The knight life
Sir Bjorn straps on his armor to teach kids ‘Knightly Virtues’ in the 21st century
As the sustained roar of 21st century traffic passes by just out of eyeshot, the harsh sound of combat from another era barks out from beneath low-hanging foliage painted by autumn. Young duelists with archaic combat armor strapped across blue jeans lunge across a courtyard at each other, analogous weapons in hand as they parry with grunts and shouts.
Handcrafted rods stab and smack against shields, and are sometimes laid across helmets. The sight of this grim determination, the sweat of up-close and personal challenge, evokes a sense of medieval days of yore, when irreconcilable differences were negotiated with honor and perhaps the clash of steel.
Located in the back yard of a modest north Chico home, the Green Knight Academy serves as the arena for such combat, and overseeing the benevolent fiefdom is James Cornwell, who teaches under the name Sir Bjorn. A bearded man with piercing eyes, the 37-year-old Cornwell looms like a green-tunic-clad mountain above the combatants as he eases them through their paces.
“We want to kill the opponent, not hurt them,” shouts Cornwell to the young duelists in the courtyard, eyes sharp as he watches for any safety infractions.
“Killing” is actually a term for winning, and Cornwell explains that the object is to fight a good and honorable fight, not to injure opponents. In fact, he says the safety record of the sport is unparalleled—safer than fencing and boxing.
Green Knight Academy Medieval Martial Arts is a school where young people can learn to use swords and shields and other “knightly” weapon styles, as well as learn to make armor from scratch, and learn about the history of the Middle Ages.
Medieval martial arts is a very new movement within the martial-arts community; there are literally only a handful of schools in North America, and an even smaller number of them can be said to be teaching anything authentically historical.
Born and raised in the Bay Area, Cornwell moved to Chico to get married, raise a family and finish his education. After receiving a degree from Chico State and doing some graduate work, his interest in medieval history induced him to enter the classroom for talks with seventh-graders all over Butte County in 1991, which he has been doing with his wife, Hilarie, ever since.
“I taught this art for free for years and years, and I’ve always had young students,” he recalls, his armor padding creaking as he circles the courtyard, boots crossing sod torn and weary from the stress of sustained combat.
Last year, the mother of one of Cornwell’s students offered to pay him for the lessons. He said he’d been offered money before, but always declined because he loved what he was doing and was having so much fun teaching the kids.
“A dear friend of mine opened a medieval martial-arts school in central California about the same time,” he explained. “Suddenly the light dawned for me: I had just about all the equipment already, and I had a solid, time-tested curriculum, so why not?”
It also helped that Cornwell had been in training for such an occasion for more than half his life. He was first introduced to medieval martial arts when he was a senior in high school, and he has been training and teaching the art ever since. Over the years Cornwell has won several tournaments throughout Northern California, and in 2004 he was made a knight in the historical club he participates in, which he explained is roughly the same as achieving a black belt in karate.
The Green Knight Academy opened in February of this year and is one of only two schools west of the Mississippi—and the only one in Northern California.
The academy employs two primary assistant instructors, Sir Gerstan, one of the knights who trained Cornwell when he was young, and Alexius, who teaches steel armoring.
“The students love them both, and they offer different perspectives on the art,” said Cornwell. “My wife, Hilarie, is also heavily involved, and she’s a better historian than I am, so I can’t get away with any second-rate scholarship while she’s around. She also offers me a mom’s perspective on things that helps me see things I wouldn’t see otherwise.”
Cornwell notes that, as with most other martial arts, training is ongoing. There are beginner classes that meet twice a week for those who are really new to the school.
“But the learning is open-ended and dynamic after that,” he said.
Once students understand the basic skills of the sport and its traditions and culture, they move on to one-on-one tournament skills, and then various group scenarios such as “Troll Battle” (the whole class against Cornwell), the “Bridge Battle” (two teams fight for control of a bridge) and the “Breach Battle,” where teams fight through a hole in a castle wall.
The school is currently open to male and female battlers ages 10 to 18. The students are divided into two age groups: the “boffer” students, aged 10 to 15, who use protective equipment similar to a skateboarder and fight with weapons made of high-density foam and plastics. The “heavy armor” students, aged 16 and up, fight in steel and leather armor and use weapons made of rattan, an Asian wood similar to bamboo.
“The main tools that we use to train our students are ‘wasters,’ “ replied Cornwell when asked about the tools of the trade.
In addition to the physical aspects of training, primary to the academy’s training is the instillation of Knightly Virtues, and how they apply to contemporary society.
"'Character education’ is a hot-button phrase in the martial arts community right now, and it certainly isn’t surprising,” offered Cornwell, pausing to adjust a student’s helmet. “Families want to know that their kids aren’t learning to be violent and/or amoral from some nut with a rehearsal space and an axe to grind.”
The academy teaches eight virtues used to frame a student’s outlook of what a decent human being should be, and Cornwell says there’s nothing on the list that’s out of place in the 21st century: prowess (skill), valor (accomplishment), courage, honesty, courtesy, humility, fidelity (loyalty to principles), and largesse (generosity).
Cornwell notes that the academy may branch out into teaching adults next year, if there turns out to be a demand.
“Right now, it’s all about growing the school,” Cornwell said. “We want to bring this art to every kid who wants to give it a try. Eventually, we’ll do more improvements to our training site and workshop, but for the moment, we’re just enjoying the ride.”