Basic Field Marshalling

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King Rene's Grand melee.jpg
One marshal, in the center, overseeing the entire melee.

By Tivar Moondragon

The job of the marshal is threefold. First and most important is to ensure the safety of the fighters and spectators. Second is providing the fighters with an unbiased outside opinion, if needed. A third but still important aspect is showmanship: making sure the fights run smoothly, that people know what’s going on, and that the Crown and spectators are entertained.


As a marshal, you will need some basic equipment. First is a marshal’s staff. It should be rattan, of a comfortable length and thickness for your height and hand size—typically five or six feet long and about two inches thick. Traditionally, marshalling staves are colored black and gold in a spiral wrap pattern, although that’s not mandatory. It’s also possible to use a rattan polearm as a marshalling staff in tournaments, but that’s inadvisable in a large melee or war, because in the heat of battle a fighter might mistake the polearm for a weapon and the marshal for an opponent.

Male marshals should wear rigid groin protection. If you’re marshalling on the armored field, rigid hand protection (plate or hardened leather gauntlets) is a good idea; on the rapier field, leather gloves are usually sufficient. On either field, if the ground is bad, or if you’re going to be marshalling all day, knee pads are a good idea. Especially if it’s hot or sunny, some kind of hat or other head protection is also good, but under most circumstances, you don’t want it to look too much like a helm or fencing mask. The objective is to keep the sun off your head without looking too much like another fighter (i.e., a target.) If projectile weapons are being used, eye protection is needed. This can be anything from basic lab goggles to racquetball glasses or paintball goggles.

Getting Started

Once the fighters have been inspected and paired up, the herald will call them to the field. Give them a quick once-over to make sure there are no obvious problems, like missing armor bits, chinstraps or mask ties not fastened, etc. When the herald has finished announcing the fighters and doing the salutes he should say “Marshals, the field is yours.” At that point you are in control of the field until the fight is over.

Ideally, there should be three marshals on the field, in an equilateral triangle surrounding the fighters. At the beginning of the bout, the fighters should line up so the Crown can see both of them easily (see Figure 1.)

Field marshal diagram.JPG
Fig. 1. Field marshal positions at the beginning of the bout.

Marshal 1 is the marshal in charge for that particular bout (sometimes called the “controlling marshal.”) He’s the one who does the talking at the beginning of the fight. Note that this marshal does not have to be the most experienced marshal on the field, nor the most senior, and it’s not uncommon to see that job switch off between marshals throughout the day.

Interpose your staff between the fighters and ask if they are ready. You must get a verbal response from both fighters, to be sure that they actually are ready, and not dealing with some last-minute armor glitch, or adjusting the grip on their weapon, or off in la-la-land.

When everybody is ready, call “lay on.” I prefer to put a bit of extra emphasis into the call, as well as snapping my staff out of the way, to give the fighters both a visible and audible cue that the fight has started. As soon as “lay on” has been called, step back several paces to give the fighters room to play, and do a quick check over both shoulders to make sure the field is still clear.

During the Fight

In most fights, the marshal’s job is fairly easy—monitoring the field to make sure nobody comes on who doesn’t belong there (like small children or pets who’ve walked under the ropes, or cameras with idiots attached) keeping the fighters off the ropes, and keeping track of the fight so you can answer any questions the fighters might have.

You should not plant your staff and your feet in one place and just watch the fight. (See Figure 2.)

Bad Marshal
Figure 2. A marshal who's planted in one place, watching the fight.

A marshal needs to keep moving, to stay between the fighters and the edge of the field and to be able to respond quickly if any problems arise. (See Figure 3.)

Good Marshal
Figure 3. This marshal is alert and ready to move in any direction to respond to the fight before him. (Note the similarity of this stance to a combat stance.)

You need to watch to see that the fighters’ armor is behaving and not coming loose or slipping out of position, you need to watch how the fighters are moving so that you can keep them centered in the field and not running into the ropes, and you need to watch where and how blows are landing in case a fighter has questions. Yes, that’s a lot to watch for, that’s why there are three of you out there.

If a fighter is backing slowly toward the ropes, a verbal warning such as “edge of the world, my lord,” “mind your back” or “three feet from the edge” is usually sufficient to let him know he’s getting close to the ropes. If he doesn’t appear to hear you or if he keeps backing slowly, place your staff across his back and either hold it in place or press him gently back toward the center of the field. This is best done from one side of the fighter, rather than directly behind him. This keeps the fight going instead of stopping it every time someone starts to get close to the edge—always better for the fighters. (See Figure 4.)

Pressing the fighter away from the ropes.
Figure 4. The staff press.

If a fighter is moving quickly toward the ropes, you need to get directly behind him to keep him from overrunning the ropes. Brace the center of your staff just below his shoulders, lean forward and keep your head fairly low to avoid being hit by a back-swing. (See Figure 5.)

Marshalling staff block.JPG
Figure 5. The staff block.

Using this move is something of a judgment call between keeping the fight going and calling “Hold!” because it’s about to be a safety problem. Don’t be hesitant about calling Hold if it looks like a serious problem is developing. It’s far better to call a Hold for a false alarm than not to call Hold and have someone get hurt.

Calling Hold

So when should you call a Hold? Basically, you should call Hold if there’s a reason to stop the fight. This could be due to a safety problem developing, such as the fighters getting too near the edge, or if someone’s armor has failed, if one of the fighters has tripped and fallen and is unable to defend himself, or if someone comes onto the field who shouldn’t be there. You should also call Hold if the fighters need to stop and talk about something; say, they’re not sure about a particular blow (otherwise, it would be possible—extremely unchivalrous, but technically legal—for a fighter to use such a situation to get close to his opponent and then hit him when his guard was down.)

It might also be necessary for the marshal (or a fighter) to call Hold if there’s a question about blow calling. A fighter may think he’s hit his opponent several valid shots, but the opponent hasn’t called them, or the marshal has seen several apparently good blows that haven’t been called. The best way to deal with this is stop and talk about it. In almost all cases, it will turn out that the fighter made an honest mistake. He may be wearing new armor and is not used to how it works. He may be a new fighter still learning about blow-calling—in which case, a question like “If that was a real sword, what would it have just done to you?” (possibly followed by a quick anatomy lesson) is usually sufficient. Perhaps he’s a visitor from someplace where the blow-calling conventions are a bit different, or he may be so focused on his fighting or so pumped up on adrenaline that he just didn’t realize he’d been hit.

And finally, you should call Hold if there’s an injury on the field.


If there’s an injury on the field, the first thing to do is to find out how serious it is. The fighter may just need a break to get his wind back, or he may be in need of immediate medical attention. In most circumstances, it’s the fighter’s call to decide what he needs. If he just needs a breather, let him, and maybe get some water (make sure his opponent gets some, too.) If he needs a longer break, the best solution might be to postpone that fight to the end of the round and call the next pair onto the field.

If the fighter says he needs a chirurgeon, get one out there as quickly as possible. At this point, the chirurgeon is in charge of the field until the injury is resolved, and you’re his number-one deputy—fetching and carrying as needed, keeping the field clear of well-meaning but non-essential people, etc. Ideally, the people on the field should be limited to the chirurgeon, the other fighter and marshals (who should stay out of the way unless needed) the fighter’s lady or lord (who may be more familiar with that fighter’s particular medical quirks than either the chirurgeon or marshals) and possibly the Crown.

Dealing with Problems

The two most common problems on the field (not that either is all that common) are a fighter who isn’t calling his blows or a fighter who is losing his temper. As I said above, in almost all cases, bad blow calling is an honest mistake, and the offending fighter is likely to be mortified that he isn’t calling properly. But there is the occasional person who values winning above honor, and that needs to be dealt with.

First, keep any discussions as private as feasible. Unless it’s someone with a known blow-calling problem, you should usually start with the assumption that it’s an honest mistake, or one of the other reasons listed above. Second, don’t flat-out accuse someone of being a rhinohide. If somebody’s blow calling is looking a little dubious, present it as a question. For example, “I’ve seen several shots to your torso/head/wherever that looked good from over here. What did they feel like to you?” If the fighter is too pumped on adrenaline to notice a good hit, such a question will give him a quick reality check. If he’s trying to cheat, it’ll let him know that he’s not getting away with it. If necessary, you may need to escalate to something like, “My lord, it appeared to me that that shot was clean in the middle of your torso, with more than sufficient force; are you sure it was ‘light’?”

If a fighter appears to be losing his temper, again, keep the discussion private. Tell him something like “You’re looking a bit upset. Do you need to take a break and cool off?” As with blow-calling, in most cases this sort of comment will make the fighter take a mental step back and realize that he is having a problem, and he’ll fix it before it gets out of hand.

The most difficult situation is two fighters who are near the finals of a tournament and they both really want to win. In such a situation, the blow-calling can get much higher than is common for either fighter in a normal fight. In such a situation I would call a Hold, bring both fighters together and say something like, “Gentlemen, it’s starting to look pretty messy out there. I know both of you want to win this, but only one of you can. Remember that much of the kingdom is watching; your ladies are watching; the Queen is watching. What you do out here will be remembered for a long time. I want both of you to calm down, take a couple of deep breaths, and finish this fight cleanly and honorably.”

Abusing, misusing, or “gaming” the rules is a special case where a fighter is cheating. Typically, this is where a fighter deliberately exploits his opponent’s honor or the rules, such as dropping his weapon whenever he’s pressed or running into the ropes to force a Hold so he won’t be hit. As a marshal, you’ll need to use careful judgment to be sure that it’s deliberate misuse of the rules, not simple incompetence on the part of the fighter. Fortunately, such situations are extremely rare.

As a generalization when you’re marshalling, you should preface your statements with phrases like, “It looked to me...” or, “From where I was standing...” or, “Stop and think for a moment. If that was a real sword, what would it have just done to you?” and let the fighter make the final decision.

Disciplinary Actions

Most of the time, these informal cautions are sufficient to get a fighter back on the right track. If not, then the marshal may need to issue a formal warning. Make sure the fighter knows that you’ve stepped things up a notch. Say something like “This is a formal warning about your blow-calling, and will be reported to the marshal-in-charge.” If a formal warning is issued, make sure you do tell the marshal-in-charge as soon as the fight is over. You should probably tell the List Mistress, too, so it can be noted down on the fighter’s card. (I know of one case, many years ago, where a fighter got issued warnings by several different marshals throughout the day, but since nobody reported them, he ended up with something like five "first warnings" and no disciplinary action was taken, because nobody realized until several days later he’d been given any other warnings.)

Typically, a fighter may be given up to three warnings before any further disciplinary action is taken, but if the behavior is particularly bad, the marshal is perfectly justified in removing him from the field immediately. At this point, things shift over into the bureaucratic side of marshalling. The marshal in charge of the tournament (with advice and information from the marshals who were on the field at the time) should be the one to make a decision on what, if any, disciplinary action should be taken. This may be fairly minor, like removing the fighter from the tournament; it may be more serious, like revoking the fighter’s authorization for a period of time until he can demonstrate that he’s cleaned up his act. The fighter involved can, of course, appeal these decisions up the chain of command: marshal on the field, marshal in charge of the tournament, local (i.e., Baronial, Shire, or whatever) warranted marshal, regional or principality marshal, kingdom marshal, Crown. But every fighter, regardless of rank, is subject to the authority of the marshal on the field at that time, even if that marshal’s judgment is later overruled.

Finishing the Fight

Eventually, one fighter will acknowledge that his opponent has beaten him. The usual way is to fall “dead,” but it can be by some other method like calling “Good!” or “Well struck!” or dropping to one knee and offering the winner his sword hilt. In any case, it’s best to make such a loss obvious to the other fighter, the marshals, and the audience.

In some kingdoms, the custom is to ask both fighters if they are satisfied with the conduct of the fight; not necessarily the outcome--presumably the guy who lost would rather have won--but did his opponent defeat him fairly and honorably? If there’s a problem or a question about the fight, it needs to be resolved then and there, not left to fester. This may involve a re-fight, it may involve the two fighters and a marshal going off into a corner and working things out, it may be a simple “Did I land anything with that last thrust?” “No, it caught my sleeve, but that’s all.” “Oh, okay.”

If there’s a double kill, it can be handled in different ways. Sometimes the fighters will keep re-fighting until there is a clear winner. Sometimes they are allowed one re-fight and if they double-kill again, it counts against both fighters. Sometimes “Dead is dead” at the first double-kill. All of these options are workable, but whichever one is going to be used should be chosen and announced to the fighters before the tourney starts so there are no surprises later.


Melees are a bit more complicated than one-on-one fights. Instead of focusing on a single pair of fighters, the marshals need to watch groups of fighters—how they’re moving, if downed fighters are being overrun, if they’re getting too close to the boundaries of the field. This last is especially important, since most melees aren’t fought in a neatly roped off list field.

As a broad generalization, and depending on the size of the melee and what kinds of field hazards are present, you want one marshal for every five to ten pairs of fighters. Melee marshals may have a specific task, such as “Keep fighters from running into this barbed wire fence.” or they may be free-roving, covering things as they develop.

In a melee, the marshal may need to get much closer to the fighters than is common in a tournament bout. It’s usually better to use your staff to press fighters away from the edge of the field, or to keep them off a particular hazard than it is to call Hold and stop a 300-person melee because five fighters are getting close to the edge. But if you’re doing that, it means you’re also in weapon-range of the fighters. Especially on the armored field, this is a case where hand, knee, head, and possibly elbow protection are a good idea.

If possible, killed fighters should be cleared from the field. In rapier, the fighters will usually call out “Dead!” reverse their weapons and leave the field automatically, but in armored combat, they will usually fall where struck. My usual technique, as soon as practical, is to tap the fighter a couple of times on the shield or the sole of their foot with my staff and say “Clear off” or something similar. There are times when downed armored fighters should be left in place. If, for example, one or two fighters are down in the middle of a melee and can’t be moved without disrupting the flow of combat, they should usually be left there until the fighting moves on. Fighters in this position should “turtle up” under their shields if at all possible. If it’s a large number of fighters—say, in a bridge or castle gateway, where the bodies are obstructing movement—then periodic Holds may need to be called to clear them out of the way. Again, this is a judgment call between the safety of the downed fighters and not disrupting the fighting more than is necessary.

Holds in a Melee

Holds in a melee are a little different from Holds on the tourney field. You should still call a Hold if there’s a major safety problem, but if, for example, one fighter drops his sword, or trips and falls, that’s not a reason to call a Hold. If a fighter’s armor is failing, it’s usually easier to tell him to get off the field and fix it, rather than stopping the entire battle. On the other hand, serious injuries, or fighters getting too close to the spectators, or cameras with idiots attached coming on to the field are still reasons to call a Hold. In some wars, the marshals will have whistles to signal a Hold, in others they will rely on their voices.

The rules are a little different during a melee Hold, too. Fighters are normally expected to drop to their knees, and shouldn’t change position (unless there’s a safety reason, or they are being moved by the marshals) and shouldn’t discuss tactics during a Hold. They can chat about non-tactical stuff with their teammates or opponents or, if it’s a particularly long Hold—say, due to an injury elsewhere on the field—take a water break by allowing waterbearers onto the non-problem area of the field.

Depending on the situation and terrain, it might be possible to have a “local Hold” during a melee. This is a Hold that only affects part of the field—say, during the Woods Battle at Pennsic, or if the problem is in one corner of a large field battle and the rest of the action is on the other side of the field. If there is a local Hold, the marshals need to keep aware of the movement of the rest of the melee, and warn off any fighters who come too close and may not realize a local Hold is in force.


A good marshal needs to have a cool head, good eyes, and fast reflexes, so he can:

  • follow a fight well enough to be able to tell the fighters where and how blows landed if asked,
  • out-think the fighters enough to stay between them and the edge of the field,
  • keep an eye out for things like armor failure or lost rapier tips,
  • be enough of a showman to keep the fights running smoothly and dramatically,
  • and finally, to be enough of a diplomat to say “Your Grace, you appear to be losing your temper, I think you need to take a break.” and make it stick.

It’s a necessary job, it’s a lot of fun most of the time—all the adrenaline and far fewer bruises than fighting—but the possibility of getting hit by a big stick, or run over by someone twice your size, is real. If you’re not up to that risk (for whatever reason) it’s better to stick to waterbearing, running the gate, or any of the other myriad jobs at an event.