It was at the tail end of August in 1839, after a year of planning and rehearsing, that thirteen valiant knights took to a muddy field near Eglinton Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland, and pretended to joust. Identified by silly names, such as “Knight of the Burning Tower,” “Knight of the Dolphin,” and “Knight of the Saturday Fever” (only one of which I made up), the men were all that remained of the original one hundred and fifty volunteers.
Decked out in their Medieval-est finery, the knights wore period-appropriate armor while battling a torrential downpour and knocking fruit from one another’s helmets with mops and broomsticks. One participant even carried a not-so-medieval umbrella.
The Eglinton Tournament was the project of Archibald Montgomerie, the 13th Earl of Eglinton, who wished to raise interest in the Romanticism of Britain’s past at a time when the Whigs sought to stamp out any idealization of the monarchy.
Thanks to the uncooperative weather, the event was not the success it could have been. Lord Eglinton himself admitted to “the manifold deficiencies in its exhibition,” but the tournament undoubtedly left a lasting impression on the imaginations of the British people. It attracted more than 100,000 period-clad spectators from all walks of life and sparked a surge of Romantic art, Gothic writings, and reenactments of a more chivalrous age, which presumably went a little more smoothly than the Eglinton Tournament. But probably yielded just as much giggling.
In fact, this somewhat failed instance of a historical reenactment may have even been an important catalyst in the rise of a kind of quirky, vaguely ridiculous hobby for the most fascinating of amateur historians here in the United States as well.
I attended my first reenactment a few weeks ago as my family and I road tripped our way through Michigan. My youngest son is a connoisseur of all things military history and so when we realized we would be passing through the town of Frankenmuth during the weekend of the Cass River Colonial Encampment, we couldn’t pass it up.
And I’m glad we didn’t. Though I can honestly say I have never had a particular desire to see one, I found the whole thing fascinating. It was as wonderfully absurd as I thought it might be, with otherwise regular people camping out using replica 18th century tents and tools, eating Subway sandwiches around the campfire, and loading the muzzles of their muskets with gunpowder poured from plastic packages.
But despite the anachronisms and general goofiness, I found a lot to love. My son wandered the grounds and met the camp physician who offered to balance his humors, talked with General George Washington who attempted to recruit him, and marched to the rhythm of the drum and fife as a friendly British officer invited him to fall in. The re-enactors were kind and knowledgeable and very much aware that they looked a little silly in their wool uniforms on a drizzly, 85-degree afternoon in 2018.
We watched several demonstrations of military drills, musket firing, and a couple of full battles from two different conflicts in American history. We cheered as the American rebels surged and wrested control of the covered bridge from their British enemies, and we applauded the re-enactors dedicated enough to their craft to play dead in a puddle in the middle of the road. Sure there were manifold deficiencies in the exhibition, but we left better informed and more curious. And maybe giggling just a little.
It’s just 28 days until the publication of Gentleman of Misfortune, my debut historical novel! You can get a peek at a book trailer here: https://www.facebook.com/sangletonwrites/