Many people know the name Ulrich von Liechtenstein from Heath Ledger’s portrayal of a character adopting that name in the 2001 movie, A Knight’s Tale.The story of the real Ulrich von Liechtenstein is much more dramatic and bizarre than the Hollywood version. The real Ulrich was born probably in the year 1200 in Styria, Austria, roughly about 150 years before the movie A Knight’s Tale is set. As in the movie the real Ulrich was a champion jouster and unlike the movie he is actually an accomplished poet. He appears several times in surviving historical records; his knighting in 1222, the marriage of his son Ulrich II from 1250, his appointment as a judge in 1272 and his death on January 26th 1275 are all recorded. However our best details for Ulrich’s life come from his own pen in the form of his two epic semi-autobiographical tales about jousting. The first of these books, The Frauendienst (Service of the Lady), relates the story of his jousting tour from Venice to Vienna to win the love of a high born noblewoman in 10 000 lines of verse and 28 songs! During this five week roving challenge, sometimes jousting against as many as eight opponents in a day, he tells us that he broke 301 lances on his opponents and in turn had 271 broken on him. All of these jousts were run with sharp lances and Ulrich was not defeated or unhorsed once.
All of this would have been pretty noteworthy in its own right except that he did it dressed as a woman! In order to honour all woman as well as his beloved, Ulrich decided he would undertake the whole venture disguised as the Goddess Venus!
All of his preparations were made in secret and challenges were proclaimed along the route in advance. On the appointed days Ulrich/Venus would appear on a white horse, with white saddlery, a white silken dress, long pearl entwined plats appearing below a face concealing veil and attended by squires, heralds and musicians all in dressed in white and upon white horses. When a joust was imminent Venus would prepare in private and appear with a white silken gown worn over armour and topped by mirror polished great helm, which was complete with the platted tresses hanging out the bottom!
In his often very funny tale, he encounters many knights to fight, including one dressed as a monk complete with a tonsured wig on his helmet, numerous noble ladies to admire him and throughout insists that his disguise was not seen through once! In one episode after his hand is injured in a joust his beloved sends him a message that she had heard he had lost a finger fighting for her and then later heard that it was “merely” injured. Ulrich cut off the offending finger and sent it to her!
Years later with a group of companions, this time disguised as King Arthur and his knights, they travel from tournament to tournament, all to honour Ulrich’s new beloved, who like the first was not his wife! When not jousting, fighting in tournaments and choosing costumes, Ulrich played an active role in the tempestuous politics of his age. As well as recording his adventures as King Arthur and Lady Venus, he penned poems, songs and a work lamenting the decline of chivalry and courtly love. He is considered one of the greatest Minnesänger poet knights.
Oh……and after all that, he didn’t even get the girl!
Written by Damien Fegan