The Last Joust

Kilwinning, in the heart of Ayrshire, is the site of an interesting historic event not spoken of often enough:
In the year 1839 Kilwinning played host to the last great joust in the United Kingdom, organised by Archibald Montgomerie, 13th Earl of Eglinton.

Archibald himself was an interesting man. Born on the 29th of September in Palmero, Sicily to a Major General he would go on to study at Eton and in later life join the Conservative Party. At the height of his political career, he would serve as a Conservative whip and in the House of Lords, eventually becoming Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, not once but twice. Unfortunately one of his most noteworthy political moments was organising the House of Lords in opposition to the Jewish Disabilities Bill of 1844, a bill that would let Jewish people stand in parliament as MPs. Not exactly progressive, even for his time, but what else would you expect from a 19th Century Tory lord?

Aristocratic and reactionary as only a Brit can be Archibald was a man born in the right era. In the late 18th and early 19th century, The Romantic cultural movement had gripped the nation and everyone was obsessed with chivalry, and knights and stories of medieval valour. Archibald himself was also very fond of the knightly blood that ran in his veins; a member of his family tree even managed to best Harry Hotspurs – a famous English knight – at the battle of Otterburn.

It was in this background of archaic obsession and his own personal fascination with feudal life that the Earl heard that the Whig government would not hold the traditional banquet in Westminster during the coronation of Queen Victoria. Now the Earl took this attempt to distance Britain from its past as a personal slight and set out to right this wrong.

The preparations began, with genuine medieval armour being sourced for genuine knights, which Britain still had at the time. Around a hundred and fifty were invited, though less than a third of that number actually attended. Great dress rehearsals happened in London, and invitations were sent out – in the Earl’s own words – “only to the most elite of the elite”. Stalls and markets were planned and memorabilia and artworks were commissioned en mass for the event. Some critics were even starting to begrudgingly admit the joust was going to be a good show, even if Queen Victoria herself privately admitted to thinking the tournament was “foolish”. The Whigs were not cowed, however. Many were critical that such vast expenses were being spent on a flight of fancy when the economy was in shambles and people in cities across the UK were starving. Nonetheless, the event was set to go on. As the anticipation for the event began to gather steam the general public were invited, with free tickets available to be applied for, though the Earl did ask for people to wear medie val dress where possible. This caused a groundswell and soon thousands had applied to attend.

People started pouring into Ayrshire, by trains, boats and carriages, overwhelming Kilwinning and Irvine, which only had one hotel at the time.  The roads between Ayr and Glasgow were said to be full to the brim and the newly opened train line from Glasgow to Irvine packed, with people literally fighting for tickets.

The tournament drew in massive crowds – nearly one hundred thousand people – as well as notable foreign dignitaries including nobility from Hungary and Poland, as well as Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Boneparte.

The Joust itself began on the 28th of August at noon, with a procession of knights on horseback. Forty knights lead the parade, with their retinues in tow, banners fluttering and crowds cheering. Unfortunately, all the chivalry and charisma and charm was for nothing, as nothing can prepare you properly for the weather in Ayrshire.

As the knights approached the tournament grounds, the heavens opened, turning the land beneath their feet to mush. Ladies in fine dresses fled for their carriages, and the crowds sheltering under leaky grandstands had to turn back. Lord Eglinton announced that the tournament would gather again the next day but it wasn’t until the 30th that the event actually took place, this time with a far smaller crowd around a waterlogged field. Afterwards, a banquet was held, with only 400 people in attendance.

The tournament would go down as a massive blunder, one which the Earl’s political opponents parodied and mocked for years to come, and which proved a huge financial disaster for The Earl. Despite its resounding failure to capture knightly valour and wow crowds with an example of British nobility in action I think this event is worth remembering, both because for a brief moment Kilwinning was the centre of attention, not only for Britain, but also further abroad, and also because it imparts an important lesson – never trust the weather to stay sunny on an important day in Ayrshire.

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