Saturday, August 25, 2012

Merry Ole England Reborn, Part III: The Eglinton Tournament - The First Renaissance Fair

(Previous entries in the series:

The Eglinton Tournament: The First Renaissance Fair

Don't let the picture fool you. That illustration above took place in 1839!

            In our last issue, we explored the triumphant return of the Middle Ages in literature, and particularly in how Britons were reminded of their mythic heritage in the tales of King Arthur. But Arthur was only the first falling snowball in a veritable avalanche of medieval literature that was just becoming available after centuries of neglect. John Mitchell Kemble, a scholar of old Anglo-Saxon and a student of Jacob Grimm (of “the brothers Grimm”), published a modern English translation of Beowulf in 1836, to the great excitement of both the English and the German world. (The Germans were actually decades ahead of the English in the medieval revival, but that’s a subject for another post.) Enthusiasm for Britain’s medieval past reached an all-time high. It inevitably became time for the Victorians to apply all the pomp and chivalry of the Middle Ages as they understood it into action. Thus was born the ill-fated Eglinton Tournament of 1839.

            The year prior, Alexandrina Victoria was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. She inherited a country in the midst of a recession, and memories of George IV’s absurdly decadent coronation banquet were still fresh in Britons’ minds. Could the government justify such lavish spending while so many people were unemployed, or even starving? Victoria did the “appropriate” thing and cut the banquet entirely, as well as many other “obsolete” rituals of state associated with the coronation. One such ritual involved the King’s Champion. Ever since the Norman Conquest in 1066, the King had a duly appointed champion to fight duels in his name (as, by protocol, the King could not fight a duel against anyone but another king). At every coronation banquet, the Champion would ride into the hall in full plate armor, throw down his gauntlet, and issue a challenge to all those present: 

"If any person, of whatever degree soever, high or low, shall deny or gainsay our Sovereign Lord [Name], King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, son and next heir unto our Sovereign Lord the last King deceased, to be the right heir to the imperial Crown of this realm of Great Britain and Ireland, or that he ought not to enjoy the same; here is his Champion, who saith that he lieth, and is a false traitor, being ready in person to combat with him, and in this quarrel will adventure his life against him on what day soever he shall be appointed."—from the words used at the last coronation banquet in 1821

George IV's coronation banquet. It's said that his festivities were so sumptuous that people started eating right in the middle of the sermon at Westminster Abbey.

            But those rites were from more tumultuous times. Britain was a parliamentary government now, was it not? And so, the rituals of old were cast out, and the nobles who were expected to fill these roles were snubbed. One such nobleman was Sir Charles Lamb, who as Knight Marshal of the Royal Household would have led the Champion’s steed into the banquet hall. His stepson, Archibald Montgomorie, Earl of Eglinton (a staunch medievalist), was infuriated that the Crown was skimping on the widely loved ceremonies of state for a “penny crowning”, as Victoria’s coronation came to be known. The disgruntled nobles got together and decided they would fill the void in Britain’s sense of pageantry and chivalry by hosting a spectacle of their own.

            It was decided that these disenfranchised gentlemen would stage a spectacular show of medieval chivalry and honor at Lord Eglinton’s country manor. That fall, 150 prospective knights answered the call of duty and assembled at a medieval arms-dealer’s showroom to discuss the particulars of the tournament. Most soon dropped out when told of the frighteningly high cost of the armor, horses, squires, livery, and so on. But a few dozen remained steadfast in their commitment to making this fantasy of the Middle Ages a reality. Make no mistake: this was no mere staged performance. The knights who were to fight in the tournament spent the whole following year in training for the joust. Although the rehearsals held in London were by invitation only, nobles and commoners alike buzzed with interest, whether it was eager anticipation or scorn.

            Nothing could have prepared Lord Eglinton for the crowds that arrived on the first day of the tournament. The tournament itself was free and open to the public, and they arrived in hordes. A hundred thousand spectators poured in to the tournament grounds, amounting to the longest traffic jam (over thirty miles from Ayr to Glasgow) in all Scottish history up to that point. The nearby town had only one hotel. Local residents charged exorbitant prices for tourists to spend the night in. Others were left sleeping under the grandstands or even inside tree trunks. Most tragically of all, the forces of nature decreed Eglinton’s spectacle would end in disaster. In true Scot style, the first day of the tournament opened with a torrential downpour from the heavens. Women’s fancy dresses were soaked, the roof on the grandstands proved useless, and the field itself turned to mud. The first two knights of the joust, the Hon. Edward Jerningham (the Knight of the Swan) and Captain James Fairlie (the Knight of the Golden Lion), proved all that training was for naught. They charged at one another again and again, but neither could actually land a hit. Fairlie even accidentally dropped his lance, wrapped with his wife’s handkerchief, into the mud. Worse still, they took their time in between tilts to adjust their ill-fitting armor, driving the crowds to boredom and ridicule. The day was only redeemed by the joust of Lord Waterford (the Knight of the Dragon) and Lord Eglinton (the Lord of the Tournament) himself. Both were sportsmen who took their training seriously, and at the third tilt, Eglinton broke his lance squarely against Waterford’s shield.

            Nonetheless, the rain had taken its toll, and despite the presence of many notable nobles such as Prince Louis Napoleon (the future Emperor Napoleon III), the crowds failed to return for the subsequent days of the tourney. Meanwhile, the Whig press heaped column after column of scorn, scandal, and mockery over the excesses of the knights and their farcical attempt to recreate the past. The media’s handling of the Eglinton Tournament was, in many ways, a blow to the medieval revival because it caricatured the movement as nothing more than the play-acting of some out-of-touch Tory aristocrats. If Eglinton failed revive the culture of sport jousting in his own country, though, he inadvertently inspired the birth of a new jousting tradition in America. A Marylander by the name of William Gilmor was in attendance at the Tournament. The next year, he hosted a spectacle of his own in Virginia, kickstarting an entire jousting movement in the antebellum South. These sporting events undoubtedly served as the forerunner of the modern jousts at the Renaissance fairs that so many Americans enjoy today.

The knights process by the Queen's Gallery.
Procession across the Tournament Bridge.

Lady Seymour, a distant descendant of Henry VIII's third wife, was crowned Queen of Love and Beauty.
The melee.
The lists.
The banquet, served with period-accurate food which reportedly disgusted a lot of the guests.
The ball. The men look a bit silly with their non-period, Elvis-like sideburns.
The grand prize trophy, made of real silver. Makes the Lombardi Super Bowl trophy look like a cheap souvenir by comparison!
An earthenware jug at the Victoria & Albert Museum that commemorates the Tournament.


  1. Thank you sir, I am enjoying your new blog. Please do provide us with a medieval solution to the national debt.

    1. Ha. Alexander Hamilton said "national debt is one of the very few important economic phenomena without roots in the ancient world". There are a few isolated examples from the medieval Italian city-states like Genoa and Venice, but for the most part, the medieval world didn't have national debts as we think of them today. At least, certainly not on anywhere near this scale.

      We dug our own graves on this one. But I might think of something.

    2. Thanks James,

      I knew my question might come off as jackassery, but I am genuinely curious what your thoughts are about this. I just started taking a course at school that so far has made it sound like medieval systems were the cause of all the worlds problems and that we are much wealthier and happier now for doing away with them. I thought you would be the guy to ask about this, since I couldn't help but think our supposed wealth was just an illusion anyway and the national debt came to mind. Thanks again

  2. Very enjoyable read.
    I don't know if Peter is being serious or a jack-ass. Either way, it is an interesting question.