Emma’s Eccentric Britain: medieval jousting, Eltham Palace, London

{ Posted on Aug 14 2013 by B-man }
Categories : Travel news

I'm standing in the rain waiting for a man in a fez and wooden clogs. I'm at Eltham Palace, childhood home of Henry VIII and added to in spectacular art deco-style by the Courtauld family in the 1930s, and I'm about to immerse myself in the world of the historical interpreter. Jon Terris is my mentor for the day. He's an armourer by trade and a member of the Medieval Siege Society (medieval-siege-society.co.uk).

I learn, when Jon arrives, that there's rivalry between historical re-enactment groups. "Sometimes," he says, "people come from other groups just to spot inaccuracies. I can't be seen with a fork. They haven't been invented yet."

At this point I see a woman in a bonnet cleaning her teeth by a hedgerow. "Is that historically accurate?" I ask.

"No," says Jon, "brushing of teeth is allowed. But only before 10am."

It is clear from the off that there's a benchmark for authenticity to aspire to, and with that in mind I am taken off to a small tent and asked to change into my medieval outfit. I'm wearing a shift, a kirtle, a gown, a purse and a head-rail. I'm also wearing socks from M&S, but I keep quiet about them.

The tent belongs to Chris and Carrie. Chris is head of sound for BBC News and Carrie is a seamstress. They make all their outfits. Jon has made everything he's wearing, even his shoes.

"I'm a craft extremist," he tells me, proudly. It's very impressive.

Chris, I notice, is taking more of the serf role while his wife has assumed the character of a lady, with higher status. I ask him if it's a problem that his wife is further up the medieval social ladder than he is. He shakes his head.

"If we ever fall out," he says, with a twinkle, "we can always resolve the dispute the medieval way."

Jon says: "If a woman and a man fell out, the man stood in a pit and the woman stood above him with a rock in a sock. He was allowed a club and they both wore greased leather catsuits. If she bashed his brains in, she won. If he pulled her into the pit, he won."

As much as I'd like to see Carrie and Chris in greased leather catsuits, there's not much chance. Chris knows his place. He has to make the lunch. I wonder if anyone ever turns up as a prince or princess and pulls rank. Carrie says quietly to me: "There was someone who turned up wearing a crown once …"

"He made two people stand guard outside his tent all night," chips in Jon. "We took a dim view of that."

The others nod. "So we do say now that crowns can only be worn by prior agreement," adds Carrie.

"You have to earn that respect," says Jon.

Respect is something I'm here to earn myself, as I have been given the enormous task of scoring the jousting competition.

"We're having a joust a'plaisance," explains Rob, the knight marshal. Rob's wearing a heraldic tabard and a hat so massive a child could sit in it. He's an insolvency adviser by day but here, as his alter ego Sir Robert Martin, he's very much in charge. "Jousting was the equivalent of Formula One racing," he tells me. "It's a hard road. If I know any man's a jouster, I'll buy him a pint. I know what he's dedicated to it."

I've been paired with Squire Harry, otherwise known as Zac the trainee teacher. He's also training to be a knight. He's had a few jousts but he's taking it steady.

"My fiancee is a bit worried about it," he confides. "But my mum comes with me, to keep an eye on things."

We've been sent on to the field of play and are positioned at the mid point of the arena. The aim of a joust a'plaisance isn't, as I had always previously believed, to knock the knight from his seat, but to smash your own lance. Points are awarded for strikes to the arm, body and shield but if you don't smash your lance, you won't win.

Horses charge, lances smash – there is no doubt that jousting is probably as exciting as it ever was. Apart from one minor misunderstanding during the second joust, I have managed to keep excellent score.

"Thank you for your service, madam," says Sir Robert Martin, with a bow.

"Chivalry is a wonderful thing to aspire to," Zac tells me, and after the lovely day I've had with Jon and all his friends, I really have to agree.

• Find details of Eltham Palace at elthampalace.org.uk. There are jousting events at a number of English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk) homes this summer, and jousting will be part of a celebration of 2,000 years of history at Festival of History on 14 and 15 July at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire

• The practical details at the end of this feature were amended on 9/7/2012 as we incorrectly stated that Eltham Palace was a National Trust property.

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