Northamptonshire: Home of Tournaments

The popular perception of a medieval tournament being two heavily armoured knights charging at each other with lances was not common until the end of the fourteenth century. For most of the period it was a massed brawl of knights, without any of the ceremony that featured in later jousts, taking place over many acres of countryside.

The tournament has its origins in the military tactics of heavy cavalry during the Middle Ages and was originally training for war. Tournaments were the best means of teaching and refining the skills and abilities necessary within a more confined and controlled environment than actual warfare. The Old French word tornement was in use by the 12th century, its root coming from the Latin tornare “to turn”. The same verb also gave rise to tornei (modern English tourney, modern French tournoi). The French terms were adopted in English (via Anglo-Norman) by 1300.

The melees of the early tournaments, were called a’ outrance. During the 13th century, many tournaments were fought a’ outrance, but some were fought a’ plaisance: less fierceness and more rules – fought not for ransom, but for prizes. The modern French form mêlée was borrowed into English in the 17th century and is not the historical term used for tournament mock battles.  The Old French verb joster which means to approach or meet, became the technical term for jousting specifically (also adopted in English before 1300). By the end of the 12th century, tornement and Latinized torneamentum had become the generic term for all kinds of knightly hastiludes or martial displays. Roger of Hoveden writing in the late 12th century defined torneamentum as “military exercises carried out, not in the knight’s spirit of hostility (nullo interveniente odio), but solely for practice and the display of prowess.

In 1130, Pope Innocent II proclaimed that tournaments were against the Church. He not only forbade attendance and participation, but also forbade a proper Christian burial to those who lost their lives in a tournament. The religious take on tournaments was that in glorifying warfare as entertainment, knights and villagers alike would be distracted from the very real and important need to go to war to preserve and maintain religious ideals. Despite the threat, tournaments continued to be held.  In 1194 King Richard I set out a charter to govern tournaments. In it, all tourneyers were required to take an oath before they set out to participate in a tournament. They had to swear to pay their fees in full on pain of arrest, to not endanger the peace of the kingdom, to pay reasonable market price for food and other necessities, to take nothing by force or unfairly, and to not breach the royal forests or impinge on the royal rights of vert and venison. The license for holding a tournament was ten marks. The fee a participant paid to enter was based upon his standing; an earl paid 20 marks, a baron 10 marks, a landed knight 4 marks, and a landless knight 2 marks.

The standard form of a tournament is evident in sources as early as the 1160s and 1170s, notably the Life of William Marshal and the romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Tournaments were held throughout the year except the penitential season of Lent (the forty days preceding the Triduum of Easter). The general custom was to hold them on Mondays and Tuesdays, though any day but Friday and Sunday might be used.

The site of the tournament was customarily announced two weeks before it was to be held. These announcements would also provide the composition of the two parties involved. Those notified would then gather a group of knights who might come from their own households or be men who would be interested in participating in the tournament with that lord. All participants would arrive at the set place either the date of the tournament or perhaps the day before if the group participating came from a greater distance. Some great tournaments could last several days, and on the eve preceding the actual tournament, the young knights might show their skill with weapons and horse without having to compete against the more experienced knights.

Knights arrived individually or in companies to stay at one or other of the two settlements designated as their lodgings. The tournament began on a field outside the principal settlement, where stands were erected for spectators. On the day of the tournament one side was formed of those ‘within’ the principal settlement, and another of those ‘outside’.

Parties hosted by the principal magnates present were held in both settlements, and preliminary jousts (called the ‘vespers’ or premières commençailles) offered knights an individual showcase for their talents. On the day of the event, the tournament was opened by a review (regars) in which both sides paraded and called out their war cries. Then followed a further opportunity for individual jousting carried out between the rencs, the two line of knights. The opportunity for jousting at this point was customarily offered to the new, young knights present.

At some time in mid-morning the knights would line up for the charge (estor). At a signal, a bugle or herald’s cry, the lines would ride at each other and meet with levelled lances. The warhorses galloped in extended lines so that any knight toppled by a lance would not be severely injured by falling into the path of others.  Foot soldiers known as ‘Kippers’ (from the Scandinavian word ‘Kippa‘ which means to snatch or to seize) followed their knights into combat to retrieve arms, armour and horses from fallen adversaries. If the adversary was not completely subdued and ready to surrender these, the kipper would bang on the armour-clad opponent with various blunt non-lethal instruments, like heavy sticks or clubs, to knock him unconscious for the purpose of gathering the spoils without further protest. Those remaining on horseback would turn quickly (the action which gave the tournament its name) and single out knights to attack. Those riders that were unhorsed and uninjured knights would continue fighting on foot.  It was a violent and dangerous sport, even though most of the time their swords were blunt, their lances un-pointed, and they wore heavy armour, casualties and deaths were common. For example, Duke Geoffrey, the son of King Henry II, was trampled to death at a tourney near Paris. There is evidence that squires were also present at the lists (the staked and embanked line in front of the stands) to offer their knight up to three replacement lances. The mêlée would frequently degenerate into running battles between parties of knights seeking to take ransoms, and would spread over several square miles between the two settlements which defined the tournament area.

Most tournaments continued till both sides were exhausted, or till the light faded. A few ended earlier, if one side broke in the charge, panicked and ran for its home base looking to get behind its lists and the shelter of the armed infantry which protected them. Following the tournament the patron of the day would offer lavish banquets and entertainments. Prizes were offered to the best knight on either side, and awarded during the meals. They were also the opportunity for great ceremony and during the great tournament of 1265, Northampton Geoffrey le Scrope and three more men were knighted by Edward II.

The most famous tournament fields were in north-eastern France (such as the one between Ressons-sur-Matz and Gournay-sur-Aronde near Compiègne, in use between the 1160s and 1240s) which attracted hundreds of knights from all over Europe for the ‘lonc sejor‘ (the tournament season). Whilst there are few details of the numbers of knights at English tournaments, there is evidence that up to 3000 knights attended the tournament at Lagny-sur-Marne in November 1179 and there were many more at state tournaments at Senlis and Compiègne held by Philip III of France in 1279.

One of the few surviving records of an English tournament is for one held at Dunstable in 1309. It lists the details of the nobles and the numbers of knights in their retinues that took part:

Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, – 21

Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, Constable of England – 13

Guy Beauchamp, 2nd Earl of Warwick – 56

Thomas, Earl of Lancaster – 34

John de Warenne, earl of Surrey and Sussex – 23

Edmund Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel – 13

Another 71 were unattached but joined one side or the other on the day. So that gives a total of 231 knights. It has been estimated that each knight would also bring an average of ten assistants with them. In 1226, Ulrich von Liechtenstein is recorded as taking a Marshal, a steward, five grooms and twelve mounted squires plus musicians, three pack horses and two war horses to a tournament.  With this in mind, the total at Dunstable was probably in excess of 2,300 men.

Although we do not have the numbers for any tournaments held in Northamptonshire, we do have a list of nobles who were banned by King Henry III from taking part in a tournament planned for 8 September 1234 on the Octaves of the Nativity of St. Mary. The list is nearly three times larger than the above described for Dunstable and included the earl Marshal, and the earls of Cornwall and Poitou, Albemarle. Oxford, Norfolk, and Lincoln. That means if it had gone ahead there potentially could have been over 5,000 men present; which was over double the population of Northampton at the time!

That many men were the equivalent to an average or large sized medieval town and therefore the site of the tournament would necessarily encompass several square miles of territory normally between two villages or outside towns and cities. David Crouch, in his book “Tournament”, describes one mêlée (as tournaments were often called) in 1179, when the tourneyers spread across meadows and woodland and how the fight continued across ditches and through woods, with barns acting as temporary forts. The best identifiable example of an English tournament site is at Langwith Common, near York, and in 1270 this covered 500 acres.

The property and welfare of the bystanders was not necessarily a major concern, and often these people were caught up in the fighting to the detriment of their lands and dwellings. It was not until 1194 that by order of King Richard I that rules were set that protected the bystanders and their property.

A Hastilude became to be a generic term to refer to many kinds of martial games. The word comes from the Latin hastiludium, literally “lance game”‘. By the 14th century, the term usually excluded tournaments and was used to describe the other games collectively; this seems to have coincided with the increasing preference for ritualistic and individualistic games over the traditional mêlée style. Other forms of jousting also arose during the century, and by the late 14th century the joust was poised to take over the vacancy in aristocratic amusement caused by the decline of the tournament. The tilt was introduced after 1400, to reduce the injuries due to jousting. A cloth stretched along the length of the lists. The cloth soon became a strong barrier of timber. The knight in full armor would charge along one side of the barrier jousting with his opponent.

In 1292, Edward I introduced new rules in the “Statute of Arms for Tournaments” saying that weapons should be blunted. It also stated that tournaments had to be properly organised and only authorised combatants were allowed to carry arms. It also limited a knight to having no more than three esquires with him at a tournament.

The biographer of William Marshal observed c.1224 that in his day noblemen were more interested in jousting than tourneying. In 1223, we have the first mention of an exclusively jousting event, the ‘Round Table’ held in Cyprus by John d’Ibelin, lord of Beirut. Round Tables were a 13th-century enthusiasm and can be reconstructed to have been an elimination jousting event. They were held for knights and squires alike. Edward III encouraged the move towards pageantry and a predominance of jousting in his events. In the last true tournament held in England in 1342 at Dunstable, the mêlée was postponed so long by jousting that the sun was sinking by the time the lines charged.

Another form of tournament was the pas d’armes or passage of arms, a type of chivalric hastilude that evolved in the late 14th century that remained popular through the 15th century. It involved a knight or group of knights (tenans or “holders”) who would stake out a traveled spot, such as a bridge or city gate, and let it be known that any other knight who wished to pass (venans or “comers”) must first fight, or be disgraced. If a traveling venan did not have weapons or horse to meet the challenge, one might be provided, and if the venan chose not to fight, he would leave his spurs behind as a sign of humiliation. If a lady passed unescorted, she would leave behind a glove or scarf, to be rescued and returned to her by a future knight who passed that way.

Northamptonshire Tournaments

Northamptonshire had three, or possibly four tournament sites during the medieval period. Situated at the centre of the country, Northampton’s was one of the most important in England. The very first record of a tournament being held anywhere in England, is in a charter of Osbert of Arden, a Warwickshire knight of English descent, which reveals that he travelled to Northampton and London and also crossed the Channel to join in events in France.

The actual site of the Northampton ground is currently unknown. As we have seen, tournament grounds were outside towns, typically a mile and a half away (in the case of York) and close to water. Evidence suggests that tournament sites were often later used for horse racing and in the early seventeenth century. Northampton had a racecourse on Harlestone Heath with the earliest race being recorded in 1632. The History of The British Turf, by James Rice also states that the site was previously the scene of many sporting events. The site continued to be used as a race track until in December 1733, when the races were discontinued.

It is now in Harlestone Firs but could still be seen in the 1860’s. By the 1880’s only a single track was not covered with fir trees. There are however, a number of uninvestigated tumuli that are visible on the exposed heath (although they too are about to disappear under housing). And adjacent to it is King’s Heath also suggesting its royal connections.  Other possibilities include Hardingstone and the modern racecourse.

Another tournament site is near Yardley Hastings. There are also specific references to it during the reign of Henry III, and although it could be the Northampton ground, it is unlikely as Henry also frequently mentions the other by name too. Yardley was the home of the earl of Huntingdon sometimes also earl of Northampton, and the brother of the King of Scotland. So, he may have had the ground for his exclusive use. . In 1201, during the reign of King John, David, earl of Huntingdon paid 25 marks to hold a tournament. Henry III forbade tournaments which had been arranged to take place there in 1234 and 1235 when John le Scot was Earl of Huntingdon.

In 1194, Richard I, ever eager to raise funds for his forthcoming crusade, licensed five new sites as places for tournaments. These were: between Salisbury and Wilton in Wiltshire; between Warwick and Kenilworth in Warwickshire; between Blyth and Tickhill in Nottinghamshire; between Stamford (Lincs) and an unknown place called Warinford. The last was between Brackley and Mixbury in Northamptonshire.

The History and Antiquities of the County of Northampton. By George Baker.  Gives the location of the Brackley tournament ground as “Bayards’ Green, also called Bear’s Green, an elevated spot of table-land on the south bank of the Ouse, near the mill in the parish of Evenley. It retained its name, which is synonymous with Horses’ Green.” In later times, this was also where the once famous Brackley Horse-races were held.

The Stamford site also remains unknown and is a bit more difficult to pinpoint. The difficulty being the location of Warinford. Some have suggested this in in Suffolk however, the Suffolk border alone is a considerable distance from Stamford and we have already seen that sites were not that far from the named site of the town. It therefore probably refers to Wansford, six miles south of Stamford.  As we have seen, a number of tournament sites possibly became horse racing tracks in the early 1600’s and between Stamford and Wansford at the beginning of the 1600’s was a well-known horse racing track two miles to the south-west of Stamford, on Easton Heath near Collyweston.  This therefore puts it in Northamptonshire too.

We generally only know about the counties tournaments from royal proclamations by successive kings banning them, or by the deaths of those taking part. For example, there is a description of a tournament held in Brackley in 1249 which became badly out of control. Matthew Paris wrote: “Many of the soldiers from all over the kingdom, who wanted to be called ‘the bachelors’, were asked to take part. In fact, on this occasion, even Count Richard of Gloucester who always arranged tournaments between strangers and the local people, whom he supported, enrolled a stranger on his side. In doing so he caused confusion by having the different parts of England represented on the same side, causing enormous damage to his reputation and honour. William de Valence, brother of the king, beat up William de Odinges, a very strong soldier, who had joined ‘the bachelors’ many of whom were badly wounded.  At another held at Northampton in 1293, two of John Duke of Brabant’s horses were injured and it cost 15 shillings to treat them. In, April 1342, during the reign of Edward III, it is recorded that “fifty days after Easter, the king held hastiludes at Northampton, where many nobles were seriously wounded and some mutilated, and many horses were lost, and John, Lord Beaumont,was killed.”

William, Earl of Salisbury hoped to hold a tournament at Northampton on 8 Aug 1218, but it was postponed at the last minute by William Marshall as being liable to cause a breach of Kings peace. In 1328, another tourny was banned because a parliament was being held in the castle at the same time and there was concern that men might prefer to go to the tournament instead.

Penalties for taking part in tournaments could be severe and the earl of Aumale was excommunicated by Papal Legate Pandulf for taking part in one at Brackley in 1219.  Despite threats and punishments, they seem to have still taken place.  In July 1233 Henry III issued a mandate to the mayor and bailiffs of Northampton banning those taking part in an illegal tournament from entering the town so they could not get supplies. William de Valence, King Henry III’s half-brother planned to hold another on Ash Wednesday 1249, despite a ban. In the end a two-day snowstorm forced its cancellation.

The year after the defeat of the Royalists at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, where both King Henry III and his son Edward were captured, Northampton played host to Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester and his council. Their arrival was due to the Easter tournament, proposed by the earl’s sons, Henry and Simon, to which all the nobles had been summoned. However, it was cancelled at the last minute because Gilbert de Clare’s (who had changed sides) refused to come. The attendance of Montfort’s council can however be proven by the thirteen letters Close and the eight letters Patent sealed at Northampton between the 21 and 24 April. When the earl left on the 25th, he would be heading towards his final defeat and death less than a month later at Evesham.

Although not actually tournaments, one of the most important events in English history took place upon the Northants tournament grounds.  As discontent with King John’s rule grew. disaffected Barons assembled at the Stamford tournament ground on 19 April 1215. Five earls and forty barons are mentioned by name as present at the muster, with many others they all came with horses and arms, and brought with them” a countless host,” estimated to comprise about two thousand knights, besides other horsemen, sergeants-at-arms, and foot soldiers. On 26 April, the Barons reached Northampton’s ground where they were due to meet King John. However, he did not show up and so the following day they moved to the Brackley tournament ground where they meet William Marshall and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Barons send John a list of demands which becomes the basis of the Magna Carta. John refused to listen. On 5 May, the Barons renounce their oaths of allegiance, proclaim Robert Fitzwalter their leader. They then marched on Northampton, laying siege to the town. Fitzwalter’s standard bearer killed and numerous others. However, after two weeks, lacking siege equipment they moved on to Bedford which was given up by William de Beauchamp. They then marched on London at which point John agreed to their demands which became known as the Magna Carta, and which he seals at Runnymede. So, what this also showed was that tournament grounds could be gathering places for rebel armies, and in times of threatened rebellion they were frequently banned.


Turnierbuch des René von Anjou, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Ms. fr. 2693