The Deeds of Jacques de Lalaing
Feats of Arms of a 15th Century Knight

By S. Matthew Galas

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Jacques de Lalaing, a Walloon knight of the 15th century, was one of the best known tournament fighters of his time. In time, Jacques became so famous that contemporary authors wrote two separate accounts of his life. This article is primarily based on Georges Chastellain’s work, Le Livre Des Faits De Jacques Lalaing (The Book of the Deeds of Jacques de Lalaing). A member of a prominent family in the county of Hainault, today split between southern Belgium and northern France, Jacques’ ancestral home was in Douai, just inside the French border.

Jacques was an extremely skilled fighter who quite early came to the attention of the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. By the age of 20, he had distinguished himself at a number of tournaments. In the same year (on 22 November 1443), he accompanied the forces of the Duke of Burgundy as they made a surprise assault on the city of Luxembourg. Assembling 3 hours before daylight, they used scaling ladders to climb the city walls. Once inside, they headed toward the town square. At this point, says the chronicle, the burgers of Luxembourg issued from their houses, clad in armor and armed with staff weapons. Jacques was in the thick of the fighting, where he "...accomplished many magnificent feats of arms with both the lance and the sword. To see him, striking right and left, those who saw him could not but marvel." Assuming so visible a role in such a daring military feat put Jacques even more into the limelight.

Two years later, (1445) Jacques de Lalaing took part in a tournament at Nancy (in Lorraine) before the King of France, the King of Aragon and Sicily, and the assembled nobility of France. From his first encounter, Jacques was victorious. "For," as the chronicle says, "above all else, he knew the business of arms." Striking his first opponent squarely in the middle of the shield with his lance, Jacques "carried both man and horse so rudely to the ground that both the destrier and the man who rode him were stunned." His opponent was unable to continue the combat. He defeated his second opponent by striking him in the eye-slits of his helmet with his lance, ripping it off of his head. The second knight was too stunned to continue. The crowd was apparently quite impressed with this.

Jacques' third encounter was with a knight of Auvergne. He was discouraged by his patrons, the counts of Maine and St. Pol, since this man was such a renowned jouster, but Jacques insisted on fighting. The first two courses with the lance were indecisive. On the third course, the knight of Auvergne struck Jacques in the middle of his shield and splintered his lance. Jacques, on the other hand, striking "with all his force and science," hit his opponent in the eyeslits. This blow struck so hard that it struck sparks from the helmet, bending the opponent backwards in the saddle until his back rested on the croup of his horse. His opponent, completely stunned, fell from his horse. The knight of Auvergne was carried unconscious to his lodgings; it was a full hour before he regained his memory, and he bled profusely from the mouth, nose, and ears.

In his last encounter of the day, Jacques struck his opponent in the middle of his shield, "bending him back onto the croup of his horse." However, this failed to unhorse him. On the second course, Jacques again carried his opponent's helm off his head. His lance struck with such force that the helm was carried 4 "toise." (A "toise" was a measure of length that seems to have been about 6 feet; thus, the helm was thrown about 24 feet by the force of the blow.)

That evening, Jacques was given celebrity treatment at the king's lodgings. He was apparently given a great many gifts, because the chronicle says that the next morning, he heard a mass, armed himself, and mounted his horse, which was covered in fine cloth and trappings "which he didn't have the day before." Clearly, being a successful tournament fighter was a lucrative business.

The chronicle doesn't detail the next day's jousts in the same detail, but merely says that Jacques jousted with another 8 opponents, defeating them all. Despite his complete success at the tournament, Jacques won praise for his modest, well-mannered demeanor. He was 22 at the time.

In the same year, Jacques de Lalaing began his famous Feats of Arms. These were pre-arranged, "friendly" duels in which the combatants fought in full armor with sharpened weapons of war. The combatants agreed in advance on the terms of the combat. Sometimes, a pre-arranged number of blows could be struck by each fighter. Typically, this involved three courses with the lance on horseback; three courses with the sword on horseback; and courses on foot with the spear or polaxe, sword, and dagger. At other times, the parties agreed to fight until one of the combatants was carried to the ground. These feats of arms, like the jousts described above, were far from bloodless. In one encounter with an English squire Jacques de Lalaing was injured by a polaxe spike which pierced his wrist. Despite his injury, Jacques won that combat.


Jacques de Lalaing took part in his first feat of arms in 1445, the same year he distinguished himself at the tournament in Nancy. Jean de Boniface, an Italian knight from the court of King Alfonso of Aragon and Sicily, had travelled through Lombardy, Savoy, Burgundy, and Flanders, seeking opportunities to distinguish himself in combat. When he arrived in Antwerp, he let it be known that he was willing to take on all comers. Jacques accepted his challenge. vadipolaxes2.JPG (23497 bytes)

The rules of the combat were laid out in a document called the "chapters of arms." The conditions laid down by Sir Jean de Boniface were as follows: The combat was to begin on horseback, continuing until one of the combatants broke 6 lances on the other. The lances were to be of equal length. The horses were to be separated by a barrier, no more than 5 feet in height. After this, the combat was to continue on foot in full armor. The foot combat was to begin with each side hurling spears or "throwing-swords."* Thereafter, the combat was to continue with polaxes, swords, and daggers. The combat would end when one of the combatants touched the ground with his hand, knee, or body, or when one of them surrendered. Neither party was to affix any spikes or other "evil device" to his armor, nor was either party to carry any magical charms designed to influence the outcome.

*(Espees de jet. The 1410 Flos Duellatorum, of Fiore de' Liberi, contains an illustration of a swordsman hurling his Spadone (great sword) like a javelin. Sir Jean, coming from Italy, was apparently familiar with this technique). The combat took place in Ghent on 15 December 1445. On the first day, the two knights ran numerous courses with the lance, continuing until dark. Neither broke the requisite number of lances on the other. Jacques was disappointed, because Sir Jean broke 3 lances to his 2. (Remember that the jousters were most likely using lances with a coronel (crown-like) tip; a broken lance would thus represent a "kill" had the weapons been pointed.) Jacques and Sir Jean agreed to continue the combat on foot the next day.

Before the combat began on the next day, the Duke of Burgundy (who was acting as the referee) knighted Jacques de Lalaing before the assembled nobility. Sir Jacques changed his head-gear before the foot combat. Instead of wearing a full helmet, he wore a half-visored helmet, which covered his chin and mouth, but left his nose and the upper part of his face uncovered. Later in the chronicle, the author states that Jacques habitually wore open-face helmets so that he could breathe more easily - despite the greater danger. The two knights emerged from their pavillions, carrying a spear and a polaxe each. "Each marched fiercely towards the other; and as they approached, they hurled their lances" - to no effect. Switching to their polaxes, they closed distance. Early on in the combat, Jacques used a disarming technique, knocking the polaxe out of one of Jean's hands - but the Italian knight quickly recovered his weapon, and resumed the fight. Jacques struck Sir Jean such a blow that it nearly turned him around, but still the fight continued. Finally, Jacques disarmed his opponent entirely, striking the polaxe out of both his hands. The Italian knight immediately sought to close distance, hoping the grapple with Sir Jacques, and trying to catch hold of his visor. But Jacques "kept driving him back with the point of his axe, so that de Boniface was unable to reach him." At this point, seeing the dire straits that Sir Jean was in, the Duke of Burgundy threw down his baton, ending the match.

The incident with Sir Jean de Boniface obviously made a big impression on Jacques de Lalaing, since he decided to make a similar journey of his own. In 1446, Jacques traveled to France, then to Navarre, and finally to Castille. The kings of France and Navarre both denied him permission to fight. The King of Castille, however, allowed him to fight with Diego de Guzman, son of the Grandmaster of the Order of Calatrava (a Spanish order of knighthood).

polaxe2.JPG (38508 bytes) The combat took place in Valladolid on 3 February 1447, with the King of Castille acting as referee. This time the combat on foot took place first, with polaxe, sword, and dagger. The mounted combat was to occur later in the week. When the combat began, Jacques and Diego traded blows with their polaxes so fiercely that sparks flew from their armor. "Then Jacques de Lalaing, seeing how aggressive his adversary was, whirled the point of his polaxe around, and struck 3 blows on the eye-slits of Diego, one after another, in such a way that he was wounded in 3 places in the face...the first blow landed on his left brow, the second on the point of his forehead, and the third above the right eye."

A few moments later, Jacques disarmed Diego, knocking his polaxe out of his hands. Following standard practice, Diego rushed in, arms outstretched, seeking to grapple. Jacques extended his left arm, stopping him, and with his right hand threw his axe aside. Still holding his opponent at bay with his left hand, Jacques was drawing his short sword when the King of Castille threw down the baton, stopping the combat. The mounted combat never took place; the King told Jacques that he had accomplished more than enough.

On the way home to Hainault, Jacques stopped in Aragon; again, he was refused permission to fight. Why so many refusals? Possibly because of the expense involved. The king or duke who sponsored the event was expected to host lavish parties and give gifts to each of the combatants. Furthermore, they may have been nervous at having so many armed strangers in their midst. Jacques traveled with an entourage that numbered in the hundreds; Diego de Guzman arrived in Valladolid with between 80 and 100 men-at-arms, all fully armored.

In 1449, Jacques de Lalaing traveled to Stirling, Scotland, to fight with members of the Douglas clan before the King of Scotland. This was to be a combat of six. On the side of Hainault were Jacques, his uncle Simon de Lalaing, and a squire from Brittany named Herve de Meriadec. On the Scottish side were James Douglas (brother of the Earl of Douglas), another James Douglas, and John Ross of Halket. The combat took place on 25 February 1449. A crowd of five or six thousand gathered to watch.

Under the agreed-upon terms, the combat was to take place on foot, armed with spear, polaxe, sword, and dagger. At the request of the Scots, the throwing of spears was forbidden. The combat was fought with sharp weapons, and was to continue until stopped by the king. Each combatant was allowed to help his companions.

Jacques and his companions agreed in advance that as soon as the combat began, they would discard their spears and switch to their polaxes. When the combat began, they followed their plan; the Scots retained their spears.

Jacques came against James Douglas (the earl's brother) and swiftly disarmed him, knocking the spear from his grasp. James switched to his polaxe, but Jacques disarmed him again, just as easily. Irate at having lost both his spear and his axe, James drew his dagger and attempted to close, striking repeatedly at Jacques' unarmored face. Jacques held him at bay with his left hand, catching his fingers in the eye-slits of his helmet. Discarding his polaxe, Jacques drew his sword, "...which was a thin estoc, and grasped the blade near the point, so he could use it as a dagger, for he had somehow lost his own." Meanwhile, James had caught hold of his bevor (chin-guard); attempting to thrust at the unarmored palm of James' hand, Jacques lost his sword. Now completely disarmed, Jacques caught his opponent with both hands on his visor, and was in the process of throwing him to the ground when the king stopped the combat.

While this was going on, Simon de Lalaing fought with John Ross of Halket. As the chronicle says, Simon was "strong, hardy, and very expert in arms." Like his nephew Jacques, he quickly disarmed his opponent, knocking the spear out of his hands. The two knights then fought with polaxes. Sir John was a powerful man, but Simon "knew well how to receive the blows on his polaxe." Calmly warding off his opponent's attacks, Simon waited until his opponent "began to lose his force and his breath." Then, seeing his opportunity, he shifted to the offensive, thrusting with both the point and the tail-spike of the polaxe. As he drove his opponent back the entire length of the lists, says the chronicle, it was clear to everyone that Sir John was taking a beating.

vadipolaxes3.JPG (28625 bytes) Meanwhile, Herve de Meriadec was fighting the other James Douglas. As the two closed in, James lowered his spear and thrust at Herve's face. However, he missed his mark; instead, his point went through the left sleeve of Herve's surcoat and glanced off of the armor underneath. Herve, stepping within distance, struck Sir James so hard on the head with his polaxe that he knocked him to the ground, stunned, face down.

Herve immediately looked to see whether his companions needed assistance, since that was allowed by the rules. As he did so, Sir James began to recover, rising to his knees. Seeing this, Herve struck him to the ground again with numerous blows of his axe. As he turned to aid his friends, Sir James rose yet again, and the two fought briefly with their polaxes. At this point, seeing the danger that the Scottish knights were in, the king ended the fight.

After his combat with the Douglas clan at Sterling, Jacques and his companions visited England. The king gave them a rather cold reception, and refused permission to fight. Shortly before his departure, however, Jacques was approached by an English squire, Thomas Que, who proposed a combat on Jacques’ native soil. Jacques agreed, and a date was set.

The combat between Jacques de Lalaing and Thomas Que took place in Bruges, Flanders, in 1449. The Duke of Burgundy acted as the referee. According to the agreed-upon terms, the combat was to take place on foot, in full armor, armed with polaxe and sword. The combat was to continue until one of the combatants "was carried to the ground."

Before the combat began, Jacques lodged an objection over the Englishman’s weapon, since his polaxe was not of the type customarily used in tournaments. In particular, both the axe blade and the spike were extremely long and very sharp. After consulting with his experts, the Duke of Burgundy declared that the Englishman would have to change weapons. However, Thomas Que pleaded so persistently to use his own polaxe that Jacques gave in, waiving his objection.

The two combatants were armored quite differently. Jacques de Lalaing wore a sallet (light helmet) that left his face uncovered. He wore neither a gorget (neck guard) nor a bevor (chin guard). Thomas Que, on the other hand, wore a heavy helmet known as a great bascinet. His visor was shut, and he wore an additional reinforcement for his chin and throat.

Lightly armored and breathing easily because of his light helmet, Jacques sped to the attack. Striking numerous blows at the Englishman’s head, he quickly forced him backwards. Thomas was hard-pressed by this onslaught, and was unable to do anything but attempt to ward off the rain of blows. "But Dame Fortune, who gives to the one and takes from the other, turned that encounter against Jacques..." As he struck at the Englishman, Jacques had the ill-fortune to bring his left hand right down on the spike of his opponent’s polaxe. The point entered the underside of his gauntlet, "piercing entirely through and cutting the nerves and veins, for the spike on the Englishman’s axe was wondrously large and sharp."

Jacques attempted to continue the fight, but his left hand failed him. Holding the head of the polaxe under his left armpit, Jacques continued to fight, wielding the tail-spike with his right hand. Realizing the dire straits he was in, Jacques discarded his polaxe and closed to grapple with his opponent. Grabbing the Englishman’s helmet with one hand, and his left arm with the other, Jacques used a wrestling technique to throw Thomas Que. The English squire hit the ground with such force that the visor of his bascinet was buried in the earth. Seeing this, the duke threw down his baton, stopping the combat.

Later, Thomas Que argued that he had not been defeated, according to the agreed-upon conditions of the combat. Although he had been thrown, he claimed, his entire body had never touched the ground. True, his head, arms, and legs had all touched the earth - but he had used his arms to hold his torso off the ground. The Duke of Burgundy consulted with the other notables who had watched the combat - "Germans, Spaniards, Scots, Italians." The unanimous decision of this international jury was that Jacques had won the combat. Jacques, meanswhile, was in great pain from his injury. Luckily, the wound did not prove to be crippling, and Jacques was soon nursed back to health by the Duke of Burgundy’s physicians.

On the same day as his combat with Thomas Que, Jacques de Lalaing announced his intention to accomplish a pas d’armes (passage of arms). In this type of encounter, the knight would usually issue a challenge at large, and take on all comers for a set period of time. In Jacques’ case, he announced his intention to raise a pavilion on the first day of each month for an entire year. Challengers who wished to fight him were invited to approach the pavilion and touch one of 3 shields that hung outside. The first, a white shield, represented a challenge to fight with polaxes. The second, a violet shield, represented a challenge to fight with swords. The third, a black shield, represented a challenge to joust on horseback with lances. Learning from his experience with the Englishman, Jacques stipulated that all of the weapons used in the combats would be identical. He would supply them, but his opponent would have first choice. The terms stated that the combat would continue until a set number of blows had been struck, or until the judge stopped the combat. The number of blows was to be specified by the party who accepted Jacques’ challenge.

Jacques’ challenge was officially known as the Passage of the Fountain of Tears, because the pavilion was raised next to a fountain with a statue of a weeping woman. In keeping with this theme, Jacques fought in a white surcoat decorated with a pattern of blue tears. When asked his reasons for issuing the challenge, Jacques replied that he wanted to have dueled at least 30 men before his 30th birthday. The passage of arms was to last from November 1st, 1449 until September 30th, 1450.

From November until January, no one accepted Jacques’ challenge. Finally, on February 1st, a Burgundian squire named Pierre de Chandio appeared and touched the white shield. A week later, the combat took place near Chalons, France, on a small island in the middle of the Saone river. The proceedings began with great ceremony; Pierre de Chandio was accompanied by 600 knights and squires. The combat was uneventful and inconclusive; after 21 blows were struck with the polaxes, the judge stopped the combat.

In March, Jacques’ challenge was accepted by Sir Jean de Boniface, the Sicilian knight who had fought him once before in Ghent. Sir Jean touched both the black and the white shields, signifying mounted combat with lances, followed by combat on foot with polaxes. Jacques and Jean ran 7 courses with the lance; the results were inconclusive, although Jacques appeared to have the advantage. After the 7th course, both combatants agreed to continue the combat in a few days’ time, moving directly to the combat on foot with polaxes.

The foot combat began uneventfully. But after about 10 or 12 blows had been exchanged, Jacques suddenly caught hold of his opponent’s polaxe with his right hand, clearing an opening. Holding his weapon in his left hand, he struck Jean 3 times in the face with the tail-spike of his polaxe. Releasing his adversary’s polaxe, Jacques quickly grabbed the plume on Jean’s helmet "and pulled him so rudely that he fell to the ground." The judge, seeing the Sicilian knight stretched out on the ground, immediately stopped the combat.

In June, a Burgundian squire named Gerard de Roussillon accepted Jacques’ challenge, touching the white shield. According to the chronicle, Gerard was armored in "the ancient fashion." Instead of a full helmet, he wore a steel kettle hat (chapeau de fer) with a chainmail hood (coif) underneath it. Again, the combat began uneventfully. But after 15 or 16 blows had been exchanged, Jacques suddenly stepped in close to the squire and took hold of his polaxe with this right hand. With his left hand, Jacques struck him in his unarmored face with the point of his polaxe. Bleeding profusely and in obvious distress, Gerard wrenched the polaxe out of Jacques’ left hand. Seeing the severity of his injury, the judge threw down his baton, stopping the combat.

On the first day of October, 7 noblemen accepted Jacques’ challenge: The first, a squire named Claude Pitois, who was the lord of Saint-Bonnet, touched the white shield. The second, Aime de Rabutin, the lord of Espiry, touched the white shield. The third, a squire named Jean de Villeneuve, touched the white shield. The fourth, Gaspar de Durtain, touched the white shield. The fifth, Jacques d’Avanchier, touched all 3 shields. The sixth, Guillaume d’Amange, a squire of Burgundy, touched the black shield. The seventh, a squire named Jean Pitois, touched the white shield.

Jacques fought Claude Pitois the next day. The combat was swift; after a few blows, Jacques stepped in and took hold of Claude’s polaxe with his right hand. Clearing an opening, he attempted to strike Claude in the face with the point of his polaxe, which he held in his left hand. But Claude blocked the blow, catching hold of Jacques’ polaxe with his right hand. Releasing his opponent’s weapon, Jacques caught hold of his neck instead. Claude escaped his grip twice, but Jacques finally closed distance and caught his head under his arm "in the wrestling hold known as the Corne-muse (bagpipe)." Once he caught his opponent in this head-lock, he threw him to the ground. Claude landed flat on his back, but caught hold of Jacques as he fell. Losing balance, Jacques fell into a crouch on top of Claude. At this point, the judge threw down his baton. Both combatants retained their axes until the end of the combat.

A few days later, Jacques fought Sir Aime de Rabutin, the lord of Espiry. According to the chronicle, Aime specified that they would fight until 55 blows had been exchanged with polaxes. The judge, however, "seeing the valiance and skill of the two knights, and concerned about the great danger that they were in," stopped the combat after 30 blows.

Next, Jacques fought Jehan de Villeneuve with polaxes. Perhaps as a display of self-confidence, Jacques wore no armor at all on his right leg. The combat continued until around 55 blows had been exchanged. The chronicle says that "it was a pleasure to see them fight, as they spared nothing."

Gaspar de Durtain, known as one of the best fighters in Burgundy, was the next to accept Jacques’ challenge. Again, Jacques wore no armor on his right leg. After about 10 blows had been exchanged, the shaft of Jacques’ polaxe split, and the spike of the axehead broke off. Undaunted, Jacques continued to fight until the requisite number of blows had been exchanged.

Jacques de Avanchier, a squire from Savoy, was the next to fight Jacques. The Savoyard had touched all 3 shields: this signified combat with polaxe, sword, and lance. The combat with polaxes came first. Jacques de Lalaing wore even less armor than before; in addition to leaving his right leg unarmored, he wore no gauntlet on his right hand. After about 12 or 14 blows, the Savoyard closed distance with Jacques and grabbed his polaxe with his right hand. Jacques responded instantly, catching hold of the squire by his throat armor (gorget) and dragging him forwards 3 or 4 steps. While the squire was off-balance, Jacques quickly disarmed him, "taking d’Avanchier’s polaxe out of both his hands," and threw him to the ground. The judge immediately threw down his baton.

A few days later, Jacques de Avanchier resumed his combat with Jacques de Lalaing. This next encounter took place on foot, armed with swords. The squire specified that they would fight until 7 blows had been exchanged. Neither party was allowed to retreat more than 3 steps. However, the Savoyard found himself at a severe disadvantage once the combat began. His close-helmet (armet) so impeded his view that he was unwilling to move. Deprived of his defensive footwork, he fell easy prey to Jacques’ skilled attacks. (The chronicle doesn’t specify the type of swords which they used; however, hand-and-a-half swords were commonly used for tournament fighting on foot at the time.)

On the same day, the two Jacques fought on horseback. The squire specified that they would run 25 courses with the lance. However, on the 6th course, Jacques struck the Savoyard squarely on his helmet, stunning him. The squire wanted to change his helmet, but the new helmet fit so poorly that the judge would not let him continue, and stopped the combat.

Next, Jacques de Lalaing fought a squire named Guillaume d’Amange. The two fought on horseback, running 25 courses with the lance. The squire only struck Jacques twice, and failed to break a single lance. Jacques struck Guillaume many times, and broke two lances.

Jean Pitois, Burgundian squire, was the last fighter to face Jacques de Lalaing. The two fought with polaxes. Jacques, continuing his new trend, fought with his right leg unarmored. His opponent wore a steel kettle hat (chapeau de fer) along with a chin-guard (bevor) that covered his entire face except for his eyes. The combat was long and fierce; Jean had specified 63 blows with the polaxe. As the combat was nearing its end, Jacques struck Jean underneath the eye with the tail-spike of his polaxe, wounding him. Jean grabbed Jacques’ weapon; Jacques did the same to him. Jean closed with Jacques, attempting three times to strike him in the face with his gauntleted fist. At this, the judge threw down his baton, stopping the combat.

This concluded the pas d’armes (passage of arms) known as the Fountain of Tears. Jacques remained undefeated throughout, and won great reknown as a result of his year-long challenge. After making a pilgrimage to Rome, Jacques returned in triumph to the court of the Duke of Burgundy. As a reward for his valor, Jacques de Lalaing was admitted to the prestigious Order of the Golden Fleece. The ceremony took place in "the good town of Mons" in the year 1451.

Fittingly, Jacques de Lalaing died a martial death. In 1452, the Duke of Burgundy waged war on the rebellious Flemish city of Ghent; Jacques, as his chamberlain, took part in the war. While taking part in the siege of Poucques, Jacques was felled by enemy cannon fire. He died on July 3rd, 1453, at the age of 32.

S. Matthew Galas, Esq. is an American attorney working, Belgium. An avid fencer since 1977, Mr. Galas is proficient in foil, epee, and sabre. In addition, he studied the Japanese sword arts of kendo and iaido for five years. Mr. Galas has been studying the fencing manuals of medieval Germany, sword in hand, since 1982. He is the author of several articles on European swordsmanship and working on a major book on Johannes Liechtenauer and the fighting arts of Medieval Germany.


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