been common in Silver’s time as Saviolo mentions that some people claim three, for or more times. We also have the same in the Thornborrow section of Brief Instructions so this may simply have been a manner unique to English fencing.

The commonality of terminology with later sources is used to describe how Silver can be related to later English arts. Of course this would be the case as martial arts are always a development of what came before. There may be an argument to be made in that the terminology used by Silver is not in any way similar to that used in the earlier English martial texts, with the exception of the downright blow. However this is a different scenario as the English language itself has been through a significant change in this time. The English that the earlier texts were written in is known as Middle English and Silver is writing in Early Modern English. These are two entirely different dialects if not languages. Even the Early Modern English that Silver uses differs so greatly from English as it is spoken in the 21st century that the work requires a lot of etymology and context to interpret.

A further aspect unique to Silver is that his first work, Paradoxes of Defence, is not in itself a treatise on fencing as an art. It is a discussion on the differences and, as Silver sees them, weaknesses of the Italian weapons and system of fencing for use in battle or personal defence. This clarification of rapier being civilian and back-sword or short sword being military is not unique and in addition to being noted by the above references to soldiery this concept is also noted in civilian life too with the play ‘Work for Cutlers’ from 1615.16

It is not until Brief Instructions that Silver actually treats on the art itself, giving descriptions of how to use techniques and principles. Even then, his instructions are vague and presuming that the reader already has an understanding of the subject matter.

Silver describes the use of many weapons of the time and how they are used against each other and interact with each other. Winslow/Edelson describe this as a unique feature of Silver. I am not very well read in many other treatises that exist but I am aware that many treat on the use of these weapons. I presume they only describe these weapons used against similar weapons (e.g. halberd against halberd rather than halberd against pike). If this is the case then indeed Silver is valuable in this aspect not only for the description of the techniques but rather the historical context that he adds. The first of these is to remind us that different weapons fought against each other. Too often in HEMA today do people request that you fence the with the same type of sword that they are using, presumably because that is all there is in the treatises. However, as a billman what are the changes of fighting another billman? The bill is used to

‘For I know them necessary for many pieces of service; as to perform execution if the enemy break, or fly; to mingle with shot to back them if need be; to pass with Convoys, & to stand by your Artillery; to creep along trenches, and enter into mines, where the Pike would be overlong’ 17

And so the bill may fight against pike or sword in the skirmish and as the most common weapon used against shot is cavalry the bill would also be fighting against mounted lancers. This works the other way around that the pike and lancer would have to fight a billman. Silver brings to the fore of the modern historian that weapons often fought against dissimilar weapons and this was known and practiced in contemporary fencing.

More importantly Silver categorises these weapons quite clearly. He notes that there are essentially three types of polearm mostly defined by length. That is the pike being the longest followed by the long bill then the short bill. It is interesting to note that bills are known by soldiers as short weapons;

‘In plaine ground he shall neuer turne out any shot to the skirmish, without certaine sléeues of pikes to gard them vpon the retraite from the charge of horses, and also troopes of short weapons, as swords and targets, Halberds or such like to backe them, if at any time they should come to the sword, or ioyne pell mell with the enimie’ 18

The important historical note given by Silver is that the short bill is five to six feet long. With this weapon being used in the skirmish potentially underneath the pike or at least in the pike formations these weapons need to have a certain manoeuvrability. Their versatility must also be important as they are in a close fight with a lot going on. The long bill mentioned by Silver incorporates the forest bill, the gleave and the partisan. These weapons have little documented use in war but much documented use in fencing treatises. The general consensus at present is that they are used by bodyguards.

Silver matters in the historical information he brings us. The use and training of dissimilar weapons. The ability to analyse and discuss a martial situation from the outside. The clarification of military and civilian sword use and training. His fencing art in itself however is fairly unremarkable. Whilst he shows a clear and concise understanding of the art it is no different than any master understands. Dobringer, Sainct Dider, Godhino all show the same understanding of martial arts.

Silver also brings us knowledge of weapons. The basket hilted cut and thrust sword carried by the English, different to the central European sideswords we know. The difference between the polearms that is heretofore not defined.

Silver also matters for being the oldest and most complete description of English martial arts so far found and so sits as a vital piece of the history of Great Britain.

A Brief Summary of the Old, Established, Interpretation

Winslow/Edelson state they submitted their summary of the old interpretation to the arbiters of that interpretation. This ensures they are not misrepresenting the method and is a show of great integrity and should be lauded. As such I shall trust that this is a faithful overview, though not comprehensive guide to that system.

Interestingly in the writing of this article and looking at both the interpretation given here and looking into the old interpretation I have come to change my own interpretation of the true fight as well as the eight times. Having said that the idea that the hand moves first in all actions is not actually untrue. The thing here is to understand the reason why it does and therefore applying it correctly in the fight. To move the hand first in the manner of a strike whilst not being in measure to land the strike is absolutely not the correct way to apply this. This then leads to the ‘Slow Hand’ theory which Winslow/Edelson correctly point out is to deliberately tie the action of the hand to the time of the foot and thus make the fight false and contradict the very principle it claims to emulate.

Whilst I personally believe that there is a time and a place to use both true and false fight as described by Silver, so there is no real reason why one shouldn’t do as Stephen Hand describes if it of use to them, it is not correct to call it the true fight when by definition it cannot be.

Hand himself states that his hand moves at a steady pace to be able to speed up or change direction if necessary. This is the epitome of misunderstanding the hand being tied to the time of the foot. If an action is launched with the hand first and then the foot follows behind it with the hand moving in time to land at the same time as the foot, then the foot and therefore the stance, is set to support the intended action of the hand. If the hand has to change then the stance is not able to support the new action. If the hand must speed up during its action then the hand will complete its action before the foot, which was the reason for slowing the hand in the first place. However when the hand completes its action in this scenario it is no longer supported by the foot as the hand will have completed its action before the strength of the stance. This leaves the practitioner open to be manipulated during this time. Any action once begun, must be completed before a new action can be made. Therefore the hand cannot actually change it’s action during the same action. For example if the sword is moved in a cut from the right shoulder to the left hip, then this action must finish before a new one begins. To change the action in progress you can only add further action. If a step is begun, it must be completed. Thus if the hand needs to change then it must have a new action added to it. The foot, in a committed step cannot do this. Each action in martial arts is only strong in one direction. If the hand has to change its direction then the foot must complete its step in the original direction and thus is no longer supporting the hand which is making a different action, thus the hand is tied to the time of the foot which must now move again to support the new action of the hand. This is presuming the enemy hasn’t already defeated the weak position of the hand.

My assessment is based on watching many videos of the old interpretation fencing and knowing that they commit to their steps 100%.19 This will become relevant later when describing my interpretation as they will show similarities and show that, in theory, the old interpretation is not incorrect. The old interpretation commit to their footwork in this way as they believe that their weapon will shield them and that they are acting in a true fight.

Winslow/Edelson quote Hand as saying that this is the manner in which people naturally attack if given a sword and asked to attack on a pass. There are a lot of issues with this quote. First, you are already asking a lot from a person who has never held a sword before if you are using terminology such as ‘pass’ as you will first have to explain this to the person. This has already tainted the quote as the person is now instructed. Give them a sword and ask them to attack and see what happens.

Second is a misunderstanding of martial arts and training. The whole concept of a martial art is to train your body to move in an efficient manner, not a natural manner. A great deal of martial arts training is to train out or refine natural movements in place of better actions. This can essentially be seen in the guardant posture of the old interpretation. The brain, when the body is attacked will sacrifice limbs to protect the head. That is to say that if the head is attacked the brain will subconsciously put the arm in the way of the attack to protect itself. The manner in which the old interpretation perform their guardant is reminiscent of this and puts the arm at risk of being cut in a fight with sharp weapons. Training would be to teach the body a movement that puts the sword in the way of the attack instead of the arm.

In the manner of an attack this is the whole point of training, to take the body away from the natural, inefficient and dangerous way of striking that is easy to parry and to instead bring it to a place whereby the attack being made has a greater chance of success. This is the very definition of skill.

Hand believes that striking as he steps and leading with his weapon presents a threat to the opponent that the opponent must respond to. This is not in line with Silver’s theory in which a strike should be made in the time of the hand and leaves the opponent no time to react at all. If your opponent can see you approaching then they can simply move or parry. If you strike in the time of the hand then the ‘eyes are deceived by the swift motion of the hand’ and the opponent does not get to see the motion before they are cut. More importantly this suggests that Hand has never fenced with another person before. To presume that a person will respond to the threat is to ignore far too much of Silver’s lament in Paradoxes. Running at each other, striking just with each other, there are enough paradoxes that offer evidence that people are little concerned with the threat offered by their opponent’s weapon even with sharp weapons. Thus it appears that Hand has read Paradoxes and taken that as the instruction rather than the admonition it was intended to be.

Silver mentions this exact scenario in Paradox 24 when he says;

‘the hand is the swiftest motion, the foot is the slowest, without distance the hand is tied to the motion of the feet, whereby the time of the hand is made as slow as the foot, because whereby we redeem every time lost upon his coming in by the slow motion of the foot & have time thereby to judge, when & how he can perform any action whatsoever, and so have we the time of the hand to the time of the feet.’20

In this quote ‘without distance’ means out of distance. If one is out of distance then the hand is tied to the foot regardless. The foot must be used to close the distance and the hand must come with it. Thus giving the patient time to judge.

The attack may well be a threat but it is launched from a position where it cannot actually strike the opponent, so the opponent has a large amount of time to realise the attack is on the way and can effect a response. This allows the patient to wait and strike at their opponent when they are ‘gained the place’ as Silver would say.

This manner of attack is also set from a position where the agent ‘must step in with their foot’ and thus is playing into the hand of the patient who is paying attention to the general rules set out by Silver in chapter two of Brief Instructions in which he states;

‘Let all your lying be such as shall best like yourself, ever considering out what fight your enemy charges you, but be sure to keep your distance, so that neither head, arms, hands, body, nor legs be within his reach, but that he must first of necessity put in his foot or feet, at which time you have the choice of 3 actions by which you may endanger him & go free yourself.

1. The first is to strike or thrust at him, the instant when he has gained you the place by his coming in

2. The second is to ward, & after to strike him or thrust from it, remembering your governors.

3. The third is to slip a little back & to strike or thrust after him.’ 21

Thus as the agent attacks by moving their hand first but slowing it to the speed of the foot the patient, having kept their distance, can choose whichever of the three actions as they like, or find most apt in the time.

This manner of fighting is dependant on attacking. Silver does not suggest that one should not attack but by attacking from the distance that the opponent has deliberately chosen is allowing them to have the control of the fight and falling into their trap. It also does not intrinsically place safety first. The problem here is that Silver has two main objections to the Italian rapier fencing; Their weapons are too long to use effectively and their systems of fighting are too heavily reliant on offence and too readily ignore defence. My experience of the old interpretation is that they share a common problem with the wider HEMA community and fall into habits that are exactly the reason Silver felt compelled to write Paradoxes. The art is too focused on offence and lacks not only any manner of defence but any manner of safety.

If this description of Hand’s method is accurate, which we can presume that it is, then it not only does not follow Silver’s advice but rather does the exact opposite.22 It relies on attack without effective defence. It ties the time of the hand to the time of the feet. It strikes in the time of the hand, body and foot or foot, body and hand, rather than the faster time of the hand and it allows the opponent to control the fight by following Silver’s second general rule. Attempting to strike just with the opponent, not closing under guard, not seeking the cross. The list goes on.

It shows poor judgement of distance, time and place as are Silver’s first principles and it seems to ignore the governors that Silver often mentions as something really rather important.

Furthermore the idea of the ‘slow hand’ and the foot and hand moving together comes from the Thornborrow section of the book. Whilst this section is believed to be a part of Silver’s work by both interpretations, I see little evidence to suggest that this is the case. The use of considerably different structure, terminology and vocabulary leave this portion of the work bearing no resemblance to the two books known to be authored by Silver. If Hand has devised his system based on both Silver’s work and Thornborrow then indeed he can claim a complete English fencing system but rather he has selected items from the latter and ignored all the important factors offered by Silver and claims it to be not only a true interpretation of Silver but the only true interpretation of Silver.

Part Two: Our Alternative Interpretation of the True Fight of George Silver

A Brief Summary of Silver’s Tactics According to Our Interpretation

‘The most succinct way to present our understanding of Silver is as follows:

Do not close distance with a step as you attack, because that takes too much time and gives your adversary too much of an opportunity to either parry or strike you as you come into range. Instead, either close distance using Silver’s suggested methods (detailed later) and then attack when you can strike without then having to step, or take advantage of your adversary’s mistakes, such as their stepping into range with an attack or defence (either by waiting for or compelling them to do so).’

Without going into too great detail I cannot narrow down Winslow/Edelson’s understanding of Silver any further than they have so I have left their paragraph here.

Silver’s “Tempo”

Winslow/Edelson spend some time here speaking of Aristotlean and Galilaen physics. This is a conversation that is consistently had between the two parties involved in the discussion begun by this article and is, as Winslow/Edelson point out, moot. There are two factors. The first is that contrary to the assertions of the old interpretation people in the 16th century absolutely understood time separate to motion. We need look no further than Silver’s own four times/actions namely bent, spent, lying spent and drawing back. These four actions describe time in relation to both action and inaction. Therefore Silver understood that time existed during inaction.

The second factor is the one that makes the argument irrelevant. In martial arts, time and motion are absolutely linked. If my opponent is not in motion, I do not care how long they remain in that state. As soon as they are in motion I must consider how long their motion will take. Silver is clearly aware of speed as well as relative motion. Further discussion on the matter would constitute nothing but a straw man.24 As such this discussion is not one I wish to waste any further time on. Silver is a swordsman and understands time and motion exactly as he needs to.

Time and Place

“When you attempt to win the place, do it upon guard, remembering your governors, but when he presses upon you & gains you the place, then strike or thrust at him in his coming in.” – G. Silver, Brief Instructions

I have left the quote that Winslow/Edelson use to introduce this argument as it greatly explains their interpretation. ‘When you attempt to win the place’ ‘but when he presses upon you’. This quote on it’s own defines the idea that at some point one or other will close in to win the place. Winslow/Edelson suggest that this system is difficult to describe in writing but they do not struggle, nor does Silver and nor do I. Find the place, then attack. Of course there are details to add but that is the essence of it and the new interpretation has that same understanding.

I disagree about some of what the authors say and wish to clarify a portion of it. Unfortunately Winslow/Edelson state that Silver created a lexicon of ‘true times’ and this, in my opinion, is one of the biggest crimes of any interpretation of Silver. The chapter concerning the times very clearly begins with the line ‘There are eight times’. People are far too quick to dismiss the false times which Silver clearly expects us to be able to understand and use at our discretion as in Paradox 3 he says

‘The third cause is, they are unpracticed in the four true times, neither do they know the true times from the false, therefore the true choice of their times are most commonly taken by chance, and seldom otherwise.’ 25

The true choice of their times… thus we see that although Silver expects an understanding of both true and false times and an ability to choose between them.

Winslow/Edelson state that all motions should usually be initiated at the same time. This is not strictly true but also they clarify ‘usually’. In this I would say that all actions are initiated in the most efficient way to achieve the end goal. It is not good to restrict oneself in any way and so the actions should be initiated as required.

I disagree with the notion of the hand being able to move at ‘its full potential speed’. This is not because the hand should be slowed in any way but rather this suggests the hand needs to be moved at a high speed. This is not the case at all. I have never in my life met a martial arts master who encouraged anyone to move as fast as possible, simply because there is always the possibility of someone being faster. If your martial art is based on your highest speed then you will always be defeated by someone faster. This means that every army in the world would have been made up of the fastest person available and countries would have been won and lost on the basis of which warrior was fastest. At which point war would have boiled down to a race and killing would have fallen out of fashion. The hand should be put into a place where it can achieve its goal in a shorter time than the opponent’s hand can achieve its goal.

When you close on your opponent you should be removing their ability to strike you in return. Take hold of their weapon or turn it aside to such an extent that you have the time to make your strike. Only then do you make your strike in the time of the hand, with no option for the opponent to respond. This is the ‘true place’. The place is simply the distance at which you can strike without stepping in. The true place is ‘the place of safety, the place of uncertainty or mischief, the place of wounds or death’.26

I will point out another factor from Paradoxes of defence that some interpreters seem to miss and that is that the true and false times are described as ‘with the true wards thereto belonging’.27 This suggests that, in fact, the true and false times are either defensive in nature rather than the offensive as many attribute them, or that Silver is asking us to consider these times in both attack and defence. This is a topic rarely discussed in terms of Silver. In fact defence overall is a topic not often discussed in relation to Silver which is a shame for how often he himself mentions it.

Use of the false times to gain distance and close on your opponent is a very nice idea and it’s good to see someone considering the false times. I agree that if my weapon is not in distance to cross my opponent’s blade by a movement of the hand then indeed I will have the option to operate in a false time and this will indeed tie my hand to the time of the foot. However, moving in a false time, whilst slower that true times, is not necessarily ineffective or dangerous as a strategy. The false times can be used to overpower your opponent and crush their structure. This can even be done in a manner that can prevent a true time from defending it. They can also be used to retreat from an incoming attack. The best way to defeat the time of the hand is, in fact, with the time of the foot. Both true and false times need to be studied and used appropriately.

Whilst Winslow/Edelson’s assertion that the hand can be moved most quickly is accurate and in line with that which George Silver also asserts I think there is a little lost in the interpretation. Just as Bruce Lee will assert many years after George Silver, the hand is faster than the eye. The swift motion of the hand only defeats the eye. Though the assertion that this must be in range to strike with only the hand is correct. If any other part of the body needs to be moved then the hand can only begin the action and as another portion of the body must then transport the hand to it’s destination it takes more time.

Unfortunately the suggestion that the true times become slower due to the mass they carry doesn’t really track. High mass can reach a high speed and so that would mean that when Winslow/Edelson speak of speed they are in fact discussing acceleration. The only way that mass affects the acceleration is in the input of energy required to achieve the same acceleration. The hand is accelerated by (presuming a simple thrust) the tricep and deltoid muscles of the arm. The legs are using considerably larger muscles to achieve the same acceleration of the tip of the sword to target. It stands to reason that given the extra input of power afforded by the leg muscles the extra mass could be accelerated at the same rate with the leg as with the hand.

Presuming the end goal is to transport the tip of the sword to the target, the time of the hand, body and foot is slower than the time of the hand but the time of the hand, body and foot is not slower than the time of the foot, body and hand due to the fact that the movements are the same but in a different order.

Rather than discussing speed Silver is in fact discussing time or rather a compromise of time and energy. The eight times relate to acceleration and mass an the choice of what you currently require to achieve your goal. A large mass can generate a large force but it will accelerate more slowly. A small mass will affect only a small force but it can be accelerated more quickly.

The eight times might be considered actions of force that are executed within a given time. If one is in the place then they can act in the time of the hand and deceive the eye of their opponent and defeat them. The small mass of the tip of the blade requires little force to effect its intention. The blade is sharp which concentrates the force on a small area and the sword is a lever so the force is multiplied.

If one is in the time of the hand and body the opponent may use the time of the hand to defend themselves. This continues down the line. So the correct use of the eight times is to ensure that the opponent can only act in a time that takes longer than the action that might be used to make the strike. So for example if you can take a superior angle on the opponent and push their blade off line then you can put yourself in a position to strike in the time of the hand whilst the opponent must take a step to bring themselves back to a position that they can use to support their defence. Thus the opponent can only move in the time of the foot hand and body.

Winslow/Edelson correctly assert however that if you have put yourself in the time of the hand then you are free to act without delay. Whereas any other situation you must take a little more consideration to the possible reaction of your opponent. However it is not the case, as they state that one must necessarily tie the hand to the action of the foot to close distance. It is possible to close distance in two ways, first to move the hand first to secure the opponent’s weapon and follow in behind it. The second is to step in under guard as Silver suggests which does not tie the hand to the time of the foot as the hand is in inaction and can be moved during the step as necessary.

Winslow/Edelson have called the ‘Thornborrow’ section of Brief Instructions ‘Additional Notes’. The common belief is that this section of the text is authored by Silver, I believe that this is due to it being written in the same hand as the text of Brief Instructions. The ‘Thornborrow’ section however does not exactly replicate the times in Silver’s work. The ‘Thornborrow’ section only offers four times and they actually contradict Silver’s. They are also not separated into true and false as Silver’s are. There are further differences in language between Silver and Thornborrow that make me question it’s origin that I discuss later.

Aside from being from the Thorborrow section and therefore, in my opinion, unlikely to be Silver, the treading of ground in course to strike is noted as the time of the hand and foot. A time which does not exist in Silver’s list of eight times. Whilst they are correct that the body does not need to move in this step they are incorrect that the hand is not tied to the foot. An effective strike must be launched and landed from a stable platform, i.e. stance. As such the hand must either land the strike before the step is begun or land as or after the step is finished.

It is untrue that any attack launched from outside the place (a distance where you can strike your enemy without needing to step in) is necessarily delivered in a false time. The lunge of most rapier systems can be considered to be made in the true time of the hand, body and foot. The hand acts first to collect and displace the opponent’s blade, the body shifts forward to secure the displacement and ensure the patient is controlled, finally the lunge presses the attack forward. Made in one single motion this is a true time attack made outside of the place.

It is a complicated discussion in the manner of fencing overall to be able to make every single attack in true time or true fight. This stance does not consider far too many possibilities, even some that Silver mentions. If I am against one who thrusts then Silver advocates to make the space narrow and the distance long. That is to have the point of my weapon close to the opponent’s but to have my body back out of the way. Silver advocates to bear the opponent’s weapon out to the side and then strike. However, I must be in the first distance at the least for this action. And thus, as I beat the opponent’s weapon I must necessarily make a step.

This action can be made in many ways. I can beat the weapon in-situ and then using the time I have created step in with a strike. The action is begun with the hand (whatsoever is done with the hand first) but the strike may be delivered in a false time as the old interpretation suggest, though my shield is the time I have created. I can step and make the beat which could be done in either true or false time without much difference in danger, then I would be in the place to make the strike. Or I could wait for the opponent to strike and ward and strike from the ward. This is one of the reasons I believe concentrating to heavily on the true fight or the true times is a mistake.

Winslow/Edelson raise an interesting point when they state that the eight times are only relevant when dealing with the place. This is correct to an extent. Anything other than the first distance is more accurate. If the opponent can strike in one action then they must be considered to be a danger even though they do not have the place. At this distance one should be able to extend the arm and engage the opponent’s weapon and thus act in a true time to gain the place.

The advice to fly out after every strike shows us something more than Winslow/Edelson mention here. That is that striking your opponent does not stop them from fighting or being a threat. No matter the strike, no matter that Silver himself says that the cut will cut bone and sinew asunder.28 This harks back to the mention earlier to why you ought pay attention to Silver. His works are important from a historical point of view as well as a martial point of view. In the manner of the martial point of view this is also very important and is supported by George Hale in 1614 when he says ‘Stay no longer within reach of your enemie then you are offending’.29 To stay in measure any longer suggests your opponent has the opportunity to strike at you regardless of the strike you have landed upon them. Silver’s governors also take this into account with the twofold governors of advancing with mind to retreat and retreating with mind to advance.30

From the historical point of view it is important to know that your strike does not stop the opponent. HEMA has a particular practice which stems from late era duelling, that is to ‘first blood’. HEMA tends to act until one strike and that is always considered the win condition. However, if that strike is to my offhand, I will strike with my weapon available. If the strike does not disable me, then I will continue to fight, especially on the battlefield. This is a vital piece of history that should not be ignored.

You Cannot Have The Place if Your Adversary Also Has The Place

The first paragraph of this chapter in the Winslow/Edelson article is something of a quandary. I will try to break it down to what I believe it is saying. If your adversary has won the place then you should not attempt to take it from them. This is wise and I would describe it rather in terms of control. If your opponent has the place, i.e. control, then you cannot take control, rather you should first take the control out of their hands. If you have intended the opponent to take the control by either encouraging them to do something or noticing in good time that they are doing something, then you can take the control from them as part of a plan. In this you are able to take and maintain the control and render them unable to respond in time. The citation that Winslow/Edelson use in this paragraph is related to rapiers specifically so is probably not the best to illustrate their point but the point is valid none the less.

I think that in this chapter Winslow/Edelson are in fact speaking of the true place rather than the place. Silver is rarely explicit in his descriptions but for the place he is;

‘Know that the place is, when one may strike or thrust home without putting in of his foot.’31

Regardless of where the opponent’s weapon is or how occupied it is the place is clearly set as a distance.

This might be considered an admonition to be careful at this distance because whatever happens the opponent has the potential to strike you. Therefore you ought to ensure to occupy them or their weapon to keep yourself safe. The authors mention this when they state that to step back and take your body out of range and have their arm in range you also leave your arm in range but safe due to the fact that their arm is otherwise engaged.

Silver’s description of the true place is less defined;

‘the true place, the place of safety, the place of uncertainty or mischief, the place of wounds or death’32

But we can see that he states it as a place of safety, presumably for the agent and a places of uncertainty, mischief and death, presumably for the patient. Silver also mentions

‘it is impossible for lack of true space in just time, the agent having gotten the true place, to defend one thrust or blow of a hundred.’33

Suggesting that the agent has the true place when the patient is unable to make a defence nor counter-attack in due time. This is much more conceptual than the defined distance of the place alone. It is this ‘true’ place that Winslow/Edelson are referencing here and contrary to the title of the chapter every time that you have the place, the opponent also has it. When you have the true place, however, the opponent may well have the place but they cannot do anything with it.

The Adversary Gains You The Place

This explanation of the adversary gaining you the place is a very limited view. First, the majority of Silver’s art does not rely on the opponent gaining you the place, rather it relies on you winning the place by attacking first, warding their strike or grappling them if they attempt to press into you too confidently. The view presented here seems as though it is taken from chapter 2 of Brief Instructions in which Silver advocates to keep your distance and so leave three actions when your opponent closes in on you.34 It does not necessarily relate to the time of the hand, in fact the third of these, to slip a little back is inherently a false time either being two movements, a slip back, being a time of the foot movement followed by a strike after in the time of the hand or hand and foot, or being a strike in the time of the hand and foot with a slip back co-ordinated with the strike after the opponent has passed.

Also, if you have a guard in place to prevent the opponent’s strike from hitting you then you can simply step, without moving your hand, into a position whereby the guard will catch and ward the incoming blow. This would also constitute a false time action being the time of the foot or foot and body. Then, a strike in the time of the hand once the ward has been successful. The first of these actions, to strike at the opponent as they close would be best performed in a true time as I would prefer to move my weapon into the path of the incoming attack as my first action but then I would move myself offline in order to further lessen the efficacy of the attack. Thus I would move in a true time but the time of the hand and foot. A skilled martial artist understands that they cannot simply stand in place and make a counterstrike at an opponent who has made a strike at you, especially against a skilled opponent.

The opponent’s weapon is pre-occupied in these scenarios but as you are the patient in the scenario you must consider the threat of the opponent’s weapon.

Examples of the adversary gaining you the place are more prevalent only because this interpretation considers parrying the opponent’s attack as the opponent gaining you the place. I would personally argue that to parry the opponent is to win the place from the opponent but the authors are taking directly from the words of Silver and so I will not push the point. However the reason that this is more prevalent is nothing special. Many martial texts focus more on defensive actions than striking actions and Silvers is no different. When he speaks of the techniques of each weapon they are usually in response to the opponent making an attack and how to defend it. Silver also considers safety to be paramount to any fencing system and so it is no surprise that he speaks more of defending. It is easy to hit someone, the skill in martial arts is the ability to prevent the opponent from hitting you. Winslow/Edelson speak here only of the time of the hand. They seem to neglect the other three true times. This is a fallacy that the old interpretation falls into as well and I would compel them to be wary.

You Win The Place of Your Adversary

To actively win the place from your opponent is rare in Silver’s book. It is likely not rare in Silver’s system as his is a military system. The sword itself is considered a defensive weapon in the 16th century and it is only in modern times that we try to make it offensive. It is the last line of action to the soldier of Silver’s time.35

I think that this can be put down to two reasons. First, Silver is lamenting the heavy focus of offence in the fencing of his day, be it Italian rapier or not is not relevant. The young gentlemen of England are so gleefully indulging in the act of duelling, greedy for victory and the supposed defence of their honour rather than the value of their own lives.36 Thus his intention is to describe defensive fencing, the sort that might take you home from the battlefield or even keep you safe on your travels. When you look at the offensive weapons in Silver’s work they make a much greater suggestion to offend your enemy. The second is that Brief Instructions is exactly that. Some brief instructions on how to fence. It is very basic fencing. It is not, neither is it supposed to be a comprehensive description of an entire fencing system.

Winslow/Edelson continue here by noting every sentence where Silver specifically describes an action of winning the place. I think they have done this to support their point but it instead takes them either out of context or too literally. If you want to consider Silver’s idea of winning the place it is twofold. Advance under guard and cross your opponent’s blade. To indirect your opponent’s blade is advocated from the cross and this is also twofold. One is to bear or push their blade aside or to beat the blade aside. Further to this one can indirect their opponent with a false, or feint in modern parlance, but this should only be done against one who seems to lack skill and is likely to fall for the action and thus be indirected.

This is exactly correct according to how Silver describes it in his works. Again this also works according to general martial principles and any martial artist would agree that this is a wise method. It should also be noted how often Silver states ‘according to your governors’. The governors should most definitely not be overlooked and as you try to find the place you should do so with continuous judgement of your opponent’s ability, what they are and are not able to do at any given time, the measure of their weapon as well as your own and constantly with such stable footwork that you may instantly retreat or advance as necessary. Beyond that consider also the four actions, and the four offensive actions if you are preparing a strike.

Universality of Theory

Classical fencing is a sport and not a fighting system and whilst it is related to fighting it is by no means close. Anything that has rules cannot be akin to fighting. Once one’s life is legitimately in danger rules are nought and one will do all they can to survive.

Taking the idea earlier raised that the ‘Thornborrow’ section of Brief Instructions was not authored by Silver we see that section state ‘Your hand & feet in good play must go together, whether it is in quick or in slow motion.’ suggesting that the ‘Thornborrow’ section agrees more with Saviolo’s fencing than with Silver’s. Also, not all Italian fencing systems agree with this notion and many will agree with Silver in that the hand must be the first mover.

Fabris’ work is presented in two books and can be considered a more comprehensive study of a complete martial art than Silver. Book one covers the basic techniques and tactics and book two covers the more advanced methods and tactics that is not what we see from Silver. To be able to use such advanced fencing in a fight relies on skilful use of the fencing that happens before it and will be utilised a very small amount of the time. One must be able to maintain their safety, using basic and intermediate fencing, until such a time as they can utilise the truly advanced options. Fabris also consistently maintains a secure position, i.e. to advance under guard, as you approach your enemy.

I feel that Silver and Fabris have a very similar method of fencing. With both understanding how and when they are safe to make the actions and maintaining this as a primary requirement. Once you understand this then you can look at more complicated methods and tactics, whilst maintaining the primary principle of safety.

Winslow/Edelson mention that Silver appears more cautious than the Italian masters that he would have been familiar with. Silver tells us that he has red all the books and at high level of society this is likely true, there would have been a lot of social kudos for having done so. By all the books we know only of two Italian fencing books that were registered to be published in the late 16th century.37 However it seems exceptionally likely that any master of an English fence school, or any Italian fencing master not in London who had written any manuscript, and many foreign books on fencing that had been written, had also been sought out and seen and possibly even copied by Silver. It was a noble pursuit to have read all these books and international relations could easily have brought them to his attention. Although we should be aware that we have little idea of all the fencing masters Silver was familiar with, we can be confident that he knew Saviolo and probably Jeronimo personally through his social links to Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.

I think it is unlikely Silver’s view of Italian fencing was as narrow as Winslow/Edelson presume. He is aware that people are using it badly of course, but as he must have known Saviolo and Jeronimo as well as other masters of fencing. Moreover almost everyone with whom Silver socialised would have had some knowledge and skill in fencing and almost all would have taken to the rapier as was the fashion of the time. Silver simply could not have been ignorant of skilled rapier fencing.

Silver even claims knowledge of the use of rapier himself with enough confidence to challenge a master (Saviolo) so he was not ignorant of the techniques. The claim by Winslow/Edelson that Silver thought the Italian style to be too offensive is of course correct, he tells us so. With that in mind two things must be considered with regards to this.

The first is that Paradoxes of defence and Brief Instructions are two very different books, separated by up to five years and writing for completely different reasons. The former being a discourse on the shortfalls (according to Silver) of Italian fencing compared to the traditional English methods and weapons and the second appearing to be a response to feedback received from the first. As such, the contents of both books should be studied as separate works. There is a reason that ideas discussed in Paradoxes are not described as principles in Brief Instructions.

The second is that Brief Instructions is exactly that. Some brief instructions. It is a description of basic principles of Silver’s system. It should not be considered to contain any advanced techniques or at the very least to not be comprehensive. It is no good to explain advanced fencing to people who have not understood your discourse on fencing.

Paradoxes of Defence is concerned not with skilled Italian fencing. Rather it is a response to techniques of Italian fencing being utilised incorrectly by foolish young men who have no idea how and when to use them and thus getting themselves killed in the process. It is a response to the Italian trend of fighting a duel for honour rather than using reason or law to resolve issues. It is a response to Italian teachers (and, let’s be honest, English masters of defence must have done the same) teaching one or two techniques to young men who have gotten into a duel without knowing how to use their weapon. In such a situation a master ought to discourage the student from their fight and to reason instead rather than taking money from a doomed fool. It is a response to the, civilian oriented weapon of the long rapier which is no use in the true application of the sword, to defend one’s prince, i.e. military service.

Having spoken with many fencers of the Italian methods I am yet to find one who accepts risk nor agrees that their sources do the same. Rather they tend to be very cautious and reluctant to move until they are sure they can land their attack, quite contrarily to Silver’s suggestion. In fact in my own fencing I have found rapier fencers to be the most cautious, spending a great amount of time waiting and trying to create the correct time and place to launch their attack with a very reasonable amount of certainty. On the other hand I find those who fence with cut and thrust weapons (including in the Italian style which is interesting) or cutting weapons much more likely to strike in time without certainty for their own safety.

As Winslow/Edelson move on and mention other systems I will bring to the fore that sports and fights are quite different from one another. Boxing, Iaido and battodo are sports. They implement rules and limitations that create an illusion of combat but they are far from it. Kenjutsu would be the closest form mentioned in the article to a true martial art but I am not familiar with it enough to hold an opinion and likely it depends on the school and instructor. My own experience is from more than a decade of training in Wing Chun kung fu in which the hand is always the first thing to move. The hand must first extend to try and contact the opponent and begin to read the forces being applied by them. In this the arms, out as far as reasonable and reading the pressure, have the largest amount of time to make an appropriate reaction, either defence, reposition or counter attack.

Erroneously Imported Concepts

The original practitioners of HEMA, so far as I can tell, were re-enactors, sports fencers and historians. Whilst their efforts were important in bringing European martial arts into the light for the first time in a hundred years they did not come from people of martial background or necessarily an understanding of martial concepts.38 There has certainly been a lack of realism portrayed in history with the Victorians preferring to make up romantic stories than report the truth which has seeped down to our modern society and Hollywood has a great deal to answer for on this matter!

To presume the progenitors of martial arts struggled to close distance is a similar level of condescension to that delivered by the Victorians.39 By the time of Silver warriors had been fighting on the battlefields with sword and shield for 3500 years! The entire world had developed cultures based around warriors and warfare. The training of martial arts had passed down through tens of generations. Battlefields had changed over and over to adapt to new weapons and ideas. Whilst in the far reaches of history there may have been concerns on the matter. Every text we have on European martial arts describes how to bridge that distance.

Stating that parries exist in Silver’s system is somewhat superfluous as parrying is a function of fencing however Silver does not define the position on the blade to make a parry. Although I cannot argue that the parry would most likely be made on the forte as to do so would be to question pretty much every other fencing master in history, I would argue that the use of the basket is not intentional for protecting oneself against a strike. At least not in Silver’s method. This seems like an idea from broadsword fencing that didn’t appear until much later.40

A few notes on the third foreign concept, though all have already been mentioned. First, the concept of ‘Slow Hand’ deliberately ties the time of the hand to the time of the foot and so is a false fight however, Silver does not explicitly tell us not to use the false fight. I would state that I agree that he would absolutely tell us not to use it in our initial attack from out of measure as it rejects the four grounds.

In Paradox 3 Silver says ‘The third cause is, they are unpractised in the four true times, neither do they know the true times from the false, therefore the true choice of their times are most commonly taken by chance’.41 The true choice… Silver expects a fencer not only to be acquainted with the true and false times but to be able to choose which they are using.

The ‘Slow Hand’ concept put together by Stephen hand seems to come from the ‘Thornborrow’ section of the book and is not in the same context as the eight times of Silver.42

If the advocates of the old interpretation feel that closing distance with an attack is missing from the true fight then Winslow/Edelson are correct in their censure of the old interpretation. That is that they are not interpreting Silver at all. Rather they are trying to justify their extant fencing using Silver’s work. This is of course the antithesis of Historical Fencing as they are not interpreting the historical source and, the antithesis of the True Fight of George Silver.

Misinterpretation of the Text

The misinterpretation of the true and false fight and the eight times may extend to Winslow/Edelson. Whatsoever does not mean literally everything but rather every different thing. This seems paradoxical as this would constitute everything however Winslow/Edelson correctly point out several scenarios in which it would be silly to move the hand first. Silver would of course have understood that and presumed that the reader would have understood also. This is supported by certain techniques in Silvers book actually utilising the false fight such as the slip that Winslow/Edelson mention as well as the following examples.

‘Also consider if he lies at the thrust upon the Stocata or Passata, & you have no way to avoid him, except you can cross his sword blade with yours, & so indirect his point, therefore keep narrow space upon his point, & keep well your distance in using your traverses.’ 24

‘But if he puts forth his point so that you may cross it with forehand ward, for if you watch for his thrust then lie upon forehand ward with point a little up if he lies with his pointed mounted, & if you single your thrust upon the outside of your sword to ward your right side, or back of your sword hand, strike or bear his point out towards your right side, & thereupon putting forward your body & left foot circularly toward his right side you may strike him upon his sword arm, head, face or body’ 43

So Winslow/Edelson are correct her in their assertion that Silver uses false times and false fight in certain applications but this flies in their earlier assertion that Silver forbids the use of the false fight.


Winslow/Edelson conclude well. Having presented the old interpretation, ratified by them, they describe, using the works of George Silver, how the old interpretation do not adhere to Silver’s works, nor even the concepts of martial arts in general. They present their own interpretation and whilst I do not agree wholly with everything that they present for their interpretation it is definitely a sound interpretation and follows the principles set out by Silver. It should be noted that the old interpretation appears to rely solely on the true fight/true times which they presume to be the same thing and avoids any false time at all costs. Unfortunately, in battle, the cost would be your life. The Winslow/Edelson interpretation holds the true times in high regard but clearly intersects with other principles set out by Silver as it does so and most importantly seeks to utilise the four grounds, the first, primary and most important principles Silver mentions.44 The very first thing written in Brief Instructions after the admonition is the four grounds. There is no way to overstate the importance of these principles and you will find the same principles in any martial art or at the very least to explain them to any other martial artist you will find agreement and likely the terminology they use to describe the same thing. Silver asks to be censured justly and I believe that Winslow/Edelson have shown this respect to the old interpretation and I hope that I have offered them the same courtesy in my censure herein.

Both the old interpretation and the new seem to spend far too much time considering offence which is, of course the lament of Silver. I feel that both also spend far too much time on the true times resulting in not enough study of the false times or the other principles given to us by Silver.

The Winslow/Edelson interpretation does stand in much better stead at least looking at the core principle of Silver’s work, the four grounds.

The old interpretation rarely mention any other principles at all other than the true fight or the true times and consider their defence to be in skilful use of distance to keep their opponent away from them. Unfortunately this seems to stem from chapter 2 of Brief Instructions rather than chapter one of the same. The idea of using large swinging cuts as they step into position couldn’t be further from the art that Silver offers us. They deliberately tie their hand to the time of their foot and thus fight in a false fight whilst claiming to use the true fight. They presume that their opponent must deal with their incoming attack which is often not the case and likely often results in double strikes. The use of these large cuts as they step into measure take so long that the opponent, if skilled, is able to make a choice of the three actions that Silver presents in chapter 2 of Brief Instructions.

The Winslow/Edelson interpretation understand and use the four grounds though still, in my opinion, spend too much time considering offending their enemy and miss many of the important principles set out in Silver’s work. However, if I had to break the art down to its simplest form it would be the four grounds and so rather than this being too much of an issue I would rather see some of the other principles incorporated to make the system as efficient as it can be.

Both interpretations seem to lack the four governors, the four actions and the fours offensive actions. They also seem to be missing true space and the true cross. All principles that play a key role in Silver’s system.

Missed Principles

Four offensive actions

Winslow/Edelson understand the requirement for one person in a fight to take the initiative and close into the place and to actually strike the opponent. The old interpretation seems to only have the ability to close to the place by making a strike that has no guarantee of landing as the agent in this scenario has not disordered the opponent or their weapon. In Brief Instructions Silver offers four offensive actions being certain, uncertain, first, before, just and after. This states that any offensive action can be either certain or uncertain. Winslow/Edelson look to make their offensive actions in a place of certainty, whereas the old interpretation strike in uncertainty.

The old interpretation seem to primarily strike in first-uncertain. Winslow/Edelson show knowledge of first-certain and after-certain.

Eight Times

Both interpretations intend only to move in true times and thus both misunderstand this portion of Silver’s work. Winslow/Edelson note an understanding of moving in false times when out of measure but out of measure is out of danger. As mentioned in my analysis, Silver never explicitly tells us not to use false times and does insist that we ought to be able to chose which we take. He even often mentions some techniques that must be performed in false times. To try and operate in only true times misses out on so many techniques that are available to the fencer. Too many to describe all of them here but if your hand is already in a strong position there is no reason to move it. Rather you can simply transport the strong position to where it needs to be.

However I will look at the guardant vs. guardant as mentioned by Silver.45 If both fencers are in guardant then the agent may safely step in to cross the opponent’s blade. There are two ways this can be done. First is to press my guardant forwards to meet the opponent’s blade and then step behind it to support it. Second would be to notice I am already in a strong position and so simply step in to make the cross. In both of these scenarios the agent is left open in one place or another as Silver warns us. However it would be my preference to take the false time step into place rather than the true time of extending the arm first. There are two reasons for this. First is that my opponent ought to have me in first distance, whereby I must take a step to close in them. If I must step anyway then why move my hand if my hand position is strong. The second reason is that if I extend my arm to make the cross I am at risk of making an imperfect guardant by leaning in too far. Even if I do not lean I sacrifice the security of the guardant ward by making it long. In this scenario not only am I open in one place or another but I am actually putting my point too far forward as Silver warns against so I would be closing with a weak position. Although this would allow me more time to respond to my opponent’s action the position will remain weak until my step is finished and the ward becomes strong again.

Another option would be if I were in an outside forehand ward and my opponent has a weak position then I can transport a thrust by the use of the step. Again my hand is already in a strong position. These two scenarios are obviously both offensive. The use of false times in defence are countless. Move your rear foot circularly away from the strike on every ward you make. This is a false time. Slip back a little, false time. Moving in false times in a fight is very useful but you must move in a time that is shorter than your opponent’s response time.

Four Governors

For as often as Silver mentions the governors in both books I would expect anyone who studies Silver to realise their importance and mention them almost as often. Both the old interpretation and Winslow/Edelson seem to lack any mention of these governors but their understanding that they ought to find the place before striking would likely lead them to step in in control on a good stance. The true fight insists that it is to be directed by the four governors. The old interpretation also lack content on the governors. Their idea that they step into measure with their strike leads them to commit themselves entirely to the distance of the cut. This often leads to over extended stances that are difficult to recover from. This also relates to a poor judgement of measure as they ought to be able to judge that in this manner they will take so long that their opponent can move or parry.

Four Actions/Times

Again, missing from both interpretations. Silver tells us that all men fight upon them whether skilled or unskilled. They are vital to be able to manipulate your opponent as well as being the places where you can be manipulated.

True Cross and True Space

Although they don’t mention the true cross Winslow/Edelson do mention the cross and imply it as part of their interpretation. That is that if you are to close on your opponent then you should look to cross their weapon.

Four Fights

I am aware that the old interpretation have some understanding of the four fights from interactions I have had with them and videos online but they have a very heavy preference to the guardant and the open fights. They deliberately avoid the close fight and there is no talk of the variable in anything I have seen. Silver is very clear on the use of all four fights stating this as one of the greatest advantages of his system.46

Overall both interpretations concentrate far too heavily on the true times and the true fight. They are both fooled by term ‘true’ and presume it to be the only important aspect of Silver’s system without any confirmation of such from Silver himself. Both interpretations also seem to concentrate too heavily on offence in direct contradiction to Silver’s intent. As such there is a lot missing from both interpretations that Silver offered and studying the remaining principles would add a great deal to both interpretations.

Having said that, it is clear that Winslow/Edelson have searched for a deeper understanding to the art than the old interpretation has and they have found that. Although they are still fixated on ‘true’ they have incorporated the four grounds which are, without question the most important, fundamental principles of not only Silver’s art but any martial art. With this in mind they certainly have a martial art. They also hold the idea that one can take the initiative and close on their opponent and are trying to find a way to do so safely. Their understanding to find the place first is exactly as Silver prescribed and once again marries not only with Silver but with martial arts in general. In their article Winslow/Edelson mention their study of other arts and compare their ideas of Silver to these arts and this is also something missing from the old interpretation. I am unaware of the current state of Winslow/Edelson’s study but at the time I am writing this their article is several years old and I can only presume that their search for a correct martial art and understanding of Silver have progressed them to incorporate more of the principles. In my own study as I teach one principle I find myself bumping into others as I go and I presume that Winslow/Edelson have found the same.

The old interpretation seem to have decided that they interpreted the book correctly, found the true fight and show little change over time. Winslow/Edelson are correct in that the old interpretation does not follow the works of Silver and in fact often contradicts it. Their search to move only in true times leaves them sacrificing many sensible martial principles and trying to shoehorn any quote from Silver into their art to try and justify the way they have decided to perform it, often take these quotes out of context or using rapier specific paradoxes to justify their short sword technique. This is exactly the wrong way to do historical study. If the practical applications do not match with the text then the practical application should be adjusted until it does.

Moving outside of the original article and speaking from my own experience of interactions with the old interpretation as well as reading books written by them and watching videos of theirs they seem to have very little regard whatsoever for their own safety with double strikes being a prevailing incident in many of their practical interactions. The fencing that can be seen in their videos has made no notable change over the full amount of time they have been posting.

One of the most compelling things about the old interpretation is how much they appear to have taken from the Thornborrow section. So much so that it would be more appropriate to consider them an interpretation of Thornborrow rather than Silver. The thing I find compelling about this is that I believe the Thornborrow section to not only be not authored by George Silver but, in fact to be notes from a fencing school. If the old interpretation could focus their study on interpreting this then they would have one of the most historically important fencing arts to be devised since HEMA began. However, their interpretation of Silver is based upon a very narrow selection of his work and, as such fail to provide a balanced interpretation of said work.

From the available video evidence the old interpretation seems to focus solely on the true times and true fight whilst not addressing many other principles set down by Silver. They may be aware of the four actions but show no obvious use of them to manipulate their opponent and are therefore at risk of being manipulated by an opponent that is using them. Their apparent focus on only measure rather than all the governors often leaves them committed to too large a distance in their attempt to win the place with little ability to retreat and contrary to Silver’s advice, rarely do they fly out after their strike. They do not seem to seek to find the place prior to their strike but attempt to gain it after they are committed to their attack. In doing so they often fail to cross their opponent’s weapon and thus protect themselves as they do so. It is also rare to see them clear the path for their attack and enhance their safety by beating or bearing their opponent’s weapons offline. All of these last points are points that Winslow/Edelson mention and study and all are mentioned in Silver in the way of safely offending your opponent.

I commend Winslow/Edelson for their interpretation of the work of George Silver and their efforts in portraying it in their training. Although I do not agree with everything they do in their training or say in their article they are definitely correct in how they are interpreting the work. The old interpretation appears to have achieved very little in it’s tenure as the primary interpretation.

Silver’s works have been looked down on by pretty much every historian who wrote about them and the Old, prevailing, interpretation have not achieved anything in bringing the deserved respect to an Ancient and vital piece of English history within the HEMA community. They seem to understand their interpretation is fragile which is why they see the need to so aggressively keep the gate against anyone who dares to have a different opinion on the matter and I think they know their tenure is over.

The Noble Science Interpretation

From that I follow with my interpretation of Silver. Handing myself over to both interpretations for analysis and just censure. From studying and replying to this article and looking at some of the responses it has garnered I have in fact changed my view on the true and false times and the true and false fight. A view that has, in fact, been advanced once again after submitting this article to a friend in it’s first draft. For which I must thank Stephen Hand, Corey Winslow and Michael Edelson and my dear Friend Cameron. I am always pleased to progress my knowledge and understanding and more so to add more detail to my interpretation of Silvers work.

Since 2020 I have been studying the works of George Silver and very soon after I began reading the work I knew I needed to present it to the world. Whilst it may seem that I have only been studying for a short time I have not finished my study and in the course of writing this article I have drastically altered my understanding of both the true fight and the true times.

I was assisted in my interpretation by 12 years of study of Wing Chun kung fu as well as continued discussion with a good friend of mine who is a fantastic martial artist and a teacher of Highland Broadsword. Combined with the knowledge of my fencing community who consist of many highly passionate, skilled and experienced fencers. I am confident that although my interpretation and study are ongoing I have held myself and been held to a very high standard and have been challenged at every step.

My interpretation of Silver follows a very similar route to the Winslow/Edelson interpretation though I had no interaction with any other interpretations of the work during the initial time I was interpreting the work myself. That is that Silver’s art primarily consists of safely finding the place and, ideally, striking the opponent in the time of the hand. This is of course the perfect scenario. Although many consider that his art is heavily focused on defence this is a mistake, it is focused on safety. Offence can be made but must be done safely. The best way to be safe is to eliminate the threat of the opponent so offence is key. If you allow your opponent to make a strike at you then there is always a 50% chance the strike will hit you.


Before I begin my interpretation I will mention some of the more controversial aspects starting with the Thornborrow section. I simply cannot hold that this section was authored by Silver. The language that is used, the sporadic context the lack of flow in the works it just doesn’t sound anything like him. The times do not align with Silver’s, offering only four rather than eight and the description of them is not similar to Silver at all. Thornborrow offers only three fights, I think. The text begins with three fights then moves immediately to what seems to be an offer of three others. I feel that the Thornborrow section may be notes or advice from another source, possibly a fence-school. My assumption here is based on the use of the term ‘play’ rather than ‘fight’. Silver, speaking of the military use of his art, often uses the term fight. The Thornborrow section prefers the word ‘play’ and this seems to be a fencing term rather than a martial one. In his 1614 work, George Hale separates play and fight;

‘The chiefest way to force a man to good practise for play or fight, is to make him maintaine a single wepon against all advantages.’47

Hanko Döbringer also makes a distinction between fight and play;

‘Many masters of play fighting say that they themselves have thought out a new art of fencing that they improve from day to day.’48

He also often says ‘in earnest or in play’. From these examples we can see that there si a distinction between fighting and that which is practiced in fencing schools. Thornborrow is firmly in the vernacular of the fence-school.

The argument for the Thornborrow section being authored by Silver is that it is written in the same hand as Brief Instructions and whilst I do not argue with this point as even in my very minimal knowledge of handwriting I can see enough similarities in the two to agree they are the same person writing, that does not mean that it was written by Silver. In fact it is highly unlikely that a man of Silver’s social standing wrote either manuscript himself as he would have had a secretary do it. A man of Silver’s social standing is far more likely to have written in a court hand, whereas the pages of Brief Instructions and Thornborrow are written in the hand of a secretary who was trained during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.49

I do not mention the hand written text of Paradoxes of Defence as the hand written manuscript in the British Library is most likely a presentation copy (denoted by the arms of Essex and Knolly within the pages) that is written in secretarial hand and most likely arranged by the publisher on behalf of Silver to have a hand written presentation copy made for the patron of the book, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. This book was likely written by a secretary in the employ of the publisher.

It was a very common practice in the 16th-17th centuries for copies of books or manuscripts to be loaned between one person and another and for the borrower to have the book copied. It is more than likely that this is how we get the copy of Brief Instructions in the British Library and the adjoined Thornborrow section is most likely a second book, manuscript or notes borrowed by the same reader and copied by the same secretary. The Thornborrow section is written on different sized paper to the remains of Brief Instructions and if the two were written together then it is more likely that they would be on the same sized paper. This is, of course speculative and I am yet to view the original manuscript myself so this paragraph comes with little support from my own research.

With this in mind my interpretation of Silver takes none of the Thornborrow section into account. I have read it and find it very interesting. It definitely needs study but can not see it as Silver and so discount it for my interpretation.

Eight Times and True Fight

The second controversy that I bring to my interpretation is that the true and false fight and the true and false times are given way more consideration than they ought to. This does not mean that they do not play a part in my interpretation. They just take a less important role than many others give them. My reasons for this are as follows.

True Fight

Silver does not explicitly at any point say not to use the false fight nor to only use the true fight. This is vital. This is a study aid but also, the true fight will happen naturally. Lets look again at the language being used.

‘Whatsoever is done with the hand before the foot is true’50

Any further importance added to this is added by the reader. The term whatsoever doesn’t mean literally everything but it does mean every different thing. What ever thing you are doing, if you are doing it with your hand first then it is true. If you are doing it with your foot first then it is false. So this term refers to attacking, defending and technically closing distance.

In Wing Chun the same actually applies. The arms always want to find a ‘bridge’. That is to find contact with the opponent’s arms to be able to read what they are doing. If the opponent moves towards you then you extend your arm to find them. If they retreat, you follow with your arms first, albeit in a defensive position. More importantly whatever happens when you have the bridge with your opponent the hand is always trying to return to the centre and thus whatsoever you are doing, you are doing it first with your hand.

The true fight is this same concept. You follow the fight not with your eyes, which will be deceived by your opponent’s hand, but rather with your hand. If upon engagement the opponent moves their weapon to disengage or attempt to strike you, as they disengage their weapon you can follow it with your hand to cover yourself and then move your feet to support the action of the hand. If the opponent does nothing upon your engagement you are free to step in to the place. Once there the same applies. If the opponent does nothing, strike in the time of the hand, if the opponent reacts then you can still follow this action first with your hand whilst you decide what it is they are doing.

The false fight is also a very useful tool if you learn how to use it well and know when to use it. As long as you are safe in using the false fight there is no reason to not do so. First of all, the only way to defeat an attack made appropriately in the time of the hand is to use the time of the foot. A bold claim for sure but Silver is correct when he says that if both are in the time of the hand the first mover will succeed as the time of the hand will deceive the eyes. However, a fencer knows when they are in a bad position so once their opponent gets them into the position where they can make a strike in the time of the hand they should be prepared to move, preferably before the opponent. If this is the case, the hand would likely move first and be a true fight. However if the opponent gets to launch their strike the only way out is to step back out of range. This is a false fight but is also the only way to defeat the time of the hand.

Another way to utilise the false fight is in attacking. If the agent can hold a ward that is in a position stronger than the patient then they can simply step through the opponent. If their blade meets the opponent it will cut them and thus be an attack. The hand needs not move in this situation as it is already in a strong position and the agent is safe behind it. The same applies if the ward has pushed the opponent’s blade offline then the agent can simply step through using a thrust rather than a cut.

So in my interpretation the true and false fight are two tools that can be used. The fencer should be aware of both and know when is best to use them and when they are using them. The close fight is a place where this is particularly useful. I find that many fencers avoid the close fight and are unable to fight there. This is in keeping with Silver saying that most people learn the variable fight as it is the easiest and then never learn or use anything else. When in the close fight being even slightly wrong in your position will get you killed as you are so close that any strike is done in the time of the hand. You are far too close to be able to use your eyes and so this fight must be done according to reading pressure through your blade and will equally often use repositioning of the stance as repositioning of the hand.

The eight times

On to the eight times. You may have noticed so far that I call them the eight times rather than the true and false times and that is deliberate for two reasons. First is that this is how Silver introduces them. There are eight time of which four are true and four are false. This should not be overlooked which brings me to the second reason…. most people overlook this. People always speak of the true times but very rarely does anyone mention the false times.

The times considered in the eight times are not speeds of the times as I have mentioned earlier. If that were the case there would be no reason for time of the hand, body and foot to be true and time of the foot, body and hand to be false. These times are intrinsically identical presuming they are trying to move the sword in the same action. These times are times that an action may take compared to the action that your opponent may take.

The reason to learn and know the eight times, and the reason I put them so late in my syllabus, is that as you fence you should do so with the intention of pushing your opponent constantly into an action that will take longer than your action.51 You must always also be aware of when they are in a position when they can move in a time that will land sooner than your responses and act according to this.

The idea of shorter rather than faster is simply because training to be fast is entirely irrelevant. As soon as someone who is faster turns up they will defeat you so it is pointless. The eight times are related to efficiency of movement not speed of movement. If my opponent can move faster then me in a false time when I am in a true then I still lose. I need instead to be certain that my strike will land regardless of the speed at which my opponent acts. This is why the time of the hand is the most preferred. Due to the fact that at this time the opponent has only the option to retreat, at which time I can follow.

The common interpretation is that the times are the speeds at which actions can be carried out but this is not true. Silver understands speed and does not suggest any action should be made at full speed. In fact I have never known any martial art to suggest this as speed is not relevant. There will always be someone faster at some point.

As with most things in martial arts the eight times are a compromise. A compromise between force, mass and acceleration. Force = Mass x Acceleration. A high mass can generate a high force but it will do so at a small acceleration. A small mass exerts a small force but can do so at a high acceleration. The extra mass of the time of the hand, body and foot means that it cannot be accelerated at high speed but can exert a great force. The time of the hand does not require a large force as the sword is sharp but it also does not have a large mass. It can, however be accelerated very fast. This is how it defeats the eye. The common interpretation is to try and exert a large amount of force at the end of the sword in an attack. This is incorrect. Rather I will exert large pressure against my opponent in slow acceleration as I win the place. Once I am in the place I can strike swiftly.

The true and false times are also not necessarily intrinsically linked. By which I mean that the first false time does not need to be linked to the first or last true time. That is to say that I don’t always have to consider the true time acting on me to choose the false time to respond with. Time of the hand is not necessarily responded to with time of the foot or example.

The true times are used when you have space and wish to pressure the opponent and force action on them. The false times are to recover space once your opponent has pushed on you. If you are exerting force on your opponent in true time then they either lose their true space and operate in a false time, which is valuable, or they hold their space and are able to operate in a true time. This is the true fight.

If you can force your opponent to operate in a false time then you are certain and you can press further. If your opponent maintains a true time then you are uncertain and must either relinquish your press or operate with extreme caution. By operating in a true time I can maintain a true fight. If my opponent can do the same then no hurt can be done to either as Silver tells us.52

The sword

One of the most important elements of my understanding of Silver is the sword I use. Before I began to study Silver I had ordered a new sword. By before, I mean a year before I even considered buying Silver’s book. I was in the market for a new side-sword and I happened upon an interesting sword in the Mary Rose museum. I was just expecting to have a side-sword. That is so far from what I received.

My swordsmith is very skilled and had always wanted to make the Mary Rose sword. Information I did not know until he delivered it. We gathered as much information as we could about the original from the museum and the smith went to work. After it was delivered I was faced with one of the biggest challenges ever to my martial arts career. What was supposed to be a side-sword did not work like one. In discussions with a friend we realised that neither was it a broadsword. It was something…else.

In reading Silver he spoke of a sword with a good strong hilt that was 37 inches in length and here I had a sword with a good strong hilt that was 36 inches in length. I had inadvertently purchased the very sword Silver was talking about and it was mechanically different to both side-sword and broadsword. I looked at videos of people doing Silver and saw that their swords moved like broadswords. I realised I had something important and began to apply my study to the sword I had.

The sword is a cut and thrust sword rather than a cutting sword like most people use for Silver. It was one of the most important factors in my interpretation and seeing as the broadsword did not exist in the time of Silver if anyone wishes to ensure a correct interpretation of Silver especially if they want to be historical, they should get the correct sword. The biggest problem in most interpretations of Silver to date is that they do not match the system with the sword. They try to justify that Silver is ‘cut oriented’ because that is what their swords do best rather than realising that if their swords don’t thrust well then they must have the wrong sword as Silver is not cut oriented at all.

The Interpretation

The most important thing in martial arts is safety. The most important thing in martial arts is to eliminate the threat. The most important thing in martial arts is efficiency. All three are noted as the most important thing as all three are the most important thing. They are intrinsically linked and each compliments the other.

Safety – I cannot continue to fight if I am dead and I have obviously failed the self defence element of martial arts in this case.

Eliminate the threat – The best way to be safe is to eliminate the threat. If there is no threat I have succeeded and am safe.

Efficiency – In motion this allows me to sooner eliminate the threat and therefore be safe.

It is with these three concepts of martial arts I have interpreted the work of George Silver. He is clear in his introduction that he believes the art of the sword to be for one of only two reasons. Self defence and the glory of your prince. In this my first interpretation is that Silver’s art is for life or death situations and thus the above three most important rules need to apply. The safety element is also made very clear by Silver as a large part of his lament against the rapier seems to be the lack of care for their own safety shown by the fencers he appears to have encountered.

Another important thing in martial arts is to maintain control. Control sits in one of three places. Neutral, no-one has it, in your hands or in your opponent’s hands. If it is neutral then the opponent has the opportunity to take it. If your opponent has it then you do not. Needless to say that when you do not have control you are in danger and so the first way to assure your safety is by being in control of the situation.

It is shown that Silver agrees as he speaks of advancing under guard, taking the cross, gaining the place. So from Silver’s works we can see that he agrees with both these concepts. You should safely take control of the situation. As such his art is the manner in which to do this.

A final note on martial arts in general is that it is a set of rules or principles to use to achieve your goal. Again with the works of Silver we can see this as his discourse in Paradoxes relies almost entirely on discussing principles and does not go into a great deal of detail to describe any footwork or attacking techniques. Even though he does describe some defensive actions he only describes two that he himself uses, four from Italian fencing systems and misses some that he later describes. Instead he introduces the wards as there being four, two with the point up and two with the point down. This is most likely because he presumes anyone who is fencing has or will be trained under a master of some kind. Also his book will likely only be read by those in the upper classes of society, most of whom will be aware of fencing in both the English and Italian manner.

To understand the techniques that are not described one should simply try to find the most efficient way to effect the principles.

The principles

The Four Grounds and the Four Governors

Silver does not mention the governors much in Paradoxes but that is mostly because he presumes all martial artists understand them. The governors are a way to behave within the laws of the grounds. How to govern your fight.

Judgement moves to assessing your opponent and how skilled they look and what they are up to. Measure is what they can and cannot achieve with their weapon. The third and fourth governor are ‘twofold’ which is to say that they are essentially the same. If you advance, do so with the idea and ability to retreat. If you retreat do so with the idea and ability to advance again.

These last two governors are also wildly overlooked. The standard of footwork in HEMA simply does not allow for these principles and this can be raised as another really important reason to pay attention to Silver. This is not only related to keeping the stance, or ‘pace’ as Silver calls it, narrow but also the intention of the fencer.

Not only do I need to be able to retreat if I advance but if I am forced to retreat then I should maintain all of my intention at my opponent. I shouldn’t just back away and hope for the best or try to run out of distance. Rather a retreat should be taken as an opportunity to regain control. My stance, my weapon, my body, my everything should be intended back towards my opponent.

Even in the retreat I should take the action with the plan to find a new angle, to ward the likely line of attack from the opponent, to be able to push back in and control the situation again. In doing this I am never over committed in an attack, nor in a defence. I can always advance and retreat. I can always change my plan.

Silver’s second book Brief Instructions is more like a manual than Paradoxes was. Paradoxes was a social commentary whereas Brief Instructions is setting out some of the principles and techniques of Silver’s art. It begins with the four grounds, Judgement, distance, time and place. Not only are these the first set out but Silver explains in the first sentence ‘The reason whereof these four grounds or principles be the first and chiefest’. If you had to boil Silver’s art down to it’s purest form you would boil it down to these four grounds. Essentially nothing is more important and in my interpretation this remains the case. Correct judgement of distance allows the fencer to steal time and thus find the place.

Four Actions/Times

The four actions are another unique aspect of Silver’s art that shows his deep understanding and does not seem to come up in other arts. The idea that there are four actions that you must pass through, no matter your skill.

Bent – if your opponent angles against you, they automatically angle you against them.

Spent – when their action runs out of energy and comes to a stop it can be manipulated.

Lying spent – if you spend too long in inaction there is a greater chance of your opponent putting energy into your action.

Drawing back – if you are moving your weapon backwards it cannot be a threat to you and this is a good time to control or strike.

Understanding these four actions are vital to keep yourself safe. Limit the amount of time you spend in each one. Know which you are in at all times and pay careful attention to your opponent so you may take advantage of them during these times.

Four offensive actions

When should you make your strike?

First – be the first to act, take the initiative and control and use them well.

Before – if you see your opponent prepare to make an action make yours first.

Just – having correctly used all the principles so far you should know your opponent will take an action. Make yours at the same time but better.

After – slip back and let your opponent’s action pass you then strike in after them.

True Cross and True Space

The true cross is never described by Silver. My interpretation would take far too long to describe here as it requires the explanation of research I have been doing on the mechanical behaviour of swords and this is not common understanding in the community. Essentially I will try to put my weapon in a position in the cross to force the opponent to take the longest possible route to regain their weapon or to offend me.

True space is the space required in each of your hand and body positions to support them with musculo-skeletal structure to be able to resist actions against them and perform actions in response. It is essentially the correct body posture.

The Four Fights

The four fights are also not described fully by Silver, only as wards that might be used during said fights. As such these are most open to interpretation and I am aware that mine might be considered…paradoxical. At least I can maintain that tradition.

I view them as distances to fight. The first being open, a distance whereby your sword does not need to be directly in front of you, or cannot be directly in front of you. This fight is not a great deal of use in single combat however Silver mentions that in battle ‘when men are clustering and hurling together, especially where variety of weapons are, in their motions to defend the hand, head, face, and bodies, from blows, that shall be given sometimes with swords, sometimes with two handed swords, battle axes, halberds, or black bills, and sometimes men shall be so near together, they shall have no space, scarce to use the blades of their swords below their waist, then their hilts (their hands being aloft) defend from the blows their hands, arms, heads, faces and bodies. Then they lay on, having the use of blows and grips, by force of their arms with their hilts, strong blows, at the head, face, arms, bodies, and shoulders, and many times hurling together, scope is given to turn down their points, with violent thrusts at the faces and bodies’. A concept that is supported by many a medieval image of men in battle.

The variable fight uses any guard, ward or position that might be available. Silver tells us that this is the easiest fight to learn, the first that most learn and that most do not progress from it. I can see what he is talking about. This fight is performed in the range whereby you are safe to move your sword from one position to another without being immediately threatened by your opponent’s weapon. It can be used to probe and search your opponent’s guard and find any weakness or opening to exploit.

The guardant fight is the next closest fight. Your weapons are engaged at the weak portion. At this point the opponent can strike you in a single action and this is dangerous. As such you must be guarded at all times. Any drop in the guard could result in death.

Finally the close fight. More dangerous than the guardant this fight any tiny mistake means the end. This fight is entirely in the time of the hand and cannot rely on the eyes. It relies on reading the pressure of your opponent’s intention and reacting accordingly.

Further Information

Chapter 2 of Brief Instructions is titled ‘Certain general rules which must be observed in that perfect use of all kind of weapons.’ in which are 10 general rules for fencing. They are very good rules, worth learning but they are ways to help make your grounds and governors more efficient. Check your surroundings (judgement), watch your enemy’s grip/guard (judgement), use whichever guard you find to be best (judgement). Distance features often too. These rules are general advice to help you to take control of your own fight.

A primary aspect of my interpretation is that you should always be in control. If you allow your opponent to be in control then they know what they are doing and you do not know what you are doing. This comes down quite heavily on certain and uncertain. Although Silver only brushes across these two words in Paradoxes of Defence they are key to being safe. In whatever action you take you are either certain or you are uncertain. If your opponent acts upon their own will, you are uncertain. If you act upon your opponent and they change, you are uncertain. If you are uncertain, do not make or continue the action. If you act on your opponent and they do nothing or do as you expected or are so limited in their response that your action can continue on course, you are certain, you may continue. This is the best way to stay safe in all your fencing.

The most important and poignant element I got from Silver’s text to help with my interpretation and my fencing is two words that are just popped in, seemingly out of place and never discussed by Silver in any way anywhere else in his work. When describing the four offensive actions Silver writes them as certain, uncertain, first, before, just and after. It is those first two words that are the biggest thing in Silvers work that so many in HEMA altogether miss. Certain and uncertain.

Do not ever take an action if you are not certain. If you are not certain it will achieve it’s intended result. Be it advance, engage or strike. If you are not certain it will succeed then do not do it. If at any time you are uncertain, for any reason, withdraw. If your opponent acts in a way you didn’t want, withdraw. They parry your attack, withdraw. Anything uncertain leave and never begin anything until you are certain.

If you can fence with these two words in the forefront of your mind you will keep yourself safe as Silver intended.


Beyond these principles we can take advice from Silver. There are other details to be added and concerned with but continuing to write them here is not entirely relevant. There are a few things that are unique to Silver such as the ability to discuss the fight from outside and giving us terminology to do so. Explaining the four fights, though his military riddle takes a great deal of study and contemplation, the actions and offensive actions are all very interesting insights into how Silver viewed the fight.

The fact is that Silver’s fight is the same as any other. He was undoubtedly very skilled but we can take inspiration from many other places to help us bring Silver’s fight to life. My interpretation of Silver is based on his writings primarily followed by my own experience of martial arts and experimentation in fencing exceptionally skilled fencers from all sources. If it doesn’t work I don’t include it. As yet there is nothing in my fencing that cannot be found in Silver’s work and there is nothing that does not work.

This is not to say that my interpretation is better than any other, only that it is a functional and effective interpretation of the work presented by Silver. It follows every principle and fights effectively against all styles including Italian rapier.

The Winslow/Edelson interpretation also follows the principles set out by Silver in his work. It seems to miss a few but it follows the most important fundamentals.

The world is a big place and people are varied. There is plenty of space for everyone and interpretations of old texts can always differ according to the experience and knowledge of the interpreter.

The very first thing that Silver presents in Brief Instructions are the four grounds and the four governors. Brief Instructions is clearly a response to feedback he received from Paradoxes and it is supposed to enlighten people to his system. The four grounds are fundamental elements of a fight that exist in all fights and are known by all martial artists.

The most fundamental Element of Silvers art is that through judgement you keep your distance, through distance you take your time and through time you find the place. This is exactly as Winslow/Edelson state and the reason I support their interpretation even with my difference in opinion on some aspects of their work. If we differ on a few details outside of this fundamental principle then we are simply using different methods to elicit the end result. The old interpretation however, seem to never speak of these grounds and so are not trying to interpret the most base form of Silver’s art.

In my interpretation of Silver, whilst I follow, find and use every principle he sets out the system itself focuses on safety above all else. The four grounds and four governors in conjunction with being certain or uncertain are the foundation of everything. All other principles are useful tools to help you understand a specific thing.

Striking in true times comes naturally as by the time you have controlled the opponent you will be able to strike them sooner than they can strike you.

The true fight also comes naturally over time. As you try to control the situation and stay safe you will begin to move your hand to close space or find the information you need.

Never advance on your opponent without in some way engaging them or their weapon.

If you are uncertain, leave.

As mentioned this system, whilst not identical to the Winslow/Edelson interpretation it follows the same base principle of the four grounds and of finding the place before striking. I do not hold the true fight or true times up on a pedestal as the old interpretation do as I see them as either terminology for discussion, something that naturally occurs or something to study once your skill in fencing is at the point where you have the time to do so.

One of the most important things of a true martial system is that you should be able to do whatever you need to do at any given time to achieve your goal. Silver makes this clear in every paradox when he is given a choice. Why would I learn one if the other was better? If we ban any manner of play in schools we can hardly make a good scholar. Silver demonstrates that everything should be trained, cut and thrust, all four fights, wards and strikes. You should always not only be able to do but be able to chose to do whatever you need to achieve your goal.

So what I present here is another alternative interpretation of the works of George Silver. I chose to do it in this format in support of the Winslow/Edelson interpretation and because I feel they are correct not only in their interpretation but also in their assertion that the usual response is to be overly criticised by the old interpretation. It is time for a new interpretation. A group of interpretations. A collection of different ways to look at an ancient book that offers small detail in its application.

Thank you for your time and interest.

Chris Connah, Provost of Noble Science of Defence, 2023

1Cory Winslow & Michael Edelson, An Alternative Interpretation of the True Fight of George Silver, The Historical Fencer, 2020

2 Cory Winslow and Michael Edelson, ‘The first iteration of an alternative interpretation of Silver’s method was proposed by Martin “Oz” Austwick in the early 2010s.’ – An Alternative Interpretation of the True Fight of George Silver, by, The Historical Fencer, 2020


4Vincentio Saviolo, An Italian fencing master living and teaching rapier in England in the late 16th century

5HEMA – Historical European Martial Arts

6 Herbert Berry, The Noble Science, A study and transcription of Sloane MS. 2530, Papers of the Masters of Defence of London, Temp. Henry VIII to 1590, University of Delaware Press. 1991, p. 69

7 The Field of the Cloth of Gold. Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace. 1545

8 Sir John Smythe, Knight, CERTAIN Discourses concerning the formes and effects of diuers sorts of weapons, and other verie important matters militarie, greatlie mistaken by diuers of our men of warre in these daies, Printed by Richard Johnes, at the sign of the Rose and Crown near Holbourne Bridge. 1. May. 1590.

9 William Garrard Gentleman, Corrected and finished by Captaine Hichcock, The arte of vvarre Beeing the onely rare booke of myllitarie profession. Printed for Roger VVarde, dwelling at the signe of the Purse in the Olde-balie, 1591.

10 Barwick, Humfrey, A breefe discourse, concerning the force and effect of all manuall weapons, At London Printed for Richard Oliffe, and are to be solde in Paules Churchyard at the signe of the Crane,1592

11 Sir Iohn Smythe, knight, Certen instructions, obseruati]ons and orders militarie, requisit for all chieftaines, captaines and higher and lower men of charge, and officers to vnderstand, knowe and obserue, Imprinted at London, by Richard Johnes, dwelling neer to Saint Andrewes church in Holborne,1594.

12 ‘Temper’ refers to the brittleness of the steel as a result of heat treating.

13 G.W. Prothero, litt.D., F.B.A. (edited), Select Statutes and other Constitutional Documents Illustrative of the Reigns of Elizabeth and James I, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1913, p. 69

14 George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, Edward Blount 1599, p. 1

15George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, Edward Blount, 1599, paradox 15

16 Albert Forbes Sieveking, Work for Cutlers or a Merry Dialogue Between Sword, Rapier and Dagger, Acted in a Shew in the Famous Universitie of Cambridge A.D. 1615,Cambridge University Press, 1904

17Robert Barrett, THE theory AND practice OF modern wars, Discoursed in Dialogue wise, LONDON, Printed for William Ponsonby. 1598

18 William Garrard Gentleman, The arte of vvarre, Roger VVarde, 1591.


20 G. Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, Paradox 24

21 G. Silver, Cyril Matthey (edited), Brief Instructions Upon my Paradoxes of Defence, George Bell and Sons, 1898, Chapter 2

22 ‘Note: We submitted this section of the article to Stephen Hand for his review and approval as we did not want to misrepresent his views. Stephen was gracious enough to oblige us and requested some clarifications, which we implemented. We are very grateful to Stephen for his assistance.’ – Corey Winslow and Michael Edelson, An alternative Interpretation of the True Fight of George Silver, The Historical Fencer, 2020

23 Corey Winslow and Michael Edelson, An Alternative Interpretation of the True Fight of George Silver, The Historical Fencer, 2020

24 A ‘Straw Man’ is a philosophical fallacy whereby one party refutes an argument different to the one under discussion without acknowledging the distinction between the two.

25G. Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, Paradox 3

26G. Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, Paradox 36

27G. Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, Paradox 18

28G. Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, Paradox 13

29 George Hale, The Private School of Defence, Printed for John Helme, in Fleet Street. 1614

30G. Silver, Brief Instructions upon my Paradoxes of Defence, Chapter 1

31 G. Silver, Brief Instructions upon my Paradoxes of Defence, 1898, Chapter 2, Ground 3

32G. Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, Paradox 36

33G. Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, Paradox 24

34G. Silver, Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence, 1898, Chapter 2, Ground 2

35‘for whereas Swords of convenient length, form and substance, have been in all ages esteemed by all warlike Nations, of all other sorts of weapons the last weapon of refuge both for horsemen, and footmen, by reason that when all their other weapons in fight have failed them, either by breaking, loss, or otherwise, they then have presently be∣taken themselves to their short arming Swords and Daggers, as to the last weapons, of great effect & execution for all Martial actions’ – Sir John Smythe, Knight, Certain Discourses, 1590

36Victor Kiernan, The Duel in European History, Zed Books Ltd., 2016

37All books for publishing had to be registered with the stationers register between 1557 and 1640. This register is available to view online.

38This is obviously a sweeping generalisation and there will be exceptions.

39‘It can be safely asserted that the theory of fencing has reached all but absolute perfection in our days,’ – Egerton Castle, Schools and Masters of Defence from the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century, George Bell and Sons, 1885, p.2

40The first mention of Broadsword in historic treatises appears in Sir William Hope’s, A New, Short and Easy Method of Fencing: Or the Art of the Broad and Small-Sword Rectified and Compendiz’d, 1707

41G. Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, Paradox 3

42‘Slowfoot : swift hand : quick foot : slow hand – G. Silver (attributed), Sundry Kinds of Play or Fight, 1898

43G. Silver, Brief Instructions, 1898, Chapter 5, Ground 9

44‘The four grounds or principles of the true fight at all manner of weapons are these 4, viz: 1 Judgement, 2 Distance, 3 Time, 4 Place’ – G. Silver, Brief Instructions, 1898, Chapter 1

45G. Silver, Brief Instructions, 1898, Chapter 3, Ground 13

46G. Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, Paradox 36

47G. Hale, The Private School of Defence, 1614

48Hanko Döbringer, Cod.HS.3227a, 1389, 14R

49From personal interaction and conversation with a professional research palaeographer I have had both texts confirmed as such. A significant change in writing style after James VI/I took the throne confirm the secretaries that wrote the Silver manuscripts were both trained in the reign of Elizabeth I.

50G. Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, Paradox 14

51In the Noble Science of Defence syllabus the eight times are listed after the rank of master. At this point the student has learned to fence to such a degree that they now look from outside the fight to improve themselves further in the study of time.

52G. Silver, Brief Instructions, 1898, Chapter 4, ground 17

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