In August 1839, the Eglinton Tournament, one of the most ambitious, widely-anticipated, and yet ill-fated efforts to revive the medieval past in Britain took place in western Scotland.
Ever since Henry VIII acted out his fantasy of hunting with Robin Hood and his band of men on Shooters Hill in 1516, the Middle Ages have been recreated in performance and play. Against the nationalism fostered by novelists such as Walter Scott and widespread nostalgia for the lost pastoral age evoked by Romantic poetics, the tournament hosted by Archibald Montgomery, 13th Earl of Eglinton, harked back to medieval ideals of chivalry, honour, and largesse in an elite backlash against the absence of traditional ceremony and patronage that had accompanied the coronation of Queen Victoria.
Initial preparations for the tournament were favourable. A year prior to the event, over one hundred men indicated their interest in participating as knights. They chose colourful titles, such as Black Knight and Knight of the Golden Lion, along with the less auspicious Knight of the Burning Tower. At the same time, aristocratic women were inspired to act as the Queen of Beauty and her ladies in waiting. The knights practised in armour and on horseback in London, although Eglinton’s decision to use only light-weight lances in the tournament after being threatened with prosecution should anyone be killed in the tournament was perhaps an early sign that not everything would turn out as planned.
On 28 August all was in readiness for the tournament but the number of knights, which had fallen to 35, dropped again to around 13. Even worse, the Scottish heavens opened and late summer rains drenched the open fields, rendering the pavilion intended for the great banquet unusable. On the 29th, the grounds were too soft to engage in serious combat and knights were reduced to mock battles, wielding mops and broomsticks to dislodge fruit from their opponents’ helmets, to the wry amusement of onlookers. Ignominiously, when the knights finally took to the field on the third day, soft lances weakened by rain broke apart, and when frayed tempers led the Knights of the Dragon and of the Black Lion to battle in earnest, actual conflict had to be averted.
Contemporary responses to the event were mixed. Writer Charles Mackay drily noted that the Marquis of Londonderry’s desperation to shield his knightly finery under an umbrella brought the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries into ‘inharmonious and ludicrous juxtaposition’, while the tournament was widely described as a piece of ‘aristocratic folly’. On the other hand, the event did attract up to 100,000 spectators from both sides of the Atlantic, and gave further stimulus to the artistic fashion for all things medieval that led to the arts and crafts movement led by William Morris.
The longer-term historical influence of the Eglinton Tournament remains a topic of debate. However, if nothing else, the event acts as a reminder that while revisiting the past may not be quite as ideal as it seems, the desire to re-enact that past nonetheless lives on.
*For more images and artefacts associated with the Eglinton Tournament, visit London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
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London, British Library, MS Harley 4379, fol. 23v, c. 1470–72
James Henry Nixon, A View of the Lists, 1839
J. Aikman & W. Gordon, An Account of the Tournament at Eglinton (Edinburgh: Paton, Carver, and Gilder, 1839)
Tania M. Colwell is a Visitor in the School of History and is writing up her monograph on the reception of the medieval French Mélusine romance manuscripts and their audiences