English Country Backswording
English Country Backswording (ECB), called Singlestick play by the Victorians, is an ancient sport which was played at country fairs and revels for hundreds of years. The winner was the the first player ('Old Gamester') to draw an inch of blood from his opponent's scalp!
Today, we play to a safer set of rules- none the less painful for the inexperienced- wherein the winner is the first to score three 'Bloods' (hits to the head above the brow line). Bouts can last minutes- or in the case of some finals, over an hour.
Novice fighters often receive multiple bruises.
Seasoned champs can fight all day with barely a touch.
This is the essence of quality swordplay.
Sticklers call Gamesters to order
Photo taken at Letchworth Festival.
The Letchworth Cup is played on the last Sunday in June every year (except the notorious 2020) and attracts Gamesters from all over the UK and Europe.
A sport for everyone from the word Go.
English Country Backswording is an inclusive sport, and we have as many dynamic lady participants as males. The minimum age for a player is 16 (with parental agreement), and this may depend on local tournament rules.
The great thing about ECB is that you don't have to be a super-high grade to take part and win. Once a student has passed their first grading, they are qualified to take part in an ECB tournament. Obviously, experience counts, but with practice in-club and good coaching, every student should be able to take a good account of themselves, win or lose, and have a good time on the day. Some Champs have been in the early grades.
An ECB cudgel of regulation dimensions, equipped with a traditional leather pot.
The basics of ECB
Each Gamester fights with a wooden cudgel of regulation length which has been equipped with a leather 'pot'.
To score, a Gamester must hit the opponent on the head, scoring a 'Blood'. The first Gamester to score three Bloods wins the bout. Simple as that. Of course, the opponent is also trying to do the same thing- so equal attention should be paid to Defence as Offence. Those who concentrate solely on attack are often taken to the cleaners by a patient and skilful opponent!
One type of ECB fencing mask.
See the section on equipment for options
In the modern game, for safety must be paramount, each gamester wears a fencing mask of a type recognised by the ECBA, and a vambrace on the fighting forearm, or both arms if the player is ambidextrous (a useful skill!). The only other protection allowed are elbow guards, a box for the gentlemen, and breast protection for the ladies.
No other protection is allowed, and every part of the body except joints, the groin and back of the head is a legitimate target. This can lead to bruising and a technique called 'roasting', i.e. the targeting on one part of the body, is a legitimate attacking technique to try force the opponent to lower their guard.
"A little bit of pain never hurt anybody" - Guy Ritchie
The mindset of the Gamesters must be that their cudgel is a sharp steel sword, and that any blow received by such a steel blade would potentially be disabling, if not lethal. This mindset strives to engender quality swordplay.
In tournament, only one pair of Gamesters play in the Ring at any time. The bout is is supervised by two Sticklers (referees), both seasoned Gamesters themselves, who have passed the Sticklers' assessment.
The bout begins with the Chief Stickler calling the players to order with the call: "Players! Take your positions!"
The two gamesters meet in the centre on the Ring, with the Sticklers at right angles to them, the Sticklers' staffs angled between them to separate the Gamesters (historically preventing the players from making pre-emptive strikes)
Safety check: The Sticklers check the gamesters' cudgels, pots, and safety equipment.
The Chief Stickler calls: "In your own time!"
The Gamesters raise their cudgels in the air and respond: "God save our eyes!" - for back in the day when no head protection was worn, a misplaced strike could blind a player for life. This call has been adopted as the motto of the ECBA, even though the vast majority of members are not churchgoers!
Settling in: The Chief Stickler calls: "Players ready!" and the Gamesters fall back into the guard known as True Guardant (from the works of George Silver approx. 1600)
Game on!: One final visual check by the Sticklers, the call of "Bout!" is given by the Chief Stickler, and both Sticklers raise their staffs and step back a pace as the bout commences.
Depending on the style of the fighters, engagements are hard and fast or slow and circling. The best fights are a combination of all these tactics. Some fighters like to wear their opponents down by making swift sniping strokes at the body, others wear them down by avoiding contact and making the opponent run around. Simply avoiding contact by both parties is not allowed, however. The Sticklers may insist that the fighters engage if they are 'playing it out' for too long.
To score a Blood, a gamester must strike his or her opponent with appropriate force (not too heavy, not too light) in the area above the brow line and in line with the ears. Place your hands with fingers spread on your forehead to get the idea of the target zone.
No other blow to the head will score- the area just above the ears is a bone of contention in many a bout- remember, the sticklers' rule is law! Any blow to the back of the head is illegal, and may result in a warning. Ducking your head to one side to avoid the blow is also dangerous and if your opponent hits you as you are doing so, the Warning could very well be awarded the other way!
Scoring and winning
If a Blood is scored, or appears to have been scored, the sticklers call 'HALT' and the fighters and sticklers reset in the centre of the ring. The sticklers quickly confer, and either confirm the blood or disallow the strike. The score is called, and the bout is re-started.
The first Gamester to successfully place three bloods is the winner, and this is announced to the onlookers.
Old Gamesters and Sticklers
Letchworth Cup finalists 2018
Notably one competitor came all the way from Poland to Hertfordshire to fight! And won a medal for his efforts.
The stunning backdrop for the Dover's Hill championship in Gloucestershire.
An all-day tournament is fought in two stages: The pool rounds, and the Finals.
At the commencement of the tourney, each player is assigned a number at random.
There are usually four or five fighters in a pool, so every Gamester gets a chance to have at least four fights before the knockout rounds. Numbers of entrants and available time and weather can change the situation, and every day is different.
At the end of the pools, the scores are totted up and every outright winner of the pool goes through to the final. Those with an equivalent numbers of wins are then judged on the numbers of bloods received. Those with the least bloods taken against them are judged the higher scorers, and can proceed to the next round.
There are either four or eight finalists, depending on the circumstances of the day. (It's usually four, to give everyone a fair chance of a good set of fights through the day. Some players travel a long way, and to get knocked out after just a few attempts, especially for novice gamesters, can be very discouraging, and isn't in the spirit of the sport.)
The finalists enter the knockout stage. The two winners of the semi-finals go forward to play for Gold and Silver medals; the two runners-up play for the Bronze medal (and the Finalist medal, if available)
The winner takes the cup or Prize (depending on the tournament.)
And we all go down the pub.
Great fun, good camaraderie, and a great day out in the fresh air. Partners and family are all welcome at ECBA events. Many ECBA tourneys are played at other festivals.
The crowd gathers at Colchester Medieval festival
Some ECB events are sponsored by period event organisers and our gamesters need to wear period kit. Not such an onerous outlay as you'd expect- and regular students often have spare gear to lend out. It's a great fun weekend as we all camp out together (or stay in the local Premier Inn!)
Cumulative Tournaments, such as the Oyster Fayre Cup, are played over several weeks in club, with the finals fought at major outdoor event.
These tend to be club-intensive events, with the pool rounds or ladder fought during normal club sessions. Eight finalists are chosen, and the resulting fights are duelled out in a series of eight fights over the two days of the hosting event's weekend.
Founding father of modern ECB, Pete 'Buzzsaw' Holland
As a side note, in parallel with the ECB finals, we also run the Valour Cup tourney at Colchester to make a full and fine fighting weekend. The Valour Cup, initiated for the Queen's Jubilee, is an armoured or semi-armoured contest run on a pool system over two days. This is a steel sword competition, based on sword and buckler, and, although it is a serious competition, a certain amount of theatricality was introduced at an early stage, so we also play for laughs as we entertain the audience with in-fight banter and tongue-in-cheek set pieces and intros. So far, we have the mix of drama, competition, fighting excellence, theatrical swordplay, comedy and savage onslaught balanced as if on the point of a fine dagger!
One of our fighters - The Black Knight- even has a fan following!