BANBURY, England — Feels like there’s more Middle Ages nutters than ever, doesn’t it? People dressed up in leather doublets, dueling with wooden swords at the Medieval Fair, getting their mead buzz on. Thank you, Game of Thrones.
But nobody geeks out on medieval weaponry and battlefield tactics quite like British multimillionaire Jason Kingsley.
He’s the LARPer’s (live action role playing) LARPer.
Living the late 14th century dream.
On his weird and wonderful niche-hit YouTube series, “Modern History TV,” Kingsley wields a high-end replica of a medieval ax to demonstrate exactly how a mounted knight (him), riding full gallop (his horse), might fully remove the top of a foe’s head with one mighty drive-by thwaaack!
Kids, don’t try this in the driveway with your little brother.
Pop! goes the plaster skull. “I don’t know what you think, but that was pretty grotesque,” Kingsley says on his program, appearing a little stunned and flushed at the efficacy.
In his day job, Kingsley, 54, is the chief executive and creative director of the Oxford-based computer game company Rebellion. He made his fortune from offerings such as “Elite Sniper,” “Rogue Trooper” and “Zombie Army Trilogy” (featuring Hitler, demonic legions, chain saws — long story).
But if his head is all about profitable first-person shooters, his heart belongs to Arthurian legends. He wants to bring to life the Bayeux Tapestry, that ancient ribbon of scrolling embroidery, 70 yards long, that depicts the Norman conquest of England, an epic tale of gore, glory and God.
If Sir Lancelot had an excellent publicist? He’d be Kingsley.
“I’m a reenactor, but I’m not pretending to be from the past,” Kingsley clarifies. “I am a modern person with modern sensibilities, who is learning to ride with a shield and wield a lance.”
Okay, so. He’s got a shoulder-length auburn mane, movie-star stubble on his jaw and a bespoke suit of Milanese armor. (There’s usually a three-year waiting list for such a suit, which costs between $19,000 and $60,000, depending.)
We meet at his country manor, location semi-secret, no serfs in sight, where he does terrible things to melons mounted on pikes.
We walk with him to a grassy pasture. A steel helmet with visor on a pole appears to have been beaten with war clubs — which would be just about right.
No boast, but Kingsley tells us he can stick a wooden lance through the eye-slit on the helmet, on horseback, traveling at 25 mph.
That eye slit is about the thickness of a fat coin.
“Practice,” he says.
The global economy has produced a number of very wealthy hobbyist-eccentrics. Some want to go to the moon. Kingsley wants to time-travel to the Battle of Hastings, circa 1066, and reimagine the heavy cavalry charges, the shield walls, the archery assault — and the mud and blood, the dysentery and terror, of close-hand combat.
“Medieval battle appears to have often descended into medieval brawling,” he says.
Kingsley recalls for us a late medieval duel to the death between two knights, over a woman, described in a contemporaneous French account. The fight started with the combatants mounted, with sharp lances. The knights killed each other’s horses. Horses were often early fatalities. Then the knights were both on the ground, rolling around in full armor, with knives drawn.
“The Rondel dagger, do you know it?” he asks. Of course not. But we learn it has a long narrow blade with a broad flat pommel above the grip. It looks like a wicked nail. “You’d punch it into people,” he says. Into fleshy bits, a small opening at a joint in the armor.
“I imagine it was brutal and horrible.” Totally.
This is all the gory detail they leave out of dry history books, with their long lists of Edwards and Jameses and Henrys. It is barbaric. And impressive. “They were people like you and me,” Kingsley says, engaged in a medieval version of an arms race, forever improving, refining.
On his YouTube channel, Kingsley sucks you right in.
The learned manner, the Oxford degree (zoology), the excellent diction, and by the old gods and new, the pure enthusiasm.
“This man’s hair completes this channel,” a Modern History TV viewer commented on YouTube.
Another review: “I love how you cued the soft guitar music as you explain what it feels like to use a hammer on someone’s head . . . very good videos!”
“Theory and book learning are great, but there is something special about testing it out,” Kingsley says.
“I’m not trying to be difficult. Nothing wrong with Hollywood movies and TV depictions,” he says. But most of it is nonsense.
“And a lot of medieval historians have never wielded a lance, so . . .”
Swords? Swords were symbols for a knight. But don’t get overly excited about swords, he says. Knights weren’t running around dueling with commoners. That was dangerous.
Think instead: the pollaxe. “The AK-47 for the armored knight,” with a spike, an ax blade and a hammer all in one — to poke, hook, stab, pound — the Swiss Army knife for bloodletting.
Interested in trying out a pollaxe on a dummy? Sir Jason has. It is like hitting “a chocolate Easter egg with a hammer,” he says. “Slightly shocking, terrifying and easy.”
“You’re a knight, you’re in armor, you’re noble, you’re wealthy, and you’re very, very dangerous.”
Kingsley excuses himself and returns atop his go-to white steed Warlord (one of 15 in his stables).
He dismounts and prepares to suit up for jousting practice. He is decked in woolly tights and an arming doublet, as filthy as a horse blanket, hanging with strings, to affix the steel plates of his armor.
His production partner (and still photographer) Kasumi Kitano assists in the armoring. He starts at the ankle and works his way to shin, thigh, breast plate, then wrists, arms, shoulders. There’s lots of straps. It’s all a little . . . kinky.
“One of the interesting things about armor, which you don’t know until you wear it, is how claustrophobic it is,” Kingsley says. “It can bring out the worst in people.”
The 15th century illustrated manuscript “How a Man Shall Be Armed” recommends a knight “take his ease” before donning his steel.
Meaning: hard to use the gent’s after, best go before battle.
Kingsley, now wearing full armor but not mail, not a helmet, takes hold of his 12-foot, ash-pole lance and brings Warlord to a gallop.
Kingsley is a competitive equestrian — he’s been riding since he was 8 — who through trial and effort has taught himself the art and science and sport of jousting.
Streaking past us across the pasture, he nails a four-inch target on a swivel.
He does it again. Then again.
Kingsley recalls reenacting the mythical contest between Saint George and the dragon. His saddle broke and he had to throw himself off Warlord, lest he be pulled down and injure his loyal beast.
“I made the sound like a shelf of dinner plates crashing to the floor,” he says.
He weighs 168 pounds and is wearing 42 pounds of armor.
One of his reviewers on the Internet challenged him to say that a nimble unarmored swordsman (say, a ninja?) could always defeat a lumbering man weighed down with pounds of armor.
But Kingsley, having worn authentic reproductions of the finest 15th century steel, disagrees. And he says it is only by wearing armor and swinging axes or lances that you realize this: “You’re basically a medieval tank.”
He says, “You could swing at me with a sword, but you cannot penetrate the armor. Meanwhile, you in no armor, I stick you once or twice, then you’re bleeding, then I take off your hand with my ax and it’s over.”
He says his grandmother made him a suit of mail when he was a young teen. It was a loose wool sweater that she sprayed with silver paint.
He loved Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” books and all the rest.
We mention we read that he lived by a chivalric code, and he says he tries to. Courtly love, behaving well, even while carrying a sword. He has a heraldic motto: Quid Triumphis Nisi Honeste? What Use Victory Without Honor?
To don his armor and mount his horse, he says, “is to ride into history. The noise, the heaviness, the experience.”
“It’s as close as I can get to living a mythological lifestyle.”