A Gentleman Does Not Wear a Sword in the Presence of a Lady!

Over the years I have read any number of Regency romance novels in which the hero wears his sword on some social occasion. Shame on him! No true gentleman would ever have worn a sword in the presence of any lady during the years of the Regency. Even a military man in full dress uniform would not wear his sword to a social event. It simply wasn’t done!

On the other hand, most heros of novels from the earlier Georgian era would have considered themselves quite naked without their small swords. And considering the lawlessness of that time, the ladies in their company would have been quite comforted by the presence of said blade. In fact, most English gentlemen from the Middle Ages into the mid-eighteenth century wore a side arm, either a sword, a dagger, or both. A well-dressed buck out for a night on the town in Georgian London would have been a fool to wander the city streets unarmed.

So why had the wearing of swords fallen out of favor by the Regency?

In part, the impetus for this alteration in centuries of custom can be laid at the doors of the two Beaus, Nash and Brummell. Even under the influence of these two notable gentlemen, the decline in the wearing of swords took nearly 100 years.

In 1705, Richard "Beau" Nash, a down-on-his-luck gambler, traveled from London to the growing spa town of Bath. He was befriended by the Master of Ceremonies of the city, Captain Webster, and soon became his assistant. A few short months later, Captain Webster was killed in a duel fought with swords, and Nash succeeded him as Master of Ceremonies. One of Nash’s first acts in his new position was to abolish the wearing of swords within the city limits.

Naturally, Nash’s mandate did not immediately stop the wearing of swords throughout England. But he made Bath, and then Tunbridge Wells, both fashionable spa resorts. They attracted throngs of the beau monde, the male half of which had to leave off wearing their swords if they wished to enjoy the delights of these modish eighteenth-century watering spots. And so these gentlemen began to become accustomed to going about without their side arms, at least in these spa towns. Slowly, the aristocratic status of the sword began to decline.

The founding of the London Bow Street Runners in 1749, by Henry Fielding, was another factor which contributed to the decline in the wearing of swords in the metropolis. Though it took many years, Henry, and later his brother, John Fielding, eventually developed the Bow Street Runners into an effective police force for London. As the city became a safer place, it was less necessary for gentlemen to carry weapons for protection. Even so, this sometimes meant that noblemen, though they did not personally wear swords, were accompanied by servants who carried them.

The Age of Enlightenment also had an impact on the decline of the practice of sword wearing. There were many threads to this philosophical movement, but the guiding spirit at its core was the concept of Reason. Thus, many gentlemen who considered themselves enlightened, rejected violence as a response to conflict. Brutality and boorishness gave way to humanity and refined manners. Weapons no longer had a place at a gentleman’s side, particularly in the presence of a lady. By the 1780’s, the wearing of swords, beyond court and military ceremonies, was becoming less common throughout England.

By the early 1800’s, George Bryan Brummell inadvertently did his bit to stamp out the practice all together. With his insistence that a man’s dress be elegant, but understated, wearing only minimal jewelry, there was no place for a cumbersome sword at a man’s hip. By the time his friend, the Prince of Wales, became Regent, swords were relegated to the parade ground, and forbidden the ballroom. The next time you read a Regency novel in which a so-called "gentleman" wears a sword to a ton event, you will know that he is no such thing. No doubt the Beau would give him the cut direct.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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10 Responses to A Gentleman Does Not Wear a Sword in the Presence of a Lady!

  1. Sia says:

    Oh dear…can’t you just smell the plotlines where the older gentlemenish get themselves in trouble by not paying proper attention to changing times?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      It would have to be a VERY old gentleman, or a very stubborn one, since most men had left off wearing swords by the mid-18th century. Between Beau Nash in Bath and the ton in general, swords were not considered acceptable accessories for most social occasions by the Regency. With the exception of military men in uniform.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Sia says:

    Old stubborn ex-military man?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      He would have to be very old and very stubborn, since wearing small swords at social events went out before the end of the 18th century. 😉

      However, there is always the chance that a younger man, delusional (or wanting people to think he is), might choose to wear a sword to a Regency social event. A clever Regency author might find such an occurrence just the thing in certain situations.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. Matthew Mole says:

    What did people do for personal protection in the countryside away from the cities?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      By the Regency, anyone who traveled through the country would almost certainly carry a pistol or two, if they felt any sense of danger. Most coaches and carriages were fitted up with holsters to carry pistols, and many traveling saddles could have pistol holsters attached. The use of swords was so out of fashion by that time that even criminals typically used guns rather than swords.

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. JIM DOHERTY says:

    But, in PRIDE & PREJUDICE, by a lady who actually lived during the Regency era and presumably knew something about it, the heroine’s sister takes away the sword of one of the militia officers in attendance at a ball and plays with it. How does that square with the flat assertion that, “Even a military man in full dress uniform would not wear his sword to a social event?”

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Your edition of Pride and Prejudice must be very different from mine. Nowhere in the book does anyone play with a sword, at a ball or anywhere else. Jane Austen did know better, which is why she did not write such a scene.

      If, however, you refer to the 1995 BBC mini-series made from the novel, in which Lydia does dash through the supper room at the Netherfield ball, swinging one of the officers’ swords, that scene was cut from whole cloth by the writer and/or the film-makers. Clearly, they set up that scene for visual effect, without bothering to do the necessary research. Had they done so, they would never have set up or filmed such an historically inaccurate scene. One can only hope Jane Austen was not spinning in her grave at such an egregious error.

      Regards,

      Kat

  5. JIM DOHERTY says:

    I stand corrected. The 1995 TV-film does loom so large in my memory that, occasionally, I will recall scenes that were in the film, but not the novel, as having been in both.

    Double-checking Chapter 18, I find that you are absolutely correct.

  6. Pingback: The Curious Corner Chair Through the Regency | The Regency Redingote

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