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It was festival season in the medieval era

Historian Mike Ingram reveals that real medieval tournament’s were sprawling and chaotic – and some of the best took place in Northamptonshire…

Although very little of Northamptonshire’s medieval past remains today, it is still there, oozing out the ground, and if you look hard enough, it is easy to walk in the footsteps of kings and queens and stand in places where history was made. One important connection with the past is that Northamptonshire was the leading centre for tournaments in England throughout the medieval period (possibly because of its central location). The county had three, possibly four tournament grounds, the main two being situated just outside Brackley and Northampton with another at Yardley Hastings and possibly another near Collyweston.

The realities of medieval tournaments were however, far different from the popular perception of two heavily armoured knights charging at each other with lances either side of a fence (which was not common until the end of the fourteenth century). For most of the period it was simply 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 controlled environment than actual warfare.

They were held throughout the year except the penitential season of Lent generally on Mondays and Tuesdays, though any day except  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’.

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. 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.

There are few detailed accounts of tournaments in England, but one held in Dunstable in 1309 lists a total of 231 knights. It has been estimated that each knight would also bring an average of ten assistants with them. With this in mind, the total at Dunstable was probably in excess of 2,300 men.

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.

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.

Harlestone Firs
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.  If this theory is correct then this site 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 was 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.

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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