Gothic Revival & The Eglinton Tournament

Although the Gothic Revival of the mid-18th to and the 19th Centuries was foremost an architectural movement which revived and reinvented medieval forms and structures; it also led to an increasing interest in Medievalism and classical Romanticism by antiquarians and scholars in all things from decorative design to painting and literature; it seems to have almost acted as a counter-balance to the rapid industrial progress and enlightened thinking of the age. It was not isolated to any one country either; it gripped the entire continent of Europe and even America. In some ways it became a method by which a world whose momentum of technological achievement seemed unstoppable, was able to hold on to the more aesthetic and romantic endeavours of its past. NEW ACQUISITION AS PART OF THE EGLINTON TOURNAMENT COLLECTION - In July 2014 East Ayrshire Leisure Trust, on behalf of East Ayrshire Council, acquired one of the most important remaining artefacts relating to the Eglinton Tournament of 1839 - a silver-gilt statuette of the 13th Earl of Eglinton and his horse in their full Tournament armour. Follow the link to the news article for further details.

This Romanticism took hold in Scotland too, most obviously in the Gothic arches of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh built in 1841 or in the architecture of the Gilbert Scott building within the campus of Glasgow University built in 1870. This fascination with all things medieval can also be found in the literature of the period, in such novels as 'Sir Nigel' and 'The White Company' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or 'The Black Arrow' by Robert Louis Stevenson. However, of all the Scottish writers, it was Sir Walter Scott who most captured the souls of medieval enthusiasts with his 1819 novel 'Ivanhoe'. Written as a play, it ran in no less than six different theatre productions in London alone, and its centrepiece was a grand melee and tournament complete with competing chivalrous knights, feasting and beautiful damsels in need of rescue.

Tournaments were not consigned solely to the pages of books such as Ivanhoe; the actual events were revived and held across Europe, the last of which and probably the most famous (for the wrong reasons) was held in Ayrshire on the Eglinton Estate, between Irvine and Kilwinning, in August 1839. 

It was organised and financed by the 13th Earl of Eglinton, Archibald Montgomery, and competitors were to include some of the most celebrated aristocrats in Europe including the future Napoleon III of France. 

The Montgomerie family had a fine chivalrous tradition, with battle honours such as the capture of the Pennon of Harry Hotspur by Hugh Montgomerie at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388. However, the 13th Earl should perhaps have noted that his family's fortune on the battlefield had not always been repeated on the tilting field. In 1559, another member of the family, Sir Gabriel Montgomerie, who was serving as a lieutenant in the Scots Guards of Henry II of France, mortally wounded the king during a joust when a splinter from his lance entered the King's eye. Although absolved of blame, the disgraced Montgomerie fell from favour and soon became a convert to Protestantism, and became an outlaw in the eyes of the French Catholic Monarchy. Catherine de Medici, the King's widow, had him hunted down and executed! 

Regardless of this, Archibald Montgomerie pressed ahead with his plans and the ground was chosen - in a boggy, low lying area in a bend of the Lugton River. He also announced that this great spectacle was to be open to the public, tickets were to be applied for but free of charge and spectators were to arrive in medieval costume in order to feel a part of the event. Expecting a decent crowd, arrangements were made for a crowd of up to 4000 people. Invitations too were sent out to prospective competitors and soon 150 would-be knights assembled in London at the showroom of Samuel Pratt, a dealer in medieval antiquaries. Many dropped out when they saw just how much one of Pratt's suits of armour would cost, but forty knights remained and plans were drawn up to suit them all in authentic medieval armour (a lot of these suits were probably forgeries, as the interest in medieval romanticism that the Gothic Revival had brought about also brought out the best in Victorian forgers, many of whose suits of armour are still indistinguishable from the real thing today!). Pratt was also to supply all the tents, banners and pavilions. The knights all chose glorious titles and colourful surcoats and blazons which they hoped would give the crowd a flavour of their character and make it easy for them to choose a favourite knight to support on the day. Examples of these include: 

The Knight of the Dragon (The Marquess of Waterford) 
The Knight of the Black Lion (Viscount Alford) 
The Knight of the Gael (Viscount Glenlyon) 
The Knight of the Dolphin (The Earl of Cassillis) 
The Black Knight (Walter Little Gilmour) 
The Knight of the Red Rose (Richard Lechemere) 
The Knight of the White Rose (Charles Lamb) 
The Knight of the Griffin (The Earl of Craven) 
The Knight of the Stag's Head (Captain Beresford) 
The Knight of the Ram (The Hon. H.E.H. Gage) 

Other notable dignitaries who took part on the day included: Prince Louis Napoleon of France, Count Lubeski of Poland, Count Persigny of France, The Marquess of Londonderry, Lord Shaftesbury, Princess Esterhazy of Hungary and Lady Seymour, wife of the 12th Duke of Somerset (The Queen of Beauty). 

On a sunny day in July 1839, the knights held a rehearsal in London which went off without a hitch and served to get the newspapers buzzing across the length and breadth of the country about what a mouth-watering spectacle the event was surely going to be. 

Soon the date of the tournament, the 29th of August, became imminent and almost immediately things started to go wrong. The interest in the tournament caused havoc on the roads and railways as the expected crowd of 4000 had grown to over 100, 000 causing a Victorian gridlock of carriages along the thirty miles of road between Glasgow and Ayr, prompting the occupants to dismount and proceed on foot. The Ayr to Irvine Railway cashed in - tripling prices - and played host to scuffles and full-on fights as people jostled for tickets. Lodgings too were in short supply; the Eglinton Arms, Irvine's only hotel, had been entirely booked in advance for Lord Waterford and his retinue, meaning that everyone else had to pay exorbitant prices to rent space in people's homes, gifting the town's residents an unexpected cash bonanza. 

On the morning of the tournament, all began well with perhaps the only downside during the preliminary proceedings being the large crowd making it difficult for many spectators to get a view of anything until, just as the parade of knights began before the main competition and as the Queen of Beauty, Lady Seymour (Georgina Sheridan) was being heralded, dark clouds appeared overhead and to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning, the first few drops of rain began to patter on the crowd and participants. Soon the rain turned into a violent deluge, causing the crowd to disappear under a canopy of umbrellas and the distinguished knights and ladies to make an inelegant scramble for the shelter offered by Samuel Pratt's pavilion only to discover, once there, that the splendid awning had leaked like a sieve and that their seats had been thoroughly soaked. The feast too had been ruined by the downpour and expensive costumes were now dripping wet and covered in mud. There was nothing else for it - the tournament would have to be postponed and Lord Eglinton appeared in the lists to apologise to the crowd and promise them that the knights would try to hold the tournament the following day, weather permitting. As the massive crowd squelched and slithered away through the mud, they discovered to their dismay that the river had burst its banks and now encircled them, causing them to abandon their carriages and any protection that they would have offered from the weather and make their way back into Irvine and Kilwinning on foot, only to find no accommodation or cover there either. The day had been an utter disaster. 

The tournament is remembered today as being both a hugely expensive Victorian folly and as the last attempt of any scale to capture the grandeur and romantic reinterpretation of the medieval age that typified the period of Gothic Revival. 

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