Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The little battle of Chálons

As part of the build-up to the release of Nowhere Was There Peace, my novel set during the end of the reign of Henry III, I thought it worth writing about another little-known incident in the life of his son and heir, Edward I. This was a tournament at Chálons in 1274 that rapidly got out of hand and was remembered as 'the little battle of Chálons'. It also gives me as an excuse to write about tournaments in general, a bloody and exciting sport that I would have very much liked to have witnessed (at a safe distance).

A contemporary drawing of Edward I (reigned 1272-1307) Note the cross expression

Edward was on his way back from the Holy Land to be formally crowned as King of England - his father had passed away two years previously - and on the way through France his retinue passed by a little town called Chálons. The Count of that place challenged Edward and his knights to take part in a tournament, which Edward accepted.

Unlike the more decorous one-on-one combats known as jousts, tournaments were bloody free-for-alls that usually took place over several miles of open country. Bands of knights battered each other all over the field, the idea being to smash your opponent into submission and capture him for ransom. This was the only way of earning an income for many younger knights, trained from childhood to fight and pretty damn useless at anything else. It wasn't uncommon for tournaments to last several days, and they provided terrific entertainment for the 'common' people, who got to watch their arrogant and tyrannical masters knocking seven bells out of each other.

Unsurprisingly, serious injuries and even death were not uncommon. Chaucer, who must have witnessed his fair share of tournaments, supplied a vivid description of one in The Knight's Tale:

'Shafts were shivering upon thick shields,
One man felt the stab to the breast-bone,
Up sprung spears twenty foot on high,
Out came swords bright as silver,
And hewed and split helms,
Out burst the blood with stern red streams,
With mighty maces they crushed bones...'

You get the general idea. Edward was just seventeen when he took part in his first tournament, an exceptionally violent affair at Blyth, and later fought on the tournament circuit in France with his cronies, the Lusignans. They apparently didn't do very well, and Matthew Paris gleefully notes that the young prince and his chums were repeatedly defeated and lost all their horses and armour.

By 1274 Edward was a very different creature, a man grown with the defeat of Simon de Montfort and his harrowing experiences on Crusade under his belt. At Chálons he lined up on the tourney field with a thousand of his knights. Opposing them was the Count and a much larger number of French knights. In case of foul play, Edward stationed a large force of archers just outside the lists.

Foul play was exactly what the Count intended. He had already broken the rules of the challenge by bringing twice the number of men that Edward had, and his intention was to capture the prince and hold him to ransom: shades of the Duke of Austria and Richard the Lionheart.

The trumpets sounded, lances were set in rest, and the earth quaked as hundreds of iron men on massive horses charged together. The impact of their collision is almost beyond imagining - I have never seen a medieval tournament adequately recreated on screen - and they immediately set about doing each other grievous bodily harm.

In the midst of the fighting, the count rushed at Edward and grabbed him around the neck. This might seem a crude tactic, but was often employed by medieval knights in combat: one 12th century account describes a knight grabbing William the Marshal the Younger's head in an attempt to wrestle his helmet off. His reward was to have his hands sliced off, and the Count was also destined to come to grief.

Edward spurred his horse into a sudden gallop and dragged the hapless count in his wake. The Frenchman apparently lacked the wit to let go, and so fell to earth with an almighty rattle of ironmongery. Edward then climbed off his horse, stood over his victim and bashed away at him with the shaft of his lance. He ignored the fallen man's cries for mercy and gave the signal for his archers to get involved.

These men heeded no rules of chivalry, and gleefully bent their bows and shot down the French knights in droves. Then they swarmed onto the field and cut the throats of the wounded men as they lay helpless and bleeding on the ground. The French footmen tried to help their masters and were slaughtered without mercy by Edward's knights, for "they were but rascals and of no great account."

At last, when the vile temper of the Angevins had cooled somewhat in his blood, Edward allowed the Count to surrender and ceased pounding away on his armour. In the midst of the reeking human carnage, Edward added to his foe's humiliation by forcing him to give up his sword to a common soldier. "My servants shall have your tarnished sword," the prince said scornfully, "for I shall not touch it."

Thus ended the little battle or "war" of Chálons. A fairly grim affair, by the standards of the time, but the disgrace was held to lay in the treachery of the Count, rather than the scale of unnecessary death and bloodshed. Brutal times, brutal men, perfect fodder for fiction.


  1. David, how very interesting! I, on my part, highly recommend Tournament by David Crouch. I'm sure you have already read it, but for all those who haven't: it's a brilliantly written, meticulous study on tournament origins, weapon, techniques and... tricks. Philip of Flanders, for instance, came up with a really ingenious tactics, later employed by Henry the Young King and his "team". It was described in detail in the History of William Marshal (which I also recommend) Bloodshed had always been a part of the sport, but in the 12th century it was more sensible not to kill the opponent, but take him for ransom. As you've pointed out, for the young, landless knight it was sometimes the only way to win his fortune, just like in William Marshal's case. Fatalities did occur, but usually not intended (e.g. Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany).

    Again, thank you for a fascinating read!

    1. Thanks for the comment and the recommendation, Kasia! I've not read Crouch's book, but shall look it up. I was reading some online stuff about William Marshal's career as a tournament fighter - very entertaining stuff, especially the bit where a blacksmith had to knock his dented helmet off :)

  2. Yes, I love it too! And the squires with the pike waiting to handle it to the Marshal and watching the blacksmith's efforts to free William's head! What a scene! It all happened after the tournament at Pleurs, as far as I can recall. Still my favourite anecdote concerning William Marshal tells how he lost his "prisoner" at Anet :-)
    Have you read The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick, BTW? It's one of my favourite books ever (read: Henry the Young King popping out on almost every page :-)).

    And Professor Crouch's Tournament is simply great!

    1. Sorry for the late reply, Kasia. I haven't read Chadwick's book, but recently I watched all of The Devil's Crown, the old 1970s TV series about the Angevins starring Brian Cox as Henry II and Patrick Troughton as William Marshall. All the episodes are available on Youtube - highly recommended!

    2. Thanks for the recommendation David! I've heard about the series, but somehow haven't found time to watch it. I think it's time to remedy it :-)