As the 37th annual Tennessee Renaissance Festival enters its final weekend, one of the most popular attractions has been the jousting demonstrations, pitting knights and squires against each other in competitive displays on horseback. 

The exhibition is presented by Tennessee-based The Free Lancers Jousting Company, with one of their performers, Leland Coleman, portraying Lord Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, an English nobleman and politician who lived from 1536-1572.

Coleman, a South Carolina native, has lived in Middle Tennessee for more than two decades, having attended the Tennessee Renaissance Festival for 21 years and jousting for 15 of them.


Justin Sadler (left) and Jaeger Willis (right) help fit Louis Martino with armor at the Tennessee Renaissance Festival on May 13, 2023.

Coleman lovingly described being “tricked” into jousting by the company’s owner Roy Cox who was giving Coleman horse riding lessons.

“I didn’t realize at the time that all of his lessons led to jousting,” Coleman said. “In 2008, I had a local company here that I closed up, I was helping him train a student. He certified me, I went on the road with him to Maryland and never looked back.”

Coleman said that it’s the challenge of the sport-meets-performance that keeps him coming back, describing the sensation of making contact with another jouster’s lance as similar to being in a car crash with a semi-truck — all while wearing around 100 pounds of armor on a 2000-pound horse, surrounded by hundreds of cheering audience members.

“It’s a 50,000 psi hit to your upper torso, sometimes your head,” Coleman said. “When you get a good hit and you feel that lance break, you’re pumped up.


Fellow performers help Leland Coleman mount his horse at the Tennessee Renaissance Festival on May 13, 2023.

“You’re communicating with a 2000-pound animal that doesn’t speak your language and you’ve got to build a partnership with them,” Coleman said. “It’s about the partnership with the horses, the squires and the other knights; it’s a real brotherhood, a troupe. There’s a lot of camaraderie in the things we do.”

That camaraderie is evident when watching the group of 10 performers, adults and children, preparing for the show, discussing what went right and wrong in previous performances, tips on how to stay safe, tending to the horses, and taking direction from Cox, whose booming voice and blunt leadership style makes it clear that while they are entertaining people, they have serious work to be done.

Cox makes the majority of the armor the troupe wears, much of it based on authentic, historically accurate pieces, along with recreations of family seals and coats of arms. The troupe works together to outfit the horses and each other, strapping on armor and leather boots, saddles and reins.


Joy Willis and Leland Coleman groom thier horse Jay in preperation for their jousting perfomance at the Tennessee Renaissance Festival on May 13, 2023.

“We’re going out there trying to knock each other off of a horse, but at the end of the day we’re all friends and we don’t want to hurt each other,” Coleman said. “We want to go out there and put on a good joust so that we can entertain a lot of people.”