In Bridgerton, dukes and countesses stand shoulder-to-shoulder with boxers and bruisers. The popular Netflix show presents the violent underbelly of the Regency era through its depiction of boxing history. By giving a boxer a minor arc and staging boxing matches that attract high society, Bridgerton rightly shows just how popular boxing was in the Regency period.
Though boxing's origin dates back thousands of years, the modern boxing history timeline in Great Britain really begins in the 18th century during the so-called Georgian era. Commonly referred to as "pugilism," boxing attracted fans from the highest and lowest levels of society - princes and paupers alike marveled at a good fight. Bare-knuckle boxing history reached its height in the Regency period (1811-1820), when some pugilists became international stars who gained wealth, appeared in media, and commanded the respect of royalty.
So, what exactly was the sport like in the 18th and early 19th centuries? And what aspects of its history does the show bring to light? From the sheer diversity of the boxing world to the sport's reputation as a fashionable entertainment, Bridgerton draws from the actual history of pugilism in the Georgian era to depict boxing as lively and dramatic as the society that obsessed over it.
Bare-Knuckle Boxers Were Members Of The Working Class Who Performed For The Upper Classes
In Bridgerton, Will Mondrich has to worry about money in ways that his friend the Duke of Hastings doesn't; he must work for a living. Mondrich's circumstance places him clearly outside of the upper class, even though he fights to earn their money and support.
Professional boxers in the 18th and 19th centuries came from the working classes. However, their patrons came from the upper classes, and many high-stakes bets originated in deep pockets. While matches included spectators from all social classes, the upper classes underwrote the sport.
In other words, boxing as it existed in the 18th and 19th centuries was predicated on working-class athletes engaging in life-threatening fights for the entertainment of the upper classes.
Pugilism Was Dominated By Men, But Women Boxed, Too
Men may have dominated the boxing world in the 18th and 19th centuries, but that doesn't mean women didn't fight. On the contrary, in the early 1700s, it wasn't uncommon for women to engage in matches. A fight between Elizabeth Wilkinson - one of the most successful 18th-century female boxers - and Hannah Hyfield even warranted publicity in the newspaper.
Though less common, women participated in boxing matches at the end of the century, as well. In 1795, Mary Ann Fielding and a boxer known only as "the Jewess of Wentworth Street" fought, with celebrity pugilists John Jackson and Daniel Mendoza serving as their seconds. According to a description of the fight:
Every thing having been properly arranged, the combatants set to, and for some time each displayed great intrepidity and astonishingly well-concerted maneuvers in the art of boxing. Fielding fought with great coolness and singularity of temper, and by well-directed hits knocked down her adversary upwards of 70 times. After the battle had lasted one hour and 20 minutes, with much alternate dexterity, Fielding was declared the conqueror.
Some Of The Most Storied Georgian-Era Boxers Were Formerly Enslaved Black Men From America
One of the recurring characters in Bridgerton is Will Mondrich, who happens to be a Black boxer in Regency London.
Will Mondrich may be fictional, but he has an historical analog: Bill Richmond. ("Mondrich" is an anagram of Richmond.) Richmond was born as an enslaved New Yorker before Englishman Lord Percy negotiated his freedom and brought him to Britain. Richmond went on to be one of the era's best boxers and most feted athletes.
Bill Richmond wasn't the only boxer who began life in chains. Born enslaved in Virginia in 1784, Tom Molineaux made a name for himself by boxing professionally after being freed. He came to Britain and enlisted Bill Richmond as his mentor and trainer.
Boxing, Drinking, And Betting Were All Part Of 18th- And 19th-Century Conceptions Of Masculinity
Boxing culture fit into how many 18th- and 19th-century people envisioned what it meant to be a British man. Many Britons labeled boxing as an inherently manly activity, one that defined men through brawn, bravery, and skill. To that end, many young men had educations that included learning how to box.
But it wasn't just boxing that fit into masculine pursuits. The drinking and gambling that usually accompanied boxing matches were also rituals through which a man could perform this version of masculinity.