OUCH! A Splinter Takes Out King Henri II of France’s Eye in a Jousting Accident

There was as good reason Henry VII forbid his son Henry from jousting – it was dangerous as hell. The minute Henry VII died and the new King Henry VIII was in charge of his own life, he took up jousting in spite of the risk. Why? Because it was COOL, baby! Rock-star level coolness has always been something that a few men are willing to hazard their life on. European kings, wishing to be cool as well as royal, embraced the sport with gusto, much in the way the ultra-rich would get off on driving racecars in the 1960s.


In the end, Henry VIII was lucky. He came very close to losing his life twice, but he outlived his jousting days.

King Henri II of France was not so lucky.

Born on 31 March 1519, the second son of of Francis I and Claude, Duchess of Brittany, the infant Henri became Henry VIII’s godson because he was born during a time of attempted treaty-making between the two countries. In one of those odd quirks of fate, Henri resembled his godfather in his love of sports and hunting as he grew older, and showed the same tendency toward melancholy and extremism in middle-age.

Henri II as a toddler 1519

Henri was expected to remain the Duc d’Orléans for his lifetime, since his older brother, Francis III, Duke of Brittany,  seemed to be hale and hearty.

As  the “spare”, he was allowed to joust and do more vigorous things than the heir could, and his bride was chosen more for finical reasons than for matters of state. When he was 14 years old he wed Catherine de’ Medici, who came with a whopping great dowry but no royal blood, on 28 October 1533. Catherine was less than two weeks younger than Henri, and it was hoped that the two would grow up together and have a good marriage.

It didn’t work out that way, however. It wasn’t Catherine’s fault. She was far from pretty, but she was intelligent and determined to please her new court and husband. Alas for the bride, the teenage Duc’s heart was already taken by a widow more than 20 years older than himself — Diane de Poitiers.

Although Henri’s true love insisted that he continue his marital duties by sleeping with Catherine, his wife knew his heart wasn’t in it. Added to her woes, Pope Paul III refused to pay her dowry and she couldn’t seem to get pregnant.

In 1536, the same year that was so pivotal for his godfather Henry VIII, the Duc’s elder brother died unexpectedly and Henri became the Dauphin. Now it was urgent that Henri and his wife reproduce.

According to the court chronicler Brantôme, “many people advised the king and the Dauphin to repudiate [Catherine], since it was necessary to continue the line of France”. Divorce was discussed. In desperation, Catherine tried every known trick for getting pregnant, such as placing cow dung and ground stags’ antlers on her “source of life”, and drinking mule’s urine … [She] may have owed her change of fortune to the physician Jean Fernel, who had noticed slight abnormalities in the couple’s sexual organs and advised them how to solve the problem.

Catherine had her first baby, Francis II, King of France, on 19 January 1544, and in the next dozen years produce a total of 10 offspring, 6 of whom lived past childhood. Still, the king did not love her, remaining emotionally (although not physically) faithful to Diane de Poitiers. Moreover, he ruled the kingdom reasonably well, inventing the concept of the “patent”, fighting wars with Italy and Austria, and doing what was considered proper for a “good” Catholic king by oppressing and murdering Protestants.

Henri also continued to joust, although he was now a middle-aged king in a young man’s game.


On 30 June 1559, the king was jousting against Gabriel Montgomery, the captain of the Scottish Guard, during a dual celebration of the peace between France and the Habsburgs of Austria, and marriage of his eldest daughter Elisabeth of Valois to King Philip II of Spain. Even though King Henry was properly armored for the tournament, when Montgomery’s lance hit him on the helmet, a long splinter from the shattered lance slipped through the slits of the king’s visor and pierced the king’s eye. Reportedly, the sliver of wood was driven in so deeply it actually penetrated his brain.

jousting tournament_between_Henry_II_and_Lorges

The audience and court were horrified by the disaster. King Henri was taken back to the Hôtel des Tournelles, where he lay in ever-increasing agony for more than a week. Adding to his misery, a jealous Queen Catherine kept almost everyone away from the dying king, including his beloved Diane de Poitiers, even though Henri repeatedly asked for her to be present.

Two of the most renown physicians in Europe, Andreas Vesalius and Ambroise Paré, did everything they could to save the wounded monarch, but there was almost nothing the early modern doctors could do about infection.

King Henri of France died of septicemia on 10 July 1559, and in many ways jousting died with him. Not only did the invention of the musket making jousting as war practice obsolete, a less lethal form of equestrian competition – the carrousel. The knights (or would-be knights) tried to spear small rings with their lances, rather than once another. Over time, the horses were replaced with carved wooden horses or other animals and were affixed to a circular floor that rotated around a center pole, which in turn evolved into the fairground carousels we know today.

Henry was interred in Saint Denis Basilica within a fashionable in a cadaver tomb, and the crown passed to Henri’s fifteen-year-old son, Francis II, and the boy’s wife, Mary, Queen of Scots. Tragically, King Francis II died after only a year and 1/2 on the throne and was succeeded by his brother Charles IX. Inasmuch as Charles was only 10 years old, Queen Catherine acted as his regent, and had such control over her sons that she effectively ruled France for the next 25 years or so.

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