While most people have heard of the gladiators of ancient Rome, far fewer know of those who fought in London and other places in the British Isles and British colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Although these highly ritualized combats took place in locations as remote as Jamaica, Barbados, and rural Ireland, during the seventeenth century the most popular setting for such fights was undoubtedly the infamous “Bear Garden” in Southwark, London. In 1672, a Frenchman named Josevin de Rocheford visited the Bear Garden and observed:
“We went to the ‘Bergiardin’, where combats are fought by all sorts of animals, and sometimes men, as we once saw. Commonly, when any fencing-masters are desirous of showing their courage and great skill, they issue mutual challenges, and before they engage parade the town with drums and trumpets sounding, to inform the public there is a challenge between two brave masters of the science of defence, and that the battle will be fought on such a day.”
What followed these processions was violent and often gruesome. On the appointed day, to the sound of trumpets and beating drums, the two combatants would ascend the stage, strip to their chests, and, on a signal from the drum, draw their weapons and commence fighting. The combat would continue until one man conceded, or was unable to continue. In de Rocheford’s account, the combatants continue fighting while enduring horrific wounds, including severed ears, sliced-off scalps and half-severed wrists. Bouts occurred with different types of weapons, including longsword, backsword, cudgel, foil, single rapier, rapier and dagger, sword and buckler, sword and gauntlet, falchion, flail, pike, halberd, and quarterstaff. Although such fights were not intended to end in death, the wounds received were often serious enough to incur it.
During the 18th century, the ampitheatre of renowned fencer and pugilist James Figg became “the resort of all the most celebrated masters and mistresses of the art.” On Nov. 20, 1725, Guests Journal announced the imminent arrangement of a gladiatorial fight involving females:
“We hear that the gentlemen of Ireland have been long picking out an Hibernian heroine to match Mrs. Stokes, the bold and famous city championess. There is now one arrived in London, who by her make and stature seems likely enough to eat her up. However, Mrs. Stokes being true English blood (and remembering some of the late reflections that were cast upon her husband by some of the country folk) is resolved to see out ‘vi et armis.’ This being likely to prove a notable and diverting entertainment, it is not at all doubted but that there will be abundance of gentlemen crowding to Mr. Figg’s ampitheatre to see this uncommon performance.”
Years earlier, Stokes (under her maiden name Elizabeth Wilkinson) had bested a basket-woman named Hannah Hyfield in a bare-knuckles boxing match, and had later fought a fish-woman named Martha Jones, also with fisticuffs. Now, however, Mrs. Stokes proposed to enter a more dangerous sort of combat. Although I was not able to find an account of such a fight in 1725 (if the aforementioned challenge was indeed arranged), on October 1, 1726, “Mrs. Stokes,” it was reported, had found an able and willing antagonist in the person of Mary Welsh (or Welch).
“At Mr. Stoke’s Amphitheatre, in Islington Road, near Sadler’s Wells, on Monday next, being the 3d of October, will be perform’d a trial of skill by the following Championesses.
‘Whereas I Mary Welch, from the Kingdom of Ireland, being taught, and knowing the noble science of defence, and thought to be the only female of this kind in Europe, understanding there is one in this Kingdom, who has exercised on the publick stage several times, which is Mrs. Stokes, who is stiled the famous Championess of England; I do hereby invite her to meet me, and exercise the usual weapons practis’d on the stage, at her own amphitheatre, doubting not, but to let her and the worthy spectators see, that my judgment and courage is beyond hers.’
‘I Elizabeth Stokes, of the famous City of London, being well known by the name of the Invincible City Championess for my abilities and judgment in the abovesaid science; having never engaged with any of my own sex but I always came off with victory and applause, shall make no apology for accepting the challenge of this Irish Heroine, not doubting but to maintain the reputation I have hitherto establish’d, and shew my country, that the contest of it’s honour, is not ill entrusted in the present battle with their Championess, Elizabeth Stokes.’
Note, The doors will be open’d at two, and the Championesses mount at four.
N.B. They fight in close jackets, short petticoats, coming just below the knee, Holland drawers, white stockings, and pumps.”
It is not clear whether or not this fight came off, and if so, who was pronounced the winner. The next summer, however, another fight between Stokes and Welsh was announced. For some reason, this time two combatants were not deemed sufficient (or preferable), and thus it was announced that Mrs. Stokes’s husband James (a rival of Figg’s) would participate, as well as an additional male antagonist, who would fight on the side of Ms. Welsh:
“In Islington road, on Monday, being the 17th of July, 1727, will be performed a trial of skill by the following combatants.
‘We Robert Barker and Mary Welsh, from Ireland, having often contaminated our swords in the abdominous corporations of such antagonists as have had the insolence to dispute our skill, do find ourselves once more necessitated to challenge, defy, and invite Mr. Stokes and his bold Amazonian virago to meet us on the stage, where we hope to give a satisfaction to the honourable Lord of our nation who has laid a wager of twenty guineas on our heads. They that give the most cuts to have the whole money, and the benefit of the house; and if swords, daggers, quarter-staff, fury, rage, and resolution, will prevail, our friends shall not meet with a disappointment.’
‘ We James and Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London. having already gained an universal approbation by our agility of body, dextrous hands, and courageous hearts, need not preambulate on this occasion, but rather choose to exercise the sword to their sorrow, and corroborate the general opinion of the town than to follow the custom of our repartee antagonists. This will be the last time of Mrs. Stokes’ performing on the stage.’
—There will be a door on purpose for the reception of the gentlemen, where coaches may drive up to it, and the company come in without being crowded. Attendance will be given at three, and the combatants mount at six precisely. They all fight in the same dresses as before.'”
Although the outcome of this fight is not known, it was certainly not (as stated) Elizabeth Stokes’s “last time” on the fighting stage. On July 17, 1728, the following match was announced among the pages of the Daily Post. This, too, was to take place in an amphitheatre on the Islington Road, London:
“‘Whereas I, Ann Field of Stoke-Newington, ass-driver, well known for my abilities in boxing in my own defence wherever it happened in my way, having been affronted by Mrs Stokes, styled the European Championess, do fairly invite her to a trial of the best skill in boxing, for ten pounds, fair rise and fall; and question not but to give her such proofs of my judgment that shall oblige her to acknowledge me Championess of the Stage, to the entire satisfaction of all my friends.’
‘I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the city of London, have not fought in this way since I fought the famous boxing-woman of Billingsgate twentynine minutes, and gained a complete victory (which is six years ago); but as the famous Stoke-Newington ass-woman dares me to fight her for the ten pounds, I do assure her I will not fail meeting her for the said sum, and doubt not that the blows which I shall present her with, will be more difficult for her to digest than she ever gave her asses!'”
Weekly Journal, or The British Gazetteer. October 1, 1726
Castle, Egerton. Schools and Masters of Fence. London: George Bell and Sons, 1885
Chambers, W. R. Chambers’s journal of popular literature, science and arts, Volume 59. London: W. R. Chambers, 1882.
Palmer, Samuel. St. Pancras: being antiquarian, topographical, and biographical memoranda, relating to the extensive metropolitan parish of St. Pancras, Middlesex; with some account of the parish from its foundation. London: S. Palmer, 1870
Thornbury, Walter. Old and New London, a Narrative of Its History, Its People, and Its Places. London: Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., 1881