It has recently come to light that many of those men in shining armour were nothing short of sadistic and the crowds the equivalent of modern-day football hooligans. As Max Diamond of the British Jousting Centre explains: 'I have come to the conclusion that many so-called 'knightly' characters of the olden days were really bullies, bandits and mercenaries.'
Jousting was first introduced into this country by Richard the Lion Heart as a way of keeping his resting soldiers fired-up between wars. Typically, about 500 knights would be divided into two teams and, on the signal from the Earl Marshal and Knight Marshal, they would charge at each other, hacking away hammer and tongs. The problem was that some of the finest soldiers in the land would be either killed or seriously wounded in the process.
The introduction of the tilt - the dividing barrier between the two confronting riders - in the early 14th century went some way to bringing the medieval punch-up under control and converting it into a sport. 'Unfortunately,' Diamond says, 'the arena subsequently became a stage in which to show off rather than a place in which to exhibit warlike prowess, and this meant jousting fell into decline.'
While today's 'knights' admit to being well-protected, they are keen to point out that the sport is no leisurely ride in the park. Their task is to strike the opponent's shield, for which four points are awarded, or else, to go for the kill and knock the other horseman off. 'My jousting tournaments are not 100 per cent authentic,' Diamond admits. 'A genuine joust, as performed in medieval days, would be a duel but duelling has been prohibited in this country for many years. My main reason for intermixing authenticity with Hollywood and a bit of pantomime is that I wish to entertain those who pay to come and see us.'
It's not simple to put on such a show. As Diamond explains, 'First of all you have to control your horse. That's sometimes difficult as many of our mounts are quite spirited. There is only a very small slit in the helms to see through, a heavy shield is strapped to your left arm, and a 12 ft lance couched in the right. All this at nearly 40 mph - if you get it wrong you're in trouble.' It is hardly surprising to discover that most jousters have a long history of broken bones. Despite this, Diamond, 71, has only recently hung up his spurs.
Even today beginners are expected to serve their apprenticeship before being allowed to play Sir Lancelot. They must serve a knight until they have mastered the requisite skills. 'Most people who want to become knights are already very good riders, since the basis of the whole thing is the mutual understanding between horse and rider,' Diamond says. 'Personally I put glue on my bum and hope for the best.'
There are about 50 professional jousters in the country. However they do not seem to command the same respect as their celebrated predecessors. Joe Raboni, a practising knight, explains: 'I was stopped by police for a routine check after a show and was asked what I did for a living. When I told the officer he replied, 'Don't try and be clever with me sir'. What can you do? People either don't believe you or think you're mad.'
Further information from: Joe Raboni of the Knights of Arkley, Glyn Sylen, Five Roads, Llanelli, Dyfed, SA15 5BJ (0269 861001); Max Diamond, British Jousting Centre, Tapeley Park, Instow, Nr Bideford, North Devon, EX39 (0271 861200); Gerard Naprous of the Devil's Horsemen, The Andalusian Stud, Budgett's Farm, Butterton, near Leek, Staffs ST13 75Y (0538 304284)
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