Last week we had a brief look at tournaments in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Today we’re moving on to the fourteenth century and the particular use Edward III made of them.
In the thirteenth century there might have been up to three thousand men in a mêlée and the mêlée itself would have covered a large area. In the fourteenth century tournaments took place in more confined spaces. Sometimes a wooden castle would be built, with one team attacking it and one team defending.
Since a tournament was often a celebration, there would be dancing, feasting and drinking as well. Tournaments usually took place over three days, with the participants being introduced and paraded on the first day, jousting on the second and the tournament itself on the final day. There were judges, and prizes were awarded to those who had distinguished themselves. It’s not clear how they managed to judge a mêlée end even the scoring systems for jousts varied. Generally, the highest score was given for unhorsing an opponent. The next highest score was for breaking a lance on an opponent and the lowest for striking the opponent’s helmet. The knights usually had three runs at one another.
Tournaments were not as profitable as they had been. The knights could no longer capture and ransom one another. There were still prizes in the fourteenth century, but they were of fairly low value.
Tournaments could be opportunities for settling scores. In 1307 Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s favourite, held a tournament to celebrate his marriage. Showing up with three times the number of men he had said he would bring, he defeated everyone else. A similar thing happened a few weeks later at a tournament to celebrate Edward II’s marriage to Isabella of France. Realising that this meant that he was widely hated among the aristocracy, Gaveston asked the king to cancel a third tournament intended to form part of the coronation festivities.
Edward III became king in 1327 when he was fourteen years old. He enjoyed tournaments and used them strategically to show that he was not like his father, who had been deposed, but like his grandfather, Edward I, who had participated in many tournaments in his youth and had been a great warrior. As a young man, he often appeared at tournaments as a simple knight, showing his solidarity with other knights.
He held tournaments all over the country – Derby, Warwick, Northampton, Pembroke, Oxford, Canterbury, Hereford. Although they were more often held in summer, they could be held at any time of the year. There were tournaments to celebrate Christmas, others to celebrate the knighting of nobles, and others to celebrate the betrothals and marriages of his children.
Edward held at least 35 tournaments in England between 1327 and 1357, using them to gain support for his wars against the Scots and the French. He often celebrated the conclusion of a successful campaign with a tournament. He fought in them himself, often in the company of his sons.
One of the last old-fashioned mêlées was held to celebrate the wedding of Edward III and Philippa in 1328 in York. Cavalry charges became increasingly rare in fourteenth-century warfare. Battles were increasingly dominated by men fighting on foot, rather than on horseback, so mêlées were becoming irrelevant as a means of training knights.
Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, the de facto rulers of England for the first three years of Edward III’s reign, often prohibited tournaments for fear of an armed uprising against them, but they put on four tournaments leading up to Edward III’s marriage to Philippa of Hainault in 1328.
Also in 1328 Mortimer used a tournament to demonstrate that he was more important and powerful than the king. He dressed as King Arthur, in a not very subtle attempt to suggest that he was descended from the Dark Ages leader. Edward III was given the role of Sir Lionel, one of Arthur’s lesser knights. Throughout the event Mortimer took precedence over the king. Mortimer was executed for treason two years later. The king often fought in later tournaments under the name Sir Lionel.
Edward III’s first London tournament was at Cheapside in September 1331. Queen Philippa and her ladies were almost killed when their viewing stand collapsed. The king, a young man with a quick temper, wanted to kill the carpenters who had erected it, but Queen Philippa begged him to show mercy, which he did.
In the same year, Edward was saved from almost certain death by changing horses during a tournament. The horse he had been riding bolted soon afterwards and almost drowned the knight who had taken the king’s place by plunging into a river.
A tournament at Northampton in 1342 was a bit of a disaster, as many nobles were injured and horses were killed. Lord Beaumont died. On the whole there were few fatalities at the king’s tournaments. This one was an exception.
In 1344 Edward III called on 500 noble women and wives of the aldermen of London to attend a tournament in London. There was a huge banquet for the women in the hall of the castle. Only two men joined them. The Prince of Wales and the earls and barons ate in tents. I’m not sure where the king was, perhaps he ate with his son. During the tournament, the king and 19 knights fought against anyone who wished to take them on for three days.
The king gave tournaments in June 1348 to celebrate Queen Philippa’s churching after the birth of their sixth son. French nobles captured during the Crécy campaign of 1346 were allowed to take part.
A tournament was held at Windsor on St George’s day (23rd April) 1349 to celebrate the founding of the Knights of the Order of the Garter. The garter knights were divided into two groups. One side was led by Thomas Holland and the other by William Montague, both of whom believed that they were married to Joan of Kent at the time. Joan was present at the tournament.
A series of tournaments were held after the Prince of Wales’ return to England following his victory at the Battle of Poitiers starting in the autumn of 1357 at Smithfield. Edward III used the event to display his French and Scottish prisoners, including the two kings.
Sometimes the participants wore fancy dress to fight. In 1359 Edward III, his sons and some of their friends dressed as the mayor and aldermen of London for a tournament.
In March 1363 the Prince of Wales held a huge tournament to celebrate the churching of Joan of Kent after the birth of their son, Edward, in Angoulême in Aquitaine. His second son, Richard II, also gave tournaments, attending the feast of one in Smithfield in his full regalia, including his crown. This is probably the only tournament in which he took part, although he held many.
In 1382 William Montague, earl of Salisbury and second husband of Joan of Kent, killed his son in a tournament. Somewhat ironically, William had come into the earldom when his father died in 1344 from wounds he had received in a tournament.
The king was not the only one to put on tournaments; his nobles also organised them. Edward III only tended to ban a tournament when it clashed with one of his own.
Edward III turned tournaments into great spectacles. He dressed his ‘team’ alike and, when he wanted to hide his identity as a participant, they all wore masks.
There were few tournaments while the Hundred Years War was actively being fought. Edward III gave up taking part in his fifties and there were fewer tournaments after that.
Probably the most well-known joust of the fourteenth century took place in 1390 just outside Calais. Calais was a French town held by the English for two hundred years. Three French knights, including Boucicaut who recorded his training regime for posterity, said that they would fight anyone who would accept their challenge. About 100 English knights accepted. Against all expectations, the French knights won, although two of them were so badly bruised that they had to rest for a week.
As you know, there’s little I like more than videos of armour-clad men rushing around to prove how flexible and light medieval armour could be. Here’s one of a chap demonstrating that Boucicaut’s unlikely-sounding training regimen was perfectly possible.
Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages – Michael Prestwich
England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L Waugh
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer
Edward Prince of Wales and Aquitaine – Richard Barber
Edward III and the Triumph of England – Richard Barber (This book contains a chronological list of Edward III’s tournaments)