Last month, the UK played host to the Olympic Games, one of the biggest sporting events in the world! During this time Sphere published the paperback edition of Elizabeth Chadwick's brand new novel, Lady of the English. Renowned for her vivid characterisation, richly imagined locations and impeccable research we caught up with Elizabeth Chadwick to find out what sporting feats some of her characters might have gotten up to. You can read an extract from her fascinating article below.
With all the Olympic sporting activity that has been going on in the UK over the summer, I thought it might be interesting to look at some medieval sports that would have been known to the people I write about in the twelfth century, and specifically one of my favourite men – William Marshal.
I expect that if William Marshal were alive today, he'd be a dead cert for a gold medal in the modern pentathlon. We know he was a superlative horseman and his massive success on the tourney circuit speaks of great fitness, strength, and hand-eye coordination, not to mention motivation and competitive drive.
Rather like in the modern pentathlon where athletes are given a horse they have never met before and are expected to ride it round a show-jumping course, William, as a young knight, was given a horse that no one else wanted because it was too wild to handle. William was expected to ride the stallion at a tournament soon after receiving it.
William was also famous for his success at a game known as ‘Throwing the stone’. We don't know entirely what this entailed, but it seems to have involved throwing stones of different weights as far as one could as a display of strength, and may have been slightly similar to today’s shotput. Stone throwing is still a competition event in Switzerland, and in the Middle Ages there is a record of stone-throwing contests in Zürich, where the stones weighed in at 15, 30 and 50lbs.
Other sports that the Middle Ages would have known in some form or other include wrestling, archery, fencing (swordplay in the earlier Middle Ages) and weight lifting. Team sports such as football existed too, but were very much in their infancy and without rules that we would recognise today: for example, there was no limit to the number of players in a team and at one stage in the Middle Ages, football, together with hockey, was banned in 1363 by Edward III. (Football had already been banned from being played in London by its mayor in 1314. Can you imagine Boris Johnson doing that today!) However with the progression of centuries, it gained ground – and rules – and became an established popular sport, currently part of the Olympic canon.
A sport that William Marshal would have known about and that might be fun to introduce into the Olympics is water jousting. The sport involves placing a shield on a post in a fast-flowing current. Then a team rows towards it hell for leather with one member standing in the prow with a lance. He must try and strike the shield dead centre without falling in the water or capsizing himself and his companions. It sounds like a good spectator sport, but I’m not sure I’d want to actually take part!
William Marshal and the Marshal family are the thrilling subject of five Elizabeth Chadwick novels (A Place Beyond Courage, The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion, The Time of Singing and To Defy a King). The first three Marshal books: A Place Beyond Courage, The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion are available now in a stunning new livery.
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