Copyright © Malcolm Fare 2005-2025

A unique piece of fencing history is a French fencing master’s diploma or Brevet de Maitre. On the 11th of August 1811 this was awarded to voltigeur (light infantryman) Joseph Brault, who had qualified in Dartmoor Prison, the award being made by 26 masters and fellow prisoners from the 47th Regiment captured during the Peninsular War.

Brevet de Maitre, 1811

Among the 100 or so 19th century books in the museum’s library is an anonymous manuscript entitled The Fencer, dated 1838, by a pupil of William Angelo; the first works to introduce epee and sabre to the fencing public; and a bound set of the early years of the beautifully illustrated fencing magazine, L’Escrime Francaise, 1889-1895.

Pictures on show include three original watercolours of fencers by the prolific French fencing artist Frédéric Régamey, as well as Régamey’s famous print of the historic match in 1816 between the Comte de Bondy and the provincial fencing master Justin Lafaugère. There is a fine coloured mezzotint engraving of a Regency fencer by Francalanza and a late 19th century watercolour of an impossibly wasp-waisted French lady foilist by Jean Beraud. Rather more realistic is the English fencer/artist Frederick Townsend’s watercolour drawing of two ladies fencing under the watchful eye of their master, Baptiste Bertrand. An oil painting by Francois Brunery shows Bertrand shortly before he died in 1898.

Comte de Bondy v 
Lafaugere 1816

Lady foilists at Salle

Baptiste Bertrand
c. 1898

The second half of the century saw an enormous variety of fencing weapons appear on the market as a growing interest in the sport was matched by the technology to produce virtually any style required. Foils with finely embossed blades mounted in decorative hilts were made for presentation or were specially commissioned by individual fencers.

A magnificent case of foils dating from the French Second Empire period is lined with blue velvet and has the Napoleonic eagle stamped in gold at either end. Probably made for the son of a marshal, the beautifully decorated blades are just 74.5 cm long.

Case of foils, c. 1860

One pair of English foils on display has pineapple-shaped pommels and embossed blades stamped with a king’s head; their solid brass butterfly shell guards bear the inscription A J Richards, Radley College, 1862. The blades are among the first to be stamped with the number 4 which, together with No. 5, began to appear on foils from the mid-19th century. Why these numbers were chosen and who began the practice is now lost in the mists of time.

Other foils on display have guards decorated with acanthus leaves, anchors, military trophies, skull and crossbones, geometric patterns and even winged cherubs entwined with serpents; pommels include those in the form of a knight’s helm, plumed helmet, hooded skull and female head with feathered headdress.

19th c. foil hilts

German, c. 1840

French, c. 1850

French, c. 1860

English, presented to A J
Richards, Radley College, 1862

English, c. 1870

French, c. 1870

French, c. 1880

French, c. 1880

English, c. 1880

English, presented
 to W J Bourn, 1887

Blade etched by Souzy, Paris, c. 1880

Blade blued and gilded by Wilkinson, Pall Mall, c. 1890

Decorative blade from Solingen, c. 1890

Elstree School prize from Angelo’s School of Arms, 1892

The last quarter of the 19th century saw the introduction of epee and sabre as fencing weapons. The épée de salle was exactly the same as its sharp counterpart except for the addition of a buttoned tip and the museum has several early examples with comparatively small steel cup guards. One ingenious design, well ahead of its time when advertised in 1894, incorporates a square pin under the guard, which secures the blade and can be easily unscrewed to allow a new blade to be fitted. As well as heavy army practice swords and an example of the first light fencing sabre, pairs of decorative French duelling epees and Italian duelling sabres are on display.

French epee,
c. 1870

French duelling
 rapiers, c. 1890

French epee,
c. 1890

French school
 prize, 1891

French patented epee,
c. 1894

Italian sporting sabre, 
c. 1875

Italian duelling sabres, 
c. 1890
The evolution of the mask can be seen from a simple face cover, followed by the addition of ear and forehead protectors and a rudimentary bib, to the full foil mask with leather bib or throat protector introduced in the late 19th century. Unusual examples on display include a mid-19th century Cossack sabre model with an extraordinary steel basket head protector, a singlestick mask made of wickerwork and a beautifully designed turn-of-the-century Italian sabre mask.

French, late 18th c.

Russian, c. 1850

French, c. 1870

Italian, c. 1900
At the end of the 19th century bronze and spelter figures became popular, particularly in France, and the museum has a few examples of fencers and duellists in characteristic poses.

Foilists in evening dress

Pupil and master

Epeeists by Raphanel