Tournaments and The History of William Marshal

If you want to learn more about tournaments in the Middle Ages, one of the best sources to read is The History of William Marshal. The earliest surviving biography of a medieval knight, it was written just a few years after his death in 1219. Composed as a poem of 19,214 lines, it covered William’s life and career in great detail.

There are dozens of references to tournaments in this work, which in the late twelfth and early thirteenth-centuries was a kind of group combat where teams of knights would fight a melee-style combat attempting to capture their opponents.

William was about 20 years old when he took part in his first tournament - at the time was serving in the household of the Lord of Tancarville, Chamberlain to King Henry II. He had to be given a horse to take part in the combat, but according to his biographer, William had a very good day:

On the morning of the tournament the knights appeared and stood before their refuges and took their time while they were carefully, splendidly armed. Then forth they rode in tight, well ordered companies; and I can assure you there were no private jousts before the tourney ground, or any special conditions discussed - only the challenge to win or lose all! The Chamberlain brought up the rear, with forty knights or more following his banner that day, and a grander company was never seen. In fine array they rode to the tournament. On the other side the king of Scotland advanced in splendid order with an impressive body of knights almost beyond count. But to come straight to the point: Sir Philip de Valognes was so elegantly, superbly armed - a more handsome figure than anyone, sleeker than a bird - that many a knight set his sights on him. The Marshal certainly did, and broke swiftly forward, spurring Blancart, and charged into the opposing lines and seized Philip by the reins; Philip did all he could to fight him off, but in vain: the Marshall overpowered him and pulled him from the fray; he pledged himself his prisoner, and the Marshal took him at his word and let him go. Once he’d gone, the Marshal charged back into the melee and instantly felled a knight with a lance he’d savaged, and threatened him with the broken stump that he yielded as his captive. Now he had two valuable prisoners, won fair and square.

It did not take long for William to gain more wins in tournaments, and he joined the retinue of Henry, the son of Henry II, King of England. This Henry, who was called the Young King, took part in numerous tournaments around France. During one event the fighting moved over to the main street of the town of Anet, where William and Henry defeated a group of soldiers commanded by Sir Simon de Neauphle. The story continues:

The Marshal rode up and reached for Sir Simon’s bridle; the moment he seized it, that was it: he had such fast hold that Simon couldn’t break free, and he led him off, the king followed behind. Now, the Marshal didn’t notice, but there was a gutter hanging low above the street, with Sir Simon’s reach; he grabbed hold and stayed swinging there while the Marshal, unaware, carried on without backward glance! The king had seen, but preferred not to say; so on down the street rode the Marshal, leaving Sir Simon hanging from the gutter! Back he came to the baggage train leading the horse by the reins and said to a squire:

“Take charge of this knight.”


“Which knight would that be?” said the jovial, witty king.


“Which knight? The one I’ve captured.”


“You can keep his horse and harness,” said the king, “but I think you’ll find you’ve lost the knight!”


“What!” said the Marshal. “Where’s he gone?”


“He decided to hand around back there - suspended from a gutter!”

When the Marshal looked round he roared with laughter and thought it a splendid joke!

The History of William Marshal contains many more descriptions of tournaments, often those in which William wins great success. For instance, during a tournament near Paris, the organizers decided to give an award out “to the worthiest, the most deserving, the one whose weapons have been used to great effect today!” It was decided that the tournament’s MVP would be William, and two knights were sent to his lodgings to give him a pike as a trophy. However, they could not find him there, but was told he had gone to find a blacksmith:

So they left the Marshal’s lodging and hurried to the forge - and found him with his head laid on the anvil! It was no joke: the smith, with his hammers and pliers and tongs, was trying to prise off his helm, cutting through the joints where they were buckled and battered in - it was so tight about his neck that it was a struggle to loosen it.

Finally “the helm was free and heaved off with a mighty effort,” and the two knights presented him with his trophy.

You can read more tales of tournaments in The History of William Marshal, which has been translated by Nigel Bryant and published by Boydell and Brewer.

You can also learn more about tournaments and jousting in the latest issue of Medieval Warfare magazine.

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