Introduction to Medieval Tournaments


A couple of years ago I had a vague idea of writing a novel about a man who made money from tournaments. It didn’t come to anything, even though I read somewhere that adultery was so rife as to be the norm at such events.  Tournaments have come up again in my reading recently, so I thought I should learn more about them.

I have more than enough information for one blogpost, so this will be an introduction and another post will deal with tournaments in the fourteenth century.

There’s a very good chance that you’re not thinking about tournaments as you read this, but jousting. They’re not the same thing. Some tournaments did feature jousts, but a joust on its own was not a tournament.  Jousting is what you’ll have seen in films – two heavily-armoured knights on huge horses charging at one another on horses. They’re usually separated by a long fence. This last was a Spanish invention and wasn’t used in England until long after the fourteenth century. The English generally trusted their own ability to keep their horses running in a straight line towards an opponent without the help of a partition. Sometimes jousts included knights fighting on foot with different types of weapons.  It was the charging horses, however, which provided the greatest entertainment.

Tournaments began with a very serious purpose, which was to enable knights to practise warfare when there wasn’t a war. They fought in teams against one another. Men could be captured and ransomed, just as they could in a war. Some knights, among them William Marshal,  made a very good living from tournaments.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries tournaments were mini battles. Two different types developed in the thirteenth century. The tournament á l’outrance was like a real battle and men were often killed. A tournament á la plaisance was more of a chivalric festival and was a bit safer.

The mêlée was the main event of a tournament. It was used to train knights to work together in a cavalry charge. They had to be able to keep formation when facing the enemy and this was the safest way to train them. Safety was, however, relative. Both sides charged at one another and fought until one side won. They were huge events and at least one had about 3,000 participants.

Injuries were common. Some men did not want to take part because of the risk of injury. If they were going to be injured, they preferred it to be in a real fight. There were many, on the other hand, who would rather be fighting in a tournament than fighting in Scotland, and Edward I restricted tournaments in an effort to raise a large enough army to take on the Scots. He had been a keen participant in tournaments in his youth, but they had to go when they conflicted with his ambitions.

Jousting was not quite as dangerous as a mêlée, but death or serious injury were still possibilities. Being knocked from a horse at speed was often fatal. Participants were usually bruised or had bones broken. Jousts became popular in the thirteenth century and eventually dominated tournaments.

Since tournaments were gathering places for men trained to fight, they could provide the opportunity for men to plot rebellion. They were suppressed by Henry III and Edward II for that reason. Unlike his father, Edward I, and his son, Edward III, Edward II was not in the least enthusiastic about tournaments. It was one of the many things which made those around him doubt his suitability to be king. Edward III knew how to use tournaments both to impress his nobles and to tie them to him with bonds of loyalty and friendship, as we’ll see next week.

Here is a video to show you how exciting jousting must have been. There are videos of mêlées, but they’re usually quite small and the men (and women) fight on foot. They’re also incredibly violent.


England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L Waugh

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

Knight – Michael Prestwich

Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages – Michael Prestwich



Filed under Medieval Warfare, Thirteenth Century, Twelfth Century

34 responses to “Introduction to Medieval Tournaments

  1. I read a biography of William Marshal recently and remeber the melee from it though I had forgotten about it…and the rest…so thanks for the reminders…also isnt it interesting the way family traits can skip a gneration as with the Edwards?It’s as if sometimes we try to assert our own individuality by doing the opposite of our parents. Contrary! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think Edward III deliberately emulated his grandfather in order to show the nobility that he wasn’t like his father. He enjoyed tournaments, but also used them to further his political aims. It was a lesson he learned young.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d love to visit Hever Castle, especially if they had a joust going on, all that photographic goodness!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. What an arresting first paragraph! Perhaps it was the mix of danger and glory that made adultery so prevalent.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. And today we watch football.

    This was interesting. I can well imagine that people could be seriously hurt.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I never knew the history of tournaments. Of course, at all the re-enactments that I’ve ever been, it was the jousting that took center stage.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for that! I never knew the difference between jousting, with a spot of hand-to-hand fighting on foot thrown in for variety, and a tournament such as you describe.

    The adultery association is interesting. Did the nay-sayers of the time disapprove of tournaments for this reason, or was a spot of not-so-innocent dalliance considered all part of the fun?

    There’s a re-enactment group that organizes jousting every couple of years or so not too far from where I live. Plus other displays of medieval warfare, including a trebuchet with a remarkable range.

    All well-controlled, as you would expect in this day and age. The MC explains to the crowd that the aim is to break the lance against the opponent’s shield, not unhorse them. The lances are tipped with balsa wood, for easy breaking. Even so, the occasional combatant does get unhorsed.

    International competitors come, but they can’t bring their own horses. Agricultural regs, but the cost would be prohibitive anyway. Their replica armour costs a small fortune, so it’s an expensive sport for competitors. But very exciting to watch.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The adultery thing is annoying. There was no footnote about the source and no hint as to why. I suspect that the excitement and the festivities might have led to things getting out of hand for a few people, but that’s not the same as it being expected. And what happened afterwards? DId the couples ask one another if they’d had a good time, or just never mention it? How did it work practically, given that most of them were not at home and the available accommodation at the site of the tournament would have been overcrowded?

      Jousting, and tournaments in general, is a growing sport. There are tournaments where national teams fight on foot against one another. That’s where the very violent videos come from. I hadn’t thought about transporting horses, but that must be why they don’t do the full melee. They seem bonkers enough to try it.

      I’m sure there must be trebuchets in this country, but I’ve never seen one. I’ve seen a French one on TV. That was scary enough. I don’t know that I want to see one in the flesh.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Another fascinating, well-researched, article April. But couldn’t find the salacious bit… 🙂 Only joking…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mike. The salacious bit is there because it’s a bit of a puzzle and because it’s interesting. Mostly it’s there because I’ll never be able to use it in a novel if I can’t find out any more and I might as well use it somewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have seen a lot of these tournaments with jousting in our region quite a bit. It’s a major draw for the KC Renaissance Fair in Bonner Springs Kansas.

    Since I have been part of the SCA for many years, it’s actually pretty fascinating to see a full size working trebuchet. One of the 2 years I was able to travel up to Pennsylvania for the Pensic War, someone trucked in thier trebuchet they had built and was flinging big rocks with it for hundreds of feet. It was amazing to see!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Goodness. They were very formidable weapons in the Middle Ages. Sieges were generally more important than battles and siege weapons must have been terrifying if you were inside the walls being attacked.


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  10. Val

    I love watching jousting and tournement reenactments, but am always worrying about the horses! (Never about the humans.)

    Liked by 1 person

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