The Lance

By Kay Smith and Ruth R Brown

We suspect many of our readers enjoy the film A Knight’s Tale, with its many amusing anachronisms. An exchange that always makes us smile is when William and Jocelyn fall out, Jocelyn rebukes William by saying “Better a silly girl with a flower, than a silly boy with a horse and a stick.” Outraged, squire Wat calls out after her: “It’s called a lance. Heellooo?” And Wat was right to stress the importance of the lance; without it, there would have been no tournaments and no jousting.

The origins of the tournament may be linked to the introduction of the couched lance in war – the rider, stirrup and lance working together for their shock impact. The use of the heavy, difficult-to-control lance necessitated the need for practice and training; not only with the weapon, but also how to fight as part of a team of knights – it was important that the charge be coordinated and that individuals did not act alone. Originally groups of mounted knights fought a melée or ‘mock battle’. Though the melée persisted for a period, over time the tournament became more organised and new rules and regulations were brought in, until we reach the popular image of the joust, as we can see in A Knight’s Tale – the combat between two mounted knights armed with lances, each trying to unseat the other. One medieval poem describes an encounter:


The knights draw more than a furlong (200 metres or 220 yards) apart, then spur their horses into the charge. Thrusting at each other with the heads of their lances, they strike with such force that their shields are pierced and shattered. The lances splinter and shiver, and the saddle-bows are hacked to pieces at the back.

15th-century lance head – image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unsurprisingly few tournament lances have survived;  the sound of shattering lances echoes through medieval literature: “a new day marched in …, announced not by the carolling of larks but something altogether more warlike – the clang of the jousters colliding! There was such an ear-splitting sound of shattering lances, you would have said the clouds were bursting”. Or a description of the jousting of Tirant lo Blanc: “Each one quickly spurred his mount and steadied his lance in its rest. They encountered so fiercely that their weapons splintered”. Or Sir Galahad, “who had ridden out into the meadow with the rest, began to shiver lances with a force and fury that astonished all the onlookers.”


In fact the colloquial way to invite a knight to joust was to ask him to “break a lance” with you. As the purpose of the joust was to destroy the lance, perhaps it is surprising that any have survived at all.

The Weapon

Lances were made of wood, some 4 to 5 metres (13 to 16 feet) long and fitted with an iron head. At the rear they thin down to form a handhold. Behind this the wood extended back for about 50 to 80cms (1½ to 2½ feet). In front of the handhold, where the lance was usually thickest, a small round iron plate, was the vamplate, to protect the hand. The lance is usually tapered from here to the point and could be circular in cross-section or fluted to lighten it. Smaller lances, that is those of smaller diameter, were probably made of solid wood but larger lances – and they could get very large indeed – were hollow to reduce their weight; if they were solid, their weight would have been more than a knight could wield. The head could be of two types: sharp to kill or maim your opponent, or blunt and intended to engage the foe but not kill: this was the head used for tournaments.

Lances, like shields and helmets, were used for heraldic displays. The medieval poem of Erec and Anide, dating from about 1170, provides a vivid description: “Many a lance was carried there painted in silver and red, others, in gold ad blue, and many more of different kinds, some banded and some spotted.”  Surviving lances, rare before the 16th century, are often painted and gilded: “Brandon’s lance” as VII.550 in the Royal Armouries is known because of its traditional association with Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, retains traces of gilding and black, yellow and red paint. Its full length is 436 cm (172 in) and weighs 9.1 kg (20 lb). Another shorter, lighter lance, VII.551, dating from the same period, has a fluted shaft made of softwood, probably fir. It bears traces of gilded decoration and patterns in red and black paint of organic scrolls and latticework as well as punchwork decoration and the tip painted black with a red band.

Blunted Lance Head, used for tournaments
late 15th–early 16th century – Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A necessary part of the armour to help control the lance was the lance rest, sometimes called an arrêt de cuirasse or arrêt. There are several different forms, but essentially it is an iron projection fitted to the right side of the breastplate. Some were simply bolted on but on some armours 3 or 4 extensions, called staples, were fixed permanently to the breastplate; when needed the lance rest fitted over the lugs and was locked in place with a wedge. The rest was used to both help to take the weight of the lance but, more importantly, to stop or arrest the backwards motion of the lance on impact. It allowed the knight to couch the lance more securely and thus deliver a more solid blow by spreading its impact through the breastplate, directing the force away from the hand and arm.


A ring of leather around the handle of the lance, placed behind the hand but before the armpit or lance rest and known as a grapper or arrêt de lance, is also used to secure the lance in its couched position. When used together, the lance rest and grapper are able to stabilize the lance considerably when it is in its couched position.

Fell to the ground dead

The medieval French poem Cligés of about 1176 includes a vivid description of what it was like to charge with a lance: Our hero “braces himself firmly in the stirrups and goes to strike him at full gallop so that despite himself his opponent vacated the saddlebows”. We also know that the jousters could use several lances over the course of a tourney: Tirant “…asked the judges for a better mount and lance, to which they replied that each knight could take as many as he liked. Tirant and his foe both chose heavy lances and clashed with great fury, but this time Tirant struck his adversary a little below the lance-rest. The Breton’s lance held firm, and the shock was so great that the champion flew off his horse and fell to the ground dead.”

This passage reminds us that although the tournament lance was designed not to kill but to shatter on impact, it could still deliver a deadly blow. In the fully developed joust, between two mounted riders, there was a point system dependent on where the lance hit your opponent and usually most points were awarded for hitting the helmet. A number of strategies were developed to avoid injury or even death. For example jousters often wore a special helmet, now called a “frog-mouthed helm”, which had a large vertical plate at the front with the eye slot at the top arranged so that tilting the head down provided the knight with sight but at the moment of impact, tilting the head back meant that the eyes were protected.

The Tournament with lances, created in
1509 by Lucas Cranach

Despite these attempts, accidents still happened and riders were hurt or even killed by splinters from the lance getting through the knights defences. Of these victims, the most famous of course was Henry II of France who was injured by the splinters from a lance when jousting and died from his injuries.

More intriguing is the case of Henry VIII of England who, it has been claimed recently, suffered considerable brain damage from accidents incurred while jousting, analogous to injuries resulting from today’s contact sports, American football and rugby, beginning with March 1524, when the king was unseated after a lance entered his open visor at a tournament. Indeed it has been suggested that Henry’s behaviour as he got older, becoming increasingly “cruel, petty and tyrannical”, as a result. The study goes on to say:

We know of at least three major head injuries in Henry’s life. He may have had headaches and more subtle changes to his personality after his first head injury but there is a marked stepwise change in him after 1536.

Perhaps Jocelyn was right after all to try and keep William away from the sticks and back to the flowers!


Kay Smith and Ruth R. Brown are leading experts in medieval weaponry. Learn more about their work on or follow them on Twitter @LadySaltpetre and @Basiliscoe

Click here to read more from Kay and Ruth

Further Reading:

A.T. Hatto (trans.), Parvical by Wolfram von Eschenbach (Penguin, 1980)

Muahmmad Quaiser Ikram, Fazle Hakim Sajjad and Arash Salardini, “The head that wears the crown: Henry VIII and traumatic brain injury,” in Journal of Clinical Neuroscience (2016), pp. 16-19.

P. M. Matarasso (trans.), The Quest of the Holy Grail (Penguin, 1969)

D.D.R. Owen (trans.), Chrétien de Troyes. Arthurian Romances (Dent, 1987)

David H. Rosenthal (trans.), Tirant lo Blanc (Schocken Books, 1984)

This article was originally published in Medieval Warfare magazine. Click here to buy that issue.

Top Image: The tournament book of Marx Walther, created between 1506 and 1511, contains many fascinating images of knights with lances © Bayerische Staatsbibliothek MS Cgm 1930 fol. 20r