A Brief History of the Quarterstaff

Journal of Western Martial Art

May 2001

by Frank Docherty

The Quarterstaff has been known by many names, and throughout history has adopted them all at one time or another, some of them are:

The Quarterstaff was for centuries considered the weapon of the lower sections of society, although the nobility had a healthy respect for the Quarterstaff, which they also practised. In reality Quarterstaffing, as a fighting art reigned supreme in England for many centuries. The English art of Quarterstaffing has throughout the many centuries, gained its own individuality and traditions. Through the dedication of the men and women, who for generations have brought this majestic weapon forward into the 21st century, with the blood sweat and tears of hard practice, and hard knocks.

Unfortunately the spread and growth of quarterstaffing has been limited, often by the lack of available written information, or qualified teachers. Of course there is a wealth of information to be found in such places as the British library, but all this information found through research in these literary institutions needs to be studied and translated from books and manuscripts sometimes dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. The result of this, is that very few people know about, or practice the art of quarterstaffing today.

Research into English Martial Arts can, and is sometimes a very frustrating experience. But we have evidence from literary and Archaeological sources on many of the weapons and techniques used. It is known through these sources that the English warrior, and even everyday men and women used systematic training. They trained in an art probably already ancient to them, which had and has well understood combat moves that were part of a known fighting system. Literary and visual sources give many valuable clues as to weapons and techniques. Quarterstaffing is an ancient form of English stick fighting, and crosses all social boundaries. It is found from earliest times, throughout the middle ges, and into the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

"I might here speak of the excessive staves which divers that travel the waidoo carry upon their shoulders whereof some are twelve or fourteen foot long besides a pike of twelve....No man traveleth by the waie without his sword or some such weapon except it be the minister who commonly weareth none at all unless it be a dagger or hanger at his side "
(Description of England. William Harrison 1534-93)

The quarterstaff was, and is an extremely versatile weapon, it can be used as freely as the staff man wishes to use it. When used to strike or hit it is like a sword or battle axe, when used to thrust it becomes like a spear, strikes and thrusts can be from either side of the body. This makes it very difficult for any opponent to respond quickly to these attacks, that can change so readily from side to side, and from thrust to strike without pause. George Silver wrote about the quarterstaff as a reality. It was a weapon he used to fight and defend his honour with. His experiences of English quarterstaff fighting were from experience. In the following extract from his book Paradoxes of defence he said:

"The short staff hath the vantage against two swords and daggers, or two rapiers and poinards, and gauntlets, the reason and causes before are for the most part set down already, the which being well considered, you shall plainly see, that whensoever any one of the sword and dagger men, or rapier and poinard men shall break his distance, or suffer the staff man to break his, that man which did first break his distance, or suffer the distance to be won against him, is presently in dangr of death. And this cannot in reason be denied, because the distance appertaining to the staff man, either to keep or break, standeth upon the moving of one large space always at the most, both for his offence or safety. The other two in the breach of their distance to offend the staff man, have always four paces at the least therin they fall to great in number with their feet, and too short in distance to offend the staff man."

"Now there resteth no more to be spoken of, but how the staff man shall behave himself to keep that distance"

Silver also said:

"The short staff is most commonly the best weapon of all other, although other weapons may be more offensive, and especially against many weapons together, by reason of his nimbleness and swift motions, and is not much inferior to the forest bill, although the forest bill be more offensive, the short staff will prove the better weapon"

As a battlefield weapon the quarterstaff would be an oak or ash pole of about eight or nine feet in length, wih a circumference of about 4 and a half inches. It was a foot weapon of attack and defence. In attack it could be used for both the strike and the thrust. The pole would have been shod with iron at both ends. The weapon could be used at full range, or at very close range by changing the position of the hands on the pole. For hand to hand combat the quarterstaff was probably superior to the modern rifle and bayonet, and probably all rifle and bayonet whether modern or not. 

Now if we were to look at two combatants armed with the quarterstaff, the staff would be about eight feet in length and the wood is smooth, so that the hands can slip over it with ease. The staff is shod with iron at both ends. The staff fighters would be without any armour or head protection. Each would carry a dagger or short sword at his right hip, attached to a waist belt, and the fighters would regard head, collarbones, wrists, arms, knees, and ankles as the most vulnerable targets.

In an excerpt from the book 'The Land Of England" by Dorothy Hartley which was written in 1979 you can see some remnants of Quarterstaff lore have survived and even in this brief description you can see the practicalities of the quarterstaff.

"This 'stave' or 'Quarterstaff' was the standard defence of the pedestian for centuries. The fen men used it to pole-vault across their dykes and marshes ( they retained the grip on the pole, it being horizontal distance, not height, they needed ). As a weapon it required skill, and the training was strenuous. The heavy pole could be kept whirling in front as the man advanced so that no one could reach him through its spinning circle. It could be made to whirl horizontally above the head with such force that, at a spring from the ground, the weight of the pole carried him full circle to face another direction. It could also be flung up in the air after the manner of a band leader whose raised pole can be seen far back along the following procession. ( These ornate processional manouveres may have originated in the old quarterstaff skills. ) The pole could also be suddenly thrust foreward in a lunge capable of bursting a man's belly, or be brought down from above, to break his head"
( Dorothy Hartley, The Land of England, pages296-7 )

An Englishman named Richard Peeke was involved in an episode during the English, Spanish wars and is a tale of how effective the Quarterstaff can be in trained hands, as an excerpt from maister Terry Browns book English Martial Arts explains.

"In the year 1625 England and Spain were at war and Peeke was serving in an English naval squadron, under the command of the Earl of Essex, which was attacking a Spanish naval stronghold. After heavy and accurate bombardment the English captured the fortress, whereupon, they sent forces ashore to carry the attack inland. In the wake of the English landings sailors were sent ashore to forage for food. Richard Peeke, of Tavistock in Devon, was among them. Unwisely he foraged alone and paid the price for his mistake when he was attacked by a patrol of spanish musketers. After a furious fight, during which Peeke was wounded twice, he was captured and taken in chains to Cales ( Cadiz ). from there he was transfered to Xeres where he was put on trial. Present at his trial, which in reality was a miitary interrogation, were four Dukes, four Marquesses, and four Earls. After much questioning Peeke was asked if he thought that the Spanish soldiers present would prove such 'hennes' as the English when they landed in England the following yeare. "

"No" replied Peeke. "They would prove to be pullets or chickens."

Peeke's insolent reply brought forth an angry response from the Spaniards.

"Darst thou then ( quoth Duke Mdyna, with a brow half angry ) fight with one of these Spanish pullets."

Peeke replied that,

"...hee was unworthy the name of an Englishman, that should refuse to fight with one man of any nation whatsoever."

At this Peek's chains and shackles were removed and a space was created for him to fight a Spanish champion by the name of Tiago. Both were armed with Rapier and Poinard. The ensuing fight continued for some time before Peeke, using the guard of the poinard, trapped the blade of Tiago's rapier and simultaniously swept the Spaniards feet from under him. Peeke's rapier, held to the throat of senor Tiago brought forth the necessary capitulation. Spanish pride had been sorely wounded and it was demanded of Peeke whether he would be willing to fight another Spaniard. Peeke replied in the affirmative provided he was allowed to fight with.

"... mine owne countrrey weapon called the quarter - staffe."

Upon this remark the Spanish unscrewed the head from a Halbered to create a makeshift Quarterstaff. Armed with the weapon of his choice Peeke stood ready to meet his next challenger. However the Spanish were clearly no longer so confident in the prowess of their soldiers for, to Peeke's consternation, two Swordsmen stepped forward to fight him. Peeke sarcastically asked if more would like to join them. The Duke of Medyna asked how many he desired to fight.

"Any number under sixe". replied Peeke.

The Duke smiled scornfully and beckoned a third man to join the original two. Peeke and the rapier men warily traversed each other, all the while thrusting and warding, till finally Peeke gambled on an all out attack. His first blow a left one of his adversaries dead and his subsequent blows left the other two injured and disarmed. No doubt they also left the spanish seriously questioning the wisdom of their invasion plans. Peeke's feat so impressed his Spanish captors that they released him and granted him safe conduct to England.

A tale to warm the heart of every Englishman, but the realities of the quarterstaff were far more gruesome, as a report from 1527 shows.

On the 4th of September, John Strynger late of Babworth, laborour, assaulted Henry Pereson of Babworth with a staff worth 1d. Which he held in both hands, striking him on top of the head so that his brains flowed out and giving him a wound 1 inch deep, 2 inches wide and 3 inches long of which he immediately died. Thus John feloniously murdered him, and immediately afterwards he fled about 9am and escaped. Robert Bramley, a man of good reputation and standing, first found Henry dead. ( J.C.Holt Robin Hood Pages 170-71 )

Although the quarterstaff is seen as a weapon of film and television by modern society may be even a weapon of myth, the reality as we have just read were very different, the quarterstaff, was not known as the king of weapons for nothing.

If we now travel back in history to documents written between 1540 and 1590 we can see written evidence of the English Maisters of defence. The officially recognised teachers were the company of maisters, these documents record the playing of prizes. The order of playing the free schollers prize, the Provosts prize, and the maisters prize. The playing of prizes was a very public affair, with the posting of bills declaring that a prize was to be played, which was an open invitation to any man to come along and challenge the player of the prize. The prize playing in London was held at a number of Inne's and playhouses, such as the Bull in Bishopsgate, Leaden hall, at the Greyfriars at Newgate, and at the Tower royal, salisbury court, Rochester house, Bridewell palace, and at the castle inn in Holborn. But the prefered places for the playing of prizes were the belsavage on Ludgate hill, and the Bull in Bishopsgate.

The company of maisters were a well organised company and made provision for aged maisters, the welfare of it's practitioners, the hiring and teaching of qualified teachers, as well as financial matters and the relationship of the company to the outside world. Following are some of the prizes played, where the quarterstaff was one of the weapons used.

William Pascall Plaid his maisters prize at the Leadenhall with three maisters, that is to say, Humphrey Basset, Roberte Cooke, and William Hunt, at iiij kinde of weapon videlicet the Long sword ( two hand sword ) the backsworde, the dagger, and the quarterstaff. Provost prize at the session hall without Newgate at iii weapons, the long sword, the backsworde, and the quarterstaff, with three provosts, William Hunt, John A Woode, and Robert Grene. Played his Schollers prize at Estham with xiiij scollars, at backsword, and the quarterstaff. Richard White plaid his provost prize at the leaden hall, at the long sword, backsword, and quarterstaff, with Edward Britten, and John Barfett. Robert Edmunds plaid his maisters prize at the whitehall before King Philip and Quene Marie at iii kinds of weapon, long sword, backsworde, and quarterstaff, thear played against him two maisters, Richard White, and Thomas Weaver.

All Quarterstaffs were made to the individual's stature, a description for measuring the length of a quarterstaff required for the individual was given by George Silver.

"You shall stand upright, holding the staff upright close to your body with your left hand, reaching with your right hand youre staffe as high as you can, and then allow to that length a space to set both your hands when you come to fight, wherein you may conveniently strike, thrust and ward, and that is your just length to be made according to your stature. And this note, that those lengths will commonly fall out to be eight or nine foot long"

The art of teaching the Art of the quarterstaff was still strong in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially among the boy scouts (see image above left). One fairground version of quarterstaff play was fought on a narrow plank of wood, over a river or stream, the idea was to thrust rather than knock your opponent into the water. The quarterstaff also had it's place in judicial combat, the defeated party being supposed as the guilty party.

The quarterstaff as a weapon was as popular as ever and flourished all over London, James Figg had his famous school of defence in or near Tottenham court road in London. Figg was a reknowned maister with the sword, and quarterstaff, as well as the bare knuckle boxing champion of England.

In the eighteenth and nineteenh centuries the quarterstaffs were generally shorter than the battlefield version. This gladiatorial weapon was about six foot in length. As the art became a gladiatorial form of combat, as well as a sport, the quarterstaff's cuts were numbered. And these amounted to seven major blows. The guardant postures used to protect the staff man from the various blows were quite simple in nature. There were four guards altogether and in the 1890s, were given the labels of C-D, C-D prime and A-B, A-B prime.

The broadsword target was used by quarterstaff players in the 19th century. This is the form quarterstaffing took after many years as a sport, and had degenerated from a battlefield art to a combat sport, but although I say degenerated, I mean no disrespect to the stage gladiators as they were formidible men, as was their quarterstaffing, but compared to the battlefield art, was far from worthy.

When dealing with the cuts and thrusts of the 19th century quarterstaffing the ordinary broadsword target is the place to look. The cuts were as follows:
1 to 4
2 to 3
3 to 2
4 to 1
5 to 6
6 to 5
7 to 0 the centre of the target.

The guards are easily recognised when these targets are looked at, and are such that they can ward off the blows in as easy a manner as possible. For a cut from 2 to 3 the staff would be held in C to D. For a cut from 1 to 4 the staff would be held in A to B The cut from 1 to 4 would usually be made with the butt end of the staff, due to the fact that the grip would be near a half staff grip. The guards illustrated in figure three would cover almost any attack, except a downright blow which would call for a St. George's guard. For cuts 6 to 5, 2 to 3, C to D is the guard. For cuts 4 to 1, 6 to 5, and 2 to 3, C' to D' prime is the guard. In battlefield quarterstaffing there are seven guards altogether. R.G.A.Winn a 19th cntury master at arms, and an expert with the quarterstaff, Saber, and Singlestick, wrote in his book Broadsword & Singlestick

"The quarterstaff gets it's name from the fact that it was gripped at the quarterpoints, and the centre of the staff. With the left hand at the centre, ( palm upwards ) and the right hand at the lower quarterpoint, ( palm down ) This gives a three foot point end, and a very useful eighteen inch butt end. ( this may give the length of Winns staff of about six foot ) the grip was changed by releasing one hand only, and swinging the staff to catch it appropriately for the next technique or strike. "

Winn's description of using thrusts says:

"As regards "points" it is well to lunge out, as one does when making a left handed lead off in boxing, so as to gain somewhat in the reach. points, which should be used with care in friendly bouts, are generally made with the point of the staff, but may also be effected with the butt; and this is the casewhen the combatants have come to rather close quarters, at the quarterstaff play, the men should then be started by the master of ceremonies at a distance of about ten or twelve feet".

So as you can see, Silver when talking about the quarterstaff refered to it as a weapon for the defence of ones life, whereas Winn thought it only a sport. According to C. Phillips Wolley an acknowledged expert with the quarterstaff, Saber and Singlestick. who in 1896 wrote in the all England series, Handbook of athletic games. He urged students to learn other forms of self defence, displaying Britain's rich martial heritage, before working with the staff.

"If quite unaquainted with fencing, broadsword, stick play or bayonet exercise, never be tempted into a bout with the quarterstaff, as this is a game at which feeling is apt to run somewhat high occasionally. "

Citing that, due to the fact that although combatants are well padded, and protected, accidents and quite severe injuries did occur. There have been many events that caused the near extinction of the traditional martial arts of England. The arts went into decline due to the integration into the art of war of firearms, this spelt the decline of the long bow,and many close quarter systems of combat. As we know the English were the foremost gun makers in the west at one time. The introduction of guns began during the fourteenth century. The first reference to a gun is in 1326 in an illuminated manuscript made for Edward III by his chaplain, this illustrates a cannon being fired, but it is firing an arrow rather than shot or ball.

The art of Quarterstaffing today is undergoing a revival, and one of the foremost experts is Maister Terry Brown, who has revived the Company of Maisters, and is teaching authentic English Martial Arts .This great art is still alive and kicking.


General and Historical Works:

Anglin,J.P. Autumn 1984 the schools of defence in Elizabethan London.

Castle,E. 1884 Schools and masters of defence

Holt, J.C. 1989 Robin Hood

Hutton, A. 1867 Swordsmanship and Bayonet fencing

McCarthy, T. A. 1883 Quarterstaff

George Silver Paradoxes of Defence Brief Instructions

Swetnam, J.1617 the school of the noble and worthy science of defence

Winn,R.G.A. 1890 Broadsword and singlestick

Wilde Zachary 1711 the English master of defence

Journal of Western Martial Art

About the author: is an English Martial Arts practitioner with 18 years training in various martial arts and who is the Assistant Instructor to Ancient Maister Terry Brown in the English Martial Arts. His interest lies in theBroadsword, Backsword, Sword & Buckler, Sword & Dagger,Bastard Sword, Two Hand Sword, Quarterstaff, Bill Hook, Threshalls, Knife work based on Silvers System and Principles, and bare Fist Fighting. Mr. Docherty has a Shodan in Jodo ( Japanese Stick fighting ) a black sash in five animals kung fu, is a kickboxing Instuctor, and a shodan in Iai Jutsu.