Harcourt is a biennial event held, oddly enough, on Harcourt Park out Upper Hutt way in Wellington. This year it was on Saturday the 10th and Sunday the 11th of January during the height of our summer. While I have been aware of it going on I always seemed to either not have the time when it was on or only be aware of it till after the event had passed. Thankfully this mild-curse has finally been broken with me being able to get to the 2009 event. Harcourt is a an invitational jousting tournament, run by a local jousting enthusiast - one Callum Forbes of the Order of the Boar. This is an event dedicated to the wider range of Chivalric activities so it covers foot combat (swords, maces etc.), bowmanship/archery, siege weaponry and mounted skill at arms (target hitting with sword, ring collecting by lance etc.) as well as jousting itself. All in all it aims to drop medieval jousting event fairly accurate to the weapons and tactics of 14th Century Europe. Thankfully they helpfully announce this on their website as I wouldn't know 14th Century from practically any other century where mounted knights prevailed.
As can be seen in the above images the armour is highly detailed and exquistely made. The chainmail coif alone must have taken days to assemble, let alone finish. Combine this with the full plate, padding (which traditionally was made of felt and thus was unsufferably hot - consider for a moment that the Crusaders wore this kind of get up in the Middle Eastern sun and desert climes. Ouch. Perhaps a lot of what they did can be adequitely explained as being down to heat madness.), saddle, lances and swords to get an ensemble outfit that takes some serious investment of time and money. As a result these are always a pleasure to see in the flesh simply because it is rare that people have the passion for jousting to assemble such a complete equipment set. On top of that to joust properly you need a good horse or two so ontop of the history geeking you can watch the horses going through their paces.
Of course it wouldn't be much of a tournament if we only had one knight present to compete. Harcourt is marked as a world invitational event and we did have a good selection of people from around the world present. The woman in red above was from Sweden while the second knight featured came from America. We also had at least one more competitor from New Zealand who came down from Auckland and a Canadian - the other entrants I didn't know where they came from and indeed I didn't get to see all of them in action. Sensibly they were taking turns at the jousting with breaks between to give both the knight and their horse a chance to rest. It was pleasing to see both rider and horse safety factored in heavily and this is a big change from the traditional tournaments of old where it wasn't uncommon for a knight to die jousting. A not uncommon way to go was splinters from the shattered lance piercing through the armour - usually at a weak point like the eye slits in the helmet. For this event the hard woods of the old lances has been replaced by balsa wood tips at the end of a fibreglass pole. Now a solid hit can expend most of its force shattering the balsa and not producing fast moving wood splinters.
Another safety consideration is that dismounting your opponent is not awarded points - all the points come from the solidity of the hit to the torso alone. Dismounts still occur and given the heavy armour are no doubt painful when they do. Also not awarded points are hits to the helmet and head. While these were hard to pull off a skilled knight could get a lance on target to do exactly this. Certainly if you are fighting for real then it is almost certainly the kind of hit you want to pull off as it is the most likely to kill or injure. Even with these precautions it still is a good idea to wear full armour when competing. The energy transfered from the lance is fairly large and highly focussed onto a small spot. Potentially too the brass fitting point for the balsa tip can also still make contact with the rider - one or two ring shapped hits being visible in the shoulder target pad of several knights.
All in all this means that while the sport is considerably safer than its historical counterpart it still remains an area where bravery and skill are displayed. I have to say I wouldn't relish the thought of someone charging on horse back directly at me with a lance...
The above shots roughly chronicle one round of jousting. Our swedish competitor displayed consistant skill and ability with only a few tilts occuring where she didn't score a hit of some kind. As you can see the balsa wood tips make for exciting spectating as they shatter most impressively on impact. It helps that they have also been painted bright colours to make seeing exactly this event easier. I couldn't resist sneaking one shot where the Wellington knight scored a solid hit on the Aucklander, although they seemed pretty evenly matched as near as I could tell. This round lasted for the better part of an hour and judging on the noise from the crowd was well enjoyed by all spectating. This particular round was won by the Swedish entrant followed by the American who both then did a victory lap around the tilt. Both of these knights were very skilled and I have to say that if ever I need conjure an image of what Joan d'Arc looked like then I think I have a good starting point.
With the horses taking a well earned rest events then segued into an archery competition. Appropriately themed this event had a target of a King being protected by two bodyguards. Maximum points was awarded for hitting the King cleanly, secondary points coming for hitting the bodyguards and tertiary points for just hitting the target. Something that at the longer ranges became tricky. I positioned myself to try and catch the archer with their arrow mid-flight. The middle shot shows when I finally got my timing right and managed to pull this off. Many of the knights participated here as well with our American friend being a good marksman with the bow.
After half an hour of archery demonstrations the event shifted again into a display of the siege weapons in action, none of which I caught in action particularly well on film - a project for next time. The Trebuchets in particular were imposing and you can see why a castle could be threatened by these devices. Even the small ones present here could fling items a considerable distance despite having been carefully reigned in from their full power. The only siege weapon I got a good shot of was the scorpio here - a predeccesor of the balista. I just had time to see a tatami matt cop it in the neck with a demonstration of the Fiore fighting style before we had to leave. It being the height of summer at the time this event was on we couldn't really leave the dogs at home unattended for the hottest part of the afternoon. So sadly I had to go before the foot combat display, further rounds of jousting or the Grand Melee.
All in all this was a blast to attend and I highly recommend it. It can be easy to dismiss European culture as being boring for those of us who have grown up steeped in it. But displays like this make the history come alive so well and so vividly you are reminded again of that young kid who used to thrill to the stories of Arthur and the Round Table, Don Quixote or Chaucer. The Order of the Boar describes these events as 'Living History' and I think that is a most apt description. Long may they continue.