Read CHAPTER X - OCTOBER of Old English Sports, free online book, by Peter Hampson Ditchfield, on

“Rivet well each coat of mail;
Blows shall fall like showers of hail;
Merrily the harness rings,
Of tilting lists and tournay sings,
Honour to the valiant brings.
Clink, clink, clink!” Armourers’ Chorus.

Tournaments Mysteries Moralities Pageants.

In the days of chivalry, when gallant knights used to ride about in search of adventures; and when there were many wars, battles, and crusades, martial exercises were the chief amusements of the people of England. We have already mentioned some of these sports in which the humbler folk used to show their strength and dexterity, and now I propose to tell you of those wonderful trials of military skill called tournaments, which were the favourite pastimes of the noblemen and gentry of England in the middle ages, and afforded much amusement to their poorer neighbours who flocked to see these gallant feats of arms. Tournaments were fights in miniature, in which the combatants fought simply to exhibit their strength and prowess. There was a great deal of pomp and ceremony attached to them. The lists, as the barriers were called which inclosed the scene of combat, were superbly decorated, and surrounded by pavilions belonging to the champions, ornamented with their arms and banners. The seats reserved for the noble ladies and gentlemen who came to see the fight were hung with tapestry embroidered with gold and silver. Everyone was dressed in the most sumptuous manner: the minstrels and heralds were clothed in the costliest garments; the knights who were engaged in the sports and their horses were most gorgeously arrayed. The whole scene was one of great splendour and magnificence, and, when the fight began, the shouts of the heralds who directed the tournament, the clashing of arms, the clang of trumpets, the charging of the combatants, and the shouts of the spectators, must have produced a wonderfully impressive and exciting effect upon all who witnessed the strange spectacle.

The regulations and laws of the tournament were very minute. When many preliminary arrangements had been made with regard to the examination of arms and helmets and the exhibition of banners, &c., at ten o’clock on the morning of the appointed day the champions and their adherents were required to be in their places. Two cords divided the combatants, who were each armed with a pointless sword and a truncheon hanging from their saddles. When the word was given by the lord of the tournament, the cords were removed, and the champions charged and fought until the heralds sounded the signal to retire. It was considered the greatest disgrace to be unhorsed. A French earl once tried to unhorse our King Edward I. when he was returning from Palestine, wearied by the journey. The earl threw away his sword, cast his arms around the king’s neck, and tried to pull him from his horse. But Edward put spurs to his horse and drew the earl from the saddle, and then shaking him violently, threw him to the ground.

The joust (or just) differed from tournament, because in the former only lances were used, and only two knights could fight at once. It was not considered quite so important as the grand feat of arms which I have just described, but was often practised when the more serious encounter had finished. Lances or spears without heads of iron were commonly used, and the object of the sport was to ride hard against one’s adversary and strike him with the spear upon the front of the helmet, so as to beat him backwards from his horse, or break the spear. You will gather from these descriptions that this kind of sport was somewhat dangerous, and that men sometimes lost their lives at these encounters. In order to lessen the risk and danger of the two horses running into each other when the knights charged, a boarded railing was erected in the midst of the lists, about four or five feet high. The combatants rode on separate sides of this barrier, and therefore could not encounter each other except with their lances.

In the days of chivalry ladies were held in high honour and respect. It was their privilege to assign the prizes to those who had distinguished themselves most in the tournament. They were the arbiters of the sport; and, indeed, the jousts were usually held in honour of the ladies, who received as their right the respect and devotion of all true knights. This respect for women had a softening and ennobling influence, which was of great value in times when such influences were rare. It was probably derived (according to a French writer) from our ancestors, the Germans, “who attributed somewhat of divinity to the fair sex.” It is the sign of a corrupt age and degraded manners when this respect ceases to be paid.

Only men of noble family, and who owned land, were allowed to take part in the jousts or tournament; but the yeomen and young farmers used to practise similar kinds of sport, such as tilting at a ring, quintain, and boat jousts, which have already been mentioned in a preceding chapter. Richard I., the lion-hearted king, was a great promoter of these martial sports, and appointed five places for the holding of tournaments in England, namely, at some place between Salisbury and Wilton, between Warwick and Kenilworth, between Stamford and Wallingford, between Brackley and Mixbury, and between Blie and Tykehill. But in almost every part of England tournaments or jousts have been held, and scenes enacted such as I have described. Sometimes two knights would fight in mortal combat. If one knight accused the other of crime or dishonour, the latter might challenge him to fight with swords or lances, and, according to the superstition of the times, the victor was considered to be the one who spoke the truth. But this ordeal combat was far removed from the domain of sport.

When jousts and tournaments were abandoned, tilting on horseback at a ring became a favourite courtly amusement. A ring was suspended on a level with the eye of the rider; and the sport consisted in riding towards the ring, and sending the point of a lance through it, and so bearing it away. Great skill was required to accomplish this surely and gracefully. Ascham, a writer in the sixteenth century, tells us what accomplishments were required from the complete English gentleman of the period. “To ride comely, to run fair at the tilt or ring, to play at all weapons, to shoot fair in bow, or surely in gun; to vault lustily, to run, to leap, to wrestle, to swim, to dance comely, to sing, and play of instruments cunningly; to hawk, to hunt, to play at tennis, and all pastimes generally which be joined to labour, containing either some fit exercises for war, or some pleasant pastime for peace these be not only comely and decent, but also very necessary for a courtly gentleman to use.” The courtly gentleman must have been very industrious to acquire all these numerous accomplishments!

There was another form of spectacle which gave great pleasure to our ancestors; and often in the market-places of old towns, or in open fields, at the bottom of natural amphitheatres near some of the ancient monasteries, were Scriptural plays performed, which were called Miracles, or Mysteries, because they treated of scenes taken from the Old or New Testament, or from the lives of saints and martyrs. The performances were very simple and often grotesque, but the plays were regarded by the monks, who assisted in these representations, as a means of teaching the people sacred truths. The miracle play of Norman and mediaeval times was a long, disconnected performance, which often lasted many days. In the reign of Henry IV. there was a play which lasted eight days, and, beginning with the creation of the world, contained the greater part of the history of the Old and the New Testament. The words of the play seem to us strange, and sometimes profane; but they were not thought to be so by those who listened to them. The Mystery play only lasted one day, and consisted of one subject, such as The Conversion of St. Paul. Noah and the Flood was a very popular piece. His wife is represented as being much opposed to the perilous voyage in the ark, and abuses Noah very severely for compelling her to go. Sometimes the authors thought it necessary to introduce a comic character to enliven the dullness of the performance. But, in spite of humorous demons, these mysteries ceased to attract, and plays called Moralities were introduced, in which the actors assumed the parts of personified virtues, &c., and you might have heard “Faith” preaching to “Prudence,” or “Death” lecturing “Beauty” and “Pride.” The first miracle play performed in England was that of St. Catherine, which was acted at Dunstable, 1110 A.D.; and another early piece was the play called The Image of St. Nicholas. These were of a religious nature and were performed in church during Divine service. The following is an outline of the plot of the latter: instead of the image of St. Nicholas, which adorned his shrine, a man stood in the garb of the saint whom he represented. The service is divided into two portions, and the play is produced during the interval. A stranger appears at the west door, who is evidently a rich heathen, and lays down his treasures before the image of the saint and beseeches him to take care of them. A band of thieves enter and steal the treasures, and when the heathen returns, he is so enraged that he proceeds to chastise the image of the saint; when lo! the figure descends, marches out of the church, and convinces the thieves of their wickedness. Struck with fear on account of the miracle, they restore the treasures, the Pagan sings a song of joy, and St. Nicholas tells him to worship God, and to praise Christ. Then, after an act of adoration to the Almighty, the service is resumed.

There were also strolling companies of minstrels, jugglers, and jesters, who went about the country, and acted secular pieces composed of comic stories, jokes, and dialogues, interspersed with dancing and tumbling. The whole performance was very absurd and often indecent, and the clergy did their utmost to suppress these strolling companies.

The stage upon which the Mysteries were played was built on wheels, in order that it might be drawn to different parts of the town. Sometimes religious plays were acted in churches before the Reformation; but in Cornwall the people formed an earthen amphitheatre in some open field, and as the players did not learn their parts very well, a prompter used to follow them about with a book and tell them what to say. Coventry, York, Wakefield, Reading, Hull, and Leicester were famous for their plays, and in the churchwardens’ accounts we find many entries referring to the performances.

1469. e.g. Item paid to Noah and his wife ... ...
" " for a rope to hang the ship in the church ...

These performances would probably seem very foolish and childish to a modern audience, but they helped to enliven and diversify the lives of our more simple-minded forefathers.

The people, too, loved pageants which were performed on great occasions, during a Royal progress for instance, or to welcome the advent of some mighty personage. Great preparations were made for these exhibitions of rustic talent; long verses were committed to memory; rehearsals were endless, and the stories of Greek and Roman mythology were ransacked to provide scenes and subjects for the rural pageant. All this must have afforded immense amusement and interest to the country-folk in the neighbourhood of some lord’s castle, when the king or queen was expected to sojourn there. Shepherds and shepherdesses, gods and goddesses, clowns and mummers, all took part in the play, and it may interest my readers to give an account of one of these pageants, which was performed before Queen Elizabeth when she visited the ancient and historic castle of Sudeley.

The play is founded on the old classical story of Apollo and Daphne. The sun-god, Apollo, was charmed by the beauty of the fair Daphne, the daughter of a river-god, and pursued her with base intent. Just as she was about to be overtaken she prayed for aid, and was immediately changed into a laurel-tree, which became the favourite tree of the disappointed lover. The pageant founded on this old classical legend commenced with a man, who acted the part of Apollo, chasing a woman, who represented Daphne, followed by a young shepherd bewailing his hard fate. He, too, loved the fair and beautiful Daphne, but Apollo wooed her with fair words, and threatened him with diverse penalties, saying he would change him into a wolf, or a cockatrice, or blind his eyes. The shepherd in a long speech tells how Daphne was changed into a tree, and then Apollo is seen at the foot of a laurel-tree weeping, accompanied by two minstrels. The repentant god repeats the verse

“Sing you, play you; but sing and play my truth;
This tree my lute, these sighs my note of ruth:
The laurel leaf for ever shall be green,
And Chastity shall be Apollo’s Queen.
If gods may die, here shall my tomb be placed,
And this engraven, ‘Fond Phoebus, Daphne chaste.’”

A song follows, and then, wonderful to relate, the tree opens, and Daphne comes forth. Apollo resigns her to the humble shepherd, and then she runs to her Majesty the Queen, and with a great deal of flattery wishes her a long and prosperous reign.

Such was the simple play which delighted the minds of our forefathers, and helped to raise them from sordid cares and the dull monotony of continual toil. In our popular amusements the village folk do not take part, except as spectators, and therefore lose half the pleasure; whereas in the time of the Virgin Queen the rehearsals, the learning the speeches by heart, the dresses, the excitement, all contributed to give them fresh ideas and new thoughts. The acting may not have been very good; indeed Queen Elizabeth did not always think very highly of the performances of her subjects at Coventry, and was heard to exclaim, “What fools ye Coventry folk are!” but I think her Majesty must have been pleased at the concluding address of the players at Sudeley. After the shepherds had acted a piece in which the election of the King and Queen of the Bean formed a part, they knelt before the real Queen, and said, “Pardon, dread Sovereign, poor shepherds’ pastimes, and bold shepherds’ presumptions. We call ourselves kings and queens to make mirth; but when we see a king or queen, we stand amazed. At chess there are kings and queens, and they of wood. Shepherds are no more, nor no less, wooden. In theatres workmen have played emperors; yet the next day forgotten neither their duties nor occupation. For our boldness in borrowing their names, and in not seeing your Majesty for our blindness, we offer these shepherds’ weeds: which, if your Majesty vouchsafe at any time to wear, it shall bring to our hearts comfort, and happiness to our labours.”

When the Queen visited Kenilworth Castle, splendid pageants were performed in her honour. As she entered the castle the gigantic porter recited verses to greet her Majesty, gods and goddesses offered gifts and compliments on bended knee, and the Lady of the Lake, surrounded by Tritons and Nereids, came on a floating island to do homage to the peerless Elizabeth, and to welcome her to all the sport the castle could afford. For an account of the strange conduct of Orion and his dolphin upon this occasion, we refer our readers to Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth, and the lover of pageants will find much to interest him in Gascoigne’s Princely Progress. In many of the chief towns of England the members of the Guilds were obliged by their ordinances to have a pageant once every year, which was of a religious nature. The Guild of St. Mary at Beverley made a yearly representation of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, one of their number being dressed as a queen to represent the Virgin, “having what may seem a son in her arms,” two others representing Joseph and Simeon, and two others going as angels carrying lights. The people of England seem always to have had a great fondness for shows and pageants.