Tournament: Combat and Conquest – a Review of a lecture at the Royal Armouries, Leeds


Wednesday 24 April 2013 at Royal Armouries.

Speaker: Karen Watts – Senior Curator of Armour

What a great talk. I can’t possibly do it justice, the wealth of information and the clear and entertaining way it was put across would simply take pages to describe. I’m being utterly honest with this. Part way through the lecture I thought to myself, “I wish this was a DVD”.

For one thing I know others that would have enjoyed watching the DVD with me as I watched it again. For another there was just so much to take in.

Yes I do already have a reasonable understanding of the world of Tournament. I hope that came across in my article about the Easter Joust at the Royal Armouries.

I arrived a tad early and found the museum locked. I knew I was early so I sat and read for a while, only getting up to investigate when another man arrived who took to investigating straight away. I wasn’t being shy, I was almost forty-five minutes early and I knew many more people would arrive before showtime.

We were allowed in and I waited patiently, still quite early, but eventually decided to make my way to the War Cinema. It was locked, I was still early you see.

Karen Watts arrived with the Head Librarian, I must confess to forgetting his name – my sincere apologies. And we had a brief chat while waiting for the cinema to be opened. I told her of my families interest in the sport and that we had been to the Armouries several times to see the Joust and indeed many other displays in the Tiltyard. The museum is justly proud to be the only museum to house its very own tiltyard.

There were probably around twenty to thirty people attending the lecture, mostly in ones and twos. I think it is fair to say that most if not all the audience enjoyed the talk as much as myself.

Karen took us through the ages of the Tournament. From its earliest unruly form of the Tourney, a mock battle that might range over several miles of countryside, through to the spectator sport that we are all familiar from TV and film. Of course we all know that TV and Film are want to give scant interest to reality in their works of ‘historical fiction’  and there are alarming errors in many a ‘true life’ historical tale.

Karen wanted to dispel the myth that medieval armour was as heavy as film often suggests, with a fully armoured Knight almost unable to move. Armour was for warfare, a Knight needed to be able to move well. The weight of armour is distributed across the body and weighed around 50lb at most. Modern soldiers carry up to 80lb of gear, and are expected o be able to run.

The idea that winches were required o help Knights onto their horses is false. Armour for war was so well distributed that a trained knight could actually leap unaided into the saddle, Henry V is credited with such an ability, it is mentioned by Shakespeare and as similar armour was still in use this would readily have been seen as nonsense by the audience. Sir Laurence Olivier met with the then Curator of the Tower of London to discuss armour as he was keen to have his film, Henry V, be as authentic as possible. When discussing the wynches he was told that this wasn’t accurate and told of Henry V’s ability to leap onto horseback fully armoured. The wynches were put aside for the film, or in part, as the English mounted their horses unaided the French were shown using the wynch.

In all cases the Tournament was intended to hone the fighting skills of Knights for war. There were many times Tournament was outlawed in England, including by Papal bull. However all in all it was a popular sport of  princes and kings.

The Tourney was brought in from the field and the mock battles were performed to a crowd. With two large groups of Knights facing off against each other. The two groups would charge together en masse with lances and a Marshal would call out who had struck who and who should leave the field. There would then be a second pass with swords.

As time passed it became popular for individual Knights to test their skills against each other. So came about the Joust of War. The aim of this joust was to un-horse your opponent. Unseated riders had to pay a ransom, often in coin but usually including their horse. The saddle that was used for this version of the joust had a very low back to ease the rider into a safer fall than from a standard war saddle. Of course the joust was far from safe and injuries, maimings and death were common.

The armour for this form of jousting was concentrated to the front of the Knight, indeed as the blows were only to the front of the Knight the back of the Knight was as un-armoured as possible. The lance had a sharp point but instead of piercing the armour the armour was designed to deflect the point.

Having horses charge at each other can give mixed results. Horses are by nature herd animals and their usual response to danger is flight, not fight. So horses had a tendency to veer off from each other.The horses also commonly wore a chamfron to shield their eyes, often the horse was running without the sense of sight. Horses also have a keen sense of hearing so they would also wear bells, they were used to the sound of their own bells from training and it is thought the sound helped distract then from the fact they were charging head on at another horse. Some horses would dominate the opponent’s horse and deliberately veer into its path. To avoid this the tilt was added to the Tournament field. The tilt is the fence that runs down the middle of the Tiltyard.

The tilt brings us to the form most people are now familiar with, indeed the Joust became referred to as the Tilt or Tilting. This is the form that would have been enjoyed by Henry VIII. It must be remembered that before becoming the overweight gout ridden man most pictures depict Henry was in his day an imposing figure and a keen and skilled jouster. He stood six feet two, mush taller than the average of the age and was a very fit individual.

This form was known as the Joust of Peace and was performed with a different lance. Instead of a sharp point there was a broad point with three ends, referred to as a coronal. The lance was solid at the point held by the Knight but the majority of its length was hollow and the idea was to remain seated on your horse and break tour lance upon your opponent. Points were awarded depending on where you hit your opponent, the head giving the highest points.

Scorecards exist of jousts and it is from the original scorecards that we know how skilled Henry VIII was at the joust, out performing most of the field.

The armour was also different, a multitude of replaceable parts were in use and could be changed for whatever part of the Tournament was taking place.

The Joust is not the only skill used in the Tournament. There were also individual bouts with swords or axes or poleaxes, for each form the Knight might add or remove part of the armour. For example when fighting on foot against the sword it was appropriate to add a tonlet, a rigid armoured skirt.

At times the combatants might joust, then fight with swords on horseback and then on foot with a succession of weapons. These fights might be almost continuous. The Knight might remove and replace his visor or tonlet or shield several times, removing an item and setting aside a weapon was referred o as ‘voiding’. This can be attested to by some contemporary drawings that show discarded weapons and armour on the floor whilst a fight is ongoing. At other Tournaments these fights were completely separate and not all Knights will have competed in all disciplines.

The finery of the joust was also touched upon. The colourful caparisons that the horses wore showing their owners heraldry for example. Something that almost defies belief is how extravagant some of the helmet decorations were. Examples include a church tower, with working bell; three sausages on a stick and even a birdhouse, with live birds.

This is as fair a summation of the talk that I can give. There were many more historical notes, quotes and many many images displayed. One story was about Ulric Von Liechtenstein whose real story is more fanciful than the fictional version in Knights Tale. As I said in opening the talk was magnificent, well worth the £5.00 fee.

After the talk we were able to look at some of the arms and armour used in jousting. We were also lucky enough to look at, but not touch, three original manuscripts, two 14th and one 15th century in a 16th century binding. This book was an instruction manual, for all intents and purposes, informing Heralds how to organise a Tournament.

I would encourage you to attend such a lecture if you were ever able to.

The Royal Armouries, Leeds, is a marvelous museum that houses one of the greatest collections of military history. Opened in 1996 as the United Kingdom’s National Museum of Arms and Armour with a collection of over 70,000 exhibits of armour and weapons.

Located just outside the city centre Royal Armouries, Leeds convenient to reach by car and only a few minutes walk from the Bus, Coach and Train stations.

Royal Armouries are also found at:
Fort Nelson, Fareham (near Portsmouth);
The Tower of London and
Frazier History Museum, Louisville, Kentucky USA


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