Not All Fun and Games: The Dangers of the Medieval Tournament

Not All Fun and Games: The Dangers of the Medieval Tournament

By Natalie Anderson

The tournament, with all its elements of theatre and spectacle, was the ideal showground for martial skill, chivalric values, and medieval masculinity. But, behind the glamour, was a dangerous sport that often involved life or death circumstances.

A gruesome tournament in the Codex Manesse, University of Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, c. 1300-1340.

In its earliest incarnation, the tournament served primarily as training for war and usually took the form of a large mêlée, where combatants would engage in group combat, either on horseback or on foot. And, while the swords might be blunted, the equipment was not far removed from that used in real warfare, and the injuries sustained could reflect that.


Although the tournament evolved over the centuries, gradually becoming (relatively) safer thanks to new innovations in arms and armour alongside the rise in popularity of the one-on-one joust over the mêlée, it was still not a sport for the faint-hearted. Yet this didn’t stop some of the most prominent figures of the day from indulging in a love of the tournament – and running the risks that came along with it.

One of the most famous examples of this is Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who, despite the dangers, and despite his status as a ruler, threw himself into the tournament, proving to be a competitor of great skill. At a tournament held to celebrate Maximilian’s coronation as Romischer König, or ‘King of the Romans’, in 1486, Maximilian jousted in the presence of his father, the Emperor Frederick III. French chronicler Jean Molinet describes how the ‘most victorious and illustrious’ prince jousted, ‘with blunted lances against the [unnamed] margrave, and they met, one against the other with such force that both of them, together with their horses, were thrown to the ground, without the slightest harm, for which each thanked God’. Clearly, Maximilian and his opponent were well aware of their narrow escape and of how different the outcome might have been.

Royal Armouries, Leeds, II.6. Foot combat armour of Henry VIII, c.1520

Another monarch who loved the tournament – influenced in no small part by Maximilian – was Henry VIII. While the popular modern image of Henry is the familiar and famous portrait by Hans Holbein, which was instrumental in creating the lasting impression of this king as fleshy and corpulent. But in his younger years, the fit and handsome Henry was a keen enthusiast of the tournament, and earned a reputation as a skilled competitor. It was only after a jousting accident in 1536, when Henry was thrown from his horse and badly injured, that his physical condition deteriorated, ending his jousting career and transforming him into the more rotund monarch we picture today.

1540 armour of Henry VIII. Royal Armouries, Leeds, II.8, VI.13

This dramatic change is best exemplified when comparing two suits of armour made for Henry. One, a suit of armour for foot combat, was made when the king was twenty-nine and originally intended for one of the most famous tournaments of all time: the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520). Another, made for the king when he was almost fifty, was made for the last tournament Henry ever hosted, and one in which he did not – as might seem obvious from the girth of the armour – take part.

The worst-case scenario, however, of what could happen to a monarch who took part in tournaments is certainly that of the French king Henri II. Henri was killed at a tournament in Paris in 1559 when a splinter from his opponent’s lance penetrated his helm and pierced his eye.

Hungarian Knight Gregor Baci. 16th century, Ambras Castle, Innsbruck.

Injuries to the head, and particularly to the vulnerable eyes, were always one of the greatest risks in the tournament. Perhaps the most graphic representation of this is the portrait of a sixteenth-century Hungarian knight, Gregor Baci, who apparently survived a traumatic lance injury to the head. (The sensational painting of Baci with the lance in situ is surely meant to represent how he appeared when the injury actually occurred and not to imply that he walked around on a daily basis with a lance protruding from his skull.)


While the tournament was a sport for princes and kings, it was, at the same time, a dangerous game. The colourful pageantry went hand-in-hand with a very real hazard where risk ran alongside reward.

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