34 Unarmed Combat

‘For God’s sake don’t pull, John; that’s perfect, you would kill me.’

John Stanley-15th April 1355

Lord James gathered the whole household together in the courtyard.

His voice resonated. ‘I have received a letter from the Prince, which makes it necessary to go to Aquitaine much earlier than expected. All of the squires will accompany me, so training must be accelerated.


As the crowd dispersed, Lord James sought out John and took him out through the gates. ‘I must leave immediately to plan transport. But before I leave, I thought I should tell you that I am all too aware of the troubles which plague you here. Such behaviour is not unusual amongst groups of young men.’

John squared his shoulders and looked Lord James directly in the eye. ‘It started almost as soon as I arrived.’

Lord John dropped his head. ‘Ewan does it to create a state of mind whereby if another squire joins this group you will support the newcomer being bullied in return for finally being part of the core group. It reinforces Ewan’s hold on the leadership of the group.’

‘What do you think I should do about it… him?’

Lord James lifted his head and returned John’s steady gaze. ‘Already I can see that you are doing well in your general training, but breaking Ewan’s hold on you will be your first big challenge. There are no rules for this, John.’

‘I will accept any challenge as long as I have some idea of what to do.’

Lord James sighed. ‘John, I really must go now. However, I will give you something. What you do with it is entirely up to you. I do not approve of what is happening but must not intervene on your behalf. I can, however, make a suggestion. Olwain, during your next session of unarmed combat, will criticise your performance and suggest you need further tuition. Pay careful attention to what he says. You might find it very useful!’


Sure enough, Olwain delivered swinging criticism of John’s performance and demanded he return in the evening for further training. The training was not quite what John had expected.

‘We must first build up your confidence, John. I am a big man but if I was giving you a beating you could kill me.’

‘Kill you?’

‘Yes, the point is that if you possess that skill, then in any close combat you cannot be beaten. Of course, when you choose to use the skill is a very different matter. I will show you.’

He thrust out a powerful arm and wound it around the back of John’s neck, pulling John towards him as he did so. He then moved his hand back across John’s chest and turned it upwards, hooking his hand under John’s jaw. John’s arm, which was closest to Olwain, was pinned by this manoeuvre. John was almost choked in the process. Olwain’s hand was now gripping John’s face and nearly reached his eye. Olwain grinned.

‘Stage one complete.’

With his other arm, Olwain pinned John’s free arm to his body and reached across his back to grip his shoulder. Olwain now pulled him even closer, so that their faces touched.

‘Now,’ breathed Olwain, ‘all I have to do is jerk your jaw sideways and at the same time pull your shoulder backwards. When your neck is twisted beyond your shoulder, you are dead. It doesn’t take a great deal of strength and there will not be a mark on your body!’ He released John, who in turn sighed with relief. ‘Now, try it on me.’

John practised the hold several times whilst Olwain offered no resistance. Then once he could find the hold with ease, Olwain offered greater and greater resistance to simulate the real situation. Soon John discovered that the hold could be applied most effectively when Olwain dashed at him and tried to grapple him to the ground. Providing the timing was right, an aggressor’s momentum could be used to complete the hold.

They were both sweating profusely when Olwain cried out. ‘For God’s sake don’t pull, John; that’s perfect, you would kill me.’

John released the grip and Olwain moved away. He reached out and shook John’s hand. ‘Good, you learn fast. If you want to retain the ability to do that you must practice it. You will only practice with someone you know you can trust!’


The practice continued for many evenings until Olwain expressed satisfaction that John had mastery of the essential manoeuvres for unarmed combat. ‘It’s now just a question of courage, fitness, resilience and strength. You don’t have to fight to build up fitness and strength.’

Olwain showed how an old discarded hose could hold pebbles and small rocks. He built up the weight until John just failed to lift it and then removed half of the stones. ‘Now lift that twenty times with each arm, then lie on the floor and lift it twenty times with each leg. Put it around your neck and make twenty full bows. Finally, do twenty full knee bends. Do it now.’

John performed the exercises with ease.

‘And again.’

Immediately John understood what Olwain was teaching him. The second set was far more difficult.

‘And again.’

John had to force himself to complete the third set. Sweat leached from his skin as he breathed heavily through the exercises.

‘Good, you should work at it every day until you can complete five sets then add one pebble every day. Only one pebble.’

‘Now it is time to put your skills to the test.’


A week later, Olwain heavily criticised Ewan’s performance.

‘No, no, you are not improving!’And again,’You are not learning anything, just lazy!’

Then, after a moment’s pause,’We must have real fights.’ He waited, apparently considering the matchups he wanted. ‘Edward, you will fight Henry and John, you will fight Ewan.’

John saw Ewan smile.

Olwain continued. ‘Now, to give you something to fight for, the winners will have no domestic duties for the next month, all the work will be done by the losers.’

Olwain called on Ewan and John to fight first.

Ewan quickly lunged forward, swinging his fists through great arcs. John parried them easily and repaid these failed attempts with closed fist blows to Ewan’s face. After another lunge, as Ewan stumbled past him, John kicked him firmly in the backside, sending him sprawling to the dust.

There was a gaggle of laughter from the spectators.

Ewan’s naturally bad-tempered face glowed full red. He changed tactics, moving more slowly towards John with the intention to grappling with him. It was then that the confidence Olwain had given John flooded into his mind.

He danced around and threw punches at will.

Ewan became more and more desperate. John felt no need to attack. He simply punched when he saw an opportunity but danced away and parried with his forearms and elbows when he didn’t, using very little energy, whereas Ewan was now breathing hard. Ewan snarled and dived at John’s thighs, intending to throw him to the ground but John feinted one way and then the other, bringing a knee up into Ewan’s face followed closely by a two-handed punch to the back of Ewan’s head. That was the end for Ewan. He slumped to the ground, blood flowing in torrents from his face and nose. He didn’t move at all for several seconds.

‘Stop! Fight over,’ said Olwain and asked John to help him get Ewan to his feet. Ewan angrily shook off his helpers and staggered away.

‘Don’t forget you have to do all John’s chores,’ Olwain shouted after him. He grabbed John’s arm and leaned forward so that no one else could hear what he said. ‘Very clinical, I think we might all have underestimated you.’

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