One of the most important cultural developments in Victorian England was the growth of medievalism. Medievalism was an expression of the yearning for a medieval golden age and as such was very much a reactionary movement. Those who felt alienated by industrialisation and modern capitalism looked back to a mythical past in which romance, chivalry, religion and honour created a stable and moral society. Medievalism was all-pervasive; it was represented in literature by Sir Walter Scott, in architecture by Augustus Pugin (a leading proponent of the Gothic Revival and the architect of the Houses of Parliament), and in art by men such as Edmund Leighton, John William Waterhouse and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Medievalism also found its way into the pastimes of the elite. Members of the aristocracy, and to a lesser extent the newly wealthy middle classes, enjoyed dressing up in historical costume and reenacting famous moments in medieval history or scenes from Arthurian romances. This might take the form of simple amateur dramatics at home, or it could be a much larger affair. One of the most elaborate medieval reenactments of the 19th century was the 1839 Eglinton Tournament, which is little-known today but was renowned in its time. It apparently grew out of the disappointment felt by the Earl of Eglinton at the relative lack of pageantry in Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837. She deliberately eschewed the pseudo-medieval trappings of George IV’s 1820 coronation; no Queen’s Champion would ride into Westminster and throw down his gauntlet, and there would be no medieval-style banquet. Eglinton felt aggrieved that the aristocracy had been denied their hereditary roles and costumes, and his frustration was echoed by those who called Victoria’s coronation ‘The Penny Crowning’.
Perhaps as a result of this disappointment, Eglinton decided to recreate a full scale medieval tournament at his castle in Ayrshire, southwest Scotland, with thousands of participants and tens of thousands of spectators. There was to be a grand procession of costumed knights and ladies, jousting, a medieval feast and a costume ball. Eglinton and his friends spent the best part of a year practicing for the jousting, which was the main focus of the event. Practice tilting was set up, incredibly, in Marylebone Road, and it attracted thousands of spectators. Fulfilling public expectations came at a price; Eglinton spent at least £40,000 on the tournament, a huge outlay which left him distressed for money for the rest of his life. Other participants also spent a great deal on their clothing and armour. Lord Glenlyon, for example, paid £346 for his own costume and a staggering £1000 for the outfitting of his retinue.
“On one small spot time had revolved; it appeared as though five centuries had rolled and left all unchanged. The antiquarian might close his volume and look on the living picture his lore pondered o’er – no scenic delusion; no dramatic artifice; no character sustained in masquerade – all true, all natural, real as on the battle-eve, all the nobler feelings swelled the bosom and dignified the part”.
When the tournament was held on Wednesday 28th August 1839, the size of the audience more than answered Eglinton’s expectations. The Examiner estimated that around 60,000 to 80,000 spectators showed up at Eglinton Castle, many of them having come up all the way from London. However, the weather did not prove obliging; as the day wore on it started to rain. For the initial procession, the Queen of Beauty (played by Lady Seymour) and her ladies were forced to ride in carriages rather than upon their richly caparisoned steeds. This, together with the sight of spectators pulling out their umbrellas, ruined the intended effect. The Chronicle afterwards complained that “there is nothing chivalrous about an umbrella”, and Bradshaw’s Journal noted how the rain pushed the tournament “from the sublime to the ridiculous”. The jousting began, but the rain worsened and the tents and grandstands collapsed, forcing the spectators to flee for shelter. The collapse of the banqueting pavilion meant that thousands of guests who had expected to be fed and entertained that evening were left to wander through the rain-sodden countryside, their medieval finery ruined and their stomachs empty.
By Friday 30th, however, the weather had improved substantially, and with the return of 10,000 loyal spectators the tournament went ahead as originally planned. One observer of Friday’s tournament described the atmosphere in typically overblown Victorian language:
The press reaction to the tournament was lukewarm. Some newspapers heralded it as a triumphant portrayal of medieval chivalry, whilst others – particularly those with Whig sympathies – viewed it as a ridiculous farce. The Earl of Eglinton himself had mixed feelings about the event. He admitted its “manifold deficiencies” and was disappointed that it was only “a very humble imitation” of the scenes which his imagination had portrayed. However, he thought that he had “at least done something towards the revival of chivalry”, and indeed the tournament did stay in the popular consciousness for some time. Several paintings displayed at the next summer exhibitions were titled The Tournament, and in the following years a pantomine, an opera and a novel made references to it. The earl could also be comforted by the lucrative line in tournament memorabilia, which included crockery depicting the jousting and trophies featuring himself dressed up as a medieval knight.