By Paul Wagner
It is a curiosity that British fencing sources are all but devoid of instructions on knife or dagger fighting. Continental medieval and renaissance sources generally spend a considerable time on defence from the dagger, both with a dagger and unarmed, yet no British source even mentions it, apart from a very brief and rather unsatisfactory chapter in Silver’s Brief Instructions, and Newcastle’s bold (and unrealised) claim that “Heer also I will shewe you howe a dagger by this methode, shall beate anye Sorde, pike, halberte, or partesan, or anye two handed weapons.”
Sir John Smythe, in his Certain Discourses (1590), having complained about English soldiers “should rather weare Rapiers of a yard and a quarter long the blades, or more, than strong short arming Swords”, also notes that:
“Long heavie Daggers also, with great brauling Alehouse hilts, (which were ever used but for private faries and braules, and that within lesse than these fortie yeres; since which time through long peace, we have forgotten all orders and discipline Militarie) they doo no waies disallow, nor find fault withall, but rather allowe them for their Soldiors to weare, than short arming Daggers of convenient forme & substance, without hilts, or with little short crosses, of nine or ten inches in the blades, such as not onely our brave Ancestors but al other warlike Nations, both in warre and peace, did weare, and use. By the which they evidently shew that they do very little consider how over-burdensome and cumbersome, such Alehouse Daggers are for all sorts of Soldiors, Piquers or Halbardiers against their enemies in squadron, Where, by proofe, reason and experience, in al battailes and other encounters, the nerenesse and prease being so great, short, strong, and light arming daggers are more maniable, and of greater executions amongst al sorts of armed men, than such long deformed Daggers, as aforesaid.”
What then was an “Alehouse Dagger”? It was not an uncommon weapon; in 1589 the Elizabethan writer John Lyly quipped that “hee that drinkes with cutters, must not be without his ale dagger”, and in 1622 the poet George Wither wrote:
“Of if there be ruffian that can swagger,
Make strange bravadoes, wear and ale-house dagger.
Instead of valour, quarrelling profess,
Turn hospitality to lewd excess”
Of more use is the description in 1598 by Thomas Nash:
“a swapping Ale-dagger at his backe, contayning by estimation, some two or three pounds of yron in the hylts and chape”
The Ale-Dagger also had another name, the less salubrious “Bum Dagger.” In Letting of Humours Blood, published in 1600, Samuel Rowland writes:
“The weapons that his humours do afford,
Is Bum-dagger, and basket hilted sword.”
“See you the huge bum Dagger at his backe,
To which no Hilt nor Iron he doth lacke?”
As one authority noted:
“The bum-dagger was evidently slung across the back in the region of the buttocks, available for prompt use by either hand. The ‘two or three pounds of yron’ was so much metal, added probably to give the weapon the property of a mace or knuckle-duster.Thus in another of Rowlands’ poems (‘Humors Looking-Glass”) one of the two diputants says to the other:-
My hilts shall braine thee like a maull:”
In 1617 Barnaby Rich noted:
“the fourth had a short sword, like that which we were want to call an Ale-house dagger, and that was trussed close to his side with a scarfe”
So the Ale-Dagger was a very long dagger, long enough to be classed as a short sword, with a large, heavy hilt. Smythe’s reference to “Alehouse hilts” confirms that it was the hilt of “two or three pounds of yron” that distinguished an Ale-Dagger from a normal dagger, and it is convincingly argued that:
“a ‘swapping’ or ‘huge ale-dagger with two or three pounds of iron in the hilt is…doubtless such an instrument as the ‘puissant sword’ of Hudibras with a ‘basket-hilt’ in which the knight, he adds, ‘could have warmed ale had he a mind to’”
Although extant examples are rare, the basket-hilted dagger is mentioned in numerous contemporary sources, such as by Ben Jonson during his trip to Scotland in 1617-18 and in Nathan Field’s Amends for Ladies (1618), where one character confirms the use of the basket hilt as a knuckle-duster that could “braine thee like a maull”:
“Why their whores strike ‘em with cans and glasses, and quart pots : if they have nothing by ’em, they strike ’em with the pox, and you know that will lay one’s nose as flat as a basket-hilt dagger.”
The English habit of wearing overly-long “daggers” is confirmed by a Royal proclamation of 1562 that banned “any Dagger above the length of xii inches,” and was probably as roundly ignored as similar proclamations about Rapier length; Joseph Swetnam, Master of Arms to Prince Henry (brother of Charles I), preferred very long daggers, advising “Let…thy Dagger be two foote, for it is better have the Dagger too long then too short” and both Swetnam and Silver recommended the “Close hilted dagger” (the same term Silver uses for a basket-hilt) because of the protection it affords the hand. Exactly such a weapon is illustrated by Miller, as well as appearing to be shown in the 1594 English edition of Di Grassi (where the elegant Italian illustrations in the original were usefully replaced by blocky woodcuts showing contemporary English arms and fashions).
Backsword and Dagger according to James Miller (1735)
William Harrison’s account of the weapons worn in civil life by Englishmen of the
period takes on new significance with the Alehouse Dagger in mind;
“Seldome shall you see anie of my countriemen aboue eighteene or twentie years old to go without a dagger at the least at his backe or by his side. . . . Our nobilitie weare commonlie swoords or rapiers with their daggers, as doth serving man also that followeth his lord and master. Some desperate cutters we have in like sort, which carrie two daggers or two rapiers in a sheath alwaies about them, wherewith in everie dronken fraie they are knowen to worke much mischiefe; their swords and daggers also are of great length, and longer than the like used in any other countrie, whereby ech one pretendeth to have the more advantage of his enimie.”
Detail from the English edition of Di Grassi (1594). Note the basket-hilts on both the sword and the dagger.
If the Alehouse dagger was the common form of English dagger from the mid 16th century (accoring to Smythe), surviving perhaps into the mid-18th century (according to Miller), then the lack of English instructional material covering dagger fighting becomes both explicable and expected. The nature of the weapon meant anyone familiar with Backsword or Singlestick play would easily be able to adapt their skills to the Alehouse Dagger without further instruction.
Silver’s short chapter on the dagger notes that “to this weapon there belongeth no Wards nor grips”; given the centrality of the left hand in European dagger defences, this first seems like a strange thing to say, but if the average dagger had a blade as long or longer than a human forearm, Silver’s advice to simply “keepe out of distance and strike or thrust at his hand, Arme, face or body, that shall press upon you…If he come in with his left legg forewards or with the right, do you strike at that part as soone as it shall be within your reach” make a great deal more sense. Silver confirms that dagger-on-dagger parries were possible (“if he defend blow or thrust with his dagger…”) but that it is not a good idea because a dagger can redirect or redouble an attack to the weapon arm too easily, even if parried (“if he defend blow or thrust with his dagger make you blow or thrust at his hand”), so “to this weapon there belongeth no Wards.” Only against “one as is foolehardy and will suffer himself to have a full stabb in the face or bodye to hazard the giving of Another, then against him you may use your left hand in throwinge him aside or strike up his heeles after you have stabbed him.” Thus Silver can conclude:
“Although the dagger fight is thought a verye dangerous fight by reason of the shortnes and singlenes thereof, yet the fight thereof being handled as is aforesaid, is as safe and as defensive as the fight of any other weapon.”
Even Newcastle’s outlandish claim that “I will shewe you howe a dagger by this methode, shall beate anye Sorde, pike, halberte, or partesan, or anye two handed weapons” is not, perhaps, entirely absurd if we imagine him with a heavy, two-foot long basket hilted “dagger” rather than a 10 or 12 inch rondel.
As anyone who have engaged in any knife-training can attest, the hands are extremely vulnerable to countercut when duelling with knives. In a culture where the primary use of the dagger was in “private faries and braules”, the technological solution of adding a basket hilt would be eminently sensible. There seems to have been no interest in concealable weaponry; the dagger was worn on the back for all to see, which might itself act as a warning that the wearer was not to be trifled with. Although short enough not to be a hindrance in the confines of a pub brawl, the weapon was long and heavy enough to be useful against a full-sized sword or rapier, and the solid iron hilt meant that the wielder always had access to non-lethal forms of defence by means of a blow to the head, rather than always having to resort to the blade.
Author’s reproduction of an Alehouse Dagger. Fitted with a 22 inch blade, and weighing 1.25kg (2lb 13oz), this weapon can stop a sword blow with ease.