Fiction The Highwayman

The Highwayman’s Quarry – Swordplay

Errol Flynn sword fight image
“If this were a real sword fight, we’d both be bloody messes by now.”

(One in an occasional series of posts on the background material for my novel, Daring and Decorum. See the rest of the series here.)

When I decided to include a sword fight in Daring and Decorum: A Highwayman Novel (and how could I not, with Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword as a primary influence?), I faced several problems.

First, how realistic should the fight be? A duel with swords in the 1790s was nothing like what we might imagine from swashbucklers such as Robin Hood or Pirates of the Caribbean. As these two articles by fight choreographer Terry Kroenung point out, they were vicious, bloody affairs, and much deadlier than duels with pistols.

Hollywood has corrupted our concept of the sword duel.  It too often presents us with a pair of evenly-matched, exquisitely-talented, professionally-trained fencers whose icy demeanor never cracks as they thrust and parry with elegant abandon, like a pair of psychic ballet dancers. While that makes for good theatre, it would not have been the norm in late Georgian England.

While verisimilitude is great in a historical novel, it’s also a work of fiction, and therefore entertainment. I went more for the “good theatre” aspect as I had Robin, the highwayman, face Anthony Cranford, Viscount Burnside. The fight needed to have an arc, not to mention opportunity for dialogue, so a few quick slashes and thrusts wouldn’t work. (In this conversation on genre, Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro talk about the differences between lightning-fast samurai sword fights and the more drawn-out, swashbuckling western style). Also, since the goal of this scene was more revelation than mayhem, both combatants needed to survive relatively unscathed.

But why are my characters using swords at all? By the 1790s, the sword had given way to the pistol as the favored dueling weapon. I had to invent a reason, or several, for the opponents to resort to the older weapons, including the risk of a stray ball to Elizabeth (the protagonist-narrator) and also the highwayman prodding the young lord’s ego:

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I even had to invent a reason for the young lord to accept the highwayman’s challenge, because no nobleman would stoop to dueling a commoner. To prolong the fight with a minimum of gore, I made the opponents an unequal match, each with different advantages and disadvantages. As Robin suggests, Anthony has had more formal sword training with a fencing master, and might have learned to fight something like this:


The highwayman, though also of genteel birth, never had such training (for reasons I can’t disclose here because SPOILERS), learning instead from a pair of London toughs who taught a variant of backswording more adapted to street fighting. Here’s a video with a bit of that fighting style’s history:


Anthony may have had the better training, but a season of dissipation has left him slow and prone to tire easily. Robin, on the other hand, keeps in practice as part of the highwayman’s trade.

European smallsword

The opponents also use different swords. Anthony holds a smallsword, the most common type of blade worn by the nobility at the time. The highwayman, on the other hand, uses a rapier. If you know the Alfred Noyes poem on which the novel is based, you’ll remember the line about the highwayman racing back to the Old Inn “with the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high.”

A rapier duel
A rapier duel

So I thought it only proper to give the highwayman a rapier. To justify the use of such an old-fashioned blade, I gave it a twisted kind of sentimental importance as an old family heirloom of Robin’s.

But surely the smallsword, as an outgrowth and “improvement” over the rapier, would give Anthony an advantage? Apparently not. At least one expert believes smallswords were designed mainly to work against other smallswords, giving up several advantages to the rapier. As the video below shows, the rapier’s greater length would give Robin the reach over Anthony:

(For everything you ever wanted to know about rapiers, and more, see this article.)

So the highwayman has two advantages in the length of blade and in more recent practice, but also has a handicap in that wounding or killing Anthony is the last thing the outlaw wants. Thus the fight takes longer than an actual duel of the period might have. The characters have plenty of time for give-and-take as the highwayman seeks to hold Anthony off without hurting him, hoping all the while that the young lord will turn and flee.

Having decided on this blocking, the next challenge was whether I could describe the duel in a convincing manner. Here, the first-person point of view came to the rescue. A great drawback of first-person is that the narrator can only relate those things he or she has witnessed. But my narrator’s ignorance proved blissful: a conventionally raised vicar’s daughter can hardly be expected to know a riposte from a coulé. Thus, Elizabeth simply describes what she sees:

At first, they merely stood there, their swords inches apart, the tips making small orbits about each other, while Robin made cutting remarks about the excellence of Anthony’s form, posture, and technique. Anthony attacked once or twice, lunging forward, but each time the highwayman repelled him.

“I see all those lessons have not gone to waste,” Robin said. Anthony remained silent, his face grim with concentration.

As the fight went on, it seemed to me that Anthony had more style and elegance, while Robin fought with the agility and ferocity of an alley cat. As their exchanges became more frenzied, the highwayman thrust and parried like a tom swiping with its claws, but then had to dart out of the way of Anthony’s more sophisticated counter-moves.


To find out how this duel turns out, you’ll need to read the novel. You can pre-order it through any of the links on this page.

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