King Henry II’s death was the most important sports injury ever


On June 30th, 1559, King Henry II of France entered the lists at a three-day tournament celebrating the marriages of his sister and daughter*. Henry’s presence in the lists was unremarkable. He was a familiar presence at tournaments, sporting the colors of his mistress over his heavy jousting armor, and he was a formidable, skilled opponent as well. Late in the day, however, he was nearly knocked off his horse by Gabriel Montgomery, the captain of his personal bodyguard.

*To different people, not each other. Just in case that wasn’t clear.

That might have been the end of the action, but the king was enjoying himself, and asked for another bout. Montgomery refused. But Henry II insisted, despite the protests of his wife, Catherine de’ Medici, and the pair took another tilt.

This time things went badly wrong. Montgomery’s lance pierced the king’s helmet. Jousting lances were built to shatter on impact, as a protection against impalement, and that’s exactly what happened here. Unfortunately for King Henry, it did so after entering his helmet, dissolving into a mist of splinters that ripped into his face and neck. The longest drove directly through the king’s right eye and penetrated into his brain.

Before King Henry lost consciousness the distraught Montgomery offered his own head as punishment but was turned down. Doctors rushed to extract the splinters, hoping that they might effect a recovery, but sepsis quickly set in and nothing more could be done. Ten days later, King Henry II died in what I can only assume was agony. The Dauphin, 15-year-old Francis, assumed the throne.

The tournament did not exactly have an unblemished history. When they were first introduced, they were little better than the battles they were intended to mock. Knights could capture their opponents and hold them to ransom*. Deaths and injuries were common, exasperating the Church to the point that, as Maurice Keen relates in Chivalry, the Archbishop of Magdeburg excommunicated everyone who participated.

*These ransoms were often lucrative. Some individuals, most notably William Marshall, actually earned their living this way. By any reasonable standard, they were therefore professional athletes.

The great 12th-century poet Chrétien de Troyes describes the confusing melee of his era (from Keen):

On either side the ranks tremble and a roar rises from the fight. The shock of lances is very great. Lances break and shields are riddled, the hauberks receive bumps and are torn asunder, saddles go empty and horsemen tumble, while the horses sweat and foam. Swords are quickly drawn on those who fall noisily, and some run to receive the promise of a ransom, others to stave off this disgrace.

But it’s important to remember that by the time of Henry’s death, the tournament had been around for hundreds of years, and had evolved into something completely unrecognizable. The ‘little battles’ of the 12th and 13th centuries had transformed into ritual combat, with the ritual of the joust first separating from and then supplanting the martial mess of the general melee.

Two mounted knights In plate armor jousting

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Jousts were far from safe, but they were far less lethal than tournaments at large. Thanks to pressure from the Church as well as the chivalric tendency towards showy affairs of honor, jousts became increasingly ritualized and elaborate. Barriers were placed between contestants, allowing greater control of both horse and lance. As war moved away from the knight and his tools, jousts were free to develop as an end in and of themselves; Henry II’s specialized armor, which would have been useless on the battlefield, was designed for almost total protection at the tilt. Almost.

By the 16th century, jousting was an anachronism. Knightly combat was a thing of the past, chivalry no longer much pretended at. The sport staggered on through sheer inertia, but it had no grounding in anything but noble nostalgia, and was ripe for a crisis. The death of a king during a tournament was such a crisis; 1559 marks, in a very real sense, the end of the sport.

The death of a whole sport was one thing. But Henry II’s fate didn’t just impact the future of jousting. As it turned out, he was sitting on a powder keg, and without a powerful king on the throne, it ignited.

French factionalism was nothing new. Mutual antagonism between the reigning house of Valois and the the Dukes of Burgundy had left the country perilously close to defeat in the Hundred Years’ war a century prior to Henry II’s death. This time there were two major families vying for dynastic power: the Houses of Condé and Guise. But unlike previous spats, history had thrown a new and entirely unexpected wrench into the equation.

In 1517, centuries of nearly-undisputed* confessional unity in Western Europe came to a juddering halt when an achingly horny Augustinian monk suffered a crisis of faith. Martin Luther’s resolved that crisis through a moment of inspiration. Humanity is not absolved of sin via good works. Salvation is attainable through faith, and faith alone. The message spread like wildfire; the Protestant Reformation had begun.

*One rare exception was the Cathars, a sect which flourished in the French Pyrenees before being annihilated in the Albigensian Crusade. I mention them mostly because I used to live near their strongholds, which are fiendishly cool.

The Reformation gave the rivalries between the great houses a confessional dimension which had never before existed. France was on the front lines, a meeting of the Catholic south, Lutheran Germany, and the Calvinists ensconced in Switzerland. Henry II had responded to the rise of the French Protestant ‘Huguenots’ with brutal repressions — he was a strong king, not a good one — which did nothing to halt the conversions, including many from the nobility.

The situation deteriorated quickly. The Guises dominated at court to a degree which provoked enormous jealousy, leading to a 1560 conspiracy to kidnap King Francis II and eliminate their influence. The conspiracy was detected, and the Guises decided that the Prince of Condé, a Huguenot, was to blame. He was arrested and scheduled for execution, but was released upon the young king’s death that December.

At this point, the French throne passed to Henry II’s second son, Charles IX. He was ten years old. De’ Medici took over as regent, and attempted to smooth over relations between the warring houses while also ensuring that neither party could attain enough power to overwhelm her or her son. She failed, and the July Edict of 1561, which promised a form of religious tolerance, was ignored. The country fell apart on doctrinal lines, descending rapidly into a civil war.

The St. Bartholomew’s day massacre

Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images

The conflict included events that still invoke horror today: the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, for instance, was a country-wide riot in 1572 which led to deaths of as many as 30,000 Huguenots, radicalizing the remainder and crystalizing mistrust of Catholics across Europe (for good reason — Phillip II of Spain, soon to launch the Armada against Elizabethan England, found the massacre so amusing that he laughed for what is said to be the only time in his entire life).

This isn’t the time to recapitulate decades of French civil war, which would take forever and is also a region of history with which I’m not intimately familiar. But to take a panoramic view, the Wars of Religion lasted 32 years, three kings and claimed the lives of something like three million people.

Much like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, Henry II’s accident can’t be considered strictly causal to the conflict that followed. The Reformation had set the stage for religious warfare across the whole continent (the biggest, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), made French efforts look paltry by comparison), and even the slightest pretext was going to be enough to set it off. Had Henry survived, it seems vanishingly unlikely that France would have escaped the conflagration which the friends and enemies of Reform had engineered together.

But the lack of royal power was a key factor in prolonging and amplifying the wars. Without that tournament — ironically, the weddings it celebrated marked the end of war between France and Hapsburg Austria — the shape and duration of the French Wars of Religion might have changed dramatically. It’s not a stretch, then, to call his death the most consequential sports injury in history.

The comte de Montgomery, meanwhile, ended up joining the Huguenots, survived the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre and fought the Catholics at Rouen and La Rochelle before his capture in Normandy. The Queen regent had never forgiven him for her husband’s death, and she decided to take him up on the offer he’d made in 1559. I imagine that, as the axe descended, Montgomery felt some regrets over his poor aim.



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