While it's hardly a surprise to modern understandings that ramming someone with a large replica of a spear on horseback may not be the safest activity, people in centuries past learned jousting was a questionable sport the hard way. In fact, one joust changed the shape of an entire country's future.
Because when King Henry II suffered a terrible accident, the consequences extended far beyond the sporting world.
A somewhat forgotten king
According to a biography by Frederic J. Baumgartner, Henry II reigned between 1547 and 1559, and he's not typically considered significant among historians.
But while it will soon be clear that there's more to analyze about the man than it seems, there are multiple reasons why this sentiment was understandable.
The shadow of his father
Although the short duration of Henry II's reign is likely a factor in his lack of historical interest, Baumgartner identified that he just continued the policies of his father, Francis I.
And while this could be seen in how he carried on Francis's wars with other nations, it also showed in his domestic policies.
Not a Reformation fan
Henry II was known for his attempts to suppress the Protestant Reformation, which only grew in influence in France during his reign. His persecution of French Protestants put a black mark on his leadership.
And while some credit him for taxation and bureaucracy reforms that somewhat modernized the French monarchy, few policies of his could be considered unique rather than extensions of his father's will.
The women in his life were more influential
Baumgartner also pointed out that both Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitier — Henry's wife and mistress, respectively — attracted more biographical attention as influential noblewomen than he did as literal royalty.
But while it turned out that Henry would have his own unexpected legacy, he also wouldn't live to experience it.
Not as pampered as it may seem
Although it's easy to see the life of a royal as enmired in comfort and privilege, it also presented some significant risk of getting caught up in sudden political downturns.
For instance, he spent four years as a hostage in a Spanish prison after his father had been captured because Francis I traded two of his sons for his release.
As fun-loving as anyone else
But if there's one aspect of his life that Henry was known to enjoy, it was his proximity to the popular jousting tournaments of the day.
According to SB Nation, he was a frequent presence at these tournaments and was hardly a stranger to the sport himself. It was a realm he could distinguish himself in.
He was no slouch
SB Nation also noted that Henry's skill at jousting matched his enthusiasm for the sport, and he was considered a formidable opponent for anyone he challenged.
Interestingly, he was also known to wear his mistress' signature colors over his heavy jousting armor rather than including any token of his wife.
One fateful day
June 30, 1559, was a special day for Henry, as both his sister and one of his daughters had recently gotten married.
This called for a grand celebration, and for Henry, nothing would suffice quite like a three-day jousting tournament. And, of course, he entered as one of the contestants.
An ominous sign
In a turn of events that would soon become darkly ironic, Henry II's opponent was Gabriel Montgomery, the captain of his personal bodyguards.
And it seemed Montgomery came by that role honestly, as he nearly managed to knock Henry off his horse when they met on the field of mock battle.
Too close for comfort
That result had left both Montgomery and some of the king's other guests uneasy. If things had gone a little differently, this late-day mishap would have brought Henry's jousting for the day to a close.
However, this sentiment was not shared by Henry, who was having so much fun that he asked Montgomery for another match.
Everyone was against the idea
Montgomery refused to take the chance of injuring his king, and Catherine de Medici also protested against the idea of her husband going for another bout.
However, Henry insisted. And disobeying a king tended to carry some serious consequences. So Montgomery reluctantly mounted his horse, and the two raced towards each other again.
The king did not win
When Henry clashed with Montgomery, his lance pierced the king's helmet.
Normally, this would not have been so disastrous because jousting lances were designed to shatter on impact. This was effective at preventing impalement, and Montgomery's lance didn't react any differently than usual after he smashed it against Henry's helmet.
A freak accident
However, this safety feature ended up working against Henry, as the lance only shattered once Montgomery had hit a vulnerable spot in the visor.
This meant that rather than breaking harmlessly against his helmet, the lance sprayed sharp fragments into the king's head.
There was no surviving this
While Henry would likely have been severely injured by the small fragments that burrowed into his face and neck, they weren't the worst consequences of the accident for him.
That's because there was one particularly large piece that confirmed how bad Henry's luck was by making contact with his brain through his right eye.
He was somehow still conscious
Despite the severity of his injuries, Henry was able to experience some moments of lucidity before he lost consciousness.
And in those moments, a distraught Montgomery reportedly offered his head to the king as punishment for the accident. To Henry's credit, he apparently didn't blame his captain for the catastrophe and refused to have him executed.
Nothing could be done
Although doctors rushed to treat his wounds and take the splinters out, it soon became apparent that sepsis was going to make any chance of recovery effectively impossible.
As a result, Henry II would pass ten days later, and his son assumed the throne as Francis II at the age of 15.
An old problem rears its ugly head
As SB Nation outlined, it was hardly uncommon for jousting to have fatal consequences in the sport's early days.
They tended to devolve into melees that would see knights hold the loser hostage. And the subsequent ransoms tended to be lucrative enough to support entire careers for knights skilled at jousting.
The Church did not approve
In addition to these ransoms, early jousts resulted in so many injuries and deaths that the Archbishop of Magdeburg — a city in what is now Germany — excommunicated anyone who participated.
And it was partially due to similar pressure from throughout the Roman Catholic Church that jousting underwent some widespread reforms after the 12th and 13th centuries.
People got too comfortable
As jousting evolved, it became more ritualized and elaborate, which lessened the risk of any life-changing injuries or fatalities by the time of Henry II's life.
But as the king found out the hard way, "less lethal" is hardly the same thing as "safe." But enough had changed that it perhaps felt safe.
According to SB Nation, jousting had already become pretty played out by the 16th century. And while nostalgia for earlier concepts of chivalry and knightly combat had kept it going, the tradition was already on its way out by Henry II's death.
So when such a shocking incident occurred, all remaining interest in the sport quickly died out.
Only one consequence of Henry II's death
But while Henry's death brought about the end of the jousting era, it would prove to have much more serious consequences for France itself.
And to understand why, one must first understand that two powerful families — the Condés and the Guises — were both vying for political influence in France.
Old rivalries worsened by new religious conflict
But while rivalries among the French nobility were bitter before this point, Henry II's persecution of French Protestants (called Huguenots) enflamed those rivalries as more members of the Condé family converted to Protestantism.
Meanwhile, the Guises entered into the chaotic period following Henry II's death as the most clearly dominant family in Francis II's court.
Things start to come to a head
This dominance inspired a plot to kidnap Francis II in 1560. However, the Guises discovered the plan before it could be executed and assigned blame to the Prince of Condé, who was a Huguenot.
Although this man was jailed and sentenced to death, he suddenly found himself released that December when Francis II died of natural causes. Nonetheless, the damage had been done.
Doom had already been set in motion
Following Francis II's death, his younger brother was crowned Charles IX at the age of ten. Catherine de Medici became his regent and apparently tried to resolve matters between the warring houses while keeping them both too weak to threaten her.
But while the July Edict of 1561 promised some form of religious tolerance, it proved too little, too late, and France fell into civil war.
War gripped the nation for decades
So began the French Wars of Religion, which lasted 32 years. That was long enough for three kings to reign back then, which means the toll on the population was catastrophic.
More specifically, these decades of civil war claimed the lives of approximately three million people before peace was finally achieved.
A bloody St. Bartholomew's Day
As if such as protracted period of civil war weren't enough to confirm that the events following Henry II's death were not just a historical footnote, one particular event from this tumultuous period lives in infamy today.
A nationwide riot known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre broke out in 1572, in which approximately 30,000 Huguenots throughout France met their end.
Henry II couldn't have prevented this entirely
As SB Nation explained, France was hardly the only European country to see religious warfare erupt in the wake of the Reformation.
And considering how brutally he repressed the Huguenots and how ineffectual this proved in deterring conversions to Protestantism, it seemed only a matter of time before some variant of the Wars of Religion broke out during his reign.
Nonetheless, a significant accident
However, it would also be underestimating Henry II's influence as a king to suggest that his death did not affect how those wars would have played out.
Because while his jousting accident didn't cause the war, a lack of royal strength during that period was considered a key factor for how they became so bloody and went on for as long as they did. As such, there were so many possibilities for how dramatically things would have changed had he listened to his queen and captain and not gone for a second joust.
A sad irony
While the tournament he thew was intended to celebrate the family weddings mentioned earlier, it's worth remembering why nobles and royals tended to get married in the past.
In this case, his sister's and daughter's marriages had marked the end of his father's war with Austria, which was ruled by the Hapsburg royal family.
Not even Montgomery could escape the aftermath
As for Montgomery, SB Nation reported that he had joined up with the Huguenots and fought on their side after escaping the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.
However, he was eventually captured in Normandy. And while Henry II readily forgave him for the fatal jousting accident in his final days, Catherine de Medici did not share this sentiment and had Montgomery executed.