Five Strange Moments in Medieval Tournaments

There were probably thousands of tournaments held during the Middle Ages. Sometimes they did not go as expected. Here are five episodes during medieval tournaments that we need to tell you about!

Take care of your audience

King Edward III of England and his wife Philippa were attending a tournament just outside of London in 1331 when the grandstand collapsed from the weight of the spectators. Unfortunately for the workmen who built the stands, among the spectators who got caught in the accident were the queen and her ladies-in-waiting. Although no one was injured, an enraged Edward threatened to execute those responsible for their negligence. “The pious queen did not allow the carpenters to be punished,” the Chronicle of Geoffrey of Baker add, “but by her prayers and genuflexions so recalled the king and his friends from their anger that by this act of mercy she caused everyone to love her, as they thought about her goodness.”

Killer dust

The tournaments of twelfth and thirteenth centuries were likened to a free-for-all melee with dozens of combatants fighting it out. While the aim was to capture opponents, many participants were accidentally killed. Among those who lost their lives during these games were Geoffrey of Brittany, son of Henry II of England, and Leopold, Duke of Austria. According to Juliet Vale perhaps the worst episode was the “notorious encounter at Neuss on the Rhine in 1241 [when] at least sixty knights and squires died, many of them suffocated to death by the dust of the tournament field, and the sky was supposedly black with carrion hovering over the slaughter.”

A surprise attack

While those attending a tournaments were supposed to come in peace, not everyone was willing to follow the rules. In August of 1170 a tournament was held at Trazegnies, which attracted Baldwin, the son of the count of Hainault. According to the chronicler Gilbert of Mons, Baldwin was an enemy of Duke Godfrey of Louvain, and brought 3,000 footsoldiers with him. However, the Duke was eager to attack his rival and prepared an ambush with 30,000 men. Gilbert continues:

Baldwin and his men, as they passed the hedged enclosure which is called Carnieres, saw the tremendous strength of the duke, and retreated as quickly as they could. But since the forest was difficult to cross without the loss of many men, they prepared themselves for battle against the duke. Therefore, when the duke and his men rushed with the intent of harming Baldwin and his men, Baldwin assumed a vigorous spirit and descended from his horse above the water which is called Pieton, so that his men would not forsake him when they saw him on foot, but both knights and footsoldiers would be eager with him for battle. Baldwin with his troops manfully resisted the duke and his men who were approaching with arrogance and ferocity, and with God’s help he trounced them and put them to flight, captured many, and killed many by strength of his few men.

The hassles of hosting a tournament

Having dozens of young warriors coming to your town for a tournament might be asking for trouble. The English town of Boston learned this in 1288, when a group of squires started a riot that led to half the town being burned down. In their book Tournaments: Jousts, Chivalry and Pageants in the Middle Ages, Richard Barber and Juliet Barker describe what took place in 1393 when the Duke of Bavaria asked the town of Regensburg to host a tournament:

The town council agreed, and the local bishop postponed a religious procession so that it could take place. The watch was put on alert, and fire precautions were taken: water was brought up to the rooftops. Troops were hired and instructed to remain armed day and night, and two hundred of them were posted in and around the town hall. All the gates were closed and guarded, except for three, which were shut once the tourneyers had entered. Almost at once there were problems: the duke wanted to tourney outside his own palace, while the town council insisted on the traditional site, the heath, for security reasons. In the end they gave way: permission was granted for Saturday and Sunday, on the understanding that it would never be given again. The tournament went off without incident, but at the dance afterwards a fight developed between a member of the household of the duke’s son Albrecht and another of the tourneyers. The town council sealed off the building to prevent Albrecht and his household from taking revenge. Albrecht was furious at the treatment of his men, but the town council stood firm, and he was eventually pacified.

Like a piece of washing

The historian Sydney Anglo tells us about “one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of jousting”:

This was the feat accomplished by Gaston de Foix at Nancy in 1445. He had been enjoying himself in the lists, knocking his opponents about; bending their backbones with his buffets; and generally performing wonders. His last course was against a fine jouster and rider, Philippe de Lenoncourt, whose headpiece had an unusually wide sight. Gaston’s lance unerringly penetrated this, but miraculously missed Lenoncourt’s face, went up into the crown of the helm and lifted the luckless knight clean out of his saddle and over his horse’s crupper - leaving him suspended in mid-air. There is no stranger picture conjured up in the annals of the joust than the mighty Gaston de Foix riding about the list with an armoured knight dangling from the end of his lance like a piece of washing… Lenoncourt was so bemused that he did not know whether he was in heaven or earth: ‘il ne savoit s’il extoit en ciel ou en terre’. And it was thought, when he was carried away back to his pavilion, that he was dead. However, after large quantities of restorative rosewater and vinegar had been thrown into this his face, his heart revived. But, added the chronicler laconically, he jousted no more that day.

Want to learn more about tournaments and jousting in the Middle Ages? Check out our latest issue of Medieval Warfare.

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