The Eglinton Tournament – a parable for our times

As the march of industrialisation progressed through the early 19th century many minds turned wistfully back to the long ago halcyon days of chivalry and men in tights doing noble things in discreet cod pieces – while women darned tapestries and looked wistfully out of windows.

Walter Scott’s romantic historical novel, Ivanhoe, appeared in 1820 and was an immediate Victorian blockbuster, sparking a lasting and heavily sentimentalized reimagining of the past. By the 1830s there were six theatrical versions in London alone and as the decade wore on, the general trend for looking backwards showed no sign of abating. As train-lines grew like splattered ink spills, the yearning for a simpler, better, happier, rose-tinted past grew with it.

Ivanhoe
Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe

This Romanticism informed art, poetry architecture, nationalism, notions of identity and political thinking but then a 27 year aristocrat, Archibald Montgomerie the 13th Earl of Eglinton, decided to take things to the next level.

Archibald was an Old Etonian who would later go on to make a name for himself as a staunch Tory opponent of Jewish rights, Irish rights and ordinary people in general. The only things he seems to have been in favour of were the Corn Laws – and jousting.

Archibald loved jousting, the idea of jousting, the thought of jousting and had clearly read Ivanhoe not once, not twice but several times over. Archibald was also fabulously rich and lived in a big castle. And so it was – that Archibald decided to host a medieval tournament.

In late 1838, 150 chums, acquaintances and school friends were invited to “Pratt’s” – an antique armoury dealer in London’s St James’s that they might be fitted with suitable attire. Mr Pratt himself was put in charge of bunting, swords, tents, horses and those big chain things that have a spikey bit on the end. Unfortunately, given that there was only one expert and that the whole thing was being based on a book that had no actual grounding in historical accuracy, things at this very early stage started to go slightly awry. It was noted fairly quickly that medieval people appeared to be much smaller and thinner and despite the number of eager volunteers there wasn’t enough armour to go round.

eglinton castle 1900
Eglinton Castle ca.1900

Things brightened up slightly, when a dress rehearsal was held and the ‘very elite of the most elite’ turned out to watch – along with 2,000 casual observers – eager to satiate their curiosity. Despite only 19 Knights taking part the first tournament was a big success and the Victorians celebrated in classic Victorian fashion. Commemorative Jugs were made.

Anticipation grew. People who weren’t too busy starving could talk of little else. Queen Victoria wrote about it in her diary. Twice.

Predictably, the ‘usual suspects’ refused to get on board and started to moan. The Whigs, the reformers, those libtard Methodists and the relatively new Manchester Guardian adjudged it to be a ridiculous folly. The whole thing was a made up, unnecessary, silly, expensive, dangerous endeavour that would cost upwards of £40,000 (around £4 million today) at a time of desperate poverty and terrible economic and social uncertainty.

Archibald and his associates pressed the metaphorical mute button – and moved on with their preparations.

All through the spring and summer of 1839 they practised – putting on their armour, getting on their horses, falling off their horses, jousting and generally injuring each other and themselves. At Erlington Castle groundworks were in full swing – heavy thrones were carved and a regal stand that could accommodate 2,000 invited guests was erected.

The buzz grew. Cartoonists lampooned the Quixotic endeavour while The Tory press talked of little else. It would be fabulous. It would be splendid. It would be talked about forever. This was what Britain needed. We want our Medieval Splendour back.

As Friday 30th of August 1839 edged closer thousands of people began to journey to the castle – many in the trains the raffish young Earl hated so much. The actual attendance far exceeded estimates and as the day of the grand tournament dawned, as many as 100,000 people had descended on the fairly remote Scottish site – and found a spot to wait eagerly for the marvellous cavalcade that would transport them back to a happier more genteel Britain of old and make everyone forget about all that horrid progress.

There were early signs that things might not go off entirely as planned. The Earl knew a great deal about golf and thoroughbred horses, but it would seem he knew next to nothing about topography. The site he had selected for his splendid parade was effectively a flood plain – and it had rained almost solidly for a month. The crowd began to get wet feet.

Behind the scenes there was feverish activity. Putting on all that heavy armour was taking considerably longer than had been anticipated. Lunch came and lunch went and the 100,000 grew hungrier, wetter and colder.

eglinton parade
Contemporary depiction of the parade

The knights hadn’t practiced getting on to their horses more than they had had to on account of their always falling off when they did and by the time they had, there was a mock medieval traffic jam winding almost a mile down the narrow carriageway to the tiltyard.

Just at the point when groups of day-trippers were beginning to give up and break away, a trumpet blasted and Lady Somerset, The Queen of Beauty, emerged onto the balcony of Mr Pratt’s magnificent grandstand.

Cheers went up from the colossal saturated crowd and at that precise moment, the incredible spectacle of Knights strapped in full tournament armour and their ‘servants’ trotted down into the field.

For a split second it seemed that it had all been worth it after all.

And then, a bolt of biblical lightning – smashed violently across the sky, unleashing a preposterous deluge of rainwater as an enormous thunderstorm engulfed the landscape.

Terrified horses scattered left and right through the heavy mud as unwieldly toffs in ill-fitting armour were tossed like fairy cakes from their backs and dragged off rattling and whimpering through the mire.

The crowd – who had invested considerable expense, time and effort in getting there were now regretting ever having heard of the stupid fucking pageant and tried, in vain and as one, to make their way back past Lugton Water – which had now flooded. Thousands of cold, hungry, angry people were obliged to wade, waist deep through freezing water and then trudge miles through the torrential volley of rain and mud to nearby villages – only to be charged extortionate mark ups by wily locals who could sniff an opportunity when they saw one.

Eglinton had promised his personal guests a sumptuous banquet and ball but both were cancelled. The whole thing had been a colossal waste of time – and money.

Holding such a tournament in Scotland might be considered dicey at any time given the unpredictability of the weather. Choosing to do so, on a flood plain, so late in the summer, without any contingency plan might be measured reckless.

But incredibly – so much faith had been invested in the project by so many people in the press and upper echelons of society that despite all evidence to the contrary – it was hailed a success. Sure – a lot of people had nearly drowned and the whole thing was essentially a comedy of errors – an unnecessary waste of good money – but these were minor drawbacks. Details. No – the main thing was that it had happened and should thus be celebrated.

A local pub, the Tourney, was named after the event. A bridge was built in its honour. Grand fabric panoramas were created and sold. A hundred years later Royal Doultan brought out another commemorative jug set and in 1989 a tribute tournament was held on the same site.

Lord Eglinton himself went on to be the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland before dying at the age of 49, no doubt feeling very pleased with himself indeed.

If this is all bringing back painful memories of Prince Edward’s superlative butt clencher “Royal Knockout Tournament” then I can only apologise.  The Eglinton fiasco was on a far grander scale.

Indeed, in its absurdity, its hubris, its purposelessness and its outlandish futility in a catastrophic pitch at turning back the hands of time – it reminds me much more of something else. Something a little more recent……if only I could….. think Otto….. think.

Lord Eglinton in his forties