‘What is this strange contraption?’ It was 9:30am on a grey, cool Sunday morning and I was in a 12th-century encampment from the Holy Land (temporarily translated to a damp field in Northamptonshire), explaining the principle of photography to two Normans. Within five minutes’ walk were two thousand years of British history, ranging from a Roman legion to Second World War troops representing Britain, Germany, the USA, Russia and Poland. The day ahead would encompass tanks, trebuchets and muskets, thundering hooves and shattered lances, showers of arrows loosed from English yew, a shield wall, and the spine-tingling thrum of a Merlin engine, as a Spitfire burst through clouds of smoke to do a victory roll in the skies above. This was History Live! (formerly the Festival of History), English Heritage’s annual smorgasbord of a weekend celebrating British history.
I love visiting reenactments or living history events: I always have. In fact The Sealed Knot, England’s Civil War reenactment society, is almost entirely responsible for my love of history. When I was very small we used to go on holiday to a campsite at Trelowarren in Cornwall, and one year The Sealed Knot performed a battle there. That was impressive enough, but later in the evening we bumped into some of the reenactors (still in costume) at the local pub. I was very shy, but was persuaded to make a drawing of them as a present. In return, one of the cavaliers gave me a gift of a little medallion bearing the portrait of Prince Rupert of the Rhine (I wore it on Sunday to History Live).
Even as a so-called grown-up, I love the colour and energy of reenactments. Although the larger battles might be choreographed to some extent, many aspects are still down to individual skill. Take the joust, for example. The four competitors at History Live were experienced ‘knights’ and I’ve seen at least one of them in action before. The results of the joust are not fixed – it entirely comes down to how the knights perform at the time – and so it feels very authentic. That’s why this whole event is such fun: there’s just so much to see – thousands of reenactors and a constant stream of displays and events. There’s also a market, intended for reenactors but open to the public, where you can buy reproduction glassware, jewellery and fabrics, bows, quivers, daggers, and costumes ranging from 15th-century gowns to 1940s floral frocks. We’ve been a few times before and so, knowing what to expect, I gleefully regressed to childhood as soon as I got through the gates, and spent a breathless day haring from one event to the next, photographing anyone who would stand still for long enough.
With English Heritage at the helm, historical accuracy is key. Participants are expected not only to wear the correct costume and fabrics for their period, but also to keep in character as far as possible – and that means no mugs of coffee, no phones and meals cooked on skillets over open fires (mind you, judging by the number of delicious aromas as we walked around the camp, this was no hardship). The event spreads over two days, though we were only there for one, and many reenactors sleep in tents in their encampments: some on camp-beds heaped with furs and blankets; some in full-size, curtained four-poster beds they’ve put up within their pavilions. Once the public has gone for the day and twilight has fallen, it must be absolutely magical, clustered with the rest of your group around the fire, eating, drinking and catching up on the day’s battles. I’ve never been involved in any reenactment (to make it worthwhile you have to invest a great deal of spare time and money), but it has always rather appealed to me – not just for the childish thrill of dressing up, but also because I think there must be a splendid sense of camaraderie.
Just to give you an idea of the range of displays… The day kicked off with a display of siege weaponry, comparing the range and efficiency of a Roman catapulta; an onager; a Norman traction trebuchet; a medieval Saracen crossbow; a smaller early 15th-century English version of the same; and a larger, late 15th-century trebuchet. (I have mentioned before that I have a completely inexplicable fascination with trebuchets, so this was a great start to the event.) From there we moved on to a talk about casualty evacuations in the trenches of World War I; and after that it was time for the Battle of Tewkesbury. Once we’d seen Lancaster categorically defeated by York, we headed down to the market for a browse and a bite to eat; and then, just after lunch, we headed back to watch the Battle of Hastings (a shield wall against cavalry? What were they thinking?). After that it was off to the Parade Ground to watch the jousting, overseen by the dashing marshal Sir Robert, who looked like a sitter from a Van Eyck portrait. The joust was contested between two English knights, a German knight (from the Holy Roman Empire, of course) and a slightly anachronistic American (who was described as ‘from the far west’, which is at least true).
We stayed for part of a riding display by King Charles II’s cavaliers, presented by Samuel Pepys, but then headed off to watch a 1940s fashion show and a demonstration about how to do victory rolls in your hair (we’re off to the Goodwood Revival in September). Finally it was time to head back to the Main Arena for the finale, the ‘Drop Zone D-Day’ reenactment, which pulled out all the stops with tanks, explosions, machine gun fire, paratroopers parachuting in from the skies, the French Resistance and, to top it all off, the glorious low-flying sweep of a Spitfire. Things came to a close with the Grand Parade, which is actually my favourite event of the day: the reenactors all march past in chronological order and, as they leave the field, they form a guard of honour so that all of them have the chance to salute their fellows from every historical period. Depending on their period, they salute, crash their swords against their shields, present arms or – in the case of the 17th-century Scottish regiment – perform a quick ceilidh turn in between each set of arrivals. It’s wonderful stuff.
Those of you who’ve read my posts on King Hereafter and Bernard Cornwell will have witnessed my steadily increasing desire to see Viking oar-dancing in real life. I made it my mission to collar as many Vikings as possible during the course of the day, to find out whether any of them had ever seen it done. Responses ranged from, ‘Not around here, but Group X are mad enough to have done it if anyone has,’ to, ‘Aren’t there doubts whether it was ever actually done? I thought it only cropped up in one of the sagas, and then they fleshed it out for the Kirk Douglas film in the ’50s.’ I could hardly say, “Well, Dorothy Dunnett talks about it, so it must be true,” and so I bit my tongue. But sadly it looks as though there is no oar-dancing to be seen in the UK at present, although a couple of my collared Vikings said it sounded great fun and they’d be up for having a go if there was ever an opportunity. So my mission continues. If anyone else has ever heard of this being done, do let me know…
I leave you with some more of my photos from the day (well, all except the Spitfire picture, which is my dad’s: credit where credit’s due). I’m always fascinated by the fact that you can put some people into costume and their face looks absolutely right for the period: whether that’s the German landsknecht with his drooping white moustache, or the veteran at the Battle of Tewkesbury in his green tabard, who looked like he could be an extra in Game of Thrones. You can also see my attempts at rapid-fire photography of a clash in the joust, with splinters of lance flying in all directions.
And, because this blog is mostly about books, I should add that if you’re interested in living history, there’s a book called I Believe In Yesterday by Tim Moore, which relates his experiences with various different reenactment groups. I remember picking it up once in Waterstones, years ago, and finding it very funny; I must buy it and read the whole thing. I’m sure that looking at the groups from an insider’s perspective will be the perfect complement to this very, very enjoyable day out. (For those in the UK, History Live happens every year and will probably be at Kelmarsh again in 2014. Let me know if you’re tempted to go!) And a big bravo to everyone involved.
P.S. If, by some fluke, you happen to be one of the people shown in these pictures, just drop me an email and I’d be more than happy to send you a high-res version of the photo.