14 September 2009

Scandal: The Eglinton Tournament

By Sandra Schwab

Imagine--it's 1838, the old king is dead, the new queen acceded to the throne the year before and is about to be crowned in Westminster Abbey in June. The new fashion for all things Gothic and medieval has swept up the rich and the titled, therefore they are all looking forward not only to the coronation in the Abbey, which, no doubt, will be a splendid affair, but also to the ceremony that will follow upon the service: the state banquet in Westminster Hall with its most wonderful medieval trappings. There will even be a real knight in shining armour--the King's, or, in this case, the Queen's Champion, who will ride into the hall on his steed, fling his glove onto the ground and challenge all people present to deny the sovereign's right to the throne. The whole thing will be perfectly marvellous, something to tell the grandchildren about.

But alas, it was not to be.

The Prime Minster announced that for economic--there were people starving, for heaven's sake!--and practical--remember 1685, when the King's Champion had flung not only his glove, but also himself to the ground? Highly embarrassing, that!--reasons the state banquet and all the outdated medieval ceremonies were cancelled. The Tories were incensed. There were heated arguments in the House of Lords, and the merchants of the City of London put together a petition because the City, too, would have played a part in the coronation banquet Yet despite heated arguments, the Prime Minster, Lord Melbourne, stood his ground and Victoria was crowned without medieval pomp and circumstance. The peers of the realm smarted, and those who would have had to fulfil special duties during the state banquet felt cheated. Among them was a dashing, young Scottish lord, Archibald William Montgomerie, the 13th Earl of Eglinton.

He had been brought up with stories of chivalry, and, moreover, as the Knight Marshal of the Royal Household his stepfather would have had the honourable task of leading the Champion's horse up the hall. The family's extreme disappointment at the Queen's "Penny Coronation" can be easily imagined. To cheer Eglinton up, one of his acquaintances jokingly suggested that he should add some medieval games to his next annual private horse race at Eglinton Park. Out of this rather unfortunate suggestion there quickly grew a rumour which spread like wildfire: Lord Eglinton was going to hold a tournament at his country estate in Scotland. Equally unfortunate was Eglinton's decision to finally announce that the rumour was true and to thus embark on what one author has called "the greatest folly of the century."

It was an enormous undertaking--at Eglinton a tournament ground with stalls and galleries and what not had to be erected. The knights had to chosen, armour to be ordered. The rehearsals for the tournament were held in London in June and July 1839. Not surprisingly, all of London was atwitter and the rehearsals were well attended. For some of the spectators they were a disappointment. After all, there is quite a difference between imagining Sir Walter Scott's medieval heroes riding grandly around and about in their shiny armour, and seeing 19th-century gentlemen trying to conquer the difficulties of moving about in full-scale body armour. The Knight of the Swan literally flew over the neck of his horse, and the unfortunate Knight of the Dragon got stuck in his armour, face downwards, on a dunghill. Only after 20 minutes did his squires manage to help him out of this stinky predicament.

Still, applications for tickets from all around the world continued to pour in at Eglinton's estate. Of course, only conservatives needed to apply for a place on the galleries. Lucky was the man who could claim his wife had once nearly clubbed a Radical to death with a candlestick! The press was also invited, and then there were the many uninvited spectators who gathered outside the palisade and whose numbers reached, if contemporary sources are to be believed, 80,000 or more. In short, the Eglinton Tournament provided for the most enormous traffic jam Scotland had seen so far. In the towns and villages surrounding Eglinton Park all available rooms had been let, and to their dismay, many late-comers found that no accommodation was to be had, not even for ready money. Indeed, the American visitor Nathaniel Parker Willis had to shave and freshen himself up in the pantry of an inn, which presently functioned as the bedroom of three ladies' maids.

At the gates of Eglinton Park, maps and programmes could be bought, and the gaily attired masses (naturally, medieval costume was a must) wandered towards the stands. At the house itself the knights and their entourage got ready for the big procession. Everything had been prepared splendidly, and everybody was ready to thoroughly enjoy themselves. But alas, nobody had taken into consideration the contrary British weather. For just as the Queen of Beauty was about to get on her snow-white horse, the skies opened and it started to pour.

Soon everybody who didn't bring an umbrella was drenched, the tilting ground was transformed into mud, and, to make matters worse, it turned out that the makeshift roof that was supposed to protect the people in the galleries, was not up to its job. Neither was the dye of some of the medieval costumes. Nevertheless, the knights attempted to muddle through, and so at first, the tilting commenced.

It was only interrupted when the rain increased. To the dismay of the invited guests in the galleries, Eglinton had to inform them that the pavilion in which the great banquet was to be held had not withstood the rain either and that he could only entertain as many of his friends as to fit around the dining table at the house. The retreat of the thousands of spectators was chaotic, to say the least. Willis describes it thus:
The rain poured in a deluge. The entire park was trodden into a slough, or standing in pools of water – carts, carriages, and horsemen, with fifty thousand flying pedestrians, crowding every road and avenue. How to get home with a carriage! How the deuce to get home without one! [...] Six hours of rain, and the trampling of such an immense multitude of men and horses, had converted the soft and moist sod and soil of the park into a deep and most adhesive quagmire. Glancing through the labyrinth of vehicles on every side, and seeing men and horses with their feet completely sunk below the surface, I saw that there was no possibility of shying the matter, and that wade was the word.
Even if the tournament was eventually held two days later, the damage had been done, and the press, quite literally, had a field day. Poor Eglinton was ridiculed up and down the country, and the image of the knight under the umbrella not only became the symbol of the tournament, but throughout the century it was also used to mock and satirise Victorian medievalism.