Adventures in Forensic Bibliography #4: From the Cold Case File

The Case of the Silent Source, or, Dudley’s Dead End.

There are few irritations for the researcher as great as the statement made with  certainty regarding a  topic that is devoid of certainty, and without the common courtesy of citing a source. I ran into one of these little conundrums in Chris Skidmore’s Death and the Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I and the Dark Scandal That Rocked the Throne (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010).1 The breathless, tabloid style title should have warned me there was trouble, but alas the call of the bargain-book siren is hard to ignore.

Skidmore tosses out a colourful detail in a description of Robert Dudley’s childhood and education. Dudley—future favourite of Elizabeth—was the son of John, Duke of Northumberland (and confusingly, the concurrent Viscount Lisle and Earl of Warwick). Dudley’s sons “learned how to fight with swords and pikes,” writes Skidmore, “and practised the novel art of defence, or ‘fencing’, of which John Dudley had become a strong patron, with the first English school set up at his London residence, Ely Place.”2

The casual reader would pass this with nary a second thought, but for me, someone with a professional interest in the history of martial education in England, it leaps from the page and dances around the room while tossing confetti and pushing over furniture, shouting “look at me and my fancy claims of historical certainty!” I desperately want to know where Skidmore got this information for the simple reason that I have never heard anyone claim to know the time and place of the “first English school” of fencing.

It would be difficult to define what such a school would even look like, let alone identify one as the original or foundational school in England. There were fencing masters operating in London as early as the 13th century but these people lacked legal legitimacy and most of them held down more respectable day-jobs. There was no place within the commercial world for the public, paid, instructor. Fighting elites learned their special skills through other channels; the sergeants and experienced men-at-arms within the household, or through other informal relationships with knowledgeable men. Teaching martial skills outside that structure was actually illegal, particularly in London, until the 16th century.3

Fencing instructors did not gain formal royal sanction until the reign of Henry VIII. Henry saw fit to extend Royal protection to the Masters of Defence of London through the mechanisms of the guild system in the 1540s.4 However, there is no evidence of lesser noble or elite patronage for fencing instructors before the middle of the century. Proponents of courtly culture, which included the duel and the privileged weapon systems and techniques, did gain elite patronage, but mostly for their books in which the author’s patron was treated to obsequious praise in dedications.

If the reader has not gathered this already, Skidmore does not reference this Dudley anecdote. A search of accessible biographies of Dudley (both the senior John, and the younger Robert) got me nowhere, until I finally found this passage in D. Wilson, Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester 1533-1588 (London: Alison and Busby, 1981).

“John Dudley liked to see all his sons well practised in the martial arts […] Under expert tuition Robert, together with his brothers and friends, ran at the quoit and the quintain, and fought with sword, pike and staff. He paid particular attention to the science of ‘defence’ or fencing, for his father was a patron of this increasingly popular craft and one of the first schools in London was set up in Ely Place.”5

Aside from the fact that Skidmore’s paraphrase treads very close to straight copying, he overstates the case for originality in Dudley’s school. Wilson is more conservative, giving Dudley credit for one of the earliest schools in London, set up at Ely Place. However, Wilson is no better in citing his source than Skidmore.

So we have another dead-end in a secondary source. The only recourse is to work systematically through material related to Dudley. The problem is that despite documentation that Dudley was an avid militarist, and was involved in the education of Edward VI in the finer points of elite sport, there is nothing in the records about a fencing school, personal patronage of fencing masters, or anything that fits Wilson’s statement, even in an abstract way.6

Both Skidmore and Wilson could have safely said something along these lines: that Robert Dudley, being the child of a noble,  well aware of the value of martial knowledge, likely received tutoring in the sports and martial activities of the elites. One can find ample evidence on the value of this type of education in contemporary writers like Roger Ascham and Thomas Elyot.7 The elite sports and amusements of hawking, hunting, riding, tilting, and archery were all part of the standard, idealized, scholastic training of noble children. Training in swordplay is assumed to be part of this education, even if it is largely implied in these texts rather than advised explicitly.

I have no problem with the suggestion that Dudley trained his sons in the martial activities of the day. It would be far more difficult to sustain an argument to the contrary. Pier Paolo Vergerio, the early 15th-century Humanist and tutor of Ubertino, Duke of Ferrara, wrote that “instruction in letters and arms” were the two principle paths to honour and prestige.8 This was the Renaissance re-packaging of the demi-god prowess in action. Baldessare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier was popular amongst learned English readers well before the first English translation appeared in 1561.9

I’m not saying that Wilson made this up, or that he added some specific details to some ambiguous statements to make the case stronger. All I’m saying is that several hours of digging, over the last three months, have failed to find anything even remotely close to these claims.

These sort of minor details can prove to be the most difficult to confirm, especially if the actual source is so ambiguous as to avoid indexing or other specifics that would aid searchers. Wilson may have come across a statement like “the Lord Northumberland [John Dudley] was a great student of the fashionable combatives of the Continent [new styles of fencing] and undertook the tutelage of his heirs [teaching his children] in this new art through the employ of a scholar at his London residence [a fencing master at Ely Place].” That sort of statement, while supplying the general details for Wilson, is so vague it would be almost impossible to find outside of accident.

I have not found such a statement no matter how vague.

At this stage there is little option for the researcher than the obvious and distasteful one. I sent a note to D. Wilson in the hope that he might recall, or have access to, his original source. Wilson is still around and remains a prolific author of generalist non-fiction. I doubt that he, or the publicist that actually reads his e-mail, will respond. Therefore, this case remains open until such time as I find better clues.


1- For an entry like this, it would be an unforgivable sin to go lightly on the notes. Please forgive the mild case of argument ad nauseam et absurdem for the sake of thoroughness. For those who may feel the easiest way out of this case is to dismiss the suspects based on their credentials, has to contend with Skidmore’s unassailable pedigree in academia, a Doctorate in History from Bristol, and authorship of of a previous biography of Edward VI. Besides, a previous record, either good or ill, should not prejudice the investigator. Although, at the certain risk of sounding catty, one might question Skidmore’s judgement, now that he is a Conservative member of the British Parliament.

2- Skidmore, 13.

3- The best studies of 16th century English fencing schools and masters in London are, despite their advanced age, J. Anglin, “The Schools of Defense in Elizabethan London.” Renaissance Quarterly 37, no. 3 (1984): 393–410, and J. D. Aylward, The English Master of Arms from the Twelfth to the Twentieth Century (London: Routledge & Paul, 1956). Sydney Anglo covers the same ground, but without much new content.

4- This ‘guild’, such as it is, has a very small documentary footprint and the best single source is the rare and special edition of their records edited by Berry Herbert, The Noble Science: A Study and Transcription of Sloane Ms. 2530, Papers of the Masters of Defence of London, Temp. Henry VIII to 1590 (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1991).

5- Wilson, 23.

6- The closest I can get is this statement from an ambassadorial report for 1554 in Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Rawlens Brown ed. (London: 1873), v. 5, entry 934. It reads in part that the Duke of Sommerset was “replaced by the Duke of Northumberland, who was a soldier at heart and by profession, he changed the King’s studies accordingly, and had him taught to ride and handle his weapons, and to go through other similar exercises, so that his Majesty soon commenced arming and tilting, managing horses, and delighting in every sort of exercise, drawing the bow, playing rackets, hunting, and so forth, indefatigably, though he never neglected his studies.”

7- Their works include Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster or Plaine and Perfite Way of Teachyng Children, to Vnderstand, Write, and Speake, the Latin Tong but Specially Purposed for the Priuate Brynging Vp of Youth in Ientlemen and Noble Mens Houses, and Commodious Also for All Such, as Haue Forgot the Latin Tonge … (London: John Daye, 1570), and Thomas Elyot, The Boke Named the Gouernour Deuised by Thomas Elyot Knight (London: Tho. Bertheleti, 1531).

8- Pier Paolo Vergerio, “The Character and Studies of a Free-Born Youth,” in Humanist Educational Treatises, 2-91. Craig W. Kallendorf ed., I Tatti Renaissance Library. (Harvard, CT.: 2002), 37.

9- There is a great study of the reception of The Courtier in Europe and England in Peter Burke, The Fortunes of the Courtier (New York: Polity Press, 1995).


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