The Art of War
The Knights of Avalon recall the valor of a violent era.
Thursday, September 22, 2005
The bright September sun gleams off the knights’ armor. Their massive war horses buck their heads nervously and stamp the ground at either end of the jousting field. The crowd quiets in anticipation. Across the field, a young Queen Elizabeth sits surrounded by attendants. Even the manic squires become motionless as a sense of incipient collision fills the small arena.
The knights sit stock still on the backs of their horses. Each holds a hefty 10-foot lance leveled at an opponent across the field. Inside their burdensome armor it is dark and hot. It is hard to breathe and claustrophobic. Their views are restricted by a slit in their helmets a quarter-inch thick and roughly three inches from side to side. Because of the bulky armor-scoop protecting their necks, they can only sense the giant horse between their legs. They can’t lean far enough forward to see the top of its head or pick up the reins should they drop them. There is only a distant opponent at the far end of a long run.
When the field marshal wheels his great mount around and rides into his peripheral vision, the knight feels the horse tense beneath him in anticipation. Then with a signal from the marshal and a roar from the crowd, the horses launch at each other, breaking from a standstill into a full stride within seconds.
The landscape outside the knight’s helm bounces wildly. Clenching his teeth, the knight concentrates on the shaky blur of his opponent, who bears down on him at lightning speed. Wind whistles through the vents in his helmet and his eyes begin to water. As they converge with a thunder of hooves and a blur of color, he grips his lance tightly and braces for the impact. It comes with a loud splintering of wood and a massive shock to his chest. The world flips upside down and for a moment all he sees is blue sky through the thin slit in his helm before hitting the earth with a clatter and a thud. As the sound of hooves and the roar from the crowd recede, he lies still, unable to get up. His chest throbs and the sweat stings as it pours into his eyes. Suddenly his squire’s concerned face appears above him through the slit in his helm. “Dude, are you OK?”
:: :: :: ::
Welcome to the world of full-contact jousting. Part history lesson, part rodeo, part demolition derby. All real, all dangerous, and all very entertaining.
“The knights are big guys,” Sir Bil Woodford points out. “Each knight weighs in at about 200 pounds. The armor weighs anywhere from 100-150 pounds. The lance weighs 20-25 pounds and each horse is running about 30 miles per hour at impact. That comes out to roughly 8,000 pounds per square inch upon impact. Concentrated down to a two-and-a-half inch strike, that’s a huge hit to take in the chest.”
Sir Bil Woodford is one of the founding members of The Knights of Avalon, a full-contact jousting troupe that does three shows a day at the Northern California Renaissance Faire, which runs every weekend through Oct. 16 at Casa de Fruta outside of Hollister. There is a lot of show business in their performance, but when the Knights of Avalon strap on the armor and face each other on the jousting field, it’s all real.
“Injuries occur,” Sir Woodford tells me. “One of our guys went down last year in Gilroy and they wanted to airlift him out because they thought he broke his hip.
“The horses will throw you, they’ll make erratic turns out of the jousting lane, they’ll jump into another horse. There can always be an accident. Look at Christopher Reeve.”
All five of the riders who perform as part of the Knights of Avalon compete on an international jousting circuit. Woodford himself is a well-respected jouster, having taken a first, two seconds and a third in world competition. But his first love is the Renaissance Faire itself.
“I was playing the sheriff and the lord high constable in the streets when, about 10 years ago, this guy came up and asked me if I wanted to learn how to be a knight,” Woodford says. “I’d done rodeo as a young man— some head and heel roping—so I had a little horse experience.”
Over the next few years, Woodford and the other knights began to build the full-contact jousting troupe which would eventually become the Knights of Avalon. Yet as it grew, the whole operation became almost prohibitively expensive.
“The horses, the costumes, the travel, it was a lot,” Woodford says. “These draft horses can be very expensive. Each horse is about $200 every six to eight weeks just to shoe. So we got creative.”
Seven years ago, Woodford and Steve Weems made the Knights of Avalon a nonprofit organization and developed a horse rescue program.
“We kept finding horses that were being abused or abandoned or neglected. Some of them had medical problems. We decided we’d use the show to help the horses,” Woodford says.
Woodford’s own horse, Steel, came out of the Modesto area.
“He’d been pulling wagons and he got ringbone in his back feet really badly,” Woodford explains. “He was fairly well crippled and hopped around and they were talking about putting him down. A friend picked him up but couldn’t use him so he gave him to us. We put some corrective shoes on him and gave him injections in his feet to get the ringbone under control. He still has his sore days, but hell, he’s 15 years old.”
Woodford says that, while most of the horses love performing, jousting is an unnatural behavior for a pack animal and it takes a great deal of training.
“It kind of goes against their nature to sprint headlong at each other, especially with a big stick pointed at them,” Woodford laughs. “But they learn, and some are better than others. The longer they do it the better they are and some definitely enjoy it more than others. Steel, for instance, is quite the showman. Right before he’s going to do the show, his whole personality changes. He’s a complete ham.”
Yet for Woodford and the rest of the Knights of Avalon crew, jousting is much more than just a show or a sport. Like other members of the Renaissance Faire, their dedication to historical detail is painstaking.
“With the exception of some extra pads in our armor and a few anachronistic jokes, we’re very close to being completely historically accurate,” Woodford says. “Most of the armor is all custom-made in the way it was done. The costumes are handmade and authentic. The show itself, the jousting, is very close to what was done. We’re one of the few troupes in the world that does true full-contact jousting.”
As for the knights themselves, Woodford says they’re a special breed. “These guys don 150 pounds of armor and risk life and limb for the sheer thrill of it. They’ve been hit in the head a lot, but they’re great horsemen and great showmen and really great athletes.”
“I do it for the kids,” he says with a smile. “The magic in the eyes of the kids. I love it.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT FULL-CONTACT JOUSTING OR TO DONATE TO THE KNIGHTS OF AVALON HORSE RESCUE PROGRAM, VISIT WWW.KNIGHTSOFAVALON.ORG.