July 10 and the death of Henri II

455 years ago today they were talking about the great-grandfather of all sporting injuries.

Henri II of France

Henri II of France

These days we are talking a lot about sports injuries — concussions and such. That’s a good thing (that we’re talking about them, not the injuries themselves).

Well, 455 years ago on this day, July 10, they were talking about sports injuries too. Actually, they were talking about one particular sports injury, the great-granddaddy of all sporting injuries, in comparison with which all subsequent sports injuries pale. And they didn’t call it a sports injury — that particular word didn’t exist in the sense we use it now. They were talking about an hastilude, which translates roughly as “martial art.”

On July 10, 1559, the King of France, Henri II of the House of Valois, finally died, in excruciating agony, 10 days after suffering a hideous accident at a jousting tournament.

Picture yourself, all plated up, mounting a heavy horse, taking a heavy spear in hand and galloping in a more or less straight line towards your opponent, with the intent of either breaking your spear on his shield or person, or knocking your opponent off his horse. Your opponent, of course, is trying to do this to you. What could possibly go wrong?

Jousting was the king of sports (or hastilude) back in High Medieval and Renaissance times. It derived immediately, of course, from warfare and duelling, in a way that modern hockey, rugby or football did not, although the chances of sustaining a concussion in all these games are probably not much smaller than jousting.

Jousting, of course, was the opportunity for men of honour and chivalry to display these qualities, whatever they may mean. Henri himself was an avid jouster, as some youthful kings often were, and of course he was going to take part in the jousts himself. When kings tilted against their courtiers, they tended to win, for reasons obvious to everyone but the kings themselves perhaps, who saw themselves as the pinnacles of honour, valour and martial prowess.

But the hastilude wasn’t just for nobles. Much like today’s rodeo riders, professional jousters — “knights,” as we think of them — drifted around Europe from tournament to tournament, with a small team of squires, their armour and equipment loaded on horses, in search of prize money. There are stories in the chronicles of some of these lesser fighters, otherwise unknown to history, bodies like hardened wood and wits completely addled, likely by a lifetime of concussions. Sound familiar?

In any case, on June 30, 1559, Henri II held a gala tournament in Paris, to celebrate the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to the king of Spain, Philip II, Henri’s longtime enemy with whom he had just made peace. Among other things, the King of France was the husband of Catherine Medici and the father-in-law of Mary, Queen of Scots. On June 30, he took to the tilting ground, winning several bouts. In the stands were his wife, his mistress, his son and daughter-in-law, members of the court. Beyond the immediate viewing stands, commoners were crowded in windows and on roofs to watch the action.

In the late afternoon, Henri took on one more challenger (and remember, kings always win), a member of his guard, Gabriel Montgomery (a Scottish knight). Montgomery broke his lance on Henri’s person, and a large, splintery shard penetrated Henri’s helmet visor, eye and brain. In the name of chivalry, innit?

They carried the king to his chamber, where it took him, as mentioned, 10 days to die.

Certain legends accompany this event. There’s the story that the famed Nostradamus, Catherine’s personal astrologer, had predicted it, and that the horse Henri was riding was named Malhereux (unhappy) — a most inauspicious name for a king’s destrier. Royal doctors assembled in the dying king’s chamber, with the severed heads of criminals, into the eyes of which they inserted jagged sticks of wood, to practice the best way of removing the splinter from the king’s own eye (results were inconclusive).

Legends aside, what is for certain is that Henri’s death threw France into turmoil, with international and historic repercussions. A vicious struggle for the throne ensued between rival factions (Catherine Medici managed to ride the middle as de facto queen of France for years), which helped unleash a series of ruinous wars of religion, which crippled France for the next four decades, and affected relations between Protestants and Catholics and French and English for the next couple of centuries. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Mary, Queen of Scots, in England, and all that.

July 10 is a good day to remember that physical contests involving honour, winners, losers and full body contact always carry an inherent risk. We can nominate Henri of Valois as patron saint of all those whose lives have been altered by sporting injury. It’s the nature of the hastilude.

Barry Coulter is Editor of the Cranbrook Daily Townsman