By Natalie Anderson
Despite his reputation as a ruler in love with tournaments and with glorifying chivalric culture, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) did, in fact, also have to make time for political obligations. Key among these was his attendance at the imperial diets, or Reichstag. During these diets the electors, princes, and dukes of the Holy Roman Empire would convene in a chosen city. One such occasion was the diet of Worms, which took place from March to September 1495, the purpose of which was to enact imperial reform.
Yet, even at these politically charged events, Maximilian found occasions to hold tournaments. Really, it was the perfect opportunity to do so, as there, in one place, were conveniently collected all the greatest nobles of the Empire – many of whom were Maximilian’s contemporaries and his favoured tournament companions.
It was at the diet of Worms that Maximilian engaged in what would become one of his most legendary tournaments. While there, Maximilian competed in a series of combats against the famous Burgundian knight Claude de Vauldrey, Chamberlain of Burgundy. De Vauldrey was the son of a great tourneyer, and he himself had taken part in some of the most famous Burgundian pas d’armes, that favoured format for feats of arms in the Burgundian court. Those in which de Vauldrey was involved included the ‘pas of the Golden Tree’ in Bruges in 1468, where he was a challenger to the ‘Great Bastard’ (an official title in the Burgundian court) Anthony of Burgundy, half-brother to Maximilian’s father-in-law Charles the Bold.
The Burgundian was praised by French chronicler Jean Molinet as ‘highly renowned in arms for the very noble exploits in war and tournaments, jousts, duels, and passages of arms which he had done’. German knight Ludwig von Eyb, in his writings, described him as a ‘schön stark man’ – a fine, strong man.
Still, de Vauldrey was reportedly fifty years old in 1495 – an impressively advanced age for a man to still be competing in tournaments. Yet a Venetian legate to Maximilian’s court recorded that de Vauldrey apparently had a vision that he must fight with the most powerful ruler in the world in the arena. That, of course, was Maximilian.
On the day of the combat, according the writings of von Eyb, barriers were erected to enclose the two fighters alongside a temporary viewing stand for Maximilian’s queen, Bianca Maria Sforza, all of which were draped with ‘golden cloths and costly tapestries’. Von Eyb built up a wonderful sense of suspense and anticipation, as he described the two men preparing themselves in separate, lavish pavilions that they erected outside of the newly constructed stands. German diarist Reinhart Noltz wrote that each hung their shield and helmet outside their respective tents. Next, a herald rode out from the emperor’s tent and demanded that the audience remain silent; that they not irritate the fighters, or shout or wave or point, but simply let them fight each other. Anyone who broke this rule, no matter who they were, it was declared, should have their head struck off without mercy.
De Vauldrey emerged from his tent first and entered the barriers with his lance resting across his saddle. Then came Maximilian with his lance and wearing his kempfharnisch, his tournament armour. As soon as the trumpeters sounded their horns, the two proceeded to strichen sie mit dem Spieβen zusamen – strike together with their lances. Both lances were broken – a skilful result – and die helden or the heroes, as von Eyb called them, took up their swords and continued the combat. The two exchanged numerous heroic blows. But here, at last, Maximilian proved too swift and powerful for his opponent, and the two were separated by the judges, with Maximilian declared the victor.
This encounter soon reached almost legendary status, and it has been commemorated in a wide variety of places. One of the earliest memorialisations appears in Maximilian’s own commissioned tournament book, Freydal. In the image de Vauldrey has been clearly labelled, while Maximilian is identifiable by his crown and elaborate feathery crest. Yet already, as with so many tournament images, there are elements of the untrue creeping in. The men are not fighting with swords, as all the written sources state, but rather hammers.
This elaboration continued through the centuries. A fantastic example is the rather fanciful 19th-century engraving depicting the same event. Here, the joust is the combat depicted – undoubtedly considered more romantic and quintessentially ‘medieval’ to a 19th-century audience – while the contemporary source, and the one commissioned by Maximilian himself, chooses instead to depict the foot combat. Maximilian is also shown as unhorsing de Vauldrey, something which didn’t happen. Nevertheless, the image demonstrates the power of the tournament as a stage on which to play out encounters that could achieve long-enduring fame.
Follow Natalie on Twitter: @DrMcAnderson
Top Image: Freydal, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Inv. Nr. KK_5073