Magnanimity

Richard Altick

  • The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman by Mark Girouard
    Yale, 312 pp, £12.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 300 02739 7

It was the muddiest fiasco since the flooding Avon put paid, just seventy years earlier, to Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee extravaganza at Stratford. In 1839 the 26-year-old Earl of Eglinton held at his Scottish estate a magnificent chivalric entertainment, complete with chain-mailed jousters on caparisoned horses, a court of noble women attending the Queen of Beauty, and all the pageantry and bloodless combat proper to Medieval entertainment. The cream of society was invited and spent a huge sum outfitting itself. On the opening day the road to Eglinton was clogged for thirty miles as 100,000 commoners (it was said) gathered to watch Scott’s romances brought to life. But within a few hours a raging storm sent them slogging homeward through morasses of mud, and the blue-blooded cast and audience, their Medieval hair-dos now sodden and lank, retreated into marquees that leaked water at every crevice. The next day, the torrent continuing, the knights tilted with mops and broomsticks in the waterlogged ballroom. The press had a field day of its own. In that year of severe depression, with the clouds of Chartism steadily darkening, the nation could do with a spot of comic relief, especially in the form of the aristocracy making expensive fools of themselves.

This was not the first event in the history of revived medievalism to symbolise, however inadvertently, the vulnerability of the chivalric ideal in modern society, nor was it to be the last. Already, in 1825, the tall tower of William Beckford’s new baronial hall. Font-hill Abbey, had collapsed without warning. A few years after the Eglinton debacle, one of the day’s leading artists, William Dyce, was commissioned to paint allegorical frescoes on Arthurian themes in the Queen’s Robing Room in the new Houses of Parliament. A decade later, a coterie of young, untried artists including Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Morris set out to adorn the walls of the Oxford Union with similar subjects. But neither Dyce nor the high-spirited youths were qualified to paint in fresco, and the Oxford pictures decayed and disappeared even more rapidly than the ones at Westminster, which required extensive repairs as early as 1868.

Despite these calamities, the Victorians were bent on adopting the Arthurian ideal as the supreme guide to conduct. Courtesy, gentleness, honour, physical valour, mercifulness, generosity, sexual purity, devoted service to women, consideration for the oppressed – mortal man could scarcely accommodate more virtues than these. Although Burke, in his famous lament over Marie Antoinette, had declared, ‘The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of England is extinguished forever,’ at the beginning of the 19th century the Romantic delight in things Medieval had nurtured a regenerated admiration of chivalry. Outside literature (Scott’s romances set in the Middle Ages, such as Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward, were to kindle the imaginations of countless boys and men throughout the century), the chivalric vogue manifested itself first in such fancy-dress forms as the Eglinton tournament and Queen Victoria’s ‘bal costumé’ of 1842, but by mid-century it was the spirit of chivalry, not its mere trappings, that predominated. Against a background of lavishly renovated castles, such as William Burges produced at Cardiff for Lord Bute, and country-house halls stuffed with arms and armour, the fashionable ‘collectibles’ of the day, the ethic of the mounted knight with sword and shield turned up in innumerable social contexts. From Disraeli’s Young Englanders it passed to Kingsley’s Muscular Christians, bringing workingmen’s colleges and settlement houses to the underprivileged, and thence to the self-consciously virtuous, studiously unintellectual, pattern-cut products of the public schools. Alfred Tennyson’s Uncle Charles, convinced that his family was descended from the Medieval d’Eyncourts, devoted his patrimony to converting a modest Lincolnshire house into the imposing Bayons Manor, ‘the most convincing re-creation yet put up in England of the manor house of a late-medieval gentleman’, and Bayons Manor, in turn, into a castle equipped with fortifications, drawbridge and artificially-ruined keep – an enterprise vividly described not long ago in Robert Martin’s biography of the poet. Decades later, Charles’s nephew, the Poet Laureate, could pay no higher tribute to the late Prince Consort than by dedicating the first several Idylls of the King to his memory as ‘Scarce other than my king’s ideal knight’. Between them, the two Tennysons illustrated two major aspects of the chivalric obsession. Fancy expanded into pretentiousness which then lapsed into absurdity, and noble sentiments carried within them the seeds of cant.

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