Gladiator by profession

Close to Coventry Cathedral there is a gravestone of a man called John Parkes whose epitaph describes him as “a gladiator by profession”. Could you please tell me more?

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In full, John Parkes’s gravestone reads: “To the memory of John Parkes, a native of this city he was a man of mild disposition. A gladiator by profession, who after having fought 350 battles in the principal parts of Europe with honor and applause, at length quit the stage sheathed his sword and with Christian resignation submitted to the grand victor in the 52nd year of his life Anno 1733”.

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As his curious epitaph suggests, Parkes was a sword fighter and fencing master of some repute. A ‘Master of the Noble Science of Defence,’ he made a living by staging exhibitions of sword-fighting prowess, duelling with other professionals for public entertainment.
The most popular of these ‘gladiators’ had amphitheatres of their own but men like Parkes were “to be heard of at the taverns in the neighbourhood of Southwark”.

In July 1712, a Spectator correspondent attended “the Bear Garden and Hockley in the Hole, where (as a whitish brown paper, put into my hands informed me,) there was to be a trial of skill exhibited between two masters of the noble science of defence, at two o’clock precisely”.

As the 19th‑century historian William Goodman wrote, these men “who mangled each other for the amusement of the crowd, and the benefit of the taverns in which they were holden, devoted themselves to this savage calling as a regular trade”. Accounts of Parkes’s specific duels are rare. But in 1710 he is recorded as having issued a challenge: “I, John Parkes, from Coventry, Master of the Noble Science of Defence, do invite you, Thomas Hesgate, to meet me, and Exercise the following weapons, viz – Back Sword, Sword and Dagger, Sword and Buckler, Single Falchion, Case of Falchons, And Quarterstaff.”

Parkes was recognised as a ‘cudgeller’ of great cunning and courage. In his Treatise Upon
the Useful Science of Defence, Captain Godfrey, a contemporary observer, noted that “John Parkes was a thorough swordsman, and an Excellent Judge of all its Parts. He was convincing Proof of what I advanced about the natural suppleness of some Men’s Joints. No man bid fairer and acquired Spring than he.”

Parkes’s death in 1733 was mourned by all those who had marvelled at his skill and won countless wagers on the back of his masterly swordsmanship.

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Answered by: Dan Cossins, freelance journalist