Myths of Chivalry
Laura Brodie explores Confederate monuments, and how Kara Walker undoes these long-revered symbols of the South.
Jan 14, 2021
I used to blame Queen Victoria for all the Confederate monuments.
In 1861, when America descended into its most devastating bloodbath, Victoria suffered her greatest tragedy. Her husband, Prince Albert, died suddenly at age 42, launching Victoria into a lifetime of widow’s weeds and memorial building. The results included Albert’s monument in Hyde Park, the Royal Albert Hall, and the “Albertopolis” cluster of museums in Kensington, along with numerous Albert squares, streets, clocks, plaques, statues, and army bases. Charles Dickens famously lamented, “If you should meet with an inaccessible cave anywhere…to which a hermit could retire from the memory of Prince Albert and testimonials to the same, pray let me know of it.”
This helps explain why New York’s Riverside Park contains the largest mausoleum in North America. The Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, begun for Albert in 1862, was the standard to match when Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885. So the Grant Memorial Association gathered a whopping $600,000 for Grant’s Tomb, and Julia Grant and Queen Victoria visited their husbands’ mausoleums until they were entombed beside their spouses—Victoria in 1901, and Julia in 1902.
The 19th-century cult of mourning was still going strong when the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) was founded in 1894 as a Southern memorial association, so I assumed those women’s enthusiasm for erecting hundreds of monuments copied Victoria’s craze. But then I stood in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, holding a “Standing on the Side of Love” sign while I watched Confederate and Nazi flags mingling. In the following weeks I learned much more about Confederate statues: how they’d been used to promote myths of a “heroic” Lost Cause; how they’d stood outside Southern courthouses, to cement the rule of white supremacy; how more were erected in the 1950s and ’60s, to counter the Civil Rights Movement.
The Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore
But although most post-Charlottesville articles emphasized Jim Crow, I still thought Victorian influences, if not Victoria herself, were key. The foundations for the Lost Cause emerged in 19th-century medievalism, when Tory England became fascinated with myths of chivalry. Those myths transformed Victoria’s dead prince into “Albert the Good,” while Robert E. Lee became the “Saint of the South.” I know because I teach English at Washington and Lee University, where Lee presided after the Civil War, and where the merger of Confederate and medieval myths still causes trouble.
So before the equestrian Lee finally comes down from his pedestal on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, it’s important to remember the cultural climate in which that statue was raised. And while W&L’s trustees debate whether to remove Lee’s name from the institution, those of us in Lexington, Virginia, will continue to contemplate his mausoleum, attached to the campus chapel. Lee’s monument and mausoleum illustrate how the Victorians’ passion for mourning and medievalism fueled chivalric fantasies manifested in today’s white supremacists, who use medieval symbols to brand themselves as modern crusaders.
Meanwhile, Kara Walker’s art offers a powerful antidote. Walker’s charcoal triptych 40 Acres of Mules debunks myths of chivalry, showing the violence and sexual degradation behind the knightly veneer.
When Albert married Victoria in 1840, he joined a country besotted with nostalgia for a romanticized past. The previous year at the Eglinton Tournament, nearly 100,000 spectators watched wealthy, armored Brits jousting and parading. Bad weather transformed the revels into a muddy mess, but the medieval vogue continued in everything from Walter Scott’s popularity to the art of the Pre-Raphaelites. Feudalism, Christianity, and chivalry offered a reactionary alternative to democracy, secularism, and feminism—promising that poverty could be managed through aristocrats’ noblesse oblige, and women didn’t need equality, so much as protection.
When Albert died it wasn’t surprising that Tennyson memorialized him, in his Arthurian Idylls, as “my king’s ideal knight…. Hereafter, through all times, ‘Albert the Good.’” Henri de Triqueti presented Albert the Good in armor and chain mail in his effigy in the Albert Memorial Chapel, at Windsor Castle. For the Frogmore mausoleum Carlo Marochetti sculpted an effigy of a modern knight, sleeping in his uniform and Order of the Garter regalia.
In Virginia, Robert E. Lee’s iconographic fate was similar. When he died in 1870, the Lee Memorial Association commissioned an effigy from Edward Valentine. Valentine was a Richmond sculptor whose Confederate statues included the standing Lee, recently removed from the US Capitol. For W&L’s mausoleum Valentine sculpted “Recumbent Lee,” uniformed and sleeping in an imagined battlefield tent, his left hand resting on the sword at his side.
Edward Valentine's “Recumbent Lee” statue in the Lee Chapel, Lexington, VA
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