TO STUDENTS of English literature, “The Last Tournament” refers to an event which took place in Scotland in 1839. The Earl of Eglanton, a high-minded young nobleman, complete with castle, serfs, and a head full of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, decided to dramatize the values of the Middle Ages, which were Scott’s and his own answer to the problems of the Industrial Revolution, by having a tournament. Costumes were prepared, banners sewn, and the springs of the London hansom cabs broken by the weight of men in armor being borne to practice. It was the social event of the year. The Great Day arrived, the splendid procession processed, the jousting commenced. And then it began to rain … do you know what happens to armor in the rain? And banners? And respectable English gentlemen without any shelter? That was the end of the Romantic Period in England.
But that Tournament, ill-fated as it turned out to be, cannot truthfully be considered the last. Chivalry is not dead – my back yard bears proof of the same!
Sometime toward the end of February, Dave Thewlis and Ken de Maiffe came over to practice swordsmanship in my backyard, and the Great Idea was born. The May Day Tournament owed its existence to this, to the peculiar nature of my backyard, and to the fact that instead of telling me I was crazy, my roommates said “Let’s do it!”
It really was planned, carefully and in advance, but, as when one is cooking and discovers that the ingredients on hand are not exactly those one had planned to use, the result was marvelous but somewhat unexpected. Felice has asked me to tell her how one of these things is planned. Ha! Little does she, or I, know! But I think I can remember what actually happened.
At twelve noon (official starting time) there were about four people standing around admiring each other’s costumes; one of my roommates was still finishing her dress, and I was wondering what else you can do with four people in costume. Then it was 2:30, and there were people in medieval clothing all over the yard. The official Judge, Dr. Elizabeth Pope, head of the Mils College English Department and incidentally the one who told me about Tolkien had arrived. She was wearing her academic gown and hood (well, they haven’t changed since the 15th century!) She was seated next to the official archbishop and second Judge, Sir Jon de Cles, on a red-covered thrown in front of a purple hanging. Beside the judges, the crown, to be awarded to the Champion’s lady, reposed on a purple cushion.
A triumphal march was heard (Processional from the Play of Herod – 13th century) and around the corner appeared a procession of knights and ladies. Two by two they paced forward, bowing to the judges and parting to circle round and join again. The long note of a horn … the Herald, resplendent in a green satin cloak, announced the blessing of the swords. At this, the Archbishop rose and let the sonorous Latin roll forth, “Ecce Edardus ursis scalis nunc rump-tump-tump occipute gradus pulsante, post Christophorum Robinum descendens …”, and the assembly chorused, “Amen.”
The first combat was announced: Sir Siegfried X Hoflichskeith and Sir Kenneth with mace; then a gladiator, Aeginius, and Nathan the retarius (net and trident). While the dust settled and the knights caught breath, singers hailed the season with the ancient “sumer is a-cumin in”. Another combat, a challenge, then rest again, and this time there were four dancers doing a pavane. The combats again. Sir Frederick of Holland, Sir Aeginius, Sir Henderson, Sir Paul, Sir Deutsche Bursenschaft, Sir David the Herald, who was knighted on the field, and many more.
What swords were splintered that day! What cries of exultation and anguish, what sounds of blows and what good knights struck to the earth, and what resplendent ladies looking on! No tongue can tell the glory of it, or pen write, but the fame of that day will be bread to the poets for as long as men love to hear of knightly deeds! (And that last is a direct lift from Layamon’s Brut, 13th century – the first version in English of the story of King Arthur.)
To speak truth, I rather lost track of events after those first few fights, since challenges were being issued left and right and everyone was more or less transformed, making recognition difficult, but the preceding lines are straight – no ironic asides, because that’s the way it was, incredibly real. Intermixed with the combats were things like a reading from The Battle of Braunanburgh in Anglo-Saxon by Nan Braude, and my rendering of a bit of the Chanson do Roland in Old French, a language which rings and clangs and is in my opinion the only tongue in which to speak of battles. Then there was the father of one of the singers, who took one look and rushed home for his crossbow and longbow, with which he gave an exhibition. It was very impressive, and gratifying to Dave and Ken – an arrow from the longbow took some paint off one of their shields, but the arrowhead curled right up! Some Spanish friends of one of my roommates, glorious in 16th-century plumed hats, did a scene from a Cervantes play; there were various sorts of food and drink (we are all good hobbits here), and of course the Maypole dance by the ladies of the company, which we actually managed without tangling.
The costumes were very good. Astrid Anderson came as Queen Lucy of Narnia in a red velvet dress with a bird on her arm, and David Bradly, in green, was her knight. Marion Breen was Donna Ximena (wife of El Cid), but Walter was a “hairy hermit wild,” or friar of the Chaucerian sort, complete with wineskin. Sir Siegried’s lady wore a 14th-century dress of blue and grey satin and gold brocade. Mary, in a flowing leopard print with high-dressed hair and monkey, was something Sir Kenneth found on the crusades. My roommate, Molly Titcomb, who has long golden hair, wore the white dress and midnight blue cloak of the Lady of Rohan. Felice was gorgeous in turquoise satin, Suzanne was a princess in blue, and Benjy, in a russet cloak, was a hobbit. Enough of who wore what – the style of this has become depressingly like that of the Women’s Page, and it would be impossible to do justice to everyone anyway.
By 4:30 the judges’ list showed that six people had won two or more times. The judging was rather intriguing; foil bouts were judged by regular fencing rules, but for those who fought with medieval weapons we had to find another method. When someone landed a blow, the judges (plus an informal committee composed of all other fighters) calculated what effect the blow would have if a real weapon had been used; i.e., if the shield arm were hit, the fighter had to drop it; if the sword arm, he changed the sword to his other hand; if the head, he staggered around (that wasn’t acting); if a leg, he dropped to his knees. When he was considered to have been completely chopped up, he was adjudged defeated. This sounds rather comic, but the fighting was for real – one knight managed to put a dent in a fencing helmet, which is almost impossible, and this with a wooden sword. That same knight ended up with a broken finger (I wonder how he explained that up at Cowell Hospital?) – he tried to parry a sword of which both blade and hilt were gone! Actually, and to my great relief, no one suffered anything more serious than welts, minor cuts, and bruises …
The finalists were Sir Aeginius and Sir Deutsche Bursenschaft – Dick Barnhart, a student at San Anselmo Theological Seminary, and Paul Wolfgangel, from Germany, a graduate in linguistics here at Cal. (Believe it or not, we were in the same fencing class a year ago, and I even got a few touches on him. I insert this bit of self-egoboo in view of the result of the tournament.) Sir Aeginius’ “helmet” – the clear plastic faceplate of his motorcycle helmet – had been cracked by a blow from the same wooden sword that dented the fencing mask a little later, wielded in each case by Sir Deutsche, but Sir Aeginius finally managed to shatter that sword and mash the hand which held it so Sir Deutsch could no longer even carry a shield. The final combat – Sir Deutsche in complete white fencing costume, with a mace in one hand and the other held behind his back; and Sir Aeginius, in black, holding a spear, and crouching behind his black, silver-blazoned shield. They circled round, scuffling in the dust, Sir Deutsche wary and Sir Aeginius feinting with his spear. He thrust. Sir Deutsche avoided the blow. They circled again; then Sir Deutsche darted in. We heard the “clonk” of a blow caught on the shield, then the mace swung up, fell, and hit Sir Aeginius between neck and shoulder and brought him to the ground. If the weapon had been sharp …?
Sir Deutsche Bursenshaft was the winner. He placed the crown on the head of his lady, a “simple peasant maid.”
What do you do after the Tournament? We, about twenty-four of us, formed into another procession and processed – all the way up Telegraph to Bancroft and back again. It’s the thing to do in Berkeley, protest – we were protesting the 20th century.
What do you do after the procession? About twelve people were left by this time, so they went to get food and a fire, and we all sat around eating roast chicken and singing and dancing. The night remained clear, with a moon whose paleness disputed the light of the fire, which flickered over the banners and reddened the violet of the hangings, and gleamed from sword hilts and satin cloaks.
So there was no abrupt ending, no anticlimax. Until after midnight people sat in the light of the fire and the moon, discussing, singing, drinking the wine, springing up to how this or that sword thrust would be done.
Does this sound like a purple passage? That is the way it was.
… they are planning another tournament for Midsummer’s Day …
The History Site's 'official' page for the tournament described above, including links to photographs ...
This was pulled from The Known World Handbook, the second edition. It was first published in NIEKAS 16, a science fiction magazine shortly after the event. It is used here with permission of Diana Paxson (SCA: Diana Listmaker, Countess, OL, OP).
The West Kingdom History Website was created by and is maintained by Hirsch von Henford (mka Ken Mayer).