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Fighting fit: Studying the science of a jousting knight

Posted:
3 July 2017
Posted By:
Jamie Bellinger
Categories:
History Uncovered

It was England’s first national sport, a medieval spectacle that has showcased the skill of brave knights since the 11th century. But what does it take to be a jousting knight? We sent our modern-day jouster, Roy Murray, to be put through his paces at the University of Bath’s high-tech Sports Science Centre. In a series of tests we examined his levels of fitness and skill to see how a jousting knight compares to other modern athletes.

What is jousting?

The joust is a sport of speed, agility and impact that has thrilled spectators for centuries. Riding in armour weighing over 40kg, at speeds of up to 30mph, the jousting knight lowers a 10-foot lance and takes aim to strike the target on his opponent’s left shoulder. Today, male and female jousters compete in tournaments across the country, and these all-round athletes must combine horsemanship, accuracy and strength to succeed.

 

MEET OUR 21ST-CENTURY JOUSTER 
Name: Roy Murray
Age: 33
Height: 176.1cm
Weight: 71kg 

 

Testing a medieval knight

The University of Bath’s Sports Training Village is known as the home of many Olympic athletes who have represented Team GB, but recently one of the world’s oldest equestrian sports paid a visit to the facility. As soon as our jousting knight arrived, measurements were taken of his height, weight, BMI (body mass index) and body fat percentage, allowing the scientists to build up a profile of our sportsman.

Body fat measurement

The tests got underway with a measurement of Roy’s body fat percentage. Jonathan used calipers to measure key parts of the body including the upper arms, thighs and stomach. Roy recorded a body fat figure of just 7.72%. To put this in context, an average member of the population might have 15-20% body fat, while even professional footballers score 8-12% on this measurement.

VO2 Max test

Roy then underwent the VO2 Max test, considered the gold standard of aerobic and cardiovascular fitness testing. This measures the maximal oxygen consumption of an athlete during exercise. After a moulded oxygen mask was fitted over his nose and mouth, Roy stepped onto the university’s specialist treadmill. The treadmill is an intimidating sight in the centre of the laboratory, much bigger than one you might use in the gym, and fitted with an array of wires and pipes to measure bodily function.

The determined knight ran at an increasing speed and incline until he could take no more, finally resting breathless on the treadmill’s handrails to recover. But the grueling performance had paid off. His result of 55ml/kg/min oxygen consumption puts our jouster in the same category as an elite male tennis player, and fitter than the average of more than 200 championship footballers tested by the university.

Cycle sprint test

Roy then cycled in a flat-out sprint for ten seconds on an exercise bike, a test that was carried out twice to simulate a jousting knight’s need to perform multiple efforts in a short space of time. The scientists saw that Roy’s power output did not change from one sprint to the next, showing his resilience and ability to recover quickly from hard exertion to perform again. His output here was especially impressive having just completed the strenuous VO2 Max treadmill test.

Bench press

Bench pull and bench press tests were used to measure Roy’s strength. Core and grip strength are both essential for the horseback knight. The tests showed that Roy has twice the upper body strength needed to enter the police force, and a similar strength level to a motor-racing driver.

Physio assessment

The day concluded in a session with a University of Bath physiotherapist, to assess Roy’s core stability and balance. The assessments found that the knight has a core stability better than professional swimmers and an alignment and balance comparable with leading acrobats.

Roy undertakes the VO2 Max test of aerobic fitness.

Roy undertakes the VO2 Max test of aerobic fitness.

The verdict: a well-rounded athlete

Applied Sports Scientist at the University of Bath, Jonathan Robinson, told us that he was “very impressed” by Roy’s overall fitness, which indicated that “jousting requires physical prowess on a par with professional footballers, tennis players and motor racing drivers.” Roy’s high standard across a wide range of fitness areas demonstrates that jousters must maintain a broad base of agility, strength, stamina and balance to succeed in this physically demanding sport.

Keeping body fat to a minimum is vital for Roy, as any extra weight (that isn’t muscle) could hinder his ability on horseback. The exceptionally low percentage may also be a sign of how the sport of jousting keeps the body fit. His ability to maintain stamina is essential for a jousting knight, having little recovery time between passes at the tilt. The slightest trace of fatigue can be the difference between success and failure.

For Roy, a major challenge in the sport is the wearing of steel armour. Weighing in at more than 40kg, the armour is comparable to carrying two soldiers’ packs, or a sandbag of the kind used in flood defences. “Once the armour goes on, your balance is much harder,” he revealed. “It also restricts the movement, and it traps in the heat, so you build up heat and tire out more quickly.” For most of us, wearing armour for any length of time would be a workout in its own right. For the jouster, it is just another essential skill to master. Roy has learned to carry his armour’s enormous weight while also controlling a horse and a 10-foot lance at high speed.

Roy’s strong aerobic fitness and ability to endure through multiple bursts of exertion show how his sport requires both short and long-term athleticism. The jouster must be able to make short bursts of speed for passes at the opponent, but also needs long-term endurance to maintain accuracy through the duration of a tournament. The test results show that a jouster must have rounded athleticism across a range of areas.

Sports Scientist Jonathan Robinson measures Roy's body fat index

Sports Scientist Jonathan Robinson measures Roy’s body fat index

The physical demands of the joust

After a long day of intensive study, it was exciting to see that the results of the tests show links between Roy’s areas of fitness and the vicious physical demands of his sport. We spoke to English Heritage’s historic equitation expert Dominic Sewell after the tests, to find out more about the level of training required.

As a jouster with his company, Historic Equitation, Dominic knows exactly what it takes to mount a horse, propel himself towards an opponent and break his lance against steel armour. He told us that aspiring knights would historically have trained hard every day to build up the strength, fitness and skill needed. Like many who reach the highest levels in their fields today, the successful knight would have started this routine at a very young age, dedicating his life to the sport.

Dominic also attested that, though modern lifestyles are different, to be a jousting knight in the 21st Century requires the same dedication shown by those in the medieval period. “The knights that you’ll see at English Heritage jousts are among the best in the country and indeed the world,” he told us. “Achieving that level in such a physically and mentally demanding field is no mean feat, but for the audience it certainly makes for a thrilling and spectacular experience.”

Speaking after his testing, Roy told us about the impact felt when clashing against another knight. “You’re looking at an impact of around 40mph,” he said, “focusing down into about an inch-square area impacted on you. We all wear tages, small shields which curve and bring the lance into us to stop it slipping away, but that’s also focusing that hit directly into us. So that’s a 40mph impact we’re taking each time we get struck by a lance.”

 

See the testing for yourself in our video

Get involved – See a live joust

To witness the medieval spectacle of the joust for yourself, head to one of our thrilling live events across the country this summer. Roy will be in action at Pendennis Castle throughout August, so remember to look out for our test subject on the field.

Eltham Palace, London 8 – 9 July
Framlingham Castle, Suffolk – 29 – 30 July
Pendennis Castle, CornwallEvery weekend in August
Dover Castle, Kent12 – 13 August
Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight15 – 17 August and 22 – 24 August
Old Sarum, Wiltshire27 – 28 August
Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire27 – 28 August

Explore more Knights & Jousts events 

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  • About the Author

    Jamie Bellinger
    Jamie is a writer and editor in the English Heritage Digital Content team.

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  1. All very interesting – the science of jousting, BUT what a terrible muddle of units!
    I couldn’t believe what I was reading, kilograms for mass (absolutely fine) and then absurdly we find speeds in miles per hour and lance lengths in feet. Why ? It’s 2017, and we should all be using SI metric units and nothing else. 96% of this planet uses metric only. There’s no wonder our kids are confused ; they learn metric in school and then go out into the real world to find this mess of metric and medieval measures – and this from so-called experts!
    I am a retired physics lecturer and a member of the U.K. Metrication Association.

  2. We’d love to visit a joust – but we live in Hadrian’s Wall land, and Derbyshire is the closest place to us. Surely jousting was done in the north of England too ? We’ve had our fill of Roman soldier events and would like to see something new !!!

  3. Hi Rachel-Ann. Yes, of course. There are several jousts taking place in the north of England in August, including at Richmond Castle, Warkworth Castle, Tynemouth Priory and Belsay Hall. You can search all of our jousts and knights’ tournaments here: https://goo.gl/Ni3s7J

    We hope you enjoy the events!