Donkey Jousting – Caernarvon Castle, Wales

This is one of 40 stories from my book

Sports the Olympics Forgot

which is available here

The sport of Donkey Jousting has taken place under the walls of Caernarvon Castle in North-West Wales since 1300 when King Edward I was building the castle that’s seen today by thousands of visitors.


The original jousters were Welsh soldiers who were trying to tempt the English knights into a skirmish. As all horses had been commandeered by the English the jousters had to use donkeys instead and this just drew ribald comments from the knights who found the whole scene comical. To compound matters, the Welsh had to use willow branch instead of lances.


Realising that the English weren’t going to be tempted into a fight, the local Welsh people decided to enjoy themselves. To further parody the English knights the Welsh jousters dressed up in highly coloured garments and decorated their donkeys with rags and flowers. Some of the animals spent more time trying to eat the flowers than trotting around the jousting ‘field’ specially created for the occasion.


The tournament was run on a round robin basis where each jouster took on every other opponent over the best of three jousts. A point was scored if the willow branch touched either the shield or the armour of their opponent.


The biggest problem that riders had was making their donkey gallop at any speed; most donkeys trotted at best and often decided to nuzzle the opposing animal rather than running by – this led to the jousters hitting their opponents many times rather than just once, so quite often the counting judges had a problem counting the blows each had scored. Quite often one donkey would chase another donkey out of the field and in this instance both riders would be disqualified for failing to control their animals.


Even after the English left the area around Caernarvon the donkey jousting continued and contestants used to start breeding only those donkeys that would gallop past their opponent’s beast without nuzzling. This meant that over the years the tournament became more like a jousting tournament and less like a donkey mating contest.


Records of the winners only started being kept in 1439 when it’s thought that betting on the event began. The ‘Black Book’ of Caernarvon might have been an early bookmaker’s journal of who won what and when. In that year the contest became a best of three knockout event.


In that year Owain ap Llewellyn beat Jones the Mud in the first round of the tournament after Jones’ donkey refused to stop and ran out of the contest area. Jones accused Llewellyn of hitting his donkey’s delicate parts in a deliberate attempt to unseat him. Llewellyn denied this by saying his willow branch had a natural droop which he could do nothing about. Jones’ donkey sat in the river braying and refused to move even when the tide came in. After a heated exchange with the willow tree judge Llewellyn was allowed to continue but had to change his branch. He blamed his defeat by Roberts the Smelter in the second round on his new willow which was thin and very wispy.


Roberts the Smelter battered Jenkins the Fish in the third round 2-0. Jenkins’ donkey was very tired and could barely raise a trot towards Roberts. Jenkins tried to lure him into a canter with a carrot on a hook attached to a fishing rod but all that happened was that Jenkins tried to hit Roberts with the rod while the donkey stood staring at the willow branch.


Roberts run came to an end in the semi-final when he lost 2-1 to Evans the steam, whose donkey, Idris, had been specially bred for jousting. Idris was swift, for a donkey, and also brayed incessantly. Descendants of Idris still take children for rides on the beach to this day and the riders have to wear a hard hat and make sure their feet are in the stirrups at all times.


The 1439 final was between Evans the steam on Idris and Evans the smoke, whose donkey was called Bella. Evans the smoke knew about Idris’s speed but thought that Bella’s feminine wiles could win the day. He found some colourful rags that highlighted Bella’s dark eyes and ensured that she stared at Idris as he charged towards her. This ruse worked as Idris ground to a halt as the donkeys passed each other. Evans the steam was unbalanced by Idris’s braking and Evans the smoke took advantage by whacking him over the head with his willow branch. Evans the steam fell to the ground; unburdened by his rider Idris tried to mount Bella in a show of loving affection, but this is against the rules and so Evans the smoke was declared the winner.


Published by Julian Worker

Julian was born in Leicester, attended school in Yorkshire, and university in Liverpool. He has been to 94 countries and territories and intends to make the 100 when travel is easier. He writes travel books, murder / mysteries and absurd fiction. His sense of humour is distilled from The Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and Midsomer Murders. His latest book is about a Buddhist cat who tries to help his squirrel friend fly further from a children's slide.

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