Sir, Your Sword's Too Long!
Originally published in Punta Dritta January AS XXXV (2001)
My father sent me a clipping from the paper the other day. Entitled "Cut down to size" ; it details some rapier demonstrations at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, England. It is a short six-paragraph article, which talks about Queen Elizabeth the first's decree on sword length. It claims that weapons were checked at the gates of the city of London and those exceeding a yard in length were broken. Hence (it says) the meaning of the phrase "Cut down to size".
Great story, great article. It's no wonder dad snipped it out and posted it to me. Pity that it is wrong.
When I started doing rapier in the SCA back in 1988, I was taught this same story about sword length. I may have been guilty of spreading it about myself. However, in researching hilt forms for illustrations in my earliest manual on sword construction I found that a number of swords depicted in books had blades that were longer than a yard, and longer by a lot. I decided to check out this ruling on blade length.
The great thing about bureaucracies is that they hate to throw anything away. Unless they are trying to hide something, that is. By doing a bit of catalogue searching at the Australian National Library (telnet://ilms.nla.gov.au/), I found a collection of proclamations made by the rulers of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I.
Tudor Royal Proclamations (3 Volumes). Edited by Paul L Hughes and James F Larkin. Yale University Press, New-Haven and London, 1969. (ABNRID 63013965 //r97).
A "quick" scan through volume 2 ("The Later Tudors") gives the proclamation on page 278: 542. Enforcing Statues of Apparel [Greenwich, 12 February 1566, 8 Elizabeth I]. This is followed by a paragraph giving the details of the writ and its distribution and the costs of that distribution. Four Pounds, six Shillings, four pence was paid to the printers on 12 October to pay for 700 copies of the proclamation. It appears that it cost three pence to set up the type for the print on the 13th of February.
The first part concerns itself with pointing out how naughty people had become. The language used in the first paragraph makes it seem that these "Excesses of Apparel" were destroying the kingdom. The second paragraph lets people know that there will be no exceptions to the law.
The proclamation now divides itself into three further parts. The first is a re-issuing of certain clauses from a similar proclamation made in the 24th year of Henry VIII. The second is a re-issuing of a proclamation from the time of King Phillip and Queen Mary. Both of these parts concern themselves with the richness and make of people's clothing.
The third part contains the new laws made by Elizabeth. In summary, these are;
Regulations on the making of hose,
Regulation of Fencing schools,
Regulation of blade lengths, and
Directions for enforcing the regulations.
The second and third items are of most interest to us. The details are contained in two long paragraphs making up less than a page of detail. The previous regulations take up over three pages.
Item, because it is daily seen what disorders do grow and are likely to increase in the realm by the increase of numbers of persons taking upon them to teach the multitude of the common people to play at all kind of weapons, and for that purpose set up schools, called schools of fence, in places inconvenient, tending to the great disorder of such people as properly ought to apply their labors and handiworks: therefore her majesty ordereth and commandeth that no teacher of fence shall keep any school or common place of resort in any place of the realm but within the liberties of some of the cities of the realm; where also they shall be obedient to such orders as the governors of the cities shall appoint to them for the better keeping of the peace, and for prohibition of resort of such people to the same schools as are not meet for that purpose, upon pain to be punished by the said governors according to their discretions.
My goodness, it's a zoning law!
Item, her majesty also ordereth and commandeth that no person shall wear any sword, rapier, or suchlike weapon that shall pass the length of one yard and half-a-quarter of the blade at the uttermost, nor any dagger above the length of 12 inches in blade at the most, nor any buckler with any point or pike above two inches in length. And if any cutler or other artifices shall sell, make, or keep in his house any sword, rapier, dagger, buckler, or suchlike contrary thereunto, the same to be imprisoned and to make fine at the Queen's majesty's pleasure, and the weapon to be forfeited; and if any such person shall offend a second time, then the same to be vanished from the place and town of his dwelling.
It is interesting that the term rapier is well known enough to be used in a royal proclamation published in 1566 in England. There is, still, some controversy about the origin of the word, and when and where it was used. The English Guild "Maisters of the Noble Science of Defence" were not teaching the rapier as a standard part of their cirriculum at this stage. Senior Rocco Bonneti would not arrive in London for another three years. Yet the term appears popular enough to appear unqualified in a royal proclamation.
The length of a sword was limited to "one yard and half-a-quarter of the blade". Without knowing specifically how this term was meant to be interpreted by Elizabeth's Magistrates and Officers, we can not be sure how long this is. The use of the word 'and' indicates that it was over one yard by something called 'half-a-quarter'. My interpretation is that it meant an additional half-a-quarter yard. This gives us a blade length of 1, 1/8 yards, or 40.5 Inches.
Daggers are limited to 12 inches in the blade. Which is still a considerably fearsome dagger. I would presume that this large length takes into account specialised knives and daggers used for special professions. A good cook's knife of the period approaches that length. Much bigger than this length gives the weapon the qualities of a seax (or falchion) - a rather lethal weapon that authorities might not want people carrying around all the time.
Points on bucklers are apparently so common that they are regulated to a maximum length. The Wallace collection in London has some beautiful examples of such bucklers which have points of this or greater length. They generally seem to be a barbed pike head with a four-sided point. Such a point opens a nasty wound in the body, which does not naturally close again (similar to the French 3 sided bayonets of world war one). As recreators of the ancient art of Rapier fighting, we should be seriously looking at ways to allow buckler clashes and strikes.
The final parts are concerned with the enforcement of the proclamation items. Hosiers, being seen as pernicious offendors, are required to put up a bond in order to continue trading. In effect, I suspect, this became a matter of a fine before the event. Cutlers, Haberdashers, and Fencing Masters were not required to be bound in monies.
As has been noted by Turner and Soper , the length of a rapier was held to give definite advantage. There are cases cited of people seeking to purchase longer weapons before a duel in order to gain advantage over their opponent. It would seem that one effect of this proclamation would be to curb this activity (although I cannot see people organising duels for the middle of London city...). It could also be seen as a way of the monarch making a strong stand on matters that might be seen to be anti-English. Certainly when viewing this proclamation in concert with George Silver's comments in Paradoxes, I suggest that conservative members of early Elizabethan society would regard the shorter cut & thrust sword with favour, and the longer Tucks as "Un-English".
This proclamation appears to be the only one made by Elizabeth on weapons length. There are a full volume and a half collection of proclamations that she made on other matters (price of bread, wages, and so forth). It was also made early on in her career as Queen. Both of these points speak for the "Strong and Decisive Queen taking a strong stand" reason for weapons portion of the proclamation. Certainly other sources on Elizabeth's life indicate that she was eager to consolidate her position on the throne, and to be seen as every bit the ruler that her father, Henry VIII, was.
In any case, Proclamation 542 being duplicated for you here, I hope to hear the last of these rumours about thirty-six inch blade lengths for Elizabethan swords. 
Francois Henri Guyon.
(c) Shayne Lynch 1999