SI Vault
Ian Anstruther
May 18, 1964
A gallant attempt is made to revive the Age of Chivalry in the 19th century, but a Scottish cloudburst drowns the lords and ladies, and 100,000 spectators guffaw as rusting knights spear only air
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May 18, 1964

When Knighthood's Flower Wilted

A gallant attempt is made to revive the Age of Chivalry in the 19th century, but a Scottish cloudburst drowns the lords and ladies, and 100,000 spectators guffaw as rusting knights spear only air

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It was a bright and pleasant afternoon in London during the early summer of 1839, but all was gloom in the heart of the 3rd Marquess of Waterford, who was despoiling the peace of a four-acre garden near Regent's Park by raising an uncommon clatter in his attempt to mount a horse. In defense of the marquess, he had an excuse for his difficulty, for he was somewhat hampered by the unaccustomed burden of an 80-pound suit of armor. At last, with the help of his squires, he reached the saddle. Grasping a pinewood lance with his right hand and peering through the narrow opening of his visor, he galloped close along one side of a five-foot barrier. Coming toward him on the other side of the barrier was a strange contraption: a dummy knight perched on a wheeled wooden horse which rocketed down a pair of grooves. The marquess took as careful aim as the circumstances would allow, but something went disastrously wrong at the moment of impact. Horse and rider were no longer together, and 20 minutes later Waterford was still lying face down in a heap of sawdust and horse manure while his baffled squires twisted wrenches in an effort to release the nuts and bolts that held his armor together.

This all would have seemed passing peculiar—knighthood had been out of flower for 200 years—but for the fact that England was in a frenzy of a grand nostalgia for the vanished age of chivalry. Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and The Lady of the Lake were bestsellers, there was a fresh interest in heraldry, archery and falconry, and new castles were being built carrying every ornament, pinnacle and turret that could be fitted on them. Finally, and most improbable of all, a decision had been made to stage a medieval tournament replete with knights and jousting. The tournament was dreamed of as one of the most fantastic events in the history of English sports—and that is what it turned out to be. It was while practicing for it that the discomfited Marquess of Waterford ended breastplate down in a London garden.

The story of knighthood's last tournament actually began one year earlier, in 1838. The young Queen Victoria was being crowned, and in the interest of economy much of the traditional ceremony of the coronation was dropped. The peerage had confidently expected to be asked to a $300,000 banquet at which the Queen's Champion would appear in full armor on a charger, preceded by two trumpeters and two esquires and escorted by the Lord High Constable and the Earl Marshal. Tradition held that the Champion was then supposed to throw down a steel gauntlet, and anyone who disputed the new sovereign's claim to the throne was to pick it up and fight. After doing this three times, the Champion would back his horse all the way down Westminster Hall to the entrance, no easy feat in full armor.

But budget problems led to all this being given up, a decision that much displeased the peers, who liked their pomp and ceremony. One such disappointed noble was Archibald William Montgomerie, 13th Earl of Eglinton and the 26th of his family to own a large Scottish estate that dated back to the 12th century. Eglinton's stepfather, Sir Charles Lamb, was the Earl Marshal's deputy and would have had the job—while clad in a scarlet dress slashed with blue, a scarlet cloak and blue stockings—of clearing the floor of Westminster Hall for the Queen's Champion.

Eglinton was incensed, as well, at missing the spectacle of the Champion, a veritable knight in armor casting his steel gauntlet as though at a tournament. Both he and his half brother, young Charlie Lamb, were thoroughly steeped in the myths and lore of chivalry and addicted to reading about medieval ceremonies.

After the coronation that August, a house guest at Eglinton Castle made a suggestion. Every spring Lord Eglinton held a private race meeting. Why not add to the amusement by instituting medieval games? And perhaps one of his friends might actually appear in armor and perform the ceremony of the Challenge, while others could run at rings and tilt at quintains. Eglinton laughed at the idea, but more or less agreed. Within weeks the rumor was all over the country: Lord Eglinton was going to stage a full-scale tournament. Hundreds of friends wrote to congratulate him. The earl at first merely smiled at the exaggerated reports. But after a while he started to think seriously about the idea. He consulted his stepfather and his half brother. Pushed along by them, partly because they looked forward to the fun and none of the expense, Lord Eglinton announced that the rumor was correct.

Not that the expense worried Eglinton. For the past 200 years his ancestors had been continually in debt, the amounts ranging from half a million to two million dollars. The general pattern was that the inheritor of the title took over a deficit of several hundred thousand. By comparatively frugal living for 20 years he extinguished the debt. Then, unburdened by conscience, he would carry on the family tradition of extravagance from the age of 40 until his death, so that his heir inherited another six-figure burden to pay off.

But the 13th earl, at the age of 21, paid $14,000 for an Act of Parliament to release him from the strictures of his trustees. This gave him an annual spending income of some $60,000, while the trustees were left to cope with the $2 million in debts as best they could. (Eglinton could use the money, because, or so it was said, he kept women like he kept horses, and he had a great many fast horses.) Still, when the earl began to organize his tournament he had no inkling that it was going to cost him two years' income or that it would leave him a financial cripple for life. There were lots of other things he did not know.

Eglinton compiled a list of 150 prospective knights and held a meeting in the Bond Street showroom of Samuel Pratt, London's largest dealer in armor. All sorts of problems quickly presented themselves, for nothing on this scale had been done for more than 200 years. For example: How were tournaments proclaimed? Should the College of Heralds be approached? What were the proper dimensions for a list? Ought one to ask the Queen's permission? (He did not, and, under a 12th century edict of Henry III, he should have been disinherited.)

Each of these details and many others about costs, scoring, forfeits, challenges, gages d'amour and the Queen of Beauty were all debated at great length, every knight having his own ideas—sensible or otherwise—according to his strength, wealth and temperament, and each insisting that he alone was right. Toward the evening most of them lost their tempers and, but for Pratt's agonized entreaties, the Eglinton Tournament might have begun then and there.

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