The Shattered Lance


On a clear spring day in June of 1559, two massive horses thundered toward each other as their armored riders lowered their lances. The crowd cheered as the competitors clashed and pieces of broken lance flew into the air, signifying a score for one of the lancers. The jouster dressed in black and white tottered, then steadied himself in the saddle. As attendants rushed out to assist the wounded man, cheers turned to gasps as pieces of his opponent's shattered lance could be seen projecting from his visor. Blood spilled from the helmet; the tilt had taken a deadly turn.

During medieval times, jousting enjoyed enormous popularity among the regency elite.  Taking its inspiration from battlefield tactics of the middle ages, the sport typically consisted of two jousters (or two teams of jousters) charging at each other on horseback, each attempting to unseat the other with the 12 foot lances couched under their right arms. In the earlier years of the sport, the contest took place on an essentially open field, with no barrier between the horses in a system called jousting 'at large'; contestants in these types of jousts would often skewer each other or their mounts, the horses and riders would violently collide, or the jousters would reflexively keep away from the opposition, leading to some rather dull tournaments. In later years, organizers constructed a cloth banner or wooden fence called a 'tilt' between the riders, giving the riders a guide which prevented collisions, protected the valuable horses, and idealized the angle of the lance so that there were fewer impalements and more crowd-pleasing broken lances.

The safety of the jousters improved over the years in other ways as well. Inspectors strictly scrutinized a contestant's armor, and any competitor missing a piece would not be allowed to participate. Later rules forbid jousters from striking the opponent's horse, saddle, thigh, bridle hand, or head, and were strictly penalized when they did so. Injured contestants could be 'counted out' at the judge's discretion, and risky maneuvers such as having a jouster tie himself to the saddle were actively discouraged. Also, the technology of helmets increased, allowing the lancer to retain his wide field of vision, which was crucial to good performance, while providing more and more protection to the lancer's face, which was his most vulnerable spot.

It was due to this weakness that medieval jousting suffered its most famous casualty. France's King Henry II proclaimed a tournament on June 30, 1559 to celebrate the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to the King of Spain and the signing of a peace treaty with forces of the Hapsburg dynasty. The King, clad in black and white, personally competed against Gabriel, Comte de Montgomery at the Hôtel des Tournelles on the northern side of the Place des Vosges in central Paris. The Count had the better run on their first pass, but the King insisted on a second chance.  On their second pass, the Comte de Montgomery's lance shattered, and the force of the collision projected slivers of his lance at high speed directly through King Henry's visor and into the royal right eye. Henry somehow kept from being unhorsed, and, despite briefly losing consciousness, proved able to walk up the stairs to his chamber on his own. 

King Henry II of France

King Henry II of France

France's premier doctor, Master Surgeon Ambroise Paré, immediately attended to the King, and he was later assisted by the brilliant Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius. The Comte de Montgomery, himself the captain of the King's personal bodyguards, was distraught, and asked the King to have his head and hand cut off as punishment; Henry refused to blame the young Count for the accident, and ordered his opponent released. The Queen, Catherine de Medici, was eager to help; she ordered the immediate execution of four criminals and had sharpened sticks rammed through their skulls in order to provide the physicians with accurate physical references for their studies.

Despite these efforts, Vesalius performed one medical test and realized that, despite the fact that the splinters had not penetrated to the King's brain, the wound was ultimately mortal. Surely enough, Henry developed an infection and died on July 10. Queen Catherine, who later adopted a broken lance as her personal symbol, never forgave the Comte de Montgomery as her husband had.  When the Count later converted to Protestantism and was captured leading troops against the Catholic French, the Queen had him executed, and revoked all of his lands and his children's titles. Henry was succeeded by his feeble 15-year-old son Francis II, who would marry Mary of Guise, later known as Mary, Queen of Scots, and then promptly die from an ear infection after about a year and a half on the throne.

Ironically, it was due in part to the death of one its most famous patrons that jousting gradually fell out of favor. The practice persisted for some time, though in a different form in which jousters would try to use their lances to ensnare small rings on their tips, rather than oppose another lancer directly; it is in this form that it is today the official individual sport of the state of Maryland. The equestrian discipline of 'tent-pegging', derived from a medieval cavalry tactic of riding at high speed through an enemy camp uprooting tent pegs with well-placed lance strikes, is still a recognized equestrian discipline. Recently, traditional jousting is experiencing a revival, most notably at Renaissance Fairs and reenactment festivals, and in organizations such as the International Jousting Association.


Links and Sources:
The New World Encyclopedia article on jousting.
"The Death of Henry II of France" from the Journal of Neurosurgery, December 1, 1992.
The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, by Sydney Angelo, Yale University Press, 2000.
The International Jousting Association USA, retrieved March 17, 2012.
16th century woodcut of tournament by an anonymous German artist, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, on March 17, 2012.
Photo of modern jousters by user Pretzelpaws at
Painting of jousters by Graham Turner, and appeared in Warrior 104: Tudor Knight, by Christopher Gravett, Osprey Publishing, 2006.

"The Shattered Lance" © 2015 by James Husband.