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A neo-Gothic mural by Léo Scnug in a French castle depicting a medieval knight about to joust and four women in the audience, painted in the 1910s.

Archaeologists discover remains of medieval knight with extensive jousting injuries

A study of the bones of 700 people unearthed at Hereford Cathedral in England has shown that one may have been a medieval knight. Archaeologists noted many broken bones, some knitted, on the skeleton of a man whose remains were unearthed. They believe the man may have sustained the injuries jousting.

The cathedral’s graveyard was excavated from 2009 to 2011. Other skeletal remains drew the notice of scholars: Was one woman’s hand severed because she was a thief? Was the man suffering from leprosy buried around the same time that the bishop of Hereford suffered from the same disease? The skeletons date from the Norman Conquest of 1066 A.D. to the 19 th century.

BBC History Magazine did a biography in February 2015 of one of the people, believed to be the knight. The title of the piece is Into the Bloody World of the Medieval Tournament.

The online British Archaeology News Resource describes the injuries :

The skeletal remains show numerous fractures, however, their location is distinctive and localized, all to ribs and the shoulder on the right side. Some of these had healed others had not, showing they were caused on more than one occasion. The unhealed injuries in the same location indicated that at death he had not recovered from his latest wounds. He also had an unusual twisting break to his left lower leg. The suggestion is a hit to the right upper body, which spins the individual and causes a further fracture as perhaps his foot is caught in a stirrup on the left side.  These wounds are all consistent with injuries that can be sustained through tourney or jousting.

The possible knight at left. At right are his fractured and unhealed ribs.

The possible knight at left. At right are his fractured and unhealed ribs. (Photo: Headland Archaeology Limited)

The lead archaeologist with Headland Archaeology, Andy Boucher, said one can never be certain how a person long dead sustained injuries just by examining their skeleton. “But in this case there is a considerable amount of evidence suggesting this man was involved in some form of violent activity and the locations of his injuries do match quite closely what might be expected from taking part in mock battles. The fact that he was still doing this after he was 45 suggests he must have been very tough ,” he said.

The style of the man’s stone-lined grave is consistent with a time frame of 1100 to 1300 A.D. in the Hereford area, British Archaeology News Resource says. Analysis of his teeth leads the researchers to believe he was raised in Normandy and moved to Hereford later.

Staff from Hereford-based Headland Archaeology made another fascinating discovery in the cathedral in 2017. They found three more skeletons – one of which dated to the earliest days of the site’s foundation. That skeleton was a middle aged man who had suffered at least four, if not five, blade injuries sometime between 680-780 AD. The lack of signs of healing suggest that the man probably died from his horrific wounds. Luke Craddock-Bennett, project manager at Headland Archaeology, explained the significance of the discovery to the Hereford Times, saying , “This is an incredibly important burial in the history of our city. It takes us back to the origins of Hereford, before Offa’s dyke had been constructed and when it was a vulnerable settlement on the frontier between Mercia and the Welsh. This individual suffered an incredibly violent end, more than likely in battle.”

Jousting and other forms of weapons training can be traced back to the Middle Ages and the rise of the use of the heavy cavalry (armored warriors on horseback)–the primary battlefield weapons of the day. The feudal system then in place required rich landowners and nobles to provide knights to fight for their king during war. Jousting provided these knights with practical, hands-on preparation in horsemanship, accuracy and combat simulations that kept them in fighting shape between battles. However, what was initially intended purely as military training quickly became a form of popular entertainment. The first recorded reference to a jousting tournament was in 1066 (coincidentally the same year as the Battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest of England), and within a century they had become so widespread that a series of regulations were established limiting the number of jousts that could be held, lest the king’s armies be otherwise occupied when an actual conflict arose.

The joust between the Lord of the Tournament and the Knight of the Red Rose

The joust between the Lord of the Tournament and the Knight of the Red Rose ( Wikimedia Commons )

These tournaments, like all courtly celebrations, were highly formal events. Months before a competition, nobles would need to obtain the necessary royal permit, issue challenges to fellow landowners and select their most skilled knights to fight. In some instances, they would hire a jouster who was not committed to any other master (or liege) and was available to fight for the highest bidder. These temporary employees became known as “freelancers,” a term still in use today. It was quite common for successful jousters to become immensely popular. Medieval heralds, quite like today’s sports journalists, promoted the events through poems and songs and helped spread the jousters’ fame. In many ways, these knights were the star athletes of their day. Just like with today’s modern-day athletes and sports franchises, rivalries soon formed as the knights fought each other again and again while travelling the jousting “circuit.” But the knights did not just joust for pride and glory, there was more on the line. The most successful jousters could receive gifts of money, land and titles from a grateful liege.

Bullfinch’s book The Age of Chivalry describes the tournaments knights participated in:

The splendid pageant of a tournament between knights, its gaudy accessories and trappings and its chivalrous regulations, originated in France. Tournaments were repeatedly condemned by the Church, probably on account of the quarrels they led to, and the often fatal results. The ‘joust,” or “just,” was different from the tournament. In these, knights fought with their lances, and their object was to unhorse their antagonists; while the tournaments were intended for a display of skill and address in evolutions and with various weapons, and greater courtesy was observed in the regulations. By these it was forbidden to wound the horse, or to use the point of the sword, or to strike a knight after he had raised his visor or unlaced his helmet. … Every combatant proclaimed the name of the lady whose servant d’amour he was.”

Tournament armor from the Dresden Armory, 16th to 17th century

Tournament armor from the Dresden Armory, 16th to 17th century ( Photo by Josias/ Wikimedia Commons )

Featured image: A neo-Gothic mural by Léo Scnug in a French castle depicting a medieval knight about to joust and four women in the audience, painted in the 1910s. (timeyres photo/ Wikimedia Commons )

By Mark Miller

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