The Eglinton Tournament and King Arthur
This weekend marks the 182nd anniversary of the Eglinton Tournament, the lavish medieval re-enactment held at Eglinton Castle in August 1839. Organised by Archibald, 13th Earl of Eglinton, the event drew a staggering 100,000 spectators, and jousting participants included various earls, marquis, viscounts, and even the future Napoleon III of France. The tournament, inspired by the Gothic Revival and the rise of Romanticism, aimed to emulate some of the chivalric ideals long associated with stories of King Arthur, of which the Earl of Eglinton himself was a professed fan. But the Eglinton Tournament isn’t the only thing that links our project area to legends of King Arthur, so grab your horse, dust off your chainmail, and join us as we explore some local facts and legends of the once and future king.
The Gawain Poet
Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the best-known Arthurian stories, having been adapted for print, stage, and screen numerous times over the years, including this year’s big-budget Green Knight by David Lowery. The 14th century poem opens on New Year’s Eve, when a mysterious stranger, the eponymous Green Knight, issues a challenge to the Knights of the Round Table. The deal is this: to strike the Green Knight with his own axe in return for having the blow reciprocated in a year and a day. Gawain boldly accepts, grabbing the Green Knight's axe and lopping off the stranger's head. Yet to the shock of the court, the Green Knight doesn't die. He simply picks up his severed head from the floor and, as he turns to ride away, reminds them all of the deal: in one year and one day, Gawain must seek out the Green Knight to accept the same fate.
There are various contenders for the author of this anonymous poem, and one theory that gained traction in the early 20th century attributed it to an enigmatic writer known as Huchoun, or “little Hugh”. Who exactly was Huchoun? Nobody knows for sure but Victorian antiquarian, George Neilson, believed he was the brother-in-law of Robert II of Scotland: a knight known as Hugh of Eglinton.
The Holy Grail
King Arthur and his knights have been seeking the Holy Grail ever since they were first introduced to it by 12th-century French writer, Chrétien de Troyes. Supposedly used at the Last Supper, one story describes how Joseph of Arimathea used it to catch the blood of Christ at the crucifixion, before bringing the vessel with him as he journeyed to Britain. What happened to the grail after that is unclear, and people have puzzled over its whereabouts ever since. Luckily for Arthur and luckily for us, though, we may not have to look far. Some people believe that a considerable number of Knights Templar took refuge in Ayrshire after their order was disbanded. This, along with 19th century theories that connected the Knights Templar with the grail, has led to the idea that Kilwinning, the location of the oldest Freemason Lodge in the world, is the final resting place of this much-coveted artefact.
Old King Cole
His connection to the well-known nursery rhyme may be debatable, but Coel Hen (“Coel the Old”) appears to have been a real king of the Old North around the 5th century AD. Legend says that he met his doom in a bog near the village of Tarbolton, South Ayrshire, and excavations in nearby Coilsfield uncovered several urns containing human remains (as well as a rather fancy trumpet). These urns were taken to Eglinton Castle at some point, where they were presented to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1846. But what connects this historical king to the legends of King Arthur? Coel Hen’s impressive genealogical line includes various famous figures from history and legend such as St Mungo, the patron saint of the city of Glasgow, and in some traditions, Eigr, the mother of King Arthur. One early legend recounts the battle between a king known as Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio and Gwrgi and Peredur, Coel's grandsons. Gwenddoleu's court bard was a man called Myrddin, a prototype of the character we now know as Merlin. Mryddin was so distraught when Gwenddoleu was slain by Gwrgi and Peredur that he went mad, earning him the moniker of Wyllt ("wild"), and fled to the Caledonian Forest, where he supposedly received the gift of prophecy.
Wood of Beit
Speaking of forests brings us onto another descendant of Coel Hen: a 6th century king of the Old North known as Gwallog ap Lleenog. Alongside Rhydderch Hael, Morgant Bwlch of Bryneich, and Urien Rheged, Gwallog fought against Hussa, King of Bernicia, earning him the title of “the affliction of Lloegr”: that is, the bane of the Saxons. According to medieval bard Taliesin, Ayrshire was the scene of a number of these conflicts, and a "battle in the wood of Beit at the close of the day" seems to describe a twilight battle in what is now the town of Beith. Over time, history mixed with legend; Gwallog eventually came to be known as a knight of King Arthur, alongside one of his brothers who was a supposed ancestor of the Kings of Gwent and another brother who was the King of the Fairies. Families, eh?
Ready for a quest of your own?
And so concludes our whistle-stop tour of local Arthurian legend. If all that excitement has got you ready to explore the local area, head over to our Places That We Know app for some fantastic walks, including our upcoming Eglinton trail https://www.placesthatweknow.org/
We can’t promise any Questing Beasts but look out for swallows preparing for their winter migration, as well as the emergence of fungi as we come into September. With the greens of the woodland giving way to the resplendent reds and golds of autumn, it’s easy to imagine the clash of those chivalrous jousting knights 182 years ago at the Eglinton Tournament, and the myths and legends that inspired them.