Matters of gravity: Sir Isaac Newton’s combative student


The left fencer is getting ready to close with his curly-haired opponent.

Bunny’s Set-up: The left fencer is getting ready to close with his curly-haired opponent.

Wrestling and fencing still went hand in hand in the small 1727 manual of Sir Isaac Newton’s former student,  Sir Thomas Parkyns…

by J. Christoph Amberger

Over the centuries, Western masters of the noble art of defence (both armed and unarmed) have attempted to polish up their rough trade by considering and proclaiming their trade a science. Often, their written or printed works contain more or less convincing attempts at backing up their pricipal considerations with fundamental considerations of physics, geometry, and mathematics.

One of the earlier and by far oddest works to put contemporary European combatives into a scientific context was written and published privately by Sir Thomas Parkyns, Baronet of Bunny Park, in the county of Nottingham.

His Progymnasmata. The Inn-Play: or, Cornish Hugg Wrestler are not just “Digested in a Method which teacheth to break all Holds, and throw most Falls Mathematically” (1) but promise to be “not only Easy to be understood by all Gentlemen, &c. and of great Use to such who understand the Small-Sword in Fencing” but also“by all Tradesmen and Handicrafts, that have competent Knowledge of the Use of the Stiliards, Bar, Crove-Iron or Lever, with their Hypomochlions, Fulciments and Baits.”

This bow to the working man is unique in its way, but hardly meant seriously. The book was originally published in 1714 and apparently distributed exclusively to his aristocratic friends and wrestling scholars. A third edition, “corrected, with large Additions” was printed in London for Tho. Weeked at the White-Heart in Westminster Hall in 1727 and dedicated, with the stereotypical invocations of the usefulness of the following material to overall elevation of the national fighting spirit, to King George II.

While many of his aristocratic friends and cronies refer to themselves or allow themselves to be called his “scholars”, Parkyns is not a “master” proper. Rather, he is an enthusiastic amateur who immersed himself in wrestling while being a law student, maintained a strong relation with his teacher, and for years to come taught wrestling to friends. Parkyns makes clear that, while familiar with the effete world of fashion and nobility, his preferences are made of sterner stuff. At the end of the laundry list of celebrity and nobility, we find James Figg, “the Gladiator”. He also sponsored a Prize fight for over fifteen years. And the conditions for his tutelage are not for the faint or weak:

“I will receive no Limberhams, no Darling Sucking-Bottles, who must not rise at Midsummer, till eleven of the Clock, and that the Fire has air’d his Room and Cloaths of his Colliquative Sweats, rais’d by high Sauces, and his Spicy forc’d Meats, where the Cook does the Office of the Stomach with the Emetick Tea-Table, set out with Bread and Butter for’s Breakfast: I’ll scarce admit a Sheep-Biter, none but Beef-Eaters will go down with me, who have Robust, Healthy and Sound Bodies.” (p. 10)

The three editions of his book were published both for the sake of providing his friends with a printed collection of his thoughts and principles, as for his personal fame: Parkyns offended his contemporaries by having “marble effigies” made of himself in the first Posture of Wrestling. And “Marble and Books record the Wrestler’s Name,” as his poet friend Francis Hoffman puts it in 1727.

Bunny in the First Position

Bunny in the First Position


The apple and the tree

Parkyns considers himself a scientific wrestler. He quotes large segments from “Mandy’s and Moxon’s Mechanical Powers, who treat of the Lever, Stilliard, and Stroke of the Hammer,” (p. 23). The work quoted could be Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises: or, the doctrine of handy-works, intended to describe the chief trades of the day, which was issued in monthly segments, each number consisting of 16 pages and one or more engraved plates, and published since 1677. (But since it only concerns the periphery of this article, I will leave its proper identification to academicians with time on their hands and grant money to burn.)

But his scientific background is not merely the result of reading. In his youth, he must have possessed qualities that caught the eye of certifyable genius:

“I owe to Dr. Bathurst, my Tutor, and Sir Issac Newton, my Mathematick Professor, both of Trinity College in Cambridge: The latter, seeing my Inclinations that Way, invited me to his publick Lectures, for which I thank him, tho’ I was Fellow Commoner, and seldom, if ever, any such were call’d to them.” (p.12)

This is, of course, Sir Isaac Newton, author of the Principia Mathematica and the Optics, better known to mankind as the man who was hit in the head by an apple. Newton, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, left academia for the more lucrative government sector in 1696, to become Warden of the Royal Mint and, in 1700, Master of the Mint.

Later, when attending Grays Inn of Court, Parkyns was introduced to a Mr. David Cornish, of Cornwall county, who was to become his Inn-Play Wrestling Master. Parkyn’s attempt to collect and write down the techniques by Mr. Cornish were to form the cornerstone of his written work.

Cornish appears as a prize wrestler until at least 1714. A public prize fight at Cornish Huggs would take place in a roped, round ring at least thirty yards in diameter. Attendants were to number less than six to each side and they were contractually bound to remain at a distance of at least ten yards from the competitors. The “Gamesters” competed to throw each other “the first three falls, or to score three foils, three foils being counted as one throw.”

Parkyns’ term Inn-Play is juxtaposed to “Out-Play-Wrestling,” occasionally qualified as “Norfolk Out-Play”, the difference being the distance the contestants try to maintain between each other. A modern equivalent would be the difference between ju-jitsu, where both wrestlers seek close distance from the get-go, and aikido, where the contestants maintain a medium distance from each other. Inn-Play decided the outcome by an “indisputable Fall, the Head and Shoulders coming to the Ground first.” (p. 17) The advantage of the close wrestling techniques, according to Parkyns, lies in the preservation of strength, the lesser probability of sprains, and the added benefit that it was much harder to have one’s shins subjected to the painful raking of the opponent’s shoes.

Parkyns compares the Out-Play wrestling, with its plucking at the clothes and raking of the shins, to French Fencing, “which runneth much upon falsifying, taking and spending of Time, which appears to the Spectator’s Eyes, to be a much neeter and genteeler Way of Wrestling, than Inn-Play.”

 The benefit of Cornish Hugg-Wrestling is its applicability not only in system-immanent matches, but also in other combative contexts. Boxing matches, for example, were a bit more rough-and-tumble than even the bareknuckle pugilists of a later day.

Parkyns advises:

“By all means have the first Blow with your Head or Fist at his Breast, rather than at his Face; which is half the Battle, by reason it strikes the wind out of his body. (…) The best Holds are the Pinion with your Arms at his Shoulders, and your Head in his Face, or get your right Arm under his Chin, and your Left Behind his Neck, and let your Arms close his Neck strait, by holding each Elbow with the Contrary hand, and crush his Neck, your Fingers in his Eyes, and your Fingers of your left Hand under his Chin and your left Hand under the hinder Part of his Head; or twist his Head round by putting your Hand to the side of his Face, and the other behind his Head.” (p. 59)

Sir Thomas Parkyns is also a great proponent of the broadsword over the more fashionable smallsword. In a letter to Lord Thomas Manners, third son to the late Duke of Rutland, and one of his scholars, dated May 18, 1720, he ponders:

“By the Abridgment of the Duelling Act in the News-Papers, I find, the Masters of the Small-Sword may return their Foins, not into Pruning Hooks, &c. but into Trusses, Chains, and Collars, whilst they merit with the Small-Swords, to hansel the design’d weighin’ Stoops, and hang in the open air to make Mummy for the Apothecaries. Pray forget not to have your Broad-Sword, made according to my Pattern; for the Parliament has, and it will with your Postures in my wrestling-Book, cut the Small-Sword out of fashion.

Parkyns’ opinion of contemporary fencing masters is low and, in view of the recent proliferation of unaccredited fencing teachers of assorted historical “styles”, surprisingly modern:

“In like manner it often happens, that a Sweeper and Pump-Dresser, [who has gone] to a Fencing-School, for three or four Month’s, with a lac’d Hat, sets up for a Fencing Master in the County. (…) Every Man that carries a Fiddle, is not an Orpheus; neither is any Man that has been at a Fencing-School, six Weeks or two Months, a good Sword’s-Man, but I maintain the worse for it; because he is as conscious of his Ignorance, and Daring, he is easily beat out of his Small-Play and less Guard, being able only to make defensive Parrying, without advantageous Pursuits.” (p.13)

The Baronet of Bunny Park also has a good piece of advice for fencers finding themselves in a scrap with another man wielding a smallsword:

“He that will parry with his left Hand, (having on a long thick Glove,) must camp or stand low, lying open, and holding the Point of his Sword sloping downward, and wide out, and low, within a Foot of the Ground, but not so near as to stick in the Ground, and draw in his right Hanch, which is to bend well over his right Waistband, his left Hand must be in a Semi-circle advanc’d, be sure high enough, about a Span off, and before his Brow, and mind when his Adversary’s Shell advances, then ‘tis suppos’d the Thrust is a coming; then must his left Arm sling or swing Compass enough round his Adversary’s Sword, his left Arm being extended straight out, with the Palm outwards, and Fingers straight at length, with the back-side of his left Hand, over the inside of his left Knee, fetching the Compass with his Hand, about the height of the Pit of his Stomach; he must be sure not to throw his left Arm wide outwards, but as before, straight towards his right Knee. When he has secured his Adversary’s Sword, upon his home, and not half Thrust, and the longer his Adversary ’s Sword is, the better he may if he has a mind to kill him, (as a Swordsman) make a Thrust upon him, by advancing his right Foot; but if he has a mind to disarm him, and have him at his Mercy, (as a Wrestler) he must step forward with his left Foot, and throw his left Elbow over his Adversary’s right Feeble Wrist and Sword, and come in for the Gripes; if he will, he may throw his own sword from him, and take his Adversary’s Sword from betwixt their Bodies, he being disabled by that Lock from holding it fast, and kill him with his own Sword.” (p. 33 f)

This Inn-Play, so Parkyns, will secure a man playing at sharps far sooner, right after parrying his opponent’s thrust, by disarming him and “make use of the advantage, and close with him.” (p. 17).

A perfect reason to have gentlemen supplement their fencing skills by learning how to wrestle!

Footnote (1): Parkyns, Sir Thomas, Baronet of Bunny. Progymnasmata. The Inn-Play: or, Cornish Hugg Wrestler. Digested in a Method which teacheth to break all Holds, and throw most Falls Mathematically. Easy to be understood by all Gentlemen, &c. and of great Use to such who understand the Small-Sword in Fencing. London: Printed for Tho. Weeked at the White-Heart in Westminster Hall, 1727 (third edition, “corrected, with large Additions”. 


One response to “Matters of gravity: Sir Isaac Newton’s combative student

  1. Дизайнер. Куплю кровельные материалы
    Требуется плотник

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s