It’s hard to say how this contest began or when – some people say it’s proof that King Arthur was from the Scottish Borders region; others believe that the contest only dates from the 1600s when women were thrown into lakes to determine whether they were witches.
The Lady of the Lake contest takes place on the fourth Sunday in June at Crummock Water in the Lake District. Nowadays, the ten Ladies of the Lake are determined by numerous endurance contests at various swimming clubs in the Lake District. In olden times, when there were no such things as diving suits everyone from the local village would take turns being the Lady, so as to stop anyone from getting hypothermia. When the water was really cold the Lady of the Lake would sit on a log in the water.
At 8 a.m. the Lady of the Lake for the 10-yard throw waddles into the water and swims to her appointed spot for the first round of the contest. When she’s in the correct place, the throwing judge, or Sir Gawain as he’s known, shouts “King Arthur Be Here”. The Lady then extends her sword to its full length. At this point the contestants are allowed to start throwing their quoits in an attempt to land them on the sword. Each person has 10 quoits and has twenty minutes to throw them all.
The person who lands the most quoits over the sword wins the prize of a carving knife for the Christmas turkey. If there is a tie then contestants have a sudden death throw-off taking alternate shots at the upright sword until one person lands a successful throw. Once a winner is determined, the 10-yard Lady is replaced by the 20-yard Lady and the contest is resumed using exactly the same rules.
The most successful thrower of all time was the 18th-century blacksmith Jebbediah Jennings who won at least two contests per year between 1714 and 1756. He attributed his success to a steady hand and lots of practice. He described his technique thus, “I sees no point in chucking ye quoit on a flat track as it bain’t going to hit the mark; my idea is to swing my arm in line wit’swordde, throw it high and make sure it’s going end over end towards ye pointed end; the flat of’t hand should finish high, like I was waving to the sun or a passing clouded.”
In 1861, there was a huge altercation because one of the contestants, Hugh Burley, had recently been jilted by the 30-yard Lady of the Lake and so he threw his quoits at her hitting her on the head. She responded by throwing the quoits back, hitting Sir Gawain, and two other contestants. She then swam to the shore and chased Burley stabbing him in the buttocks four times before being restrained.
To stop this happening again, four knights, Sir Bedivere, Sir Lancelot, Sir Bors, and Sir Galahad patrol the throwing area and are allowed to smite any wrongdoer who is attempting to hurt the Lady of the Lake.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker