An interview with Tobias Capwell

Toby, you are Curator of Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection in London, which makes you something of a celebrity in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) circles. What some people might not be aware of is your even greater fame in the lists as a jouster and tournament fighter. Which came first? Did your academic efforts lead you to the research of arms and armour, or vice versa?

 Hi, thanks for inviting me to this interview! Yeah, I must confess that I wanted to be a knight a long time before I wanted to be a curator in a museum. My academic pursuits give a respectable veneer to my true nature. One led to another- when you’re a kid with an interest you follow it however you can… I joined the Royal Armouries staff as a jouster (in 1996), and then re-discovered how work with the original objects really spoke to me. I had already sensed this attraction though- I tried to get my first museum job when I was twelve.

 With travel, equipment, not to mention specially trained horses, modern jousting is a very expensive hobby. Is it a growing sport, and how has it changed since you started?

 Well it’s really a semi-professional activity rather than an amateur hobby… it’s too expensive to do it any other way! I don’t have a sense of how much it is growing now, but it’s clearly a lot bigger than when I started in the early 1990s. There are major competitions all over the world now- something we probably never could have imagined 30 years ago.

Jousting has become a truly international sport

 Jousting changed a lot over the centuries, roughly between 1150 and 1650, a history you have been tracing in your series of books on the subject- Arms and Armour of the Medieval Joust (published 2018) and Arms and Armour of the Renaissance Joust, coming out next year. What varieties of joust are currently being practiced?

The backbone of the modern historical jousting world has always been what you might call a late fifteenth-century joust of war- that is, a joust run in war armour, in style c. 1450-90 (ish). This is a completely authentic thing to do- jousts in field harness were very common in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. A true and complete joust of war would also be run in the open field without a tilt, and with single-pointed warheads on the spears. However, most modern jousts use a tilt and coronels for increased safety. This is also absolutely authentic- I’ve found a lot of evidence for field armour jousts with tilts and coronels, even as late as the sixteenth century. In the last ten years or so, more jousters have been making the transition to equipment for jousts of peace, most specifically, by trading the war helmet for a specialized jousting helm (so-called ‘frog-mouthed’ helm), again, to increase safety standards and do something cool and authentic. Some have gone further by building complete armours for the joust of peace, which incorporate specially-designed cuirasses, shoulder and arm defences, etc. The time-frame has widened a lot too now- more people are doing fourteenth-century styles now- that’s always been a popular period in living history generally, and the jousting world is finally catching up. Everything is so expensive it takes a while for a meaningful group of people to adopt a new style. In the joust it’s not much good if one person has all the gear… you really need six or eight or ten people to all sign up to get something new going. Hence why my fantasy of doing a c. 1545-50 Habsburg joust will probably always remain a pipe-dream…

Tobias Capwell

Your new book is all about the Greenwich Armouries and the precious garnitures produced there; an armoury that was established by Henry VIII, the same king who gave the English Company of Maisters its Chartered Monopoly to teach and license martial arts. But it is said that both jousting and the predominant systems of combat taught by the Maisters were already considered anachronistic in other parts of Europe. Is there any truth to this?

No, sorry, I haven’t written a new book on the royal armour workshop at Greenwich. My work on armour in England is restricted to the fifteenth century. But… since I have written about jousting in Tudor England in my new book (Renaissance Joust, see above), I can address the second part of that question. The answer is no, absolutely not. In the reign of Henry VIII jousting was absolutely in vogue at the highest levels, throughout Europe, and the Greenwich armourers were making gear that was totally new, hi-tech and contemporary. After the death by lance-through-head suffered by King Henri II of France in 1559 however, many in the royal courts of Europe, especially France, lost some of their earlier passion for jousting. So the jousting revival under Elizabeth I could have been seen by some as a little old-fashioned towards the end of the sixteenth century. But only by some. Plenty of other people still felt that it resonated as a statement of royal power and prestige. Indeed Elizabeth specifically employed ancient ideas of chivalry and courtly love to maintain power- she’s an extremely interesting figure in that respect, and armour and jousting remained hugely important in England all the way through into the seventeenth century.

 

The death of Henri II

People tend to connect the idea of jousting with the Middle Ages, but really it was at its peak in England during the Tudor era. What can you tell us about its transition from a martial practice into a gentleman’s sport?

Well… it had several peaks really. It goes up and down, depending on the attitudes and tastes of particular monarchs and how busy they are with other things like war and so forth. Edward III presided over a golden age of jousts and tournaments in England in the mid- fourteenth century, while Henry V was almost completely disinterested in them. Edward IV liked them, Richard III didn’t (although he didn’t have much time to host any as king). Henry VII saw their importance politically and diplomatically, and spent a lot of money on them, but never took part personally. His son Henry VIII on the other hand, used his personal role as a combatant as a central part of his own courtly joust/tournament strategy. Also I don’t really believe that there ever was a transition from martial training to peaceful sport. Jousts always had military relevance, and their close connection to battlefield fighting skills and the use of war equipment never disappeared. The role of heavy cavalry changed over time, in different ways in different places, but that’s a separate issue.

Queen Elizabeth idolized her father Henry, and the Greenwich garniture was a preferred gift to her favourites as it bestowed considerable status upon the owner. But the great tourneys were already in decline. When did we finally see the end of the joust as the pinnacle of combat sports, and were the masterpieces of the armouries mere trophies at the peak of their developmental curve under Elizabeth?

Well Elizabeth didn’t usually give armours as gifts… her courtiers had to pay quite a lot of money for them! But you’re right; they were tremendous status symbols, as well as excellent fighting equipment, so well worth paying for. The tournament culture in England certainly wasn’t in decline- for the English courtier it was absolutely essential to have the best armour and knightly accoutrements- without it, it was almost impossible, for most young noblemen, to enter the royal circle, never mind play a meaningful part in it. The annual Accession Day jousts were one of the most important opportunities to exhibit one’s self under the gaze of the Queen herself. At the same time, such armour was still vital on the battlefield. The soldier and author Sir John Smythe famously commented that Sir Philip Sydney had been killed at the Siege of Zutphen specifically as a result of neglecting to wear his cuisses, and a number of important Elizabethans commissioned armours at Greenwich in advance of the Armada invasion in 1588. So armour was an essential part of contemporary Elizabethan life. That declined of course in the seventeenth century, but not nearly as fast as we often think.

 

Garniture of George Clifford (1586), Earl of Cumberland

Something that I generally find is that people don’t understand that a museum is a public trust, and that, with adequate justification, access can be granted to items from the collection for the purpose of research. Could you explain who would be granted such access?

Different museums work in different ways, and not all are public institutions. At the Wallace I try to grant study access whenever I can, but there’s a distinct limit to what is possible. We’re a small team, with a lot of different kinds of responsibilities and pressures on our time. The approach that has the best chance of success is one that is clear and focused in its request (for example, three key objects to be studied for clear and specific reasons, as opposed to ‘I want to see all your sixteenth-century armour, just because it’s neat’). Limiting the amount of time required (‘an hour and a half will be perfect’ not ‘I can come for a week’), with an appreciation of the time and effort required from a number of people to prepare the visit, is always a good idea. Also the study of original historical objects can be dangerous for them, and it’s important to demonstrate an awareness of the fragility of what you are asking to see. The greater the fragility, the stronger the justification must be- that applies to me and the staff here just as much as to anyone else

The Wallace Collection also houses an enviable library of historical fencing manuals. Would a researcher be able to gain access to these in the same way?

Within reason, yes. Again, we need to have a clear understanding of why access is necessary, especially now that the HEMA world has done such excellent work digitising so many of the key texts. Normally, most people don’t need to see our copies of Agrippa or Capo Ferro, because good PDFs are freely available. If there is something we have that is available nowhere else, that’s different. However we can’t always provide access to such things- the manuscript of Camillo Palladini’s rapier treatise is a good example- it was never published, and we have the only known version. But it is profoundly fragile, and access is basically forbidden. However, I’m pleased to say that we’re publishing this MS in collaboration with the Royal Armouries (releasing September 2019;  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Fencing-Discourse-Camillo-Palladini/dp/0948092963 ). So we do the best we can.

 

Coming late 2019…

The Library also houses historic manuals in several languages on how tourneys in Germany or England were held. Have you and the Royal Armouries used this information to recreate the rules and games at your own tourneys in Leeds and elsewhere?

Not really… Most of what was published relates to jousts, tournaments and courtly festivals in the sixteenth century and later, and most modern events have a fifteenth-century (or earlier) basis. People often like to refer to the jousting rules supposedly written by Sir John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, in the 1460s, but this early pedigree appears to be a myth- all the known MSS containing the ‘Tiptoft Rules’ date from the middle of the sixteenth century or later, and refer to things like the barriers for foot combat and locking gauntlets… which did not exist in the fifteenth century. Also the marriage between scholarly research and live events has always been a bit troubled- there are isolated instances of academics and jousters working really well together, but it’s a patchy history.

In the past we witnessed jousters from all over the world compete in events hosted and promoted by the Royal Armouries. Why do experts in HEMA or the modern buhurt sport of Historical Martial Battle (HMB) not participate in the foot tourneys?

I have no idea- you’d have to ask them.

Supposing someone ‘did’ have an interest in armoured foot tourneys, where could they turn for this?

I don’t really know… I guess there is a culture of armoured foot combat in the HEMA world, but I don’t see much of it except where it overlaps with the jousting community- Arne Koets’ harnischfechten seminars for example. The answer is that it really is all about personal relationships. If you want to get involved, get to know people who are already doing events. Its tricky because we tend to assume that the same people on the horses have to then get off and fight on foot, like some kind of medieval triathlon. We could use more events based around quality foot combat, though, certainly. If somebody had a barriers event for example, horses don’t come into it. But not many people have good C16th armour! A Maximilian style foot combat event a la Freydal would be cool, and very exciting no doubt. Armoured combat with longsword, spear, axe, flail, etc etc. With proper 1550’s style events you could have fireworks and smokebombs and ridiculous crests at the barriers. Its the usual challenge- you need a good number of skilled people in good equipment doing the same thing. it’s not easy.

 

New display at the Art Institute of Chicago

Do you feel that the upcoming Field of Cloth of Gold tournament would represent an opportunity to showcase the popular and growing incarnations of historic arts such as HMB or HEMA in the same way that it does for modern jousting? How could more cooperation and cross pollination between these arts be developed in the future?

Sorry, I’m not aware of it… I am jousting in a Field of Cloth of Gold event at Hampton Court Palace next year (is that the one you mean?), but am only involved as a participant- I don’t have any creative or administrative input.

Thanks Toby, I’m sure I am not the only one eagerly looking forward to your new book ‘Renaissance Joust’.

To tide us over, Tobias other new book ‘Arms and Armour of the Renaissance Joust’, the sequel to ‘Arms and Armour of the Medieval Joust’, picks up where the first book left off in 1500 and continues through to ca. 1650 (releasing Spring 2020; https://wallacecollectionshop.org/products/arms-and-armour-of-the-medieval-joust).