If I asked you when was the first historical European Martial Arts tournament what would you say? 1997? 2003?
Not even close.
How about where? America? Great Britain? Germany? France?
No, none of the above.
What if I told you that the earliest known tournament took place in a region of the globe which we probably don’t hear enough about, but which surely deserves to be known across the HEMA community: Quebec.
Yes. The first ever tournament took place on the island of Montreal in… 1889. Who was heading this tournament? Perhaps Alfred Hutton on a trip in Canada? Or how about one of those French guys from the Olympics? No, it was another HEMA pioneer. One which is, unfortunately, unknown to us, because he did not leave us any manual, but an interesting figure all the same: David Legault.
David Legault at the time of the first Montreal tournament in 1889
Who was David Legault? Born in Deux-Montagnes in Quebec around 1851, Legault had a relatively quiet childhood. As he turned 18, he decided to leave for London. It is in this city where he will meet with Maître Pons Aîné; a famous Parisian fencing master. (Le Monde Illustré, July 6, 1889)
Born in 1793, Pons Aînée – or the Old Pons- was a former soldier of Napoleon’s great army who became a fencing master in 1819 in the 5th Royal Artillery Regiment. The same year he will fight a duel with his former master, Figuière, ending with Pons’ blade in the old master’s shoulder. Coming to Paris, he will be named the fencing master of the famous Académie d’armes, a position he will be holding until 1882. (Amateurs et salles d’armes de Paris, 1886) During his time, he will instruct many famous characters including Napoleon III and Richard Francis Burton. (The Sentiment of the Sword, Richard Burton)
Richard Francis Burton in fencing gear. It is not impossible that Legault and he met.
It is quite likely that Legault followed Pons to Paris as he became a provost under the old master. It is unclear if Legault got to meet with some of the figures of early HEMA such as Hutton or even Burton, but it is not impossible, as Pons was a real monument in the fencing world at the time and received and traveled frequently. But as Pons maintained quite a “museum” of fencing in his salle, and Hutton only really became active in HEMA after Legault left Europe, it is not impossible then that he became interested in HEMA on his own.
Legault came back to Montreal around 1882. There were very few qualified fencing instructors in town at that time, and the art was going through a revival. His friends then encouraged David to open up a fencing salle in the former Institut Canadien, a learned French Canadian society which regularly drew the wrath of the Catholic Church. There he will teach not only swordsmanship but also boxing, savate, wrestling, great stick, and gymnastics. He will try to introduce the model inside Quebec schools, with more or less success, but his regular classes will grow in popularity, and Legault will decide to change the nature of his club; which will become known as the Guard of the Archiepiscopal Palace (Garde du Palais archiépiscopal). This group acted as an honorary guard to the Catholic archbishop of Montreal, as well as a sort of militia to prepare men for military service. Several similar groups will be created across the province, all of them teaching fencing. Volunteering in the Canadian army and various official militia units, which were mostly English speaking, was not very popular with French Canadians, and many turned toward these groups instead.
The Institut Canadien building where Legault gave his lessons
Seven years later, in July 1889, the association will carry a tournament, which will not only include foil and saber, but also wrestling, jousting and rapier and dagger based on the writings of Saviolo. (Le Monde illustré, July 27, 1889)
The tournament with Greco-Roman wrestling and rapier and dagger fencing according to Saviolo
Rapier and dagger by Vicentio Saviolo in 1595
The tournament was held in the middle of a horse racing track; Lépine Park. The ancient styles made Legault relatively famous, and he was invited to demonstrate in the U.S., namely at a gathering of the Patriarch Militants in Springfield City Hall in Massachusetts in 1893. He and his students demonstrated not only Saviolo’s techniques but also some “13th century fencing”; or perhaps his own idea of it. His banner and portrait were exhibited at a local store called Forbes & Wallace. (Springfield Republican, February 22, 1893)
The old City Hall of Springfield where Legault gave his demonstration in 1893. It was destroyed by fire in 1905
The club became increasingly successful, making Legault a very popular man in the city. This, in turn, led to his nomination as chief of police in 1901, a position he held for only three years. In 1904, a scandal erupted: David Legault was accused of having taken bribes from local brothels by their owners. Although the accusations were never officially proven, Legault decided to resign from his position to quell the protests.
David Legault as chief of Montreal Police. This portrait and another one are curiously held by the British Library, which might indicate that Legault went back to England following the scandal
Unfortunately for us, it seems that this spelled the end of HEMA in Montreal for nearly a century. Absolutely nothing else can be found on Legault after his resignation, and the Montreal police destroyed many of their archival documents in the 1970’s, including every mention of their former chief. It seems that his group was dissolved and possibly replaced by Olympic fencing which was rising in popularity.
Whether Legault was truly guilty of these crimes or not, he stays one of the first pioneers of HEMA and unjustly one of its lesser known figures. Learning more about his life may lead us to discover more about the early history of the movement.
Some readers commented about this article mentioning that there were indeed older events which could be declared “the first HEMA tournament”. These two events are the Eglington Tournament of 1839 and the Tournament of Philadelphia in 1778. While both these events are without doubt much older than the Montreal tournament, there are certain problems when comes the time to consider if they represent HEMA. In my opinion two things are necessary to establish if the tournaments were indeed HEMA: Were they actually practicing martial arts and was there a clear intention to reconstruct and/or study the martial techniques of the past?
The Eglinton tournament was held in Scotland in 1839 and represented one of the first reenactments of a Medieval event. Among the many activities jousting and foot, melees were part of the main attractions and even though the rain all but ruined the event, it became a catalyst for the Gothic Revival movement of the time.
The melee at Eglinton
The Philadelphia tournament, or Mischianza took place on the 18th of May 1778. It was part of festivities to mark the departure of Sir William Howe, the former commanding officer of the British Forces during the American Revolution. It is unclear if the fights held that day were only theatrics or actual combat but they were clearly a form of romantic reenactment.
A watercolor sketch by John André illustrating his own costume used during the Mischianza in 1778
While jousting and melees were clearly created for the warrior aristocracy, and that their martial skills could be very well applied to them, they are usually not referred to as martial arts but rather as combat games, or as people referred to them back then as Hastilude. The rules which were in effect made these activities somewhat abstract ones. The aim is not so much to develop martial abilities -even though it can be a byproduct- but first and foremost to participate in a martial game. The rules prohibit many useful moves (especially when fighting in armor) and represent more of a means to an end. Martial arts are intended principally for war and self-preservation, jousting is intended for jousting itself.
One of the principal aims of the HEMA movement as it was developed during the late 19th century and subsequently in the late 20th was to rediscover how our ancestors individually fought in a life or death situation. The equipment, clothes, and overall historical decorum take a back seat to the techniques themselves. Jousting reenactments were reconstructed with a different optic in mind; rather to replicate the games and rituals of the Medieval aristocracy. Few people today consider modern bohurt or jousting to constitute HEMA. Historical Medieval Battle, for example, is not considered HEMA as it does not seek to understand how Medieval knights fought, but rather to replicate the martial games that they played. Replicating the exact techniques used is secondary; if it is a preoccupation at all.
Which leads us to our second criteria: HEMA’s goal is to understand -through proper methodology and the use of historical sources -the martial arts of our ancestors. While there are various documents on the rules of these engagements, the jousting reenactments were not made with the aim of studying the combat styles and techniques, but rather the game itself. In this regard I think they would surely qualify as some of the first tourney reenactments, but not HEMA.