One of the original HEMA practitioners in Arizona, Richard Marsden began studying under Greg Hinchcliff, and later Jim Barrows. In 2011, Marsden and John Patterson established the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship. More recently, Marsden has authored two HEMA: one on Polish sabers and European martial arts in their contexts. All images provided by Richard Marsden.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Richard Marsden! Thank you for taking some time to talk to us about the modern HEMA revival movement!
Richard Marsden: I’m happy to be here; lay on the questions!
MAYTT: You began training HEMA at fifteen after you were “dragged by a self-proclaimed Hawaiian Prince” to your first practice. What about those first practices got you hooked to HEMA? Does that initial aspect still inspire you to continue your training today?
RM: This is true, Nick Kalanawani Maki Among brought me to the first sword fighting group I was a part of for many years, the Loyal Order of the Sword. I was very young and so being a part of something was a thrill as was the fighting. Years with the Loyal Order made them a second family. Today, I have my own club and my own family of a sorts. I like watching my students develop and grow and it is nice to know that as I teach them HEMA they in turn will teach it.
MAYTT: With that being said, your first practice was with a local Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA) chapter in the 1990s. In your experience, how influential was the SCA in the modern HEMA revival movement, if at all? Was there a more prominent organization to HEMA in those early years?
RM: I was part of an SCA-like group and we quickly formed our own organization, the Loyal Order of the Sword. While we knew fencing manuals existed, we actively ignored them. We fought ourselves and others and were doing so well we thought, “why bother?” It wasn’t until I was older that I started to appreciate and teach from the sources.
The SCA and groups like it were useful and instrumental in HEMA. Many HEMA guys today in the United States of America probably came out of a group like the SCA. Some SCA fencers do teach from the manuals and try to adapt it to what they are doing, and I appreciate that.
MAYTT: What was the training like when you started? Was it an instructor teaching from a treatise or were there already competent instructors that could teach from a number of treatises? In your opinion, how has training evolved or adapted since you began HEMA?
RM: It was trial by fire. My instructor was Greg Hinchcliff who, by his own admission, was a great fighter not a great teacher. He fought us, alone and in teams. Once you were good enough you were able to be on his team which was always higher skill but outnumbered. I fought in fields, tunnels, an elevator, stairs, and pretty much lived the Highlander lifestyle. I had toes broken, fingers broken, elbows smashed, and my head crunched more than a few times. One time, I was hit so hard in the side I was pretty sure I was going to expire. But I didn’t.
This method of training drove many away but those who stayed were skilled. These days, I’m much more gentle on my students and try to retain who I can.
MAYTT: Interesting. Can you tell me more about your first instructor, Greg Hinchcliff? When did he establish the Loyal Order of the Sword and what was his fencing background? How much emphasis did he place on the historicism of what he was teaching?
RM: Greg Hinchcliffe was the first to teach me sword fighting. He grew up in a hard life with a very hard family and, at a young age, became fascinated with weapons. Swords, knives, axes, guns, and so on. He was originally a part of a re-creation group but broke away to create the Loyal Order of the Sword. His group was all about the fighting. We’d meet in parking garages at night for one-on-one combat as well as small group vs. group encounters.
Greg was a phenomenal athlete with tremendous confidence. He’d fight us primarily left-handed even though he is right-handed and was quite comfortable fighting hordes of us in our youth. He’s getting up there in years but is still phenomenal.
Over the years I stuck with him and when our group aged out, I went off to make my own. He lives on the other end of the valley I do, and he still fights. Many of his old students have come back to HEMA or him. As for Greg’s own views on HEMA, it was never his thing. He owns a library full of texts, but he was always a natural fighter and a very good one. He told me that his natural abilities made him a poor teacher. He could fence us and thoroughly trounce us in our youth, but he was never quite sure why he could do it or what we had to do to be like him. He’s proud of what I’ve done and the direction I’ve taken my fencing and to this day I make it a special treat to have my guys visit Greg. Example, Kyle Griswold has his own club now, Mordhau Historical Combat. Who taught Kyle? I taught him. Who did I make sure Kyle went to see? Greg.
My first HEMA teacher was Jim Barrows or who we called Papa Jim. He was into Fiore and other sources and he introduced me to text and interpreting it. Jim Barrows was a good and methodical teacher and I spent two years visiting his house, reading his books, working on plays and interpretations, and experiencing excellent wine.
John, who founded the Phoenix Society with me was also important because I was just getting into sources as he and I met, so his HEMA journey and mine happened together, even though I had more sword fighting experience.
I owe a debt to Greg and Jim and Greg still.
MAYTT: In Asian martial arts, organizations play a dual role of keeping schools and instructors in contact with each other and to provide an avenue back to the art’s roots in the country of origin. With HEMA, the respective arts’ roots are present in the treatises available. What role do organizations play within the HEMA community and how do they raise awareness of the historical martial arts?
RM: That depends on the organization. I was president of the HEMA Alliance for a while and involved in leadership with that organization for ten years. It gave clubs insurance, a means to non-profit status, discounts and a community to work with. HEMAA brought groups together and allowed them to communicate. Many of the “big” HEMA personalities met me and I met them through HEMAA.
Clubs play a large role too. They’re the one who put on events. From the Darce family [Christian and Natasha] in Texas to Jake Norwood and the Bens [Michaels and Jarashow] on the East Coast, to Michael Edelson hiding in his forest reserve to Jonathan Mayshar and RJ McKeenhan on the West and Jared Kirby in Vegas. From Canada to Mexico, the clubs these people were (and in some cases still are) a part of put on the events that really brought HEMA together.
Today, the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship does its part. We host numerous small events and a charity event which draws in HEMA folks from around the world. Also, my club is inviting, and we have guests, again from around the world, visit us.
MAYTT: I see. How does being a history teacher help you convey the material better to your HEMA students? What are some of the aspects you have to change about your teaching style when approaching each subject matter?
RM: I have around twenty years of teaching experience. I know my history and how to present it. I know how to teach and can apply it to fencing.
What I have to change is based on the venue. For a seminar, I need to be engaging and keep the students engaged for an hour to five, depending on the length of the seminar. When I’m teaching a class, I usually work a single lesson with a group followed by coached sparring as I try to tailor to the students.
MAYTT: In 2011, you and John Patterson founded the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship. What factors lead you to help cofound the school? Was there something you saw that was missing from the HEMA landscape that only you could provide?
RM: No. The Loyal Order of the Sword aged out and its members left to go carry on with life. I still wanted to fight so I knew John from an RPG group and said, “Want to learn to fight with a sword?”
And that was that. We got into manuals and from my car port, we worked our way up until we had our own building. We were both new to the HEMA scene and quickly found our place in it, as well as success. In John’s case, a lot of success – he doesn’t know where to put all his medals, so they are just nailed to his wall. He’ll look like a Soviet marshal on parade day if he puts them all on [Laughs]
MAYTT: When did you formally begin teaching HEMA? How did your perspective on HEMA change, if it did at all, when you began teaching regularly? Were there things about your training habits you had to change or was it a seamless transition into the new role?
RM: Around 2008/9, I believe, I switched from just ‘fighting with swords’ to HEMA. And yes, I had to change a lot. I had learned other habits and could make bad techniques work due to practice. I had to unlearn and relearn and find a new calling in understanding the source material.
I also had to learn with my students. In the early years, I knew just a bit more than them, like a young teacher just a few chapters ahead of his students.
MAYTT: You are a prolific author, especially outside the field of HEMA, however, you authored two HEMA-related books: The Use of the Polish Saber of Foot in the 17th Century and Historical European Martial Arts in Context. In your opinion, how closely are training and scholarship tied in the HEMA community? How does each aspect influence the other?
RM: I have more HEMA books on the way, like Bad HEMA and I have an interpretation of the Latin Flower of Battle and hope to do even more work in the field of HEMA. I think scholarship is vital. If we don’t care about the sources, then just join the SCA or a sword-fighting group. HEMA is about reviving and understanding source material and you can’t do that without good scholarship.
Luckily, the HEMA community has plenty of scholars who produce work both interpretative and translations.
MAYTT: I can see how the sources and the training are two wheels on a cart. Who would you consider, both past and present, as instrumental or crucial to the modern HEMA revival movement in the United States? What set these pioneers apart from their contemporaries?
RM: In the past? John Clements. He is controversial and I never met him but once, but in the early days, he had the most bandwidth when it came to HEMA. His Association of Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA) group was organized into the sources, and was able to get media attention. Do I agree with all of Clements’ writings? No, but he was first and its fully understandable to have work that in hindsight may need revisions. I know ten years from now I’ll want to add whole new chapters to Polish Saber! [Laughs]
Jake Norwood was vital in the HEMA community. He broke away from ARMA and was in the HEMA Alliance. He was and still is a natural leader. He’s the kind of guy that if he said, “Go take that hill and you’ll die doing it.” Many of us would do it. Some of us happily. I’m older so I’d glare at him the whole way, but I would do it. He set a good and responsible tone for HEMA and had some stellar ideas.
Michael Chidester compiled Wiktenauer and that alone is a major triumph. He put the sources in an easy to read and easy to access format. In the early days, what he popped up on the internet was sometimes all we had.
There were a host of others who all left their mark and made HEMA what it is today.
Today? We’ll see. I think those that have clubs, produce books, interact with the public and do good work will be beneficial to HEMA. I’m hoping to do my part and lead by example. More people like John and I would make HEMA a better place.
MAYTT: HEMA’s popularity has grown since the inception of the modern revival movement, though it is not as popular as other martial arts and physical activities. What factors do you feel currently hinder HEMA to achieve that type of popularity and notoriety and are there plans within the community to tackle such factors?
RM: Covid has frozen HEMA but it will pass.
The biggest hurdle will be which clubs can transition from people meeting in a park to those in an established and long-term location. Indoors. It’s not easy! We just had a fire and are having to work around it in the place we lease. There’s risks and costs and that’s just the nature of trying to be successful at a martial art.
I think film may one day help us grow. The day a big-time director decides to incorporate HEMA with an attention to detail we will get a wave of fans. Think back to how the Karate Kid affected Karate or how everyone joined the Navy after Top Gun or how we all looked suspiciously at our cars after Cars, wondering, “Ok, in their world there are buildings and an indication of people. What happened to them?”
MAYTT: There are many activities and martial arts for the average person to choose from in today’s society. In your experience, what makes HEMA unique compared to other physical activities and weapons-based martial arts?
RM: Large swords and sparring. Many martial arts do use weapons but very few actively spar. HEMA does and this gives our martial arts more context and gives something for our students to work on and compete with.
MAYTT: Final question. Where do you see HEMA going in the next ten years, barring the current COVID situation? How will both the arts and the scholarship develop and flourish in the future?
RM: Slow and steady growth. We are still a small community. So small, we still know each other by name. However, every day a person wakes up one day and says, “I’m going to try and rent a building for my HEMA club,” then we’re that much stronger for it.
And if you’re not there yet? Don’t worry. I trained in a park for years and it took years to go from a once a week rental to having an actual place of my own.
MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us!
RM: It was my pleasure!