Today (April 23) in London History – Jousting on London Bridge

The most extraordinary sporting event in London’s history took place on April 23, 1390. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


This one’s about a sporting event.

A sporting event that took place 632 years ago today, April 23, 1390. 

But while the contestants are warming up let’s have a mental sporting contest.

The Telegraph newspaper was first published on June 29, 1855.

In the 167 years it’s been in existence the Telegraph has pumped out 10,929,912 pages. That’s a lot of newsprint, especially when you consider that each of those pages was printed thousands – or even over a million times.

Now suppose you’re steadfastly leafing through each edition of, say, 30 pages. Let’s say you’re speed reading – looking for a date. 1390, for example. And because you’re speed reading you only give a maximum of 20 seconds to each page. That comes to about 220,000,000 seconds. 220,000,000 seconds adds up to about seven years. Or ten years if you factor in some sleep time. It’s not allowing, I hasten to add, for anything else. Eating or drinking or, well, you know, or showering or changing your clothes or glancing out the window or answering a few emails or going for a walk or switching the lights on or off or brushing your teeth or even shimmering across the room to return the, say, November 1866 Telegraph stick to its place in the stacks and pick up and take back to your desk the December 1866 Telegraph stick. 

Ten years. There are probably better uses of your time. They say it takes ten years to become an expert. Martha Graham used to say it takes ten years to become a dancer. If you just walked and slept you could probably walk round the world 8 or 9 times in 10 years. Or if you wanted to stick closer to home you could would around London probably 5,000 times.

Anyway, with a little help from my laptop’s mastery of the binary I got through those 11,000,000 pages of the Telegraph earlier today. Looking for the year 1390. 

It’s astonishing how few and far between the references are to the year 1390 in 11,000,000 pages of newsprint going back 167 years.

Frankly, I had an epiphany. I realised that time is like a black hole. Once something – or somebody – goes into that black hole, that’s it. It’s lost forever.

So there’s maybe about 15 or so references to 1390 in those 11,000,000 pages. And no surprise, this – most of them are a cluster attached to the Shroud of Turin. Carbon dating seems to say the shroud was created between 1260 and 1390. Which is problematic for the faithful. 

To the rescue, though, 

other scientists who say that energy from Christ’s body at the resurrection raised its radiation level, making it appear to date from a later period. The shroud coming on the scene 13 centuries after Jesus lived – no problem. Problem solved.

Anyway, more generally, it’s understandable why that cluster is at the mouth of the black hole and doing a pretty good job of resisting the black hole’s all-powerful gravitational pull. I mean, it’s even Easter season. And if it is true that the Jewish carpenter’s son died and then came back from the dead – well, that’s the biggest story ever. Even thinking about that New Testament story and black holes – well, it’s a bit like being 18 years old again and having a shooting-the-bull session in your dorm room. The devout Christian from two doors down says there’s no question but Jesus will be around forever. Whereas Max, the scientific prodigy, says, “I hate to break it to you, Paul, but in 10,000 years, if the human race is still around, nobody will have heard of the Nazarene. Well, that’s one of those dorm room shooting the breeze sessions that 18-year-olds are prone to.

Let’s move on. We’ve got to get to our 1390 sporting event. And before that we’ve got to visit the other 1390 mentions. 

Extraordinary thought. I know I’ve already said this but I’m haunted by the image of these tiny pieces of the distant past whirling around that black hole – perhaps in trepidation – doing whatever they can to avoid being sucked in. Having oblivion close over them. 

So, some of the other 1390 way stations on the way to our sporting event. St. John of Kent was born in 1390. Pretty good guy, I’d say. He talked sense. He said, “Fight all opinions contrary to truth but let your weapons be patience, sweetness and charity.”

The smallest church in the City of London, St Ethelburga’s, was built in 1390. It survived the Great Fire and the Blitz. It didn’t survive an IRA bombing attack. 

The world’s oldest recipe book, The Form of Cury, was commissioned by Richard II in 1390. Among the dishes it describes is lasan – which was made of flat pasta and cheese sauce. Lasagna, in other words. There, how do you like them marbles, Italians? 

And as long as we’re on the subject of food, Chaucer in 1390 mentions the custom of giving Godcakes on New Year’s Day.

What else? Well, sure enough 

The Order of the Garter gets in on the act. It dates from 1349. Knights take their places in their own stalls in Westminster Abbey. Above each stall is a carved 15th-century canopy, over each of which is the knight’s helmet and crest, his sword and banner. These are removed at his death but his arms in enamel remain on the back of his stall. Some of the enamels still on the stalls date back to 1390.

And more old white guys doing the sort of things old white guys get off on, The 78th Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of Malta could trace his ancestry back to Robert II of Scotland, who reigned from 1371 to 1390. That was a 1988 story. 

Moving on – this is like a 1390 smorgasbord – Cenninno Cennnini wrote his Il Libro d’ell arte in 1390. He was Giotto’s assistant. Art historians say what he wrote in that book still forms the basis on which the techniques of modern tempera and fresco are founded.

And our next dish: it turns out the first recipe for a pork pie dates from 1390.

And for some (usually) distaff variety, The story of knitting is a longer yarn than you think. Drilling down into the history of knitting, one of the stops is 1390, and the painting of The Knitting Madonna, showing the mother of God working with four knitting needles.

And finally we come to our sporting event. This may be the most remarkable sporting event in the history of London sport. And let me ease us into this by bringing up that fundamental tenet about London: London loves spectacle, London loves the unusual and London has seen it all. At the simplest level, Londoners aren’t impressed with famous people because they’ve all seen a ton of them. In my case it ranges from every member of the royal family to Bill Clinton to Ricky Gervais to Elizabeth Taylor to Twiggy – had dinner with her – to Jimmy Stewart to the historian A.J.P. Taylor, ah, it just goes on and on. It’s all completely ho hum.

Anyway, our 1390 sporting event is a joust. And you’re thinking, “well, yes, so what, big deal.” Ahhh, well, here’s the big deal, this joust took place on London Bridge. Yes, that London Bridge. The famous London Bridge on its 19 arches with houses and two chapels and traitors’ heads on stakes over the gatehouse. 

Before we introduce the combatants, a little bit about jousting. I don’t know how long the field of combat was on London Bridge that day but I can tell you that normally the tiltyard was about 160 yards long and 30 yards wide. There was a neck-high fence running down the middle of it. The neck-high fence was called a tilt. It was there to prevent head-on collisions. The War Horses that carried the knights were similar to the hunters used by the Horse Guards today. 

They were taught to canter with the right foreleg leading to slant the rider toward his rival thundering at him on the other side of the tilt. The lances were hollow. And they were very light. They’ve got one at the armoury at the Tower of London. It weighs about 20 pounds and it’s fourteen and a half feet long. They were made as light as possible to prevent serious injury to the combatants. Though serious and sometimes death did happen. One of Henry VIII’s friends was killed when a lance shattered and a splinter shot through his visor into his eye. Ouch.

There was a point system. One point was awarded for a hit above the waist, two points for hit on the head, and three points if you unseated your opponents. Now credit where credit is due, I knew nothing about jousting. I’m indebted to Colin Brown for the finer points about the art and sport of jousting.

So who were the jousters on that April day on London Bridge in 1390?

One of them was Lord John de Welles, King Richard II’s ambassador to Scotland. The other was David Lindsay, representing the chivalry of Scotland. David Lindsay triumphed. He unseated Lord John de Welles. Lindsay became a very popular figure in London. A few years later – 1398 – he was made the first Earl of Crawford. Remarkable family. They came to possess the finest private library in the land. 17 generations later – in 1946 – the 18th Earl of Crawford had to sell the library because of “punitive taxation.” 17 generations of Earldom. The 1390s to the 20th century. And you don’t think being to the manor born gives you a head start in life. Were you born yesterday?

Anyway, how do we know about the passage of arms in 1390 on London Bridge? We know about it because of a 14th-century tapestry depicting it in the salon room of Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London. 

You’ve been listening to the daily London Walks podcast. Emanating from – home of London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

As they so kindly put it a few years ago at that American convention of walking tour guides: 

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world.” The secret? It’s pretty obvious, really. The calibre of the guiding. In the words of that film-maker American journalist, “if this were a golf tournament every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

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barristers, doctors, the former Editor of Independent Television News, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Museum of London

archaeologists, the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, distinguished academics – a Cambridge University palaeontologist, a University College London geologist, elite, award-winning professionally qualified Blue Badge guides, etc. Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And your patience has been rewarded. Here’s The London Walks Today in London recommendation: Go on the Hidden London Walk. Great walk in its own right. And it starts with – well, after the Monument, where it starts – it goes to the inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold (that was how T.S. Eliot put it) – the church of St. Magnus the Martyr in other words. And why does it go there – apart from the inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold – it goes there because St. Magnus the Martyr has a magnificent model of old London Bridge. And you’ll see it differently than everybody else. You’ll see the future Earl of Crawford and Lord John de Welles thundering at one another down the middle of the roadway. Maybe you’ll see the moment of contact, see Lord John de Welles unseated.

Good night from London. 

See ya tomorrow. 

the four mansion house tapestries which form such a prominent feature of the decorations of the saloon were cleaned in 1913.

They are: Robert Fitzwalter, the City’s Castellan,  receiving the City’s banner from the Lord Mayor on the steps of St. Paul’s in the time of Henry III. Early 13th century in other words.

Queen Elizabeth opening the first Royal Academy in 1571. That was when she presented the City with the pearl sword. The sword that’s used at the boundary when the Queen visits “the Square Mile.”

Victoria visiting the Mansion House in 1887.

Another illustrates a solemn joust on London Bridge between the Earl of Crawford and Lord John de Welles, King Richard II’s ambassador to Scotland. In 1390.

In 1946 “penal taxation” forced the 18th Earl of Crawford – the premier Scottish Earl –to sell off the 50,000 volumes in his library. The finest private library in the land. The Earl of Crawford’s ancestor was David Lindsay, who, representing the chivalry of Scotland, who fought before King Richard II and his Queen a “passage of arms” with Lord Welles on London Bridge. David Lindsay unseated his opponent. He remained in London where he became a popular figure and was created first Earl in 1398. 

The story of knitting is a longer yarn than you think. Drilling down into the history of knitting , one of the stops is 1390, and the painting of The Knitting Madonna, showing the mother of God working with four knitting needles. 

Cleaning again in 1936. 10,000 pieces of crystal glass in the 10 chandeliers. The biggest of which has over 3,000 pieces of glass. 

St John of Kent, 1390 – 1473

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