Tournaments at the court of King Henry VIII

Tournaments at the court of King Henry VIII

By Karen Watts

Henry VIII: Arms and the Man, edited by Graeme Rimer, Thom Richardson and J D P Cooper (Royal Armouries, 2009)

Introduction: King Henry VIII was a good all-round sportsman. He held many tournaments, undoubtedly to a large extent simply because he liked them. However tournaments were not just good sporting occasions: they had political importance and above all were splendid opportunities to impress foreign ambassadors who were likely to write glowing reports of the King’s evident wealth and power. This was an important consideration. Henry was playing a political game in Europe against opponents with greater resources. He was also displaying his physical dominance. The combats showed a physically powerful man; the pageantry projected an image of a politically powerful potentate.

The impersonation of allegorical roles was a major feature of the Tudor tournament. The costumes were also often likened to the allegorical framework within which many jousts were set, presenting the jousters as the knights-errant of medieval romantic fiction and the tournament as the response to an heroic challenge.

The Westminster Tournament was held on 12 and 13 February in 1511. The tournament celebrated the birth of a short-lived son to Henry VIII. The event was recorded for posterity in the vast illuminated vellum roll preserved at the College of Arms. The four main jousters at this tournament all adopted chivalric names:

Henry VIII: Noble Cueur Loyal
Lord Devon (Courtenay): Bon Vouloir
Sir Thomas Knyvet: Vaillant Desyr
Edward Neville: Joyeulx Penser

The names were derived from the greatest love allegory of the Middle Ages, the Roman de la Rose, and they personify the psychological forces in the conquest of love. The elaborate pageantry and allegory shows the influence of the Burgundian court. This habit of externalising qualities and making them visible was important to the court society.

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