Jousting was invented by a 10th-century Saxon king named Henry the Fowler. It was a bloody business until about the 15th century, when guns came into common use and turned jousting from a military endeavor into a gentleman's sport. Soon thereafter, the joust joined chivalry as a relic of a bygone era.
But, what ho, jousting lives on—in the New World! Indeed, if you were driving through the Washington suburb of Olney, Md. on the morning of Sept. 8, you would have witnessed a scene out of King Arthur's court. The occasion was the second annual Olney Joust, and after Queen Alice Blum offered up the traditional prayer to St. Ignatius Loyola, the "knights" or "maids" began to charge. In turn, each galloped down a dirt path toward three arches arrayed in tandem, 30 yards apart. A detachable metal ring wrapped in white string was suspended from each arch. Using a seven-foot metal-tipped lance, a rider would try to spear all three rings in one charge. Each jouster got three rides, and the one who lanced the most rings was the winner. The male and female contestants at Olney, most of whom own their own horses, ranged in age from 11 to 58, in occupation from farmer to businessman. They rode standing in the stirrups, using their legs as shock absorbers as they lanced the rings. "It's amazing how they do it," said Dale Boyd, a local realtor. "They're galloping along, and they spear the rings as if they were sliding the lance along a table top."
Jim Schooley, a 25-year-old veterinary student at Montgomery College, won the novice class. Schooley, who calls himself the Knight of Triple Trouble, speared eight of the possible nine rings, which in this class are 1¾" in diameter. This was only Schooley's sixth joust, but already he was Double Trouble. Moving up to the amateur class, in which the rings are 1½" in diameter, he finished second—again lancing eight of nine rings. In the semipro and pro classes the rings are 1¼" and 1", respectively. If two or more riders tie for first in any class, there is a "tie-off" in which the diameter of the rings is reduced by a quarter of an inch per round. Tie-offs often go down to quarter-inch rings, which look like Life Savers.
The big lances of jousting came out in the pro class: the Maid of Bartram Manor, Mary Lou Bartram, 52, the only woman to have won the state and national championships; the Knight of St. Marks, farmer Mike Virts, 26, a four-time national champ; and the Knight of Little Red Wagon, mechanic Phil Clarke, 58, a former state and national titlist who had recently won the first Hall of Fame tournament in Mount Solon, Va. Clarke won at Olney, too, spearing three half-inch rings in a tie-off with five other riders.
On Oct. 14, amid extravagant pageantry, the national championships will be held in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Though there will be jousters from Virginia and the surrounding states, Marylanders are expected to dominate. Which is fitting. The state's founder, Cecil Calvert, brought jousting to America in 1632. In 1962 a politician descended from the Calverts asked the legislature and Governor Tawes to designate King Henry the Fowler's baby as Maryland's state sport. The delegate from St. Mary's County made a convincing case. His name? Henry Fowler.