The case of Thomas Page's The Use of the Highland Broadsword.

By Bethan Jenkins, January 2007

It is a truism often heard in Western Martial Arts circles that, were they but to listen, academic historians could learn a great deal from fencing manuals. Less often do we hear the contrary view - that martial artists also have a great deal to learn from an historical appreciation of manuals of fence - both from the body of the work, and from the peripheral material contained in the text. Far too often, enthusiasm for learning the techniques of old masters leads us straight to the section of the treatise dealing specifically with combat, ignoring "irrelevant" other material. Yet I would argue that ignoring the non-combative material can lead to serious misreadings of martial texts, whose authors are not, as modern readers are, cut off from their time and writing in a vacuum, but who are rooted in the world around them, betraying their lives, prejudices, and assumptions with every word they write. I would like to take for an example a text which I consider to be severely misread in this fashion - Thomas Page's The Use of the Highland Broadsword.

The first thing we must consider when discussing Thomas Page's 'Highland Broadsword' manual is, naturally, the identity of the author. One cannot assume that a man is a master of his topic just because he has published a book on the subject; this is often forgotten when dealing with writers of former ages, as it is assumed that as they were more familiar with the technology of the time, that they will be infallible. Yet, even as nowadays, the ability to recognise and work a computer at its basic level is no guarantee of proficiency with the technology, so it is more than possible that a writer in the eighteenth century might have known little of the underlying principles of Art, for all that he might carry and brandish a weapon. Publication in the eighteenth century was truly a hazardous venture - unless a writer had prior subscriptions, or a wealthy sponsor, he would have hazarded his own money in paying for the printing and distributio of his text.m Many there were who hazarded what little they had in order to bring whatever knowledge they had before the public; still, publication is a guarantee of little else than that the author had the money to do so.

Little appears to be known of Thomas Page, and all must be gleaned from the works we have of his extant. Along with "The Use of the Broadsword", we have two, possibly three other texts, and what might be his and his brothers' wills, available to us today, which help us a good deal of the way towards outlining our author. The most significant of these other works is a two-page handbill, obviously intended as a companion piece to "The Use of the Broadsword.". It is undated, but presumably of a similar date to the text in hand, which proclaims itself to be:

A Catalogue, of Clocks, Watches, and Other Machines, Made and Sold by T. Page, Author of The Use of the Broad Sword, in the Market-Place, Norwich.

Amongst the lists of clocks, repeating clocks, pocket watches, way-wisers, pedometers, fowling-pieces, pistols, brass jacks, tacks, screws, boxes, telescopes, microscopes, solar telescopes and camera obscuras, we discover that he sells

  • Hangers or Small-swords, Steel or Silver Mounted
  • Broad Swords or Scymiters, with Curious Steel Basket Hilts

...and "The Best prices given for old Silver, Gold, Brass &c." Taken alone, this is not particularly unusual; but a similar catalogue is appended to a later Page text, The Art of Shooting Flying, published "by J. Crouse, and sold by the Author T. Page, 1766." This went through five further editions, with the last being in 1784, which include such extras as directions for training of pointers and spaniels, along with notes towards the preservation of their health, abstracts of acts of Parliament relating to Game.. Its subtitle tells us that it is "Familiarly explained by a Dialogue, containing Directions for the choice of guns for various occasions, an account of divers experiments, discovering the execution of barrels of different lengths and bores, with many useful hints for the Improvement of Young Practitioners, entirely New." The Catalogue at the end of the text makes no mention at all of any sorts of sword, but there is a considerable expansion in the information on his guns from the previous catalogue:

  • Birding guns of various Lengths, Bores, and Prices.
  • Pistols for Holsters, and Flat ones for Holsters or Pockets.
  • Cross Bows for Bolts or Bullets.
  • Guns Mended, Stocked or Locked.
  • Best double strong Gunpowder, and Gun-flints.

And, of course, by this stage in the book, the reader will have been instructed in how to determine many of these things, and presumably wish to find somewhere to purchase them! It seems unlikely that Page was a professional fencing instructor, though it is possible he may have done some instructing in an amateur or itinerant fashion. In 1751, according to the Norwich Mercury, the city was supporting two fencing masters, a Bayol and a Johnson, who were smallsword instructors. In "Norwich since 1550", Angela Dain notes that these permanent instructors would have had their services to the city supplemented by peripatetic instructors, "notably from the theatrical fraternity." Page's catalogues show an incredibly broad range of wares, and it is not impossible that he had his fingers in the theatrical and fencing pies in addition.; and in a town where there were instructors (and therefore students) of the art of the sword, there would have been a ready market for his wares. In short, then, he ran a scrap metal merchant's and general hardware shop; he may have been a peripatetic amateur fencing master, theatrical or otherwise; and if the will in the National Archives bearing the name of Thomas Page of Norwich belongs to the same Page, then he died an upholsterer. He was not a gentleman of noble birth, but one of the up-and-coming merchant classes; he most certainly was not a knight, as some have assumed![a]

Page's introduction to The Use of the Broadswordsuggests that he served in "the Artillery Company" under The Right Honourable John, Lord Hobart, Lord Lieutenant of the county of Norfolk, as well as running his shop. If so, this would be the Norwich Artillery Company, raised in January 1746 for the defence of the City against possible invasion during the Jacobite Rebellion - a grenadier Officer's cap of the time in the National Army Museum shows clearly the arms of Lord Hobart, who was also Duke of Buckingham. It was raised by volunteers during the '45 Jacobite uprising in order to defend the city, for though the Jacobites never got that far, there was, according to Monod's The Jacobites and the English People, some support for them there, and even Jacobite rioting early in the century upon the coronation of the Hanoverian George I, and as late as the 1750s. However, much 'Jacobite' rising was spurred by and connected with other issues, such as the Toleration Act, or religious anti-Dissenting movements, and their significance and temper often exaggerated by Whig historians. Though it is indeed possible that some of the volunteers had seen army service in their time, this was essentially a regiment for show, with elaborate uniforms for both drummers and soldiers, and was disbanded onlly a few years after it was set up, in 1750, amid accusations of irregular drill and marching, frequent talking in the ranks, and gentlemen arriving poorly equipped, idle and drunk.

Page professes altruistic motives in the dedication, which, contrary to standard practice at the time, was done without seeking permission from his lordship:

I Ventur'd upon this Address without Leave, and even without making my Design known, out of a pure Perswasion that nothing will give Offence to your Lordship which arises from the Sincerity of a Heart warm in the Service of my Country; how weak soever may be the Head that conducts those Intentions. I've made this Essay towards Teaching the Use of the Sword, that I might render that Weapon serviceable inthe Hands of my Fellow-Citizens, which, together with them I have the Honour to wear under your Lordship's Command in the Artillery Company. And whatsoever contributes towards making that Company Useful as well as Ornamental, will be the most agreeable to your Lordship's Design in raising it.

In 1746, a treatise on the swordplay of the 'savage' army of Jacobites they might have faced could very well have been a good sales pitch, both for sales of the book, and sales of swords from his shop. It is more than likely that this was a thinly-veiled request for his Lorship to equip his company from T. Page of the Market-Place. The inventory of the company, reprinted in the Journal of the society for Army Historical Research, specifically lists 'Scymiters' to equip the troops. The swords he sold might have been Jacobite spoils bought from returning troops, or bought from the continent, or even spoils Page himself had looted, although there is no hard evidence for him ever having left Norwich; either way, although only about 20-25% of the Jacobite army would have carried swords, they were the weapons of the moment. In Page's book we see an example of the fear, which became the Romantic myth that the Jacobites were all Highlanders from a quasi-medæval society, all sword-wielding and kilt-wearing savages (noble or otherwise):

No Modern Nation has arriv'd at such Perfection in the Use of this Weapon as the Scots: and amongst Them the Highlanders are most expert. From their Youth they are Train'd to it, and with the Addition of the Roman Target, they excell in the Roman Method of Fighting; having invented a great many Throws, Cuts and Guards, unknown to the Roman Gladiators.

Nor have they improv'd the Use only, but even the Fashion and Temper of the Weapon; for which they have been so deservedly famous, that their Swords have been purchased by all Europe; and there is no Nation but has seen Thousands fall beneath Andrew Farrarer's Blades; nor was Steel ever wrought so destructively Perfect, except in the invention of the Lancet.

"Andrew Farrarer" is a corruption of Andrea Ferrara, a bladesmith so much admired by the Scots that German manufacturers stamped their wares with his name in order to boost sales. Such a glaring error on Page's part calls into serious doubt his claims to mastery of the knowledge and lore surrounding the Highland sword. It is probable that, rather than having first-hand experience of such swords during a Scottish campaign, he had seen this name on blades which had been traded in his shop. And far from the Scots swords being traded throughout Europe, the Scots imported many blades from the continent.

During the eighteenth century, the Highlander became the ultimate paradox: on the one hand, they were brutish thugs, adept with medieval weapons, sticking to clan loyalties and a threat to the newly-emergent nation; on the other, they were figures of ridicule, backward and troglodytic, a remnant of a bygone age, and no match for the Englishman's modern army; they were feminised (usually latching on to Bonny Prince Charlie's female disguise), and Orientalised. Feared and ridiculed then in equal measure, the very image of the Rousseauian Noble Savage, both a subversive threat to civilised existence and an affirmation of how far civilisation had come since them, the image of the Highlander truly becomes copious, able to personify several different images all at once. He is a clansman, a savage warrior, fiercely loyal, and yet needs the guiding hand of the Englishman to render him civilised. In caricatures of the period, no distinction is made between a Highland Scot and a Lowland Scot - all are kilt-wearing Highland clansmen.

Page also treats his readers to some 'evidence' of the Highland sword's lineage from the primitive Orient:

Time and Experience discovering the Disadvantages, by Degrees contracted its Length and lighten'd its Weight in to the more handy Form of the Scymitar; which was first invented by the Eastern Nations, and has continued to be their principal Weapon to this Day…

This Orientalising, Othering discourse is common in anti-Jacobite and anti-Catholic literature since roughly the 1720s. Identifying two different sorts of savage with each other compounds the alienating discourse, removing the Jacobite, the Scot, the Highlander further and further beyond the pale, "not one of us", an enemy of John Bull.

Page goes on to add a good dash of enlightenment Reason, in order to render his product more palatable to the readership:

The Europeans have improv'd this Weapon, and invented the Broad Sword, which is a straight Blade well mounted, and (that it might fly light at the Point) balanc'd with a Basket Hilt, which is at the same time a Security to the Hand…as before two Combatants only hack'd and chop'd each other till the weakest drop'd, so now Art was call'd in to the Assistance of Strength, and the Warrior made the Defence of his own Person his Care, at the same time he attempted the Destruction of his Adversary. And from this Period it was that Murder became an Art, and Fighting a Science: Now a Posture of Defence was contriv'd against every Assault, and a Guard against every Cut; so that Death was no longer at the Disposal of the Strong and Robust, but attended upon the Sword of the Dexterous and Skillful.

The latter point, the equalising of two differently-sized opponents, lies in direct contradiction to the opinion and advice of George Silver, or we may look to Sir William Hope's discussion, from his New, Short and Easy Method of fencing:

I cannot make a better simile, than to compare an adroit and knowing sword-man, to a very good and skilful gamester, who even against a very great bungler, may have now and then a bad run as we say, but still it is acknowledg'd that upon the main, the skilful gamester hath great odds against the bungler, and will at last certainly carry off the ready: Even so in fencing, a good sword-man may by misfortune, or by failing in his art come to be worsted by an ignorant or mal-adroit; (for as I said, sword men are no more infallible than other men) but still this is no reflection upon the art, and good sword men will upon the main, have a singular and evident advantage, over all unskilful persons whatsoever.

Page's assertion as regards the art of the sword is, for these reasons, I suggest not to be trusted; such assertions are comforting to the weak that they may, by skill, stand up to stronger bullies. Perhaps the weak, in this context, are the (predominantly southern) Hanoverian supporters, against the terrifying hordes of savage bullies they imagined. Page reinforces this comforting material with long geometric/scientific instructions - for example, on the movement called "The Traverse":

This also begins from the same erectness and firmness of Posture, and is twofold viz. The Fore Traverse, and the Back Traverse. The Fore Traverse is performed in a large Circle, the Center of which is the Middle of the Line of Defence, on which Line you and your Adversary stand; such is the Line P. Q. C. H. G. in the opposite Page, and the Circle form'd by the Traverse will be, P. A. C. E. G. I. L. N. For the Right Foot being at Q. and the Left at P. the traverse is begun by stepping about with the Left Foot from P. to A. and the Right Foot immediately after from Q. to B. and then the Line A. B C. K. I. will be the Line of Defence; at the next Step, remove the Left Foot from A. to C. and then the Right from B. to D. which will make the Line C. D. C. M. L. the Line of Defence; and you will be still faceing C. the Center of that Circle, which you are now Traversing, an the Middle of every Line of Defence; proceed also in the same Manner with the Left Foot from C to E and the Right Foot from D. to F. then will E F. C. O. N. be the Line of Defence; in the same Manner proceed to G. H; to I. K; to L. M; to N. O; and to P. Q; which is the Place from which you set out, and you will have successively the Lines G. H. C. Q. P.; I. K C. B. A; L. M. C. D. C; N. O. C F. E; for Lines of Defence; and now you are come about to the Line P. Q. C. H. G; which was the Line of Defence when you began to Traverse.

This latter section, as well as the diagram accompanying it, is found verbatim in Taylor's text at the end of the century[b]. This suggests two things - either straight plagiarism by Taylor (not at all uncommon at the time); or, Page's text itself is a plagiarism of a general swordsmanship manual. The tripartite structure lends itself to this interpretation, as the introduction and the "Highland techniques" added to the end read as discrete parts, and so could indeed be a body text with extras tacked on.[c]

As in the introduction, so in the body of the text itself. What purports to be "Highland" Swordsmanship reads far more like late 18thC backsword than the quasi-mediæval swordsmanship often deduced from the Penicuick sketches, with a few "Highland Tricks" appended to it. Is this main instructional material of highland origin or not? To determine this, comparison must be made with other 18th C manuals, such as Wylde, Godfrey, Hope, and especially McBane; and indeed, Page's system seems very similar to these. The terminology, guards, parades and drills tally; the style of play is similar, with points forward (derived from smallsword play), and play from engagement, involving "throws" - cuts with moulinets. This mainly involves fencing with the point of the sword forward - this is all well and good for fighting with a smallsword, which is an edgeless thrusting weapon, but of little use with Broadswords, as it does not provide a secure true cross in the parry, and wide-spaces the defender. Of course, if both use the same guard, then both have the same disadvantage. The weight of the weapon, and its purpose, militate against such a guard also - the same guard is seen in nineteenth Century classical sabre fencing of the Hutton school, but works only because the sabre is a lighter, faster weapon, designed for slashing, rather than chopping. McBane uses similar systems; but this is certainly the usage of an officer, or a lowlander, rather than the Highland Gaels. At one stage, Page even admits to being influenced in some respects by the smallsword

The Advantages of the Broad Sword are shown in four Guards, which successively defend every Part of the Body against all Attacks that can possibly be made... Its Disadvantages arise only from the Difficulties of Parrying Thrust in the four Positions of Guards; and therefore two Positions are borrowed from the Small Sword, and added to its Defensive Guards and Offensive Throws, which render the Weapon compleat.

But, was what Page describes a system of fencing that Highlanders actually used? Such a system was almost certainly used in the Lowlands and in England, but there is no real evidence for Highland use. Current research has produced circumstantial evidence that suggests that this is not in fact a highland system - the German 1.33 manuscript, George Silver's 16th Century text and various interpretations of it, seem to show a different style of swordplay, usually described as more mediæval in style. These show far heavier swordplay - though, as John Clements notes, not necessarily particularly heavy weaponry - with fist grips on the hilt, and in general showing more swinging than would have been seen in later periods with lighter weaponry. By the 18th century, we see much more influence from the lighter, faster small- and sheering-swords, using thumb grips, and holding the point in line.

If we turn briefly to what are known as "The Penicuick Sketches", what we see can be interpreted as looking far more like 1.33, or the medieval Silver. These show various semi-Troglodytic figures, often with sword and target, in postures at once comparable to the I.33 ms. Paul Wagner, in his essay on "Highland Swordsmanship" in the book of the same name, makes this comparison directly, and names some of the Penicuick wards for I.33 wards. And yet, it is difficult to judge with any accuracy how satirical such sketches might be, showing as they do the sort of ugly, kilt-wearing savages common to such famous prints as Sawney on the Boghouse, showing to those who say that the highlanders were medieval, and their culture a bit behind, exactly what they expected to see. It was commonly thought by Victorian classical fencers, that earlier swordplay was more rough, less skilled; such a teleological outlook is foreshadowed by Page in his introduction, as we have previously seen. Neither are superior/inferior, just adapted to different situations - in the Highlanders' case, for instance, using a target, but no armour. These are not identical conditions to medieval combat, though it certainly isn't unreasonable to assume that their system was more influenced by earlier styles. Page's system, with its point forward in a smallsword-esque tierce and quarte, with its frequent changing guard at every step is not what one would expect to find from a Highland swordsman (certainly not of a lower rank, at any rate).

All this evidence, though circumstantial, is enough for me to hazard that Page wrote his book on 18th C swordplay in order to promote his interests in dealing swords His addition of a few "highland" moves to make his book seem, in these lights, to be more of a promotional addendum to give his work a topical selling point than evidence that he was a genuine Highland swordmaster.

Here, then, is the case of Page - if taken at face value, a contemporary Highland text; and yet, when read with the peripheral material, the work becomes far less black-and-white, and takes on many more complications and subtleties. This is not, of course, an argument for discarding such masters entirely; but a more careful consideration of textual evidence with regard to sword treatises will, I think, not go amiss, and even deepen our understanding of the texts we study.

[a] See

[b] See Wagner and Rector, Highland Broadsword : Techniques of the Scottish Regiments.

[c] I am grateful to Mr. Miller of the Linacre School of Defence for this point.

Editorial comment

At the time this article was written Page's background was not known and his claims of highland origins were often taken at face value. Opinion has since evolved and this recent Cateran Society article gives a current explanation of Page's significance. It places Page's work in the wider context of British swordplay as another variant of a commonly-used system prevalent throughout Britan and Ireland, rather than as a separate “genuine Highland system”. EOB;