How Dangerous Was a Medieval Joust in England?

Jousting is often seen as a symbol of Merrie Old England - a king and queen presiding over a tournament with members of the nobility suited up and dressed to impress. It's a scene replicated nowadays in castles and stately homes up and down the UK each summer. But was it always good, clean family entertainment? And how dangerous was it, really? 

Scene from Froissart, Public Domain: The British Library, Flickr archive

Far from the family fun of a Sunday afternoon that we might experience at a Medieval castle today, the origin of the joust almost a thousand years ago, is really rooted in something far more serious: war. 

The joust was thought to have originated in France, in the eleventh century, and made its way to England during the early twelfth century. 

Along with the actual joust, where armoured combatants would charge at one another on horses and try to knock each other off with a lance, there was also originally something called a melée, or group fight, which would happen on foot. Here, the two teams would charge and fight in the centre of a clearing. Eventually though, the joust part of the event started to become more popular and overtook demand for the melée (1)

Entertainment it all was, but there was an agenda. Kings watching, had the opportunity to pick out and recognise talented military adversaries within their court. It was also a chance for participants to practice some serious, hands on, training. And, with the cream of the king's military prowess here in the tiltyard, it was no coincidence that foreign ambassadors were sometimes invited to watch, too, to show off the might of the King's power. Tournaments could be used politically as well, as we'll see later. 

In 1130, Pope II publicly denounced tournaments, arguing that the activities were distracting people from important Christian military campaigns. He even went so far to declare that any participant killed in action during a tournament would be denied burial in holy ground. In England, this didn't last long. Richard I abolished the Pope's declaration in 1192 (2). The pope might have had a point - a hundred years later in 1292, Edward I was compelled to declare that all swords and knives used in tournaments must be blunted, suggesting that it was a dangerous sport (and that before this time, weapons were as lethal as they would have been in war) (3)

Jousting as entertainment
The fourteenth century saw the joust take off in popularity, and, despite the risks, kings participated, too. Edward III seems to have taken part in a number of jousts, some made theatrical with costumes and role plays, and others where he was disguised, so the spectators didn't know which participant was the king, presumably so he could fight fairly and not receive any special treatment (4). His son, The Black Prince, was also an accomplished jouster, performing at Woodstock in 1355 (5). Tournaments and jousts were performed at special ceremonies too, such as weddings, betrothals and royal births. 

But while the theatrical side of the event seemed to give the feel now that jousting had been demoted to more of an entertainment than a display of power, it was still very dangerous.  In 1341, during an event at Roxburgh, Edward III's knights received a challenge from the Scottish Sir William Douglas. Douglas jousted with the Earl of Derby and was so severely injured, he had to be carried back to Scotland (6). And in 1389, during a Christmas joust held by Richard II (but one in which the king, wisely, did not compete), the 16-year old John Hastings, Baron and Earl of Pembroke, was accidentally killed after sustaining an injury to the groin (7).

Jousting had its political uses, too. In 1467 Edward IV named his brother in law to represent him against a Burgundian duke, at Smithfield in London. He used the joust to demonstrate that he was a just and fair king, stopping the battle before any real injuries were inflicted, using it as an excuse to show off his wealth and stability into the bargain too (8).

Edward IV also tamed the sport, publishing a list of ways the participants could point-score, rather than just cold-blooded fighting. There were points given for things like 'unseating' the opponent and 'striking the opponents coronel twice' but acts such as striking the horse was forbidden and points could be retracted (9)

Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, presided over a joust, but unsurprisingly for such a cautious ruler concerned for his dynasty, did not take part. His son, Henry VIII, held jousts in celebrations - one of these for the birth of his son with Catherine of Aragon in 1511 (the son only lived to around a week old) (10). But this Henry wasn't content with presiding over the events, participating in a number of jousts in his early lifetime. He hosted a joust in 1524 because he wanted to try out a new suit of armour (11)

Henry understood the political impact of a joust, just like his maternal grandfather. At one particular event in 1518, he performed in front of ambassadors who were at court to finalise the marriage of the Princess Mary to the French Dauphin. An eyewitness writes that he fought bravely, 'shivering eight spears'. But the joust was the cherry on top of a day's PR for Henry. The eyewitness states that, earlier in the day, the King wore a:

'robe of crimson satin lined with brocade, and he had a tunic of purple velvet powdered with precious stones, a stone and a large pearl, alternately; the stones being rubies, turquoises and diamonds, all of the best water and sparkling' and 'a collar thickly studded with the finest carbuncles as large as walnuts'. 

Later, after he had changed out of his armour and presumably back into his sparkling jewels, they all ate a feast and 'drank out of gold' (12). There was as much reason for Henry to show the French ambassadors his jewels and gold cups as well as his ability on the tiltyard. These were ambassadors, and Henry would have known that in their next despatch, all the details of his wealth, strength and personal bravery and ability would be fed back to his rival, Francis I. Jousts could certainly achieve political goals under the cloak of good, old fashioned entertainment.   

But the jousting hobby that Henry loved wasn't long-lived. He suffered an accident at the tilt in 1524, when he forgot to close his visor and suffered a head injury - and then another in 1536, which ended up with Henry falling unconscious, probably with a concussion. 

Despite the emphasis on games, showmanship, characters and rules, jousting was still a serious - and dangerous - business. Henry didn't perform at the joust again, and was dogged by many health issues during the rest of his reign. And in 1559, in the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I, the French King Henry II died in a jousting accident and the tradition with the royalty, unsurprisingly, started to fall from favour. 

What do you think about jousting? Would you do it? Would you take part if you were a king? Let me know in the comments below.

The 1467 joust occurred during the Wars of the Roses, a time of political turmoil and social survival for many families. I explore stories of many of the women involved in the wars during the fifteenth century in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword.  Order your copy here. 

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(1) Jousting, Wikipedia, accessed 10 March 2020 
(2) Sudeley Castle, 9 Things You Didn't Know About Jousting, accessed 10 March 2020
(3) Tournaments, Wikipedia, accessed 10 March 2020
(4) Richard Barber, Edward III And The Triumph of England, Penguin, 2013, accessed 10 March 2020
(5), Edward of Woodstock, accessed 10 March 2020
(6) Ian Mortimer, Edward III - The Perfect King, accessed 10 March 2020. 
(7), John Hastings, accessed 10 March 2020.
(8) History Today, Woodville Versus The Bastard, accessed 10 March 2010. 
(9), accessed 10 March 2020.
(10) The History of England, Henry VIII's Westminster Tournament, accessed 10 March 2020. 
(11) English History, King Henry VIII Has A Jousting Accident, 1524, accessed 10 March 2020. 
(12) Calendar of State Papers, 1515, accessed 10 March, 2020.