A Historical Dissection Of ‘A Game Of Thrones’ Part III: The Joust

This series of articles takes a close look at George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series from the perspective of a Ph.D. in Medieval history and literature.  Each book in the series will be analyzed against actual historical events in the Dark and Middle Ages along with literature, factual or fictional, from that time.  This is the first time the author is reading the novels, so keep in mind that she’s unaware of major spoilers but that spoilers will be revealed as she progresses through the material.

By Catherine Smith-Akel, Ph.D.

H? hæfde g?d geþanc
þ? hwile þe h? mid handum healdan mihte
bord and br?d swurd; b?ot h? gelæste
þ? h? æforan his fr?an feohtan sceolde.

The Battle of Maldon


The Joust

About a third of the way through Game of Thrones, a tournament is held in the Hand’s honor, a tournament that Eddard Stark wanted no part of. The tournament, however, forwards the plot in several ways, but in particular, with the death of the young knight, Hugh of the Vale, and King Robert’s insistence on taking part in the mêlée.

On the second day of the event, Ned Stark points out to Sansa that the knights are fighting with blunted lances that are supposed to splinter on impact. However, he is inwardly reflecting on Hugh’s horrific death the previous day. In England, King Henry II (1154-1189) forbade tournaments. His third son, Geoffrey of Brittany, was trampled to death in a jousting tournament. This actually changed the history of England—it was Geoffrey’s son, Arthur, who was, named by Richard the Lionheart to succeed him (Richard had no legitimate children). Evil King John (remember him from the Robin Hood stories?) had poor Arthur murdered so he, John, could be king; Arthur was about 15 at the time.

On this second day, Ned must also dissuade Robert from taking part in the mêlée. The eunuch Varys points out how easily it would have been for Robert to have been “accidentally” killed. The only king killed in a tournament was King Henry II (1519-1599) of France. He loved jousting tournaments. Similar to what happened to Hugh in Game of Thrones, King Henry’s eye was pierced by a sliver from a broken lance. The sliver of wood went through to his brain; he died about ten days later. His death, too, had an impact on the succession of the French throne.

A mêlée, however, which Robert Baratheon wanted to join, would have been a perfect way for a knight to kill the king “accidentally.” Mêlées were mock re-enactments of battles. Sometimes as many as 100 knights on each side would participate. King Edward III of England (founder of the Order of the Garter) actually challenged the King of France to a mêlée “au outrance,” meaning to the death of those who participated. The knights would not use blunted tips. King Philippe declined.

Historians believe that tournaments had been around for one to two hundred years before being organized and before any kind of rules were in place. The brutal mêlée was the first kind of tournament—essentially a free-for-all, and the person who won was the last knight “standing.” Since jousts were supposed to be both a competition of skill and practice for war, losing life or limb in a competition did not prove effective. So, in 1066, the same year as the Norman Conquest, the rules for jousting were written by a Frenchman, Geoffori de Pruelli (or Godfrey de Preuilly). Unfortunately, Geoffori died in this first tournament.

The duchies (Normandy, Brittany, Aquataine) and the Royal Domain (Île-de-France) were somewhat better organized than England (who was still fighting the Danes over territory) in the two or three centuries before the Conquest. The houses of the dukes of France were better suited to organizing tournaments; they had a similar structure to the “Houses” in Martin’s novel, with “bannermen” obligated to the duke to supply the duke with knights on a regular basis.

Rules or not, many knights were killed or severely injured in the competitions. Kings of England, like Henry II, tried to eliminate the tournaments. Other kings, such as Henry III and Edward I, tried to control the nature of the tournaments. For example, Edward I ordained the “Statute of Arms” in 1292 which mandated that the lances be blunted. Richard the Lionheart had the idea to license tournaments to raise money for the crown. Richard banned the French knights from participating, primarily because they were too good at it and Richard wanted to develop the skills of the English knights.

Official (or licensed) tournaments coincided with the rise of the code of chivalry. Remember Sansa receiving the gallant Ser Loras’s red rose and his comment to her: “Sweet lady, no victory is half so beautiful as you”? Sansa was entranced with his intricate armor and snow-white horse draped in red and white roses. Jousting for one’s lady love became the order of the day.

The culmination of the rise of chivalry occurred in 1348 with the Order of the Blue Garter, instituted by Edward III. According to Sir Arthur Bryant:

This band of “knights of the blue Garter,” composed of “the valyantest men of the realm” and dedicated to the pursuit of “truth and honour, freedom and courtesy”, in which was comprised courtesy to women, became the model of almost every Order of European Chivalry. (324)

The Roman Catholic Church was not particularly thrilled with the ideals of chivalry, primarily because it encouraged adultery. Men were supposed to worship women “from afar,” usually married women or women, for some reason, they could not have. Needless to say, they didn’t remain “afar” for long—remember Guinevere and Lancelot! But the idea of chivalry took off and is evident in many pieces of medieval literature (see my favorite, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). The Church also condemned the feasting, drinking, and lovemaking that occurred in every tournament. The French preacher Jacques de Vitry felt that tournaments “illustrate(d) all seven of the deadly sins.”

But tournaments had two advantages for the nobles: entertainment and income. So even against the Church’s condemnation and Kings’ laws, tournaments were held anyway. They were lavish events enjoyed by the nobles as well as the common folk. Sir Arthur describes a tournament held in 1348, after the establishment of the Order of the Garter:

It was a time of jousting feasting and pilgrimages in which the nobles and ladies of the Court moved resplendent in the finery of French cities and castles—furs and silks, jewels and cloth of gold. At the Christmas revels at Guildford the king appeared in a suit of dazzling white, his shield inscribed with the motto, “Hey, hey, the whyte swan, / By Gode’s soule I am thy man.” For the masques that followed there were eighty-four tunics of buckram of divers colours, forty-two visors of elephants’, dragons’ and stayrs’ heads, swans’ heads with wings, tunics pained with peacock’s eyes, tunics ornamented with stars of beaten gold and silver. As 1348 dawned, all aristocratic England made merry in hall and tilting-yard with Edward, her “cumly” king, “that famous and fortunate warrior.” (325)

Martin is right on target with his presentation of the tournament in Game of Thrones. It is lavish, resplendent, violent, cruel, and lends itself to intrigue. Lord Stark’s objections are the same objections of King Henry II; King Henry III “regarded tournaments as pretexts for conspiracy by the barons.” Regardless of all the objections, though, tournaments were a popular source of entertainment up until the invention of firearms in the early 1500s.

He had good thought
as long as he with hands to hold might
shield and broad sword; vow he fulfilled
when he before his lord fight should.

The Battle of Maldon (991 a.d.)

Bryant, Sir Arthur. The Age of Chivalry. New York: Doubleday, 1963.

About the Author

Catherine Smith-Akel studied medieval history at Cambridge University, Cambridge, England. She holds a Ph.D. in medieval literature from Stony Brook University. Her dissertation was on the early fifteenth century The Book of Margery Kempe and master’s thesis on the late fourteenth century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. She has published articles on The Book of Margery Kempe, the tales of Robin Hood, and other medieval pieces. She has been presenting at medieval conferences for over twenty-five years, including the prestigious International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, England, and the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, MI.

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