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Jousting at Knebworth House

Going round stately homes on a fine holiday weekend you can come across Jousting – re-enactment of knights in colourful armour tackling each other on horseback. This has been a popular summer theatrical entertainment from 1970s.

Jousting at Knebworth House
Jousting at Knebworth House

During Middle Ages jousting had a practical purpose – preparing knights (and their horses) for warfare. This was also the opportunity for the noblemen to demonstrate their skills and courage.

The term comes from Old French joster, which in turn has a Latin origin iuxtare meaning ‘to approach or to meet’. Two knights gallop towards each other, aiming to strike the opponent’s shield with a long blunt lance, knocking their weapons off or unsettling them from a horse. The English nobility spoke Old French since William the Conqueror, but by the time of Henry VIII we have an English word for it – tilt, which originally meant a barrier to separate the knights charging towards each other, and the tilt-yard is where this competition took place.

The tilt-yard at Knebworth House
The tilt-yard at Knebworth House

The knights wore heraldic signs over their armour, and so did the horses, on capes called caparisons.

Jousting at Knebworth House
He was a French knight, Marquis du Lyon

As the sport developed, in later Middle Ages, it became more chivalric, and more regulated. There was a series of competitions, some of them involving agility and horsemanship skills, like charging towards a quintain – a wooden figure with two ‘arms’, one to be hit with a lance, and the other one holding a spiky club, which, as the quintain swings round, would hit the knight on the back if he was not quick enough to avoid it.

The Black Knight aiming at the quintain
The Black Knight aiming at the quintain

Another skill was to pick up rings with the lance, and to pin an object from the floor.

Trying to pick up a sponge from the ground with a spear at full gallop
Trying to pick up a sponge from the ground with a spear at full gallop (they mostly failed)

It was a popular sport with English nobility right up until 17th century, gaining more the status of a pageant, rather than training for battle.

And this is what we have today – a staged show, with knights in bright regalia, covering armour and horses, performing equestrian tricks and engaging in mock battles. The Knebworth House event had four knights from two opposing camps battling each other for the ‘Excalibur’ – pulled from a stone, obviously, by a little boy from the audience.

Jousting at Knebworth House

Jousting at Knebworth House

We were sitting by the side of the Black Knight – the ‘baddie’ of the show.

The Black Knight
The Black Knight

Lilia was very taken with him, and so was I, for his superb control of his horse, effortlessly doing sideways walks, prancing and charging from the spot, without obvious effort from the rider.

The Black Knight and his beautiful horse
The Black Knight and his beautiful horse

The Black Knight

He lost, however, being the ‘bad guy’… Lilia insisted on watching the second show of the day, hoping for a different outcome, – no such luck, the second performance was exactly the same as the first one.

The Black Knight lost!
The Black Knight lost!

The entertainment was excellent – watch out for jousting events throughout the country in summer. Lilia certainly wants to see it again (hoping for the Black Knight to win….)

  

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Of Daffodils and Leeks – St.David’s Day, 1st March

Of Daffodils and Leeks – St.David’s Day, 1st March

This 1st March my front garden boasts 5 daffodils. Along with camellias and crocuses they are the first splashes of colour, after predominantly green British winter.

Daffodils are traditionally regarded to be the national symbol for Wales, along with leeks, dragons and St.David, whose day is also celebrated on 1st March.

St.David and leeks came together for Wales, according to legend, in 6th century, when the Welsh saint lived and performed miracles. This was the Dark Ages, when Anglo-Saxon ruled England. The term Dark Ages came about because Anglo-Saxons did not go for writing things down, and the majority of surviving written sources come from the latter part of Anglo-Saxon time, 9th-11th centuries. We know very little of what happened here after Romans left in 5th century, and for a long time the pagan Anglo-Saxons were regarded as uneducated savage lot, bent on wars and invasions. Through archaeological finds like Sutton Hoo we now know that they Ango-Saxon culture and trade were as sophisticated as in other time in history.

Back to St.David and Wales. David started a priest in a monastery in Henfynyw in Wales, where he was educated, later becoming a missionary and a bishop, then archbishop of Wales in 550. Starting from his early time in church he was performing miracles, like restoring the sight of St.Paulinus. He was a vegetarian and only drank water – his survival was a miracle in itself, as at this time in history water was the most dangerous drink of all, so full of bacteria that it was sure to kill you, unless coming straight from a clean spring. Legend has it that water springs appeared where St.David did anything of note (so he was OK with it, lucky chap!)

David founded 12 monasteries, showed examples of faith, like standing up to his neck in a cold lake while reciting scripture, revived people from the dead and travelled as far as Jerusalem on pilgrimage. He died, according to legend, at the age of 100, on 1st March, and was buried in St.David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, in West Wales. In 12th century Catholic Church canonised David and declared him Patron Saint of Wales.

So, what about leeks – and daffodils? There is a story that during a battle between the Welsh Army (the Brits living in Wales at the time (6th century) were predominantly Christian, while invading Anglo-Saxons were pagans) and Anglo-Saxons, David (or it could be his spirit) advised the Welsh to wear leeks in their hats to distinguish themselves from the enemy. Leeks love growing in the Welsh climate and were plentiful in local monasteries, so the obvious plant of choice for a Christian!

William Shakespeare talks in Henry V about Welsh guards wearing leeks on St.David’s Day in memory of their saint.

The Welsh word for ‘leek’ is Cenhinen, and ‘daffodil’ is Cenhinen Pedr, literally meaning ‘Peter’s Leek’, so this is the popular explanation why daffodils came to be regarded as the national symbol of Wales,- they also must be more plentiful on the ground than leeks at this time of the year, and definitely look more jolly!

 

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How to be a good tour guide – telling stories is the key!

When I was doing my Blue Badge guide cause, one of the teachers told us that if a tour is interesting for children, it is more than suitable for adults – because it is interesting. One may quote dates and numbers, but it is the stories that bring history to life, and make it fun to go on a tour.

This is what I want to do – in my work, and now in this blog.

One of the best examples of exciting history story-telling that I ever came across is the British History Podcast. I came across is when researching Anglo-Saxons for the British Museum tour, and have been absolutely captivated by Jamie the presenter’s style.

British History Podcast

The website says, ‘The BHP is a chronological retelling of the history of Britain with a particular focus upon the lives of the people.’ 

Actually, it is much more than that. It is just the right mixture of meticulously researched historical content and a captivating manner of presenting it. To me, it goes like a detective story, with a cliff-hanger at the end of the episode!

The best example is the first Sutton Hoo podcast – a must for everyone doing Anglo-Saxons as part of  primary school history curriculum:

104 – Sutton Hoo: The Finding of Raedwald… and Rabbits

Lilia loved that one, and the first part of the following episode, which gives a vivid imagery of what it was like to be present at a cremation ceremony of a real life Anglo-Saxon, with sounds and smells of burning a body on a huge funeral pyre!

Well, some episodes are more exciting than others, but for me, every little detail of historic importance is worth knowing, and I am savouring every one of them, being only half way through Anglo-Saxons, and they are over 230 episodes, and only up to King Alfred!

It felt a bit weird at the start to listen to British History in an American accent, quite used to that after the first few episodes.

I became a member, not just because I can get special members only episodes and transcripts, but also I love supporting this great project. I met Jamie in person during last months’ BHP in London, and although I was there only briefly, it was a great pleasure to have a chat with the BHP team and other followers, hopefully, they will have more of those going in the future.

In the meantime, I will do my best to tell stories from history, from everywhere we go on our adventures.

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Introduction

I love all things British – British history, British culture, British art, British way of life. Having lived here for over 25 years, I never stop marvelling at how great everything is about this country! This blog with reflect my adventures in everything around me that I love – from the Royal Family to local history, that I want to share with my friends – old and new.