Sir John Smythe

Sir John Smythe

How Long a Sword is Too Long?

three male peacocks and a female peacock on a concrete staircase next to a Baroque castle garden
Just before the plague hit, I took this photo. Schloss Ambras, February 2020.

Experience making and using low-tech kit is very valuable, but our experience is usually limited. Most of us have experience either using our weapons on foot or on horseback, but rarely equal experience with both. Most of us have experience in friendly or competitive play, but not in murdering or defending our lives. And Rory Miller and Marc MacYoung (not to mention Alexander Pope) teach us that someone who has survived one assault or won one championship tends to proclaim themself an expert and pronounce that everyone should do what worked for them. So we always have to question what of our experience does not apply as widely as we think it does. I like to fill in the gaps of my own experience by listening to others, such as the grandfather of all English blowhards, Sir John Smythe of Little Badow.

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What if the Armada Had Landed?

A parade with men in full armour on armoured horses and a thick cluster of pikes in the background
A good Protestant Englishman’s worst nightmare: Ermanni and Jacopo Ligozzi, fresco with a Cavalcade of Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII into Bologna, 1570s, from the Casa Fumanelli a Santa Maria in Organo, Verona, now in the Museo degli Affreschi, Verona, no. 1466

As it became clear in 1587 and 1588 that the Spanish were really going to send a fleet to collect the Army of Flanders and carry it across the channel to Kent or Essex, the English alternated between panic and self-delusion. No town in England had modern fortifications so the English put their trust in garrisons in temporary earthworks or “sconces” along threatened sections of coast. The Dutch had great success with sconces, and the militia was replacing its old bills and longbows with modern pikes, arquebuses, and muskets and surely that would be enough? Sir John Smythe of Little Badow, a crusty old veteran who had served in the wars on the continent, tells us what he thought of the English plan after spending the summer in Elizabeth’s camp at Tilbury:

I say, that if anie such as doo hold that won∣derfull opinion of the effects of Mosquettiers (how good soldiers soeuer they thinke themselues) were at anie Hauen in England with fiue or sixe thousand of the best Mosquettiers that they euer saw of our Eng∣lish nation, without 〈…〉 of horsemen and foot∣men of other weapons to backe them, I thinke they would worke verie small effect against the Enemie landing, although they had ensconsed themselues (as they terme it) in such Sconses as they and their Engi∣ners formed this last sommer 1588. vppon the Sea coasts of Suffolke, and in Essex and Kent, on both sides of the riuer of Thames. For if they should see a Nauie with an Armie of thirtie or fortie thousand men (be∣sides seamen, and such as should be left for the gard of the shipps) vnder some notable and sufficient General enter into anie capable Hauen of England, with wind and weather fit for their purpose, with intention to inuade (which God forbid) they should finde them∣selues in their opinions wonderfullie deceiued.

And Smythe is having a good rant, so he tells us exactly what would happen:

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