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.

These are the themes (though they are not spelled out in such a fashion) of Mark Girouard’s broad and crowded canvas. Through poetry, fiction, sermons, the literature of uplift, art and architecture, this machine-age recrudescence of Medieval idealism permeated Victorian culture, inspiring, in the end, Boy Scouts and empire-builders alike. The book is bountifully and colourfully illustrated, and the research impressive. (Grantland Rice, though, wasn’t an ‘American poet’. He was a sports writer.)

It speaks well for Girouard’s own heroic qualities that he was able to tell the story straight. The sheer preposterousness of some of his material must have offered powerful temptations to play it for laughs. But to have done so would have detracted from, not enhanced, its built-in absurdity and claptrap, as well as doing less than justice to the genuine aspirations it also reflects. He keeps a reasonably sober (though not woeful) countenance even when describing the ‘ardent and inspired nuttiness’ of figures like Charlie Lamb, the Earl of Eglinton’s half-brother, who peopled his ‘Camelot of battlemented hutches’ with several hundred guinea pigs which he transformed into knights, counts and dukes and further dignified with elaborate coats-of-arms, and Sir Kenelm Digby, a man as besotted with chivalry as Don Quixote but who wielded a pen rather than a lance. Digby’s The Broad Stone of Honour: Rules for the Gentlemen of England (1822-23, enlarged to five volumes by 1877) was an eccentric textbook of modernised chivalry as influential in its own time, particularly in public-school circles, as it is forgotten now. Reluctance to overstress the comic doubtless explains why Girouard actually suppresses some of the farce in episodes meant by their participants to recall what Byron spoke of as ‘the monstrous mummeries of the Middle Ages’. Citing the Champion of England’s ritual appearance at the Westminster Hall banquet attending George IV’s coronation in 1821, he neglects the fact that, instead of rising from the ground like feathered Mercury and vaulting with case into his seat, like Prince Hal setting out for Shrewsbury, the young man who had inherited the sinecure had to be ignominiously hoisted onto the horse because he was weighted down with 70 pounds of armour. It was the last time the Champion figured in the coronation ceremonies.

‘In England,’ Girouard admits, ‘sympathy for chivalry was by no means universal’: ‘many people and organisations, including many sympathetic and creative ones, remained indifferent to its ideals, and in some cases actively hostile to them. A concentrated study of its influence inevitably tends to make it loom too large.’ But influence can’t be separated from reception and response, and by scanting the ways that the quest for spiritual fulfilment through noble action added to the gaiety of the nation, Girouard distorts the reality in another way. He underestimates the strength and persistence of the satire that undercut the successive fashions in chivalric enthusiasm. Thomas Love Peacock’s Mr Chainmail in Crotchet Castle, ‘a good-looking young gentleman ... with very antiquated taste’, who ‘holds that the best state of society was that of the 12th century, when nothing was going forward but fighting, feasting and praying,’ is quite possibly a dig at Digby. In the 1840s and 1850s Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends was a best-seller because people chortled over its parodic juxtaposition of the language and plot lines of chivalric romance with modern topics and settings. Thackeray, who possessed what was arguably the keenest satirical sense in his generation of writers, had little time for the potted chivalric components of the historical novels written in imitation of Scott, as one sees not only in his critical remarks but, more subtly, in the way he manipulates the romancers’ clichés in novels like Henry Esmond,

Resistance to the knightly ideal was no Victorian invention: witness Falstaff’s dissection of the ‘honour’ for which Hotspur and Prince Hal were prepared to die. But side by side with the Victorian ideal, for ever colliding with it and exposing its incompatibility with human frailty, was the figure of Don Quixote, who captivated the contemporary imagination as much as any comic character in Shakespeare. Well over a hundred paintings from Cervantes’s novel were exhibited in London during the Victorian period, far outnumbering pictures that featured such other favourite subjects as, say, Falstaff the betrayer of every knightly precept in the book, or Malvolio the cross-gartered fool with fantasies of courtly love. Quixotism, the essence of the anti-chivalric idea, was always good for a laugh, as Punch’s cartoonists knew only too well.

The Return to Camelot is a model of intelligent and responsible popularisation, a constant pleasure to read. But it does not venture beneath the lively surface. No concession to academic solemnity, let alone any faith in the truth-revealing powers of psychohistory, would have been necessary to confront the question that hovers over every page: why this persistent fascination with dreams of a world that existed only in literature, and of an idealism that certainly could not be realised in the modern world? ‘Escape’ is a convenient answer, but while it might do for the make-believe aspects – tournaments, castle-building and the rest – it fails to account for the way the notion of chivalry served deeper needs. A more plausible explanation suggests itself.

The attempt to breathe new life into the chivalric ideal began at the moment when English society, seeking to recuperate from the feverish libertinism of the Regency and the earlier, somewhat more elegant amorality of the Whig aristocracy, experienced the growing burden of reawakened moral responsibility that marked the emergence of ‘Victorianism’. In grossly oversimplified terms, it was a replay of what had occurred more than a century earlier, when Addison and Steele took it upon themselves to sober England up after the long debauch of the Restoration. The best they could supply by way of ‘role model’, chivalry itself having disappeared into the limbo to which reasonable men had consigned the Middle Ages at large, was Sir Roger de Coverley, an amiable country squire of solid moral worth but with few resemblances to his knightly forebears. But when post-Regency England looked about for its own moral exemplar, one was fortunately at hand. Out of the mélange of novelties and fancies that comprised most of the Romantic response to a ‘revived’ medievalism – the artful imitations of old ballads, the novelists’ Gothick horrors, Beckford’s fallible tower, Scott’s conversion of Abbotsford into a mise en scène for a rich novelist living the life of a laird, dukes and duchesses playing at being knights errant and haughty ladies – emerged a more useful legacy: a set of masculine virtues that promised protection from the moral anarchy which people feared as the Church’s power over individual conduct continued to fade and the gritty hedonism of Utilitarianism beckoned. To embrace the code of Camelot was to join a crusade to save England through what amounted to a religious commitment, outside the Church but within easy hailing distance of it, since chivalry had, from the beginning, been a form of applied Christianity with congruent elements added from the warrior society of Northern Europe. Chivalry supplied an undogmatic faith, infinitely more picturesque and assimilable than such alternative refuges for the homeless soul as the various brands of the Comtian ‘religion of humanity’, juiceless and drab, which satisfied the desire to be intellectually honest but not the yearning for spiritual challenge and drama. It constituted a ready-made defence, laden with self-conscious altruism, against the materialistic seductions of the age.

The travellers to Camelot, if they weren’t all actual members of the hereditary ruling class, had strong social and cultural ties with it and participated in its anxieties. As the natural heirs of chivalry, they would have been perverse indeed if they had not been beguiled by it. An idealism with a venerable pedigree was much to be preferred to a newly-formulated one. Chivalry was to the people of the superior ranks what ‘respectability’ was to the Pooteresque people of the middle class, including the Dickensian Wemmicks whose faint visitation by the Medieval spirit led to their finding snug overnight retreats in toy moated castles in Walworth. Both concepts, chivalry and respectability, were at once devices of social definition and sources of class self-esteem. The great ambition of the people who were pulling themselves up by their bootstraps was to cultivate or acquire, through motions of piety and strict morality, the outward signs of earthly success and divine grace: a well-furnished house, a carriage, a suitable contingent of servants, money in the funds, and, as the supreme accomplishment, landed acres. By that time, the full measure of respectability having been acquired, one might claim to be a gentleman.

But of course one was nothing of the sort: gentlemen were born, not made. Meanwhile, true gentlemen, with whom respectability was never at issue – from time immemorial they had enjoyed all the requisites, indeed defined them – embraced chivalry as a means of reinforcing their position. The chivalric code offered a new and potent rationale and a redefined set of standards for gentlemanliness. It was a defensive strategy adopted by those to the manor born, to protect themselves against the intrusions and pretensions of the newly-arrived, a means of asserting their hereditary precedence and reinforcing their conviction of moral superiority. It made the timely point that to be a gentleman involved more than ownership of mansion, carriage and land. Chivalry was the providential weapon of a closed community that had to rely on a sedulously cultivated moral strength, wealth and political power no longer sufficing, to guard the castle from the barbarians at the gates.

Yet at the same time, subscription to the moral code could be seen as a more positive response to the menace of democracy. Magnanimity was one of the attributes of the true knight and gentleman, and what could be more magnanimous than recommending that same model of moral strength to those who had at least minimally established their respectability? Accordingly, the knightly code was held before the people at large as a glowing social ideal; on its own lofty level it was as much part of the panacea for society’s ills as thrift, temperance, self-education and improved drainage. It suggested the basis, safe and unexceptionable because it was historically rooted in Christian ethics, on which a workable social structure could be raised. Hence, for example, the chivalric tone of the Christian Socialist movement, and, half a century later, Baden-Powell’s wholesale adoption of chivalric imagery and precepts for the Boy Scouts. One influential late application was the idea of ‘playing the game’ – the idealism of the joust transferred to the suburban sports ground. But it was still Gentlemen v. Players. Common adherence to a code of sportsmanship might bind all classes on the cricket pitch of life, but social distinctions were to hold as firm as they had been in feudal times. Such camaraderie as enlivened the pub after the match stopped far short of revolutionising class relations.

Meanwhile, foreign as the idea of the marketplace had been to the chivalric world view in its pristine form, the Rich Man’s Burden evolved into the White Man’s. Carlyle’s ‘chivalry of work’ was founded on the premise that the working population could find its salvation, not in Chartism or strikes or demonstrations against the Corn Laws, but in fealty to those benevolent knights of the counting house whom he dubbed ‘Captains of Industry’. Later, the nation’s conviction that it was charged with a chivalric mission throughout the world, especially in what we now call the Third World, provided it with a handy and ennobling rationale for imperial exploitation. Long practice and the application of no little ingenuity revealed how fitted the ideal was to any number of contemporary situations, social, spiritual or commercial.

That is why the story Mark Girouard tells is so indispensable to our understanding of the Victorian climate of thought and deed. To more or less disinterested observers, it was plain that, as Henry Newbolt said in another connection many years before Man of La Mancha put Don Quixote on the musical stage, the chivalric ideal was ‘an impossible but not ignoble dream’. But there remained the dashing figure of St George, early patron of the Order of the Garter, standing firm against the dragons, the materialists and the sceptics. (A famous poet had once played St George to the hilt, rescuing a damsel in distress in Wimpole Street. It is odd that Girouard should instead have chosen John Millais’s scarcely romantic and in any case slow-paced deliverance of Effie Ruskin as the great Victorian instance of knighthood in action. Browning, it must be remembered, went on to reflect himself and his heroic intervention in the story of Caponsacchi, whom he explicitly portrayed as St George’s avatar.) In due course, the saint was appointed to preside over the Empire, as well as over Ruskin’s final quixotic essay at social reform, the ‘guild’ of Oxford undergraduates who launched what were envisioned as careers of selfless service by mending, most unsatisfactorily, the pot holes in the Hinksey Road. And it was St George who, in the first versions of what became a popular myth, appeared, flanked by bowmen, in the skies over the British trenches in the 1914-18 war. But as the myth spread, he faded from sight and was replaced by the angels of Mons, whom most people somehow found it easier to believe in. The knights never made it back to Camelot. Chivalry vanished for ever in the mud of France.