Horses blasting down the tiltyard. Lances shattering into hundreds of pieces of splintered wood. A jester falling over himself with laughter. Coloured flags to cheer for the north, south, east or west. And a nearby ice cream van to keep you cool in the unusual blazing sunshine.
It’s medieval jousting, brought into the 21st century.
On Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th June, a grand medieval joust was held at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, England. Within the castle grounds a medieval encampment was set up with actors in period costume to draw you back in time. You could dance along with minstrels playing the pipes, joke with jesters and buy medieval food. As well as the main jousting event there were falconry and archery displays.
Mid-afternoon, after the falconry display, everyone visiting Kenilworth Castle started making their way to the lawn at the back of the castle where the tiltyard had been set up. An announcer attempted to explain the rules of what type of hit receives points and how many, but had to contend with various jesters in the audience. The knights finally arrived on horseback and were introduced with their crews one at a time, representing the north, south, east and west.
Everyone was ready, waiting for the joust to start. The sun blazed down on one of the hottest days of the year, and behind us was a 900 year old castle buzzing with activity to add to the atmosphere. There was no countdown; no whistle. One second we were waiting, the next two horses and their armoured knights were thundering down the tiltyard. Each was aiming to hit (and, historically, unseat) their opponent with their lances. Both knights escaped unscathed on the first run, but on the second a lance is smashed into countless splinters. 3 points.
They kept going, pass after pass, cycling through opponents. The lone female knight unfortunately had to pull out due to an armour malfunction (safety is paramount in a sport such as this). A mounted marshal tracked scores and informed the announcer who proclaimed them to the crowd. Everything happens so fast it’s difficult to keep track. Staff retrieved pieces of broken lances, the points racked up and the horses kept galloping up and down the tiltyard, until it was time for the final round. There were just a few points in it between North and East.
Another tilt with no hit – no points for anyone. But on the last pass, the knight of the North shattered his lance against the knight of the East’s shield. It was enough to edge over the victory line. The knight of the North was proclaimed the victor of the tournament.
As the audience trickled back towards the castle, I paused to glance back at the tiltyard. I might have been displaced by a few centuries from the original, but it’s not difficult to understand the draw of jousting as a form of entertainment. Hundreds of years later, jousting is still a spectacle to draw crowds. We’re not that different from our ancestors.
Read on below for more about visiting Kenilworth Castle…
Historical significance of Kenilworth Castle
Built around 1120, Kenilworth Castle began life as a Norman Keep and in the early 1200s King John added curtain walls and towers. In 1266 the castle survived a 6 month siege against King Henry III – the longest in English medieval history. Kenilworth was a favoured destination of both Lancastrian and Tudor kings in the 1400s and 1500s. In 1563 Queen Elizabeth I granted the castle to her rumoured paramour Robert Dudley. During the English Civil War, the northern wall was intentionally destroyed to stop the castle being used by Royalists. Following that, the entire castle fell into disrepair.
Visiting Kenilworth Castle
Although now mostly ruins, there is a substantial amount still to see at Kenilworth Castle. You can climb the ramparts, explore the recreated Elizabethan gardens and visit two on-site museums. There are also signs dotted through the castle explaining how the castle once stood, pointing out the locations of the great hall and kitchens. During the summer there are various events (such as the jousting mentioned above) hosted at the castle. No more jousting is planned for this summer, so keep an eye out next year!
Cost: £10 (or free with English Heritage membership).
Weather-dependent: Yes – most of the site is outdoors.
Public transport: Train to Coventry, then bus X17 to Kenilworth Sports & Social Club. Walk 15 minutes from there.
Accessibility: Iffy wheelchair access – uneven ground & hills in places, and the chairlift was broken when I visited.
Location: There’s not too much else to see in the village of Kenilworth, but Warwick is only 15 minutes down the road.
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