As the Scottish independence referendum draws nearer, Dr Gordon Pentland, of Edinburgh University, guestblogs for us in the latest of our series on Anglo-Scottish relations throughout the centuries. After a Scottish summer of medieval battle re-enactments, festivals and politics, he examines an event from 1839, which combined all three…
175 years ago, Archibald Montgomerie, the Earl of Eglinton (1812-61) resolved to provide what might now be called a ‘re-enactment’ of a medieval tournament on his estates in Ayrshire. A great fan of the turf (his jockeys rode in tartan) and of champagne (by some accounts he drank nothing else), Eglinton planned an event to complement a race meeting. It quickly snowballed in line with the overwhelming public response to the idea and thousands of people, many dressed in medieval fashions in accordance with Eglinton’s instructions, arrived at his estate via railways and specially-commissioned steamers in late August 1839.
As we might expect, MPs and their families featured prominently in an event whose main aim was to provide models of proper behaviour for political and social elites. The Queen of Beauty was Lady Seymour, wife of the Whig minister and MP for Totnes, Lord Seymour. Large numbers of MPs and local political elites featured in both the house party that stayed at Eglinton Castle and the large crowd in the pavilions, which witnessed the action over the following days.
All did not go as planned, especially with heavy rain forcing the continual postponement of the banquet and ball. The Times reported on the Thursday that: ‘The lists in the park of Eglinton Castle at this time exhibit the appearance of a pond.’ Perhaps partly because of the inclement weather, many found the jousting a grave disappointment as well. For one commentator, this was down to an insufficiency of violence: ‘there was all the appearance of danger, while there was none in reality.’
Some MPs were even more intimately involved in the action and partially redeemed this lack of genuine violence. Viscount Alford, the MP for Bedfordshire appeared in the guise of the Knight of the Black Lion with azure and argent colours. Eglinton himself, a future member of the Earl of Derby’s government, took part in the action as the Lord of the Tournament. Both were prominent in the ‘grand equestrian melée’, which ended the sports on Friday 30 August. This pitted the ‘Scotch and Irish Knights’ (including both Eglinton and the Marquis of Waterford) against the ‘English Knights’ (including both Alford and the former MP for Pontefract, Henry Stafford Jerningham). Whether because of some personal animus underlying the confrontation, or from frustration with the weather, it was widely reported that a battle between Alford and Waterford (the latter’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry describes his career as ‘Reprobate and Landowner’) moved beyond the realms of re-enactment. As they ‘struck each other oftener than the rules permitted’ they had to be pulled apart.
Was there any more to this gathering than an effort to provide entertainment and spectacle? The original idea for the tournament had an expressly party political purpose. In 1838 the Whig government had dispensed with some of the formal ceremonial trappings for Queen Victoria’s coronation. Eglinton’s tournament was partly a jibe at Whig parsimony and a reassertion of Tory claims to be the party of tradition. A further context was provided by the so-called ‘Bedchamber crisis’ of 1839, which had seen Sir Robert Peel’s refusal to form a Tory ministry in the face of the young Queen’s unwillingness to part with some of her (Whig) ladies of the bedchamber. It is at least suggestive that comments were made on the appearance at the tournament of the Countess of Dunmore (wearing ‘a rich costume of the early part of the fifteenth century’) who would become one of Victoria’s ladies when Peel formed a ministry in 1841.
While Eglinton was ridiculed by some contemporaries and subsequent historians, his tournament was much more than a grand and expensive aristocratic folly. In its widest sense, it attempted to tap into a growing fascination with the medieval past, something amply demonstrated by the phenomenal success of Walter Scott’s writings. To Eglinton, as to Disraeli and the ‘Young Englanders’, the medieval past was not only a source of romantic and picturesque tales, but also stood as a model of gentlemanly behaviour and of political and social harmony to contrast with the nineteenth-century’s ‘increasing tendency to utilitarian dullness’. Similar currents informed the exterior and interior of Barry and Pugin’s reconstructed Palace of Westminster.
Indeed, as an article by Alex Tyrell has argued, the tournament was the making of Eglinton’s political career. After a troubled and dissipated youth, it established him as one of Scotland’s leading Tory cultural nationalists. He went on to organize a large-scale commemoration of Robert Burns and played a prominent role in what has been seen as Scotland’s first ‘nationalist’ organization, the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights. When he came into power with Derby in 1858 and was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, neither Punch nor Karl Marx would let him forget his earlier projects, the latter describing him as ‘the Don Quixote who wanted to resuscitate the tournaments of chivalry’. But in their conscious embrace of the medieval past and their mining of it for political and social models for the present, both Eglinton and those MPs who joined or watched his tournament were more ‘of’ than ‘behind’ the times.
Dr Pentland is Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh, whose major research interest is in British political history since the French Revolution. He is currently working as part of a team to produce the Oxford Handbook of Modern British Political History, 1800-2000 and researching aspects of contemporary Scottish political history and assassination and assassination attempts in the nineteenth century.
You can read the other blogposts in our Anglo-Scottish series here:
More to follow soon!