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A Brief Overview of Jousting and Armour by Heather R. Darsie

Tudor History Tours with the Tudor Society
Rennzeug armour made for Maximilian I in 1515

Rennzeug armour made for Maximilian I in 1515

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 armour 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 armour smiths, though German armourers 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 armour workshops in either Spain or the Netherlands, but most of the large Belgian cities had active armourer's guilds during the Renaissance period.

Jousting armour first started as chain mail. Eventually, steel plate was used. As time wore on, jousting armour 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 armour eventually led to the limitation of whether a horse was physically strong enough to carry the armoured rider effectively in the tiltyard. Use of armour for the horse would be another sign of wealth due to the inherent difficulty of making horse's armour, 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 colour and heraldic achievement. All-in-all, the horse would be quite well-dressed for the event!

Purchasing fine armour 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. Armour found at a market was likely ready-made. To give some perspective, a good suit of armour 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 armour. Much like today, clothing styles would go in and out of fashion. This same idea would apply to armour styles, and could show whether a jouster was better or worse because he could not afford newer armour.

The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I elevated jousting to the chivalric tournament enjoyed by Henry VIII of England upon his accession 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 armour. Maximilian's court developed the art of armour 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 armour were called “Rennzeug” and “Stechzeug.” The Rennen form was a lighter joust, with the goal being to hit the opponent's shield, so lighter armour was necessary. The goal of the Stechen form was to knock the crest off the opponent's helmet, so this armour was much heavier and boxier.

The Stechzeug of John the Constant c. 1500

The Stechzeug of John the Constant c. 1500

The armour used by Henry VIII, though still very heavy, was similar to the Rennzeug armour 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 armour at one point, like his nephew Charles V. Parade armour is fully-functional, highly decorated armour that would at times be worn into actual battle.

The joust was an important part of European Medieval and Renaissance culture. The armour itself showed whether the bearer was wealthy enough to have the latest style of armour, or successful enough at the tournament to win good pieces of armour. It embraced artistic expression by master armourers, emboldened its participants in the pursuit of chivalry and gave a good show to courtly observers.

Claire did a talk for members on "Henry VIII: The Jouster" as a Claire Chats video - members can click here to view that now. You can also read Sarah Bryson's article Jousting.

A video from the Royal Armouries about Stechzeug armour:

A video from the Royal Armouries about Henry VIII's armour for the Field of Cloth of Gold:

Behind the scenes at the Royal Armouries: Henry VIII's tonlet armour:

A video from the Royal Armouries of Maximilian I's jousting armour:

Behind the scenes at the Royal Armouries: Henry VIII's horned helmet:

A video about the mysterious French Lion Armour:

Heather R. Darsie lives in the United States with her family and three parrots. She works in the legal field, with a focus on children. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in German Languages and Literature, then a Juris Doctorate in American jurisprudence, and studied abroad in Costa Rica and France. Heather has always loved history. She first became acquainted with Elizabeth I when she was in middle school and chose to write a book report about her. Since then, she has always held an interest in the Renaissance and its numerous enigmatic citizens, with particular focus on the history of England and Italy. She is currently working on a book on the heraldry of Tudor women and is also researching Anne of Cleves.

Sources and Suggested Reading

Image: Rennzeug armour, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Rennzeug Kaiser Maximilians I., von Konrad Seusenhofer, Innsbruck, um 1515.

There are 2 comments Go To Comment

  1. Sheldon Schorer /

    I recently revisited the armor display at the Met (NY) and wondered whether the lance rest (“verguelle”?) was either on the right or left side. What side would a right handed knight place the rest on?

    1. Philip /

      Fighting is what a knight learn since he could hold weapon, so none would be left handed lancer, left handed person can learn to write with right hand, the same with knight.

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A Brief Overview of Jousting and Armour by Heather R. Darsie