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'The Deadly Poison of Democracy': Sir Frederic, Sir Gawain, and the Invention of Middle English David Matthews These three stories of chivalrous violence arose from a period of a few months in England in 1839.1 In that year, 'a rather ominous matter/ as Thomas Carlyle understatedly called it, seemed to threatened social order.2 In July, this 'matter'—the condition of the working class in England— violently manifested itself in a clash between protesters and police in Binrtingham. The Gentleman's Magazine, that guardian of correct taste and genteel behaviour, recorded The daring and outrageous manner in which those deluded m e n calling themselves Chartists, have for some time past conducted themselves at Birmingham, in breach of the peace and in defiance of the law' 1 This essay has benefited at different stages from suggestions made by m y colleagues at the University of Newcastle, from discussions with Barbara Pertzel, and from the perceptive comments of Ruth Evans. M y grateful thanks to them all. 2 'Chartism', in Thomas Carlyle: Selected Writings, ed by Alan Shelst (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. 151. P A R E R G O N ns 15.2 (January 1998) 20 David Matthews and related that sixty London policemen had been sent to Birmingham by rail on July 4 to quell the threat. There, in an area known as the Bull Ring, they confronted two thousand Chartists. On the police desiring the mob to disperse, they refused, and a dreadful conflict ensued. In the affray, many of the Chartists suffered severely. Nor did the police escape considerable injury. One of them was stabbed in the abdomen by a dagger, and another was wounded badly under the ribs, apparently by a similar weapon. In about three quarters of an hour after the conflict began, some troops of cavalry arrived, and on their appearance the Bull-ring was instantly abandoned by the rioters.3 Late in the following month, around 100,000 people converged a castle in Ayrshire. Many of them travelled on the new railway line to Liverpool which had proved so convenient to the London police a few weeks earlier, before transferring to one of two recently commissioned iron steamboats to Ardrossan, and completing the journey with a further rail trip.4 The modernity of their travel contrasted with i t s purpose, for these people expected to see, a t Eglinton Castle, a medieval tournament. There would be a procession, with a Queen of Beauty at its head, a jester, a feast, with dancing afterwards (for select guests) and, as the main business of the day, jousting by fully armed knights on horseback, and later a melee. Enough of the visitors also expected the torrential rain which a l l but destroyed the event on its first day for 'the feudal appearance of the display/ as the Gentleman's Magazine put it, to be 'sadly marred by thousands of umbrellas.'5 Though rescheduled to a later, drier day, when i t went ahead with some success, the tournament entered popular memory as a rained-out disaster, one of i t s abiding images, thanks to the caricaturists of the day, being of mounted knights 3 Gentleman's Magazine n.s. 12 (August 1839), 191-92. 4 Ian Anstruther, The Knight and the Umbrella: An Account of The E Tournament 1839 (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1963), p. 193. 5 Gentleman's Magazine n.s. 12 (October 1839), 414. The Deadly Poison of Democracy 21 protecting their armour with umbrellas. The satire was largely politically motivated. The ridiculing of the event indicated not a predisposition against romance as such, but a satire of a particular appropriation of it. The Eglinton Tournament was the creation of young Tories. Lord Eglinton, w h o owned the castle and largely created the event, was strongly influenced by Disraeli and the Young Englanders, and one of the clear impulses for the staging of the event was the indignation of young Tory nobles at the handling of Victoria's coronation by a straitened Whig government the year before, when some of the more costly traditions of coronation had been abandoned.7 The tournament was in part inspired by a desire to...


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