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From jousting to football: the ideal man hasn’t changed much since medieval times

Vladimir Wrangel / Shutterstock.com

From jousting to football: the ideal man hasn’t changed much since medieval times

Vladimir Wrangel / Shutterstock.com

Anyone with a moderate interest in history will know that in the later years of his reign, Henry VIII seemed to have an identity crisis. His personality change from a generous and virtuous prince into a monster and tyrannical king is well documented, and has been debated by Tudor historians for decades.

It has long been thought that this change came about due to a particularly bad jousting accident on January 24 1536, when Henry was thrown from his horse, who in turn fell upon him, causing a two hour loss of consciousness. Although he recovered, the incident, which ended his jousting career, caused serious leg problems, which plagued him for the rest of his life.

Now this has been corroborated by the scientific community. According to neurobiologists at Yale University, the accident may well have caused an undetected brain injury that profoundly affected his personality and memory. The team retrospectively analysed the nature of Henry VIII’s well documented personality change, proposing that the Tudor king’s jousting habit may have led him to suffer from “traumatic brain injuries” similar to those experienced by American football players. An analysis of his “symptoms” led them to conclude that “the picture was so consistent with the sequel of chronic concussion, intellectual honesty would dictate writing about traumatic brain injury in Henry”.

This comparison between NFL players and Tudor jousters struck me as all too apt, because both pastimes represent the pinnacle of masculinity for their day.

Henry VIII: great with his lance.

Tournaments through the ages

Jousting tournaments originated in the 12th century. They were central to the world of medieval chivalry, used as training grounds for knights in the achievement of prowess, honour and renown. In the early tournaments, the mock battle (the mêlée) was not formalised, or even confined to the field at hand. Knights would be assigned to two opposing teams and would charge at each other on a given signal: a practice that was not at all dissimilar to medieval warfare.

By the 15th century the mêlée had grown completely out of fashion and had been replaced by the single combat that was now the high point of the tournament. The joust was fought between two individuals, the knights riding from opposite ends of the lists to encounter each other with lances. It was much easier to identify the victor in the jousts compared to the mass participators in the mêlée.

By the reign of Henry VIII, the joust had become a more formalised competition. Rules had been introduced, including score cheques and prizes. The tournament included three basic categories of martial encounter: the joust, the tourney and the foot combats, or fighting at the barriers. In the tourney teams of knights fought on horseback with swords, staves and clubs, rather than lances, but as in the jousts, the number of strokes delivered determined the number of scores. The foot combat involved two contestants fighting on foot with a variety of weapons, such as swords, pikes, clubs or poleaxes. Henry’s men needed to be expert in all three contests if they were to succeed in the Tudor tournament.

Henry held more than 50 tournaments at his court, most in the first 20 years of his reign. He had been taught to engage in combat on both foot and horseback and he was trained in a variety of weapons, and put these skills to the test by frequently competing in tournaments – up until his 1536 accident. Henry would often take on the role of chief challenger, leading a team of four to six knights into the tiltyard ready to compete against the opposition, not unlike the role of the captain of the England football squad today.

‘High’ 16th-century jousting in Paulus Hector Mair’s compendium.

Manly jousting

Like modern day sports events, Tudor tournaments attracted competitors, spectators and foreign guests from far. They were one of the few occasions for ordinary people to see their king and his courtiers, and in their best guise: the chivalric displays of tournaments emphasised the majesty of Henry VIII and his nobility and their superiority within Tudor society. It was an important arena in which men could demonstrate their individual prowess in front of a vast audience.

In the Tudor period the medieval knight was still considered the ultimate male pinup. One man who was able to fully embody this knightly ideal was Charles Brandon, considered the Wayne Rooney of the jousting world. Brandon was able to build for himself an entire career that was founded on his ability to achieve high scores in the tiltyard. Surviving score cheques from the Tudor court illustrate that few men could beat him. Skilled jousters were given the unique opportunity to prove that they were better than the king, and he rewarded their displays of chivalry and masculinity. Of course, this was a sticky game – it was in their interest not only to give the king a well fought match, but ultimately they still had to ensure that Henry won in the end.

Luckily, today’s football players don’t have that particular delicacy to deal with. No need to lose on purpose. But other aspects of this ideal of medieval masculinity transmit perfectly into the modern world. Henry Cavill, who recently played Brandon in the television series, The Tudors, has since starred as superhero legend Superman in Man of Steel. Superman, an icon of heterosexual masculinity, is quite literally the modern version of the erstwhile man of steel, flying on horseback down the tiltyard in his plate armour supported by his superhero body.

So whether a “silly boy with a horse and a stick” (as Jocelyn of A Knight’s Tale so eloquently put it), a man kicking a ball or flying in his iconic cloak, the ideal male proves himself with props aplomb.