Jousting is often thought of as a medieval phenomenon – but it truly reached its peak in the era of the Tudors, in the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Read on for 6 things you probably didn’t know about jousting!

Knights bashing the shields of their chosen opponents

Knights picked their opponents by bashing their shields

1. Greenwich was jousting capital of the UK

Greenwich was Henry VIII’s favourite palace, particularly during the bawdy days of his early reign. Between 1512 and 1530 he spent over 4,000 nights here, far more than any of his other 55 residencies. Mary I and Elizabeth I were both born here, and he received Anne of Cleves here. Henry also enjoyed trips to the nearby docks to see his prized flagships.

But above all, Henry enjoyed Greenwich Palace for its jousting list. His large-scale expansion of the palace, from one wing to a giant three-courtyard complex, included one of the grandest tiltyards in the country, and certainly the most extensively-used.

Henry VIII jousting whilst his first wife Catherine of Aragon watches

Henry VIII jousting, watched by Catherine of Aragon

2. Henry VIII was a fantastic jouster

Eager to replicate the chivalric exploits of his ancestor, Henry V, Henry VIII was an enthusiastic and increasingly accomplished jouster. He would compete in lavish tournaments for days at a time: on 13 November 1510, he answered all comers for two days. “At these iusts the king brake more staves than any other,” boasts one contemporary account of the event.

Though he loved to win, Henry refused simply to be handed victory on grounds of his royalty. After knights deliberately missed him at a 1516 joust, he demanded that only skilled jousters answer his challenges. He rewarded those who challenged his skills, in particular Charles Brandon, who rose from a modest noble background to pre-eminence at court for his skills at the lists.

Henry VIII on his way to the joust

Henry VIII on the way to the joust

3. Henry almost died multiple times

Henry’s desire for challenge was to provide near-fatal on several occasions, however. In one close call Brandon nearly killed Henry when the king failed to lower the visor on his helmet and was hit by his opponent's lance just above the right eye. Henry would suffer constantly from migraines for the rest of his life.

Henry’s most serious injury, however, was his fall of 1536, in which Henry was knocked unconscious for several hours following a serious fall from his horse – which then fell on him. He was left “speechless” for several hours, and Anne Boelyn was told that he would die, and it has been suggested that he suffered brain damage in the fall, causing his later tyranny. The horse had also fallen on Henry’s leg, and he never jousted again.

4. It wasn’t all Henry

Henry’s accident put a stop to his jousting at Greenwich, and his successors Edward VI and Mary I were more concerned with religious matters than chivalry. During the era of Elizabeth I, however, jousting saw a revival, as did Greenwich Palace.

Though she herself did not joust, Elizabeth’s many suitors and courtiers used jousting as a means of displaying their prowess to the Queen, often in fanciful armour.

Greenwich Palace

Greenwich Palace

5. It wasn’t always on horseback. Sometimes it wasn’t even on land

Our image of jousting today is of two horsemen charging at each other with lances. However, in the Tudor Era there were many other forms of combat involved in the Tournament. As well as the joust, Henry fought commonly with two-handed swords at Greenwich; pikes were also used increasingly into the reign of Elizabeth.

Nor did jousts have to even take place on land. In 1585, in an event known as the “Last Joust of the Thames”, mounted knights with lances stood at the stern of two boats that rowed quickly towards each other.

“Now, each meeting the other with their staffs, both fell into the water,” witnessed a contemporary account, “where spare boats were ready to succour them, for over went their horses.”

The 2012 Olympics at Greenwich

Equestrian events in Greenwich

6. Jousting’s legacy continues today

In 2012, Greenwich once again became the arena for feats of horsemanship, when the equestrian events were held in Greenwich park against the backdrop of the twin domes.

The site of Henry’s jousting lists today is beneath the Old Royal Naval College, though you can still find out much about jousting and the site’s Tudor era in our Visitor Centre.

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