by Heather R. Darsie
Jousting, much like Rugby or American Football, was a full-contact, dangerous sport. Severe injuries and even death were quite common. Henry II of France died in 1559 when a lance’s splinter breached Henry’s helmet and entered his brain by way of the eye. More like American Football and less like Rugby, individuals participating in the joust wore protection.
Most armor was made by smiths in either Germany or Italy, though those smiths would travel to workshops all over the continent and England. One workshop in England boasted of smiths from Flanders, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. The city of Milan was most famous for its skilled armor smiths, though German armorers under the Holy Roman Empire outfitted the likes of Maximilian I and Charles V. Henry VIII established royal workshops at Greenwich, with previous workshops having been located in London. Some French workshops recruited Italians for their workshops in Lyon and Tours. There is not much information about armor workshops in either Spain or the Netherlands, but most of the large Belgian cities had active armorer’s guilds during the Renaissance period.
Jousting armor first started as chain mail. Eventually, steel plate was used. As time wore on, jousting armor became more and more heavy, with some of the latest models boasting of leg protection that was incorporated into a horse’s saddle. The heavier armor eventually lead to the limitation of whether a horse was physically strong enough to carry the armored rider effectively in the tiltyard. Use of armor for the horse would be another sign of wealth due to the inherent difficulty of making horse’s armor, or barding. Barding would cover a horse’s face, provide protection for the eyes and ears; cover the neck, back, chest and hindquarters. Barding could be made of leather, chain mail, or steel plate. Horses would also wear a cloth caparison, showing the jouster’s color and heraldic achievement. All-in-all, the horse would be quite well-dressed for the event!
Purchasing fine armor was very expensive. A competitor could hope to win a good suit after winning a joust, otherwise, depending on his means, he may have to settle for poor or middling-quality found at a market. Armor found at a market was likely ready-made. To give some perspective, a good suit of armor would cost between five and eight years’ worth of rent for a London merchant at the time. A helmet, called a bascinet, could cost as much as a cow. A man’s wealth could also be gauged by his style of armor. Much like today, clothing styles would go in and out of fashion. This same idea would apply to armor styles, and could show whether a jouster was better or worse because he could not afford newer armor.
The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I elevated jousting to the chivalric tournament enjoyed by Henry VIII of England upon his ascension in 1509. Maximillian’s son Philip had married Juana of Castile, older sister to Henry’s first wife, Katharine of Aragon. Eager to gain Henry’s support against the French, Maximillian gifted Henry with a fine suit of armor. Maximilian’s court developed the art of armor for the joust.
There were two main types of jousting popularized by Maxmilian, “rennen,” which means “to run” and “stechen,” which means “to sting.” Accordingly, the two types of jousting armor were called “Rennzeug” and “Stechzeug.” The Rennen form was a lighter joust, with the goal being to hit the opponent’s shield, so lighter armor was necessary. The goal of the Stechen form was to knock the crest off the opponent’s helmet, so this armor was much heavier and boxier.
The armor used by Henry VIII, though still very heavy, was similar to the Rennzeug armor in that a wearer still had mobility, and would be able to enter the lists for jousting and fighting on foot. Henry VIII may also have had a suit of parade armor at one point, like his nephew Charles V. Parade armor is fully-functional, highly decorated armor that would at times be worn into actual battle.
The joust was an important part of European Medieval and Renaissance culture. The armor itself showed whether the bearer was wealthy enough to have the latest style of armor, or successful enough at the tournament to win good pieces of armor. It embraced artistic expression by master armorers, emboldened its participants in the pursuit of chivalry and gave a good show to courtly observers.
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Sources and Suggested Reading
- Cavendish, Richard. Henry II of France Dies of Tournament Wounds. History Today, Vol. 59, Issue 7, 2009.
- Clephan, R. Coltman. The Medieval Tournament. London: Methuen, 1919.
- Maximilian I. Royal Armouries. https://www.royalarmouries.org/visit-us/leeds/leeds-galleries/tournament-gallery/tournament-personalities/maximilian-i Retrieved 10 February 2016.
- Young, Alan. Tudor and Jacobean Tournaments. Sheridan House: 1998.
- Breiding, Dirk H. “Arms and Armor – Common Misconceptions and Frequently Asked Questions.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aams/hd_aams.htm (October 2004).
- Bredigin, Dirk H. “Famous Makers and European Centers of Arms and Armor Production.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000—. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/make/hd_make.htm (October 2002).
- Full Metal Jousting: History of Jousting. http://www.history.co.uk/shows/full-metal-jousting/articles/history-of-jousting Retrieved 15 February 2016.
- Strong, Roy. The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry. London: Thames & Hudson, 1977.
- Oakeshott, R. E. European Weapons and Armour: from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution. Beinfeld Pub: 1980.
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