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the Melee and Jousting: Tournaments in Medieval Sherwood Forest
Picture: The Medieval Melee
In 1194 Richard the Lionheart gave a licence to hold
tournaments to five locations in England. Interestingly for our
story one of those was at Blyth in
In the 12th century when this royal Licence was
granted Blyth was within the Royal Forests of
King Richard had to bring about this act because his father
Henry II had made tournaments illegal.
He saw them as a source of disorder.
Bunches of heavily armed testosterone fueled young men
running around armed to the teeth was not regarded as a sensible idea by Henry II: desperate to restore order to England after 20 years of civil war.
Unlike his father, King Richard I saw the tournament as the
best way to train men for combat.
They rapidly became a method for skilled and ambitious men to
become rich and famous, and tournaments were held across the continent.
The original tournaments were based on the melee, where large numbers of knights would fight as individuals or in teams- on horse or on foot.
The fights were not for fun, they were treated like real
battles, and combatants who were captured were ransomed
This meant plenty of money could be made by the would be
Perhaps the greatest Knight of his age, William Marshall the
later Earl of Pembroke- rose through the
ranks at the tournaments to become firstly the tournament captain for Henry II's
son (Henry the Young King), then after winning his fortune around the
tournament fields of France and England he managed a short spell on crusade in
the holy land, became the trusted
servant and general of King Richard I and King John, before being made Earl of
Pembroke and then the Regent of England for the young Henry III in 1216.
In this role he helped defeat Louis of France who had made claim to the English
throne- leading the charge at the 2nd Battle of Lincoln in 1216 aged
in his seventies.
He oversaw the sealing of the Magna Charta in 1215, and then
brought into being the separate Chater of the Forest in 1217- that would have a
great impact on the boundaries and rules of Medieval Sherwood Forest (more soon).
Quite a life by anyones standards!
He became a Templar Knight on his deathbed and is buried in
the Temple Church in London.
It was the opportunity of the tournament field that gave him
his start on the road to greatness. It was a road that through Magna Charta,
and the subsequent Forest Charter would have a great impact on Medieval
Sherwood Forest (more soon- see boundaries page for some information).
Picture: William Marshall in a tournament
These original tournaments became the testing ground for Knights
The tournament melee could seem a disorganised affair- but
in the hands of such tournament captains’; great skill and ingenuity was
employed to bring glory on the field.
Melees were incredibly violent, and injury a likely occurrence-
William Marshall’s helmet was so badly dented on one occasion he could not take
it off. When they wanted to present him with his prize he was eventually found
with his head on the blacksmith’s anvil having the dents beaten out of his
helmet by the blacksmiths hammer; so he could remove it!!! (Jones 2007).
In the forests of Nottingham it was at Blyth in these
earlier days that these tournaments were held.
Blyth was in the Hatfield District of the Wapentake (Hundred
district) of Bassetlaw in North Nottinghamshire.
An expanse of natural heath (Hatfield means heath field), it
was an area obviously suited to a royal forest.
Blyth was in the forest by at least 1100, and remained so
It may have been in the forest since soon after the conquest,
but the boundary at that time is not fully known.
Blyth belonged at Domesday to the great baron Roger De Bully
whose land holdings were based on the castle of Tickhill about four miles to
This grouping of lands was therefore known as the ‘Honour of
These lands defaulted to the crown in 1100 when Roger’s successor
Roger Belleme fought on the wrong side during Henry I’s campaign to regain his Norman
With the honour of Tickhill in crown hands forest law seems
to have spread over the area.
The Historic Environment Record (HER) for Nottinghamshire lists ‘Raker
Field’ to the south of the village of Styrupp near Blyth as the tournament field-
but this is disputed- certainly it would be small- as melee fields could be up
to three miles across.
But it is in the right area: in his ‘A History of Nottinghamshire’
Cornelius Brown wrote in 1891:
‘A level tract of land between Blyth and Styrrup was the
locality where feats of horsemanship took place, in which the flower of English
chivalry sometimes under the personal patronage of royalty itself. We can well
imagine the animated scenes that must have occurred at these war-like
gatherings... Many allusions are made in the Close Rolls to the Blyth meeting,
which continued till the end of the sixteenth century, when popular taste began
to change and tournaments became but a reminiscence of the past’.
So it seems that tournaments at Blyth were a common feature
throughout the period.
Public tastes did indeed change, and the tournament evolved through
the medieval period.
Melees often started with a joust where protagonists would
charge at each other in an attempt to unseat the opponent or ‘tilt’ him from
his horse. Once this had happened the melee would ensue.
The statute of Arms of Edward I in 1292 brought in the use
of blunt weapons in the tournament. By this time jousting had begun to take
over in popularity from tournament fighting via the melee.
Picture: Medieval Joust
The joust would take chivalrous spectacle to new levels. It is this method of contest that is the most familiar to us from the medieval tournament.
In 1334 Edward III held a tournament in Nottingham in Sherwood
No description of the affair survives, but a near
contemporary description survives for a joust and tournament, and it sounds
like a spectacular affair:
‘When the earls, barons, and a great number of ladies had
gathered on the Sunday, January 19, the king gave a solemn feast and the great
hall of the castle was filled by the ladies... At this great gathering there
were two queens, nine countesses, the wives of barons, knights and citizens,
whom they could not easily count... in tents and other places, where food and
all other necessities had been prepared; everything was on a generous scale and
served unstinting... In the evening dancing and various entertainments were laid
on in magnificent fashion. For three days following, the king with nineteen
other knights held jousts against all comers; and the king himself, not because
of his kingly rank but because of his great exertions and the good fortune that
he had during the three days, was held to be the best of the defenders’. Adam of Murimuth 1344 (Munby et al 2008).
This description of tournament comes from Edward III’s Round
Table Feast where he founded an 'Order of the Round Table' based on the legends
of King Arthur.
This order of the Round Table would be reduced later in his
reign into the 'Order of the Garter' which survives to this day.
The joust and the tournament had moved from a training place
for young knights in blood thirsty melees to the height of the chivalric ideal.
In Sherwood Forest the tournaments at Blyth and Nottingham were
part of this embodiment of knightly virtues.
Alongside the archery training and tournaments that are the
stuff of the legends of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest- the pursuit of the
common freeman- (see Archery in the Forest entry for more details) there were also knightly
tournaments of both the early melee and later jousting traditions in Sherwood
As stated above, at Blyth
there are accounts of tournaments throughout the medieval period, showing how
popular this form of entertainment was to the upper echelons of society in the medieval period,
and how it formed a colourful and glamorous part of the story of Medieval
(more to come on chivalry, knighthood and military service, as well as knightly outlaws in the medieval forest)