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C17th Tournaments and the cult of Prince Henry

By Simon Frame

Under Elizabeth I who, being a woman, did not take part in tournaments, the joust had become an almost masque-like tribute to the Virgin Queen and she played the role of Lady of Honour. James I was expected to enter into the combats, and wrote a treatise for his eldest son, Prince Henry, entitled Basilikon Doron, in which he recommended jousting to him. Despite this, James I avoided tournament combat, preferring to tilt at the ring, last doing so when Henry and his younger brother Charles also took part, at a tournament in 1613 to celebrate the marriage of their sister Elizabeth.

Tournaments took place on James’ Accession Day, 24th March, every year during his reign from 1603. Henry, who was enormously popular, took part in the 1606 Tournament during the visit of his Uncle, the King of Denmark, even though he was only 12 years old. By doing so he was transformed into a cult martial figure and inheritor of his namesakes Henry V and VIII’s martial abilities.

Even by this time though, combat was starting to become secondary to the pageant and display. His real debut was on Twelfth Night 1610 when Henry, going by the name of Meliadus (an anagram of Miles a Deo - Soldier of God) and 6 assistants fought a foot combat at barriers against 56 opponents; Henry ‘ and receiving that night, 32 pushes of Pikes, and about 360 stroakes of Swords, which is scarse credible in so young yeares, enough to assure the world that Great Britaine's brave Henry aspired to immortality...’.

His entry into the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall was accompanied by a mise en scene composed by Ben Jonson with scenery by Inigo Jones, which included mock ruins of the ‘House of Chivalry’ and the ‘portico of St. George’ from which Henry emerged. Lots of Arthurian references were used by Jonson to stress Henry as successor to his namesakes, with the character of Merlin reminding Henry that he must be more than just a warrior: ‘...civil arts the martial must precede...’. Merlin's concluding speech prophetically understated that fact that Prince Charles would follow Henry in the practice of arms.

The cult around Henry totally eclipsed James at these events, leading to him being seen as a future Protestant champion. Upon Henry’s early death in November 1612, this cult did not transfer to Charles, although he did tilt at the ring in 1613, taking ‘...the Ring clearely foure times in fiue courses...’. Jonson used his tournament text Challenge at Tilt at a Marriage for this event, the marriage of the Earl of Somerset and Lady Frances Howard, but when he published it in 1616, the names were omitted as the marriage was declared void in 1614 after a notorious divorce case and the not-so-blushing bride and her former lover and new husband, Robert Carr, had since (1615) been condemned to death for murdering Sir Thomas Overbury. This was the last tiltyard event to include actors, speeches and fiction.

Prince Charles took part in various later tilts, such as that held at Whitehall in 1620 and 1621, where the entry procession included the ‘Prince's Band of his Artillerie yarde’ and retainers dressed in his colours of green, yellow and silver.

Tournament combats seem to come to an end after the occasion of Charles' proxy marriage to Henrietta Maria in 1625, due to a number of factors: the cost, the skills required becoming obsolete, and James I having been generally more interested in hunting. One of the chief causes of the decline however, was the increasing use of the masque, rather than the joust, for political purposes. Some of Henry’s jousts had been indoors, excluding the populace, and indoors lent itself admirably to the use of stage props and theatricals. All of Charles' masques which replaced them took place away from the public gaze. These masques reached their height of popularity during 1629 - 1640, when Charles enjoyed his ‘personal rule’.

The perception of the honour of a strange form of single combat did not die out here though; the Earl of Essex offered to counter claims from the likes of Clarendon that Essex's sense of chivalry would not have let him fight Edgehill had he known the King was present, and that his commission had a clause whereby he had to preserve the safety of the King’s person, by proposing to the Speaker on 9th July 1643 that the civil war should be determined by a single, set-piece battle, provided the King wasn’t present.

Source: Tudor & Jacobean Tournaments, Alan R. Young, 1987, Sheridan House