“The king hath promised never to joust again except it be with as good a man as himself.” So stated an angry Henry VIII on 20 May 1516, following a tournament held in honour of his sister Margaret, Queen of Scots. Jousting was the king’s favourite sport, but the day had proved disastrous. As always, Henry was captain of the Challengers, the team comprising the jousting elite of the Tudor court: Sir Nicholas Carew; Henry Bourchier, Earl of Essex; and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
The opposing team, the Answerers, consisted of a dozen other jousting enthusiasts from court. They waited in the lists (the barriers that defined the edge of the tournament ground) to answer the challenges given by Henry and his three dashing knights.
Henry was a highly skilled jouster. But what should have been a well-fought and exciting series of duels turned into a succession of bad runs and complete misses, making for a disappointing display. The king, the ultimate showman, was not impressed by the performances of certain knights in the Answerers. Henry blamed them for limiting his final score, arguing that they had failed to keep their horses close enough to the barrier for him to make contact and score points.
The king made it clear that, from then on, it was essential he should compete only against skilled jousters. That way, if he won, the victory would confirm that he was the best jouster – and, by extension, the best man – at court. But Henry hated winning too easily. Each challenge was to be a hard-won battle. It was vital to his manly reputation that competitors did not let him triumph simply because he was king.
To Henry VIII, the joust was more than just a sport – it was a vital part of his kingship. And he modelled this kingship on a particular version of chivalrous masculinity inspired by the archetypal medieval knight bedecked in shining armour, charging down the tiltyard with lance ready to strike his opponent.
For Henry, knighthood was not just an ideal but an active ideology; to his mind, it was essential that 16th-century men still demonstrated such proficiency in arms. He longed to showcase this prowess in battle, to be acknowledged as a warrior king, like Henry V, and started making plans to go to war with France after his accession to the throne in 1509. But his ambition to have his own Agincourt was not to be realised. So, for most of his reign, the tournament was not just a training ground for warfare but also the means by which Henry and his nobles could showcase their warrior skills and chivalrous accomplishments.
Despite improvements, jousting remained a dangerous sport, which is why kings usually refrained from participating. Yet for Henry and men such as Charles Brandon it provided the perfect platform for shows of prowess – and manliness – in front of a great audience.
For all their testosterone-fuelled swagger, the jousters’ conduct was governed by a concise and coherent set of rules that informed a sophisticated scoring system. A ‘king of arms’ marked each contestant’s score in strokes on a scoring tablet known as a cheque. The scoreboard sported three horizontal lines showing the number of courses run. Attaints (hits) were noted on the top line, often differentiated as blows to the body or head. The middle line tallied the number of lances broken, and the bottom line recorded faults.
When Henry VIII was searching for a man “as good as himself”, he needed to look no further than Charles Brandon. The product of a modest gentry background, Brandon attained the highest social status, becoming Duke of Suffolk in 1514 and marrying Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor in 1515 – an almost unprecedented ascent up the social ladder.
When I studied the score cheques for Henry VIII’s reign in detail, the reason for Brandon’s meteoric rise soon became obvious: his brilliance as a jouster. Brandon was the perfect companion for Henry, whom he resembled in both looks and build, and regularly jousted alongside the king in a team of two Challengers against all the Answerers.
In the 1516 tournament Brandon was on Henry’s side, so would not have competed against the king. The cheque reveals that, unlike Henry, Brandon was on top form, losing not a single duel and achieving the highest overall score of all four Challengers. On the second day of the tournament, Brandon broke 17 lances compared with Henry’s 12.
So Henry decided that Brandon would henceforth joust directly against him, leading the Answerers. In this way, at least one of Henry’s duels promised to be a valiant martial display. When the two were matched against each other, one observer compared their fight to that between Hector and Achilles.
This new arrangement created a win-win situation for the king. Not only would Brandon joust against all Henry’s Challengers and beat them, he would then do his duty to the crown and let the king beat him. In this way, Henry would effectively triumph – but it was Brandon who would do all the hard work.
The cheques help explain how a non-noble man not born for high office could achieve high status. Charles Brandon proved time and again to Henry that he was indeed a man “as good as himself”.
Pageantry with a punch
How the Tudor joust worked
Jousting dominated the cultural environment of court during the first half of Henry VIII’s reign. Like modern sports events, tournaments attracted competitors and spectators from afar.
The joust was fought between two knights riding from opposite ends of the lists to encounter each other with lances. The Challengers was a small team of knights who would challenge all competitors. The opposing team, known as the Answerers, comprised knights who answered the challenge.
The Challengers often displayed their shields on a tree known as the ‘Tree of Chivalry’ or ‘Tree of Honour’. Each Answerer would respond, indicating the knight against whom he wished to compete, by hitting the shield of his chosen Challenger.
By the reign of Henry VIII, the joust had become a more formalised competition. A number of rules were introduced, as well as score cheques; prizes were awarded by the queen, and her ladies might add a gold crown, a gold clasp, a diamond ring or even a falcon.
Cheques showed the scores of the competing knights. Points were awarded for unhorsing a knight, breaking two spears tip to tip, striking an opponent’s helmet and breaking the most spears.
Yet there was a lot more to the joust than fighting. By the time of Henry VIII’s reign, it had become a lavish spectacle, with knights entering the lists in fanciful disguises and pageant cars before performing heroic speeches.
Emma Levitt is a PhD student at the University of Huddersfield, working on court culture in the reigns of Edward IV and Henry VIII
This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine