SCA's Premiere King Traces Early Combat History

Feature: Duke Henrik of Havn, the very first King of the Society for Creative Anachronism, offers his unique perspective on the earliest days of the organization and the beginnings of SCA armoured combat. Recently, Duke Henrik of Havn, who was the very first King of the Society for Creative Anachronism, was discussing authenticity on a non-SCA email discussion list. The discussion list, which concerned Dark Ages reenactment combat with rebated steel weaponry, was debating the relative authenticity of various reenactment groups. Duke Henrik wrote the following in explanation of the SCA's origins and in answer to criticism from members of other groups who felt the SCA was not authentic enough.

This article is republished with the kind permission of His Grace, Duke Henrik.

Since I haven't performed an introduction to this list, I may as well do so now. My name is Henrik Olsgaard. I was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. At the age of 5 I traveled to North America and first landed in Newfoundland (Vinland). (Now if that doesn't qualify me as a proper candidate for a new world Viking, I don't know what would.)

After much traveling during my life, I settled in the region of the great Bay of St. Francis, on the western shores of the new world. As a young man in college I learned the basics of fencing, I studied the properties of wood and metals and other materials, and tried making a broadsword, a barrel stave shield and a coarse woven tabard. I dreamed of other worlds and times and read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. Some college friends invited me to go to a costume party, where I wore the tabard and sword, and fought with foil and later with mace and shield. The wooden swords that a couple of the others had made out of 3/8 inch thick oak broke easily over shield edges, and the 1 inch thick by 3 inches wide bladed oak short sword that Agenius had, broke the thumb of his opponent, when they fought. That was on May 1, 1966, in Berkeley, California.

This costume party with fighting was a whole lot of fun for us all, so we all agreed to have another in a local park the following July. I went out and bought a 30 inch square of 14 gage cold rolled steel. With the use of a electric hand held jig saw and lots of metal cutting blades I managed to cut out a 24 inch disc and a 1.5 inch wide ring, with 4 corner pieces left over. I shaped the disc into a shallow dish and glued and riveted several layers of 8 ounce leather on the inside and added enarms to hold this new shield. I dished the triangular corner pieces left over from the square sheet of steel on a 2 foot long piece of railroad track in the carport of the apartment building that I lived in, and riveted them together to form a conical helm. I riveted on a nasal bar and lined it with leather. Then I made a cloth hood to wear under the helm for padding. It was made from some old pants and was 2 layers thick. The helm was small and there wasn't room for more padding inside it. I got a baseball catcher's mask and changed the straps on it so I could wear it over the helm to protect my face. Everyone else was using fencing masks over their faces.

At the July event we had some more wooden swords. The thinner blades again broke quickly, but the 1 inch oak blades didn't. But we needed to be careful to hit softly with them or else more broken bones were likely. We also had some metal broadswords. They were made from 1 inch diameter aluminum tubing that had been hammered flat. They had steel crossguards and worked okay as long as they didn't hit with the flat of the blade, in which case they bent sideways. Then the fighting had to stop while they were straightened out. Then the fighting was able to resume. The only problem with the aluminum swords was they hurt when you got hit in the hand. Those who had gloves found that regular gloves didn't help much at all. At the end of the day I was given a prize for the best outfit -- helm, shield, sword and a new cloak I had made. The prize I got was a book on Armour. It was my first, and I have it still, although a bit dog-eared now.

Afterward I wanted more and better armour and I looked up mail in my dictionary and found a picture of rings interwoven. I straightened some coathangers and wound them around a 1/2 inch diameter rod I had and then cut the resulting springs up into rings with some wire cutters. I then copied the dictionary picture and made a patch of mail. I added to this till it was big enough to cover my chest and stomach. I added some shoulder straps and belting so I could wear it over my front under my tabard.

On September 25, 1966, I went to the 3rd costumed gathering of this growing group. I had now a steel helm and shield, and I was wearing a corselet of mail. I felt pretty well off. We fought with a variety of weapon materials. There were more of the flattened aluminum tubing swords, plywood bladed greatswords, hardwood lath bladed swords, oak board bladed swords, and some thick but light weight bladed swords. The weapons mostly either bruised, bent, or broke. The ones that survived and didn't cause too much injury were the thick handled 2 foot long maces that had cloth wrapped heads and these couple of thick but light weight and springy swords that one of the guys named Ken, had made from a 12 foot long pole he had found in an import store in town.

When all the fighting was over, I was called up to the front of the assembled group and I was handed a scroll that had first been read out loud for all to hear. It said that I was then proclaimed King of the Berkely Society for Creative Anachronism. The tough sword material was from a 2.5 inch diameter by 12 feet long rattan pole that cost $2.99 at Import Outlet (now a coffee house type theater called Ashkenaz) on San Pablo avenue in Berkeley, California. It fit the needs of a developing sport of relatively unarmoured but highly competitive combat best and soon became the standard material for sword blades in the newly named group called the SCA.

By the following March, I had completed my mail and was wearing a full length hauberk. Before I was to be officially crowned King at that tourney, I got to ride a horse that belonged to a lady who was riding by the tourney and stopped to watch.

That was my first great experience in the SCA, which has been followed by many more over the succeeding decades, which included learning and doing many unusual things from a realworld perspective. One of the culminating high points was my riding with the Norman Cavalry at Hastings 2000, while wearing the same helm and hauberk that I first rode in at the fourth SCA tournament in March 1967.

I agree that The SCA doesn't hold to the levels of authenticity that other re-enactment groups do, but it is a fertile venue for learning and trying to do and experience authentic parts of a greater whole. If you fall short of your authentic goal , you can still participate in the SCA, and work on improving with your next effort. You can also experiment with period methods and materials that can't be documented in the historical record, in the SCA, while the same thing may not be acceptable in some other re-enactment venues.

It is quite possible that the SCA might have developed rebated steel weapon combat forms (it took a long time for rapier combat to be approved although many SCAers wanted to do it) in earlier times, but good armour was non existent till we developed the knowledge and skills to make it. There was no one around anywhere to teach us how to do it. I saw an article about the Medieval Society in England in 1967 with photos of John Waller (now of the Royal Armoury at Leeds), wearing a machine made Norman type helm with 1 inch ID rings sewn on a leather jerkin. Certainly there was probably nothing much the SCA could have gained from them in terms of protective technology (although I tried writing to John in Brands Hatch, but my letter was returned cellophane taped shut from being opened). We learned the hard way by trial and error. Recent re-enactment groups have always had the benefit of others to show them how and where to get good protection, and so they have been able to move into steel weapons combat from the start. Many SCAers are also doing some form of steel weapon combat on their own, outside the SCA events. I wouldn't be surprised if the numbers of SCAers doing so are substantial. Just look at the number of them on this list.

I say all of this not only as a personal introduction , but also as an introduction of where the SCA and its members started from, nearly 40 years ago. I think there is a strong degree of common interest and desire on all our parts, but certainly with variations too, and we can celebrate our common interests and goals, while respecting our different paths in reaching these goals.

I look forward to meeting and sharing with you either in KC or elsewhere some time.

Henrik of Havn

Editor's Note: gratefully acknowledges the assistance of His Grace, Duke Arthur of Lockehaven, who helped us to contact Duke Henrik in order to secure permission to republish this wonderful article.

Duke Henrik has granted permission for this article to be republished broadly, with certain conditions regarding the contextual information of its origins. If you wish to republish the article, recommends contacting His Grace for specifics on the context information he wishes to have included with it.

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