With the Medieval Combat World Championships just around the corner, Jaye Brooks, senior instructor and owner of The Knights Hall, doesn’t want to risk any late-in-the game injuries. Usually his men would be practicing judo throws and boxing drills while wearing sixty to eighty pounds of armor. Today, they take turns beating on car tires with two-handed axes, swords, and maces.
This Thursday, several of them will be at Malbork Castle in Poland, wearing full suits of medieval armor and swinging these same instruments of war against opponents from around the world.
“We’re not just running around pretending we’re knights” Brooks says. “What we’re doing is full contact, full force fighting. It’s MMA with weapons.”
While renaissance fairs have been popular for decades, armored combat in its current form has only been around for a few years – and right now, The Knights Hall in Nashua is the only full-time training facility devoted to the sport.
“Being in New Hampshire, or New England,” Jaye Brooks says, “Is the place to be. We’ve got enough experience and enough guys that are motivated to have competitions every couple weeks. So as far as the United States goes this is a hotbed.”
The main room of the gym, which doubles as an exhibition hall, looks like a medieval-themed cross-fit gym. The center arena is lined by steel guardrails. A small set of bleachers sits to one side, behind a mesh fence to protect spectators.
About a dozen weapons hang on the opposite wall – not the stylized blades we’re used to seeing in films like The Hobbit, or on Game of Thrones. These are plain and pragmatic tools of destruction.
The sport is divided into two types of events : 1-on-1 duels, which operate using on a point system similar to boxing. And then there are the melees – group battles of 3 on 3, 5 on 5, 10 on 10, 16 on 16, or All in All.
Jaye Brooks explains how these larger battles work. “The goal when you’re doing the team-fighting is to get a guy to the ground. And you can do that by submission, or by driving them to the earth.”
Videos from competitions held at The Knights Hall show just how intensely physical these events are. In one clip, a fully armored Jaye Brooks swings a two-handed axe so hard into the helmet of another fighter, the collision produces a shower of sparks.
Watch the video at the Knights Hall website.
And yet, somehow, the sport doesn’t see that many serious injuries.
“You do get some bruising and banging, but you’re wearing armor, and you’re wearing armor that has to meet specific standards”, Jaye says. “So you’re going to work on Monday, even though you got hit in the head with a real battleaxe.”
After giving the tires a thorough beating, Jaye’s students practice their footwork – pointing their weapons towards the ceiling and slightly forward as they take small, quick steps across the room.
Andrew Jefferson teaches Tae Kwon Do in Goffstown, New Hampshire. He joined The Knights Hall in November, and is currently working on assembling his own kit of armor.
“So when we have unarmored martial arts, like Eastern martial arts, we tend to use very wide stances,” he says. “Here, it’s very specific. You train shoulders-width, and you have to watch where you’re shoulders go because if you get knocked the wrong way, you’re going to fall over.”
After drills, Jaye tells his students to get their armor: it’s time to take an inventory.
The men who are going to Poland lay their suits out on the floor of the gym. Jaye touches a powerful rare-earth magnet to every piece, making sure each one is made of steel. Judges in Poland will do the same thing, checking titanium armor, which is lighter in weight, and illegal in the upcoming competition.
While the brutality of weapon-fighting may shock casual observers, it’s the armor that clearly sets this sport apart. Not only does it determine the strategy of the fighters, the visual aesthetic makes for an awesome spectacle. And the high-price tag makes the financial cost of knighthood impossible to ignore.
“Yeah, I probably spent $2,500 to $3,000 on my armor so far. Which is dirt cheap for most kits” says Brandon Ross, who started working out at the Knights Hall in June, and will be competing in the 10 on 10 melee event at the World Championships in Poland.
“The guys that bought them new from IceFalcon Armory [spent as much as] $9,000. It’s a pretty tough investment.”
Another athlete, Evan Ringo of Concord, laughs and says, “We’re broke. Lane took out a credit card just to pay for this. I pulled money out of my 401k.”
While the financial investment required of these athletes may prevent casual observers from joining in, there is a powerful upside – for these men, armored combat isn’t just a sport. It’s a lifestyle.
Lane Atteridge, of Billerica Massachusetts tells me, “If you want to get into this sport, you see it and you catch that fever, you find a way to get armor.”