Royal Naval and Military Tournament, Bronze, 38mm Sgt. W. Howe, Sword v Lance, Western Command Assault at Arms, 1910
My awareness of the British Royal Tournament medals came as an accidental discovery while investigating the athletic medals of the Royal Air Force, which appeared in the Aug. 2007 journal of the Token and Medal Society (TAMS). I initially stayed away from the Royal Tournament medals because they only became RAF medals when won by and inscribed to a member of the Royal Air Force. Otherwise, they seemed rather generic, and from a medallic point of view, they certainly were, having been issued in only one design for over 75 years. But from a military, cultural, and historic point of view, they are anything but generic. Instead, they represent a kaleidoscope of prowess and pageantry like nothing else before or since, and like nothing else on earth.
The challenge in writing about the medals of the Royal Tournament is to stay focused on the medals themselves and resist the great temptation to write about the Tournament, its history, its character, its progressive development, and its eventual demise. Instead, I will simply direct the reader to a variety of resources for further information (at the end) and only give a very brief introduction here.
The Royal Tournament started in 1880 and ran until 1999. It began as a threefold vision: to raise money for soldiers’ widows, to promote skill at arms among those serving in Queen Victoria’s army, and to raise both awareness and esteem among the general public for the men on active service. At that time, the public had little contact with the armed forces and tended to take a dim view of the drunks, delinquents, and disorderlies that tended to fill the ranks (as was sometimes the popular view). Friendly competition, it was thought, would both impress the public and inspire the men to new heights of achievement – in such skills as tilting at rings with a lance (from horseback), slicing the lemon (with a sword at good speed), and tent pegging (dislodging tent stakes with sword or lance).
After initial failures at drawing crowds, the Tournament’s design became increasingly entertaining – almost circus-like – in an effort to achieve its principal goal, which was fund raising. At this, it began to succeed in a very big way with the addition of marching bands, musical rides (horse-drawn artillery set to music), and surely one of the most popular of all: the Royal Navy field gun competition. The list of events changed over time and included a great many more – from precision drill to motorcycle riding, from trained Service dogs to gymnasts and jousts, from equestrian jumping to even mock battles. Performers from foreign lands were also involved. In short, it became quite possibly the pageant of all pageants, world renowned and immensely popular, until a victim of changing times.
As the years went by, the gap became ever wider between the true nature of the Services and what could be shown under roof in an exhibition hall. Horsemen, however skilled, were an anachronism of no real relevance to the armies of later years. Swords and lances were also things of the past. That which did remain relevant, like marching bands and ceremonial displays, had become costly – far more so than ever before. As the Services cut back to save taxpayers’ expense, with it went the time, funds, and staffing to entertain the public, however worthy the cause. In fact, The Charlotte Observer, in far away North Carolina, would report in 1993 that:
the traditional changing of the guard will occur every other day during the summer months because the queen is running low on soldiers. Britain’s Defense Ministry said the supply of red-coated beefeaters is running short because many of the King’s Regiment soldiers who normally guard the palace have been summoned to take part in an annual military competition called the Royal Tournament. [1993-07-19, page ED]
Surely such a circumstance could not endure for long, and just a few years later, the death knell would sound: the Tournament would be replaced with more modern tattoos – current, impressive, and cost-effective, but never quite the same. So much more could be said, but it’s time to talk now about the medals.
The medals of the Royal Tournament are those won by competitors. In the later years, medallions were also available, struck as souvenirs to be sold to the visiting public or given as mementos to participants and Tournament staff. There have also been a variety of Tournament tags and checks, often in medallic form and even dated, though their original purpose is not always clear. Some were awarded as tokens of recognition and appreciation, others were probably used as hat checks or to gain entry to reserved sections, and some were probably sold as souvenirs. A few are pictured below.
The souvenir medallions will be discussed later in this article, and we turn now to a description of the competitors’ medals:
PLANCHETS All Royal Tournament medals were issued round and without suspension rings. Except for the engravings, they are remarkably uniform within three basic designs illustrated below.
A fourth design was only used for one-year, and an example is presented below. It is a variant within the 1919-22 design, this particular one being just over 38mm in diameter and hallmarked silver. The suspension loop was almost certainly a later addition, also seen from time to time with the earlier designs. What makes this design unique is the legend; it is the only Tournament medal that mentions the (then) newly formed Air Force. The example below is inscribed “Royal Naval Military and Air Force Tournament // 1919 / Sword Lance and Revolver O.R. [Other Ranks] / 1st Prize / S. Sgt. T. H. Clisby / R.A.S.C. [Royal Army Service Corps].” From the London Gazette, it appears that Clisby had been a Farrier Sergeant with the 661st Horse Transport Company. He also appears in the lists of “grand champions” at the back of the 1952 book, The Story of the Royal Tournament, by Lt. Col. P. L. Binns.
METALS Those issued before roughly 1970 were struck in sterling silver and bronze, while those of more recent years were in bronze and lower grade silver or silver plate – some in proof-like finish. In certain years and for certain competitions, 9 or 15 carat gold medals were also awarded. The bronze and “silver” medals of the final years of the Tournament seem to be weaker strikes, perhaps because the later metal composition did not receive the impression as well.
It is difficult to generalize about the gold medals because only three are known to this author from among perhaps 100 Royal Tournament medals reported from different collections. This is particularly interesting given the specific mention of them in the book by Lt. Col. Binns. It could be that many have been lost over the years, perhaps sold for their melt value with the rising price of gold. It must also be considered that they were awarded only to the national grand champions. Thus, perhaps only a few hundred were ever issued in the 120-year history of the competition, in contrast to the many times that number that were awarded to the silver and bronze recipients at both the national and district levels.
Royal Naval and Military Tournament, 15k Gold, 40mm Sergt. S. Lee, 21st Lancers, 1st Prize, Heads and Posts, 1910
The three gold medals known to this writer include one from 1910 (pictured above) and two from the 1930’s. Binns describes their off and on use in the earliest years of the Tournament:
For a few years winning officers received a gold medal and a challenge cup, the runner-up being awarded a silver medal, but medals were discontinued in 1884, and silver cups took their place….From time to time the prize list was revised, and in 1887 the silver medal was reintroduced, together with a cash prize for the winners of most events open to other ranks. [page 40]
DESIGNS At least from 1886 on, the medals fall within three broad subdivisions as illustrated previously. The first bears the obverse design of the Royal Crest surrounded by a banner and was used until World War I. The second was similar but without banner and was used from 1919 to 1922; the larger size bears a wreath on the reverse while the smaller is blank. The inscriptions around the crest varied with (or soon after) the changing names of the Tournament, which began as the Grand Military Tournament and Assault-at-Arms in 1880, becoming the Royal Military Tournament from 1884-94, the Royal Naval and Military Tournament from 1895-1914, the Royal Naval, Military and Air Force Tournament in 1919, and finally the Royal Tournament from 1920-1999. No Tournament was held during the years of 1915-18 and 1940-45, due to the world war in progress at the time.
From 1923 until the Tournament ended in 1999, all medals show the effigy of a woman seated upon a lion, extending what appears to be an olive branch. Some consider this seated design to simply represent Victory. Others believe it may represent the Iceni warrior-queen, Boadicia (also Boudicca), who led a valiant but unsuccessful revolt in about 60 AD against the Roman occupation of Britain. The effigy also bears a similarity to the 5 pound gold pieces of 1839, which depict the Princess Una holding an orb and scepter, walking alongside a lion. In Edmund Spencer’s “The Fairie Queene,” an epic poem of 1590, Una represented the virtue of Britain and was protected by a lion. However, even more similar to the Royal Tournament medals is the design of the 1969 50 pence pieces, which show a helmeted Britannia with shield, seated beside a lion and extending an olive branch. Of course, Britannia is considered the personified image of Great Britain, and the proverbial British lion its totem. If the woman on the Royal Tournament medals wore a helmet or carried a shield, there would be little more doubt whom she represents. Without further information, however, we can only speculate.
All pieces of the 1923 design – gold, silver, and bronze – bear an inscription near the rim: usually Reg. No. 698856 but sometimes 696856, the only difference being in the third digit. All of the medals in the series bear one of these two registration numbers, which therefore do not serve to identify the individual medal. The medals of the earlier (crest) designs bear no such number.
The author wrote to the National Archives and took advantage of their Internet-based services available for a fee. It was quickly established that the 698 number corresponds to a 1923 entry for a dinner set by the pottery firm of William Adams and Sons, Ltd.! With the help of collector Jeff Hayes and the examination of more than 50 medals within this series, it became clear that all of the 1923-27 medals bear the “696” number. Returning to the Archives, it was found that the medal design was indeed registered under this number, but no other information was available. The 698 medals are therefore believed to represent a die maker’s error that occurred about 1928, which is the first year in which the 698 medals seem to appear. The 696 medals continued in use until about 1933 when presumably stores of the early strikes ran out.
SIZE Silver and bronze medals of the pre-WWI design seem to have been awarded only in 38mm diameter. The short-lived design of 1919-22 is found in both 39mm and slightly under 33mm. The final and longest-running design, 1923-99, is found in two sizes: 32 and 38mm. From a comparison of about 50 of these later medals, there does not appear to have been a consistent rule with regard to the awarding of the size, which seemed to vary with the sport and perhaps also with the particular year. Where both individual and team winners were possible (as for bayonet competitions), it does appear that the larger size was awarded to the individual winners and the smaller to the team. Medals for the team competition of tug of war are known in both sizes, while the team medals awarded for field gun seem to appear only in the larger size. The two 9k gold medals known from the 1930’s were both awarded for team sports (tug of war and bayonet team), and both were in the smaller 32mm diameter, as pictured below:
CASES At least from 1914 and perhaps to the 1960’s, the Tournament medals were issued in hinged and fitted jeweler’s boxes. Of course, the medals may have become detached over the years and are frequently offered for sale without their boxes. These boxes are leather covered and will usually bear inscriptions on the underside of the lids, either “By Appointment / Mappin and Webb, Ltd. / Oxford Street / London, W.” or “Carrington & Co. Ltd. / By Appointment / 130 Regent Street, W.” [London]. These two medalists seem to have issued concurrently, as their years overlap, and Tournament medals have been found in cases from both companies for the same year. Curiously, they are both located today at the same Mappin and Webb address of 170 Regent Street.
These fitted boxes read “Royal Tournament” in gold lettering on the tops. Occasionally, they also bear dates, but this seems to have been limited to the years 1921 and 1922. Two sizes of boxes are commonly seen: 58mm and 68mm. The smaller boxes seem to consistently hold 32 or 33mm medals, but a 68mm box might contain a medal of any of the three sizes. At least two styles of 68mm box are found – the dated ones of 1921 and 1922 being more squared at the corners and having a gold outline around the top.
In the 1920’s and 30’s, the colour of the boxes seems to vary with the metal, gold medals being cased in red boxes, silver medals in purple boxes, and bronze in blue. This does not hold true in later years, however. One must also consider the possibility that a particular medal may have found its way into a different box over the years, which is especially likely when a medal is found, for example, in a brown box.
A number of pre-WWI medals have also been seen with fitted boxes, though the majority appear without them. Some are unmarked, while two (from 1887 and 1896) bear the vendor’s name in the lining under the lid: E. Tyler, Medallist, 42 Exmouth St., London W.C. It would seem probable that all were originally issued in boxes that have become lost with the passage of time. In the final years (1970’s on), Tournament medals were issued in red cardboard boxes without labeling of any kind, as shown below.
MEDALISTS The medalist is not indicated on the medals, except possibly (but not necessarily) in the hallmarks of the silver and gold medals. The British hallmark system has been in use for centuries to assure the origin and purity of silver (and other precious metals). The silvers typically display a “lion passant” to indicate .925 silver, a symbol to indicate the city of original (anchor for Birmingham, leopard’s head for London, crown for Sheffield, etc.), and an upper or lower case letter for the particular year. In addition, a unique set and style of letters identifies the particular “sponsor.” The online Birmingham Assay Office cautions the researcher to “Remember, the sponsor’s mark will only tell you who registered the mark and submitted the item to be tested and hallmarked. It will not necessarily tell you who manufactured the item.”
Several hallmarked Royal Tournament medals show variations of “Mn&Wb” or “Mn&W” – for Mappin and Webb. Also seen is “BHJ” for B. H. Joseph of Birmingham. A 1949 medal in a Carrington box bears “G&S Co Ltd” for the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Company of London. The date stamps found on Royal Tournament medals are usually for the year of, or the year before, the date of the award. Silver medals I have seen from 1905 and 1908 do not bear hallmarks, even though they are surely sterling silver, but the same design of silver medal from 1914 does. The later silver-plated or lower grade silver medals and all bronze medals, of course, bear no hallmarks.
ENGRAVING The medals almost always have at least the sport for which awarded inscribed on the reverse, and usually but not always the date. Most will also indicate the district, as explained below. However, one occasionally finds medals with blank reverses and no engraving at all, whether in the crest styles or the later design. As is typical of other British athletic medals, even when issued inscribed, space is left for the addition of a name and/or other information the recipient might wish to include. Many recipients have chosen to add nothing, and hence no names, ranks, or units are revealed. However, some have added engraving that tells quite a bit, as depicted in the 1910 medal pictured under this article’s title.
What also varies considerably is the style of the engraving: in a curved pattern, in horizontal lines, or in both; and sometimes very elegant while at other times rather crude. The engraving on bronze or silver medals may also be filled with gold.
LOCATIONS The Tournament as a public exhibition was held at three locations, all within greater London: Islington (1880-1905), Olympia (1906-1949), and Earl’s Court (1950-1999). However, most Royal Tournament medals were awarded for competitions held outside of the public eye, and they were usually engraved as such. Examples include: RAF Inland Area, RN Devonport Command, Atlantic Fleet, Bombay Presidency, Aldershot District, Northern Ireland Command, and Eastern, Western, or Southern Command. Lt. Col. Binns explains that:
…the [Tournament] Committee decided to encourage each District to organize its own annual Tournament, the winners at each to come and vie with each other at Islington. To forward this policy, the Committee decided to offer a number of bronze medals for competition within the Districts and, where necessary, some financial aid. To this day the eliminating competitions for the Royal Tournament, staged in the Commands, are known as Bronze Medal Tournaments. [page 17]
He adds that “It was not found possible to institute the Bronze Medal Competitions immediately; in fact, the Committee were unable to offer any assistance to the Districts until 1886.” It seems probable, therefore, that the earliest bronze medals of the Tournament date to that year. However, silver and gold medals were awarded to officers even before 1884, as previously quoted from Binns.
Most of the programmes of the Tournament include a list of the competitions, the names of competitors, and the prizes to be awarded. Yet the system was far from consistent and certainly nothing as straightforward as gold for first place, silver for second, and bronze for third. Depending on the year and event, the awards might include any combination of silver cups, certificates, plaques, riding crops, money, gold medals, silver medals, rosettes, or a silver replica of the weapon concerned. Pictured below are a 1926 certificate for “all round skill at arms” and a 1935 miniature for cadets’ bayonet versus bayonet (175 x 102mm):
What is worthy of note is that none of the programmes seem to mention bronze medals at all. Although they are the most commonly encountered Tournament medals, the bronzes appear to have been issued only in the qualifying rounds, while still bearing the Tournament name. An exception is the bronze field gun medals, which definitely were awarded for competition “at the Tournament.” What eventually becomes clear, in terms of its medals, is that “the Royal Tournament” really had two definitions: one pertaining to the widely scattered competitions to boost skill at arms, and another for the annual exhibition to raise funds and acquaint the public with the Services. The programmes describe the awards at the annual exhibition, but an entirely different system may have been used at the district level, where either bronzes or silvers may have been awarded for first place, tug of war bronzes may have been awarded for third and even fourth place – I have even seen a bayonet medal in silver for fourth place!
SPECIAL INTEREST Among many interesting features of the Royal Tournament medals is that their winners can sometimes be cross-referenced. The Tournament was of considerable public appeal, and local newspapers often shared news of the results, sometimes in great detail. The relevant newspapers can often be found on microfilm at major libraries.
In recent years, remarkable advances have been made in the development of online resources. If the recipient was an officer, he may be listed at the Unit Histories website presented in the references section at the end of this article. If the recipient was later a casualty of one of the World Wars, he should be listed in the online database of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Lt. Col. Binns’ short history book includes a list of the champions of most but not all competitions, and sometimes a district winner for one year will appear in the Binns list of champions for the same or another year. As mentioned earlier, most of the Tournament programmes list the competitors for that year; a few also list the champions for the previous year. However, simple mathematics predicts that seeing a particular district winner listed among the overall Tournament champions (or even competitors) will be very much the exception rather than the rule.
My first Royal Tournament medal was a bronze awarded in 1937 for officers’ foil versus foil (fencing) to a Lt. Commdr. George C. Colville, Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. It was also inscribed, “R.N. Devonport Command” (i.e., district-level). I was very pleased to find him listed in Binns’ book for having won the cadets’ championship at foils as a sub-lieutenant in 1925. I was also able to find an occasional reference to him through Google and received additional information through the Unit Histories site. I discovered highlights of Colville’s long and distinguished naval career, as well as details of several of his ships, some of which were minelayers in WWII. But what a surprise to discover that my medal might once have been among stolen goods!
Bishop’s Waltham – Using a ladder and forcing a bedroom window, a thief or thieves burgled “The Hill House,” residence of Captain G.C. Colville, C.B.E, R.N., and Mrs. Colville, on the night of Friday week. They stole jewellery and all Capt. Colville’s medals, and in addition did much damage by forcing locks and drawers. The gardener discovered the theft the next morning, as Capt. and Mrs. Colville were away.Hampshire Chronicle Files [online]Saturday, November 28, 1953
My only Royal Naval and Military Tournament medal is a 1st prize silver awarded in 1905 for heads and posts, a Tournament competition discontinued after 1910. It was awarded to a Sgt. E. D. Taylor of the Riding Establishment of the Royal Artillery. How exciting to find him listed as a champion for the entire Tournament in Binns’ book! But how moving and how sad to discover, from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, that he was killed at Gallipoli as a second lieutenant in 1915.
Of course, most of the Tournament medals are not so easily researchable, especially when the medal is unnamed, when the recipient is not listed by Binns or the War Graves Commission, or when the recipient was of “other ranks.” However, as mentioned before, with the passage of time, more and more reference material is becoming available online – at an exponential rate. These include digitalized books, marriage, death, and census records, and old newspapers. 2Lt Taylor’s death at Gallipoli, for example, is specifically mentioned in another soldier’s diary, excerpts of which have been posted online; his promotion to second lieutenant is mentioned in online segments of the London Gazette of 1915; and he appears in an online census for his town of Rotherham in 1891.
AVAILABILITY In my several months of looking for Royal Tournament medals, I have learned that they are relatively scarce and appear in eBay listings perhaps two or three times a month. By going directly to British militaria dealers, I was able to obtain two, but the majority of the dealers I contacted regretted to have none in stock.
As for price, it seems that most of the bronze medals tend to sell in the £8-15 range (roughly $15-25), while silvers usually go for £30-40 ($50-75) – but sometimes much more. The prices tend to be higher when the medals are named and when specific units are mentioned (e.g., the 5th Inniskilling Dragoons or the Royal Marines). They also command a premium when awarded for the ever popular field gun competition or for the more unusual sports, such as dummy thrusting or sword versus lance, as opposed to the more common tug of war. Of course, it only takes two determined collectors to move the bidding from a modest opening to an outrageous close, and so one can never predict the final cost of a particular listing. What can be said is that there is definite interest in the medals of the Royal Tournament, that the prices have been rising sharply, and that one is unlikely to get one without a good fight.
SOUVENIR MEDALLIONS As mentioned earlier, souvenir medallions were made for the Tournament, and these are occasionally offered for sale. I have seen these in proof-like finish, in both nickel silver and gold plated, although the gold ones are far more common and probably the more recent. Most but not all are dated (I have seen 1980 and later), and all seem to be 38mm in diameter.
Many of these medallions originally came in plastic cases with red or blue cardboard collars, but by now most have been separated from their original containers. I have seen one in a fitted jeweler’s box. Some have been incorporated into necklaces and ashtrays, probably prior to sale.
The medallions tend to fetch from £2-6 ($3-10) and appear in a wide variety of designs. Most bear the image of the mythical hippocampus (half horse, half fish) on the obverse and a shield on the reverse, depicting the major branches of the Services, symbolized by the albatross of the Air Force, crossed swords of the Army, and anchor of the Navy. A “V” reverse, was issued in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of victory in WWII, and a 1990 design reads “The 100th Royal Tournament.” Some medallion designs, however, are quite different and depict aspects of British military history: Winston Churchill, Nelson’s flagship, or Queens Victoria and Elizabeth for the Tournament centenary.
A date appears on most of the medallions, some obverse and others reverse, but, again, some are undated. On those which show the shield of the Services, a motto appears which reads: “A spectacle of colour, skill, and courage / The Royal Tournament.” And so it truly was.
The foregoing article has been revised, updated, and expanded from its original appearance in the June, 2008 edition of the “TAMS Journal” of the Token and Medal Society (Vol. 49). The author wishes to thank Dick Flory, Keith Bailey, and Jason Benjamin for so kindly providing photos. Also gratefully acknowledged is the invaluable assistance of British Medals Forum member Jeff Hayes and ex-field gunner POMEM Frank Jewell. Those wishing to correspond concerning the medals of the Royal Tournament are very welcome to contact the author Nick Martin.
The Story of the Royal Tournament, Lt. Col. P. L. Binns, Gale & Polden, Ltd., Aldershot, 1952
Royal Tournament programmes (various years)
From DD Video, Middlesex, England (in PAL format):
“History of The Royal Tournament” (DVD)
“The Last Run – The Royal Tournament, 1999” (DVD or VHS)
From the Valentine Music Group, 1993 (VHS, PAL format):
“The Royal Tournament, The Army Years, 1985, 1988, 1991”
“The Royal Tournament, The Navy Years, 1984, 1987, 1990”
“The Royal Tournament, The Air Force Years, 1983, 1986, 1989”
Token and Medal Society (TAMS)
http://www.cwgc.org [Commonwealth War Graves Commission]