Tales of the Tournament

This August Bank Holiday weekend will witness a clash of knights fighting it out at the Royal Armouries in Leeds in a spectacular Tournament.

Few things can compare with the colour, theatre, and spectacle of a Medieval tournament which at the time were hugely popular. The archetypal image is of armoured knights on horseback galloping towards each other with lances. However tournaments took place over a period of about 600 years, evolving from military exercises and including courtly displays of wealth and sportsmanship.

Image of two knights in heraldic finery, from the Turnierbuch of Maximilian I (Hans Burgkmair the Younger, ca. 1540)

Image of two knights in heraldic finery

The tourney probably began in the 11th century, as opposing groups of Norman knights practiced tactics for the battlefield. These early combats used swords and lances, and were highly dangerous.

The earliest form of jousting, known as the Joust of War, was fought between combatants on horseback. They attempted to unhorse their opponent, or at least hit their head, shield or body. Blunted weapons became popular, and so began the Joust of Peace. Hollow lances shattered dramatically on impact; the frog-mouthed helm was designed to protect the eyes from flying splinters. Unfortunately these helmets also restricted the horseman’s view at the moment of impact. A barrier called a tilt was erected to prevent the horses from crashing into each other.

Tournaments also included events such as individual foot combat with a variety of weapons and the foot tourney which pitched two teams against each other across a barrier.

Knights Jousting at the Royal Armouries Museum

Jousting at the Royal Armouries Museum

Combatants with their faces hidden are hard to identify, so brightly coloured heraldic designs were displayed on their shields, the crests of their helmets, both their own and the horses’ ‘coats-of-arms’. Vast sums of money were spent on armour, feasts, ceremonial processions, and pageants. King Henry VIII was an enthusiastic participant and host of several tournaments, including the extravagant Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, with Francois I of France, which you can find out more about in the Tournament Gallery of our Leeds Museum.

You can find out more about our Tournament and book tickets on the Royal Armouries website.

Blogger: Victoria Adams, Curatorial Assistant