Soldiers, snails and silken gowns: social history comes to life at the 2009 English Heritage Festival of History

By Rosie Clarke | 27 July 2009
a photo of a man dressed in a 16th century slashed outfit and feather hat, holding a wooden pike

(Above) Pikeman on parade with a 16th century Dutch regiment

My first English Heritage Festival of History is an overwhelming experience rather like Glastonbury – a massive tent city of confusing sights, sounds and noises, peopled by fascinating characters in outlandish outfits.

Resounding booms echo from the Battle of Agincourt, horses' hooves thud past from a Medieval joust, animal hides are tanned over smoky fires and a good-natured troop of Roundheads dragging cannons through the camp cheer a bystander wearing a Levellers t-shirt.

Enthusiastic children sit enthralled as a masked hangman tells gruesome tales of gory executions, and a 16th century Dutch regiment wearing multicoloured slashed outfits present their weapons in a flamboyant drill.

a photo of a man carrying a long bow and quiver of arrows, wearing the red cross of St George

Chris Heald plays one of Henry V's archers at the Battle of Agincourt

In the Medieval area, King Henry V's standard bearer instructs a small boy in holding up the massive flag: "You've got to brace it against your foot. Keep it up! Now I'll leave you to it," he shouts cheerily.

Chris Heald, an interior designer from Buxton, plays an Agincourt archer complaining about dysentery sweeping through the ranks. "We've got our hose round our ankles – it makes it a bit faster to get to the toilet," he explains. Everyone learned archery from the age of eight, practising every Sunday.

a photo of a man and two women in extravagant 14th century courtly robes, in front of an elaborate tent

The Paladins of Chivalry from South London recreate courtly life from the late 14th and early 15th centuries

To the peaceful strains of a recorder, a glamorous group teach visitors a graceful sweeping dance. The Paladins of Chivalry, from South London, recreate courtly life from the late 14th and early 15th centuries. "We're people from very disparate walks of life with a shared passion for history," says Sian Hammerton-Fraser, from Buckinghamshire.

She plays Elizabeth Plantagenet, daughter of John of Gaunt and granddaughter of Edward III, and apologises for appearing "unseemly". "When the wind is not messing with my hair, I have a silk veil and a circlet of silver wire," she promises.

The outfits have to be a big part of the attraction of re-enacting: her floor-length gown of burgundy and black Italian shot silk is offset by a necklace of onyx, pearls, garnets and gold.

a photo of a smiling woman in a green Tudor dress and velvet cap

Martha Buck is the wise woman for the Tudor Travellers, and supplies them with herbal remedies

Clare Buck, from Burford, is a Sheltered Housing Officer about to become a full-time foster carer. In her spare time she enjoys playing wise woman Martha Buck with the Tudor Travellers, a group based at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk.

She proudly points out her pot marked with the head of a stag, her family's crest, and the leaping deer brooch adorning her hat, both referring to her surname.

She lists the different ingredients she'll be grinding together to make a cough syrup, before setting it to "seethe" upon the fire.

Among her surprising remedies are a couple of snails ready to cool burns by slithering across them. "He did make a bid for freedom earlier this day," she exclaims, recapturing one spirited creature attempting to escape. "They move right swift when they needs must!"

a photo of a woman in a white bonnet and apron holding up a loaf of bread

Ann Beeby, of the Heilbron Command Boer War re-enactors, displays a loaf of twice-baked rusks

Ann Beeby, who is retired, and her South African husband have been with the Boer War unit Heilbron Command since 2004.

Her practical dress, apron and bonnet are very similar to those worn by pioneering settlers in the American West. On this hot day she's comfortable in bare feet, and laughs as she admits that their independent group “don't march, don't wear uniform, and generally slob around."

She describes the typical food the Boers would have eaten while trekking across the country and on campaign: dried fruit, dried meat known as "biltong" and pieces of sweetcorn dried to form "grits" which make a polenta-like porridge, or ground into fine "mealie-meal" flour for baking.

Her husband still likes to start every day with a breakfast of coffee and rusks: small rolls stuck into one loaf, then snapped apart to be baked separately a second time. Their texture is similar to Italian biscotti, and they have to be dipped in tea or coffee to be soft enough to digest.

a photo of a man in World War II army uniform shaving

One Tommy begins the day with a shave and a smoke in the World War II army camp

In the World War II camp, the 2nd Guards Rifle Division, a Russian regiment, are mending their uniforms while the Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal Squad demonstrate a controlled explosion.

Children are fascinated by the sight of a squaddie carefully shaving while smoking a roll-up, older visitors comment on the contents of kit bags spread out on display and weapons enthusiasts quiz German soldiers on the precise difference between the guns used by opposing sides.

One Scottish enthusiast explains why he's playing a German this weekend. "Within the society we've got British, Americans and Germans, and we've all got all the uniforms," he says, looking at the ancient weapons.

"They never designed this stuff to be kicking about in 65 years' time, but it's all still here."

a photo of two warriors from the Dark Ages in armour with helmets and shields encouraging their troops

Leaders of the Northumbrian thanes encourage their warriors

The Vikings, one of the largest Dark Ages re-enactment groups in the country, recreate a 1065 skirmish between land-owning Northumbrian thanes, who supported King Harald but revolted against the doubling of their taxes, and the battle-hardened Huscarls of the King's brother, Earl Tostig.

The professional Huscarls form a shield wall which seems impossible to break through, swinging intimidating long-handled Dane axes in figures of eight with the ease of baton twirlers. These vicious weapons are known to have penetrated an armoured rider's leg and his saddle to kill the horse underneath him.

The fighters separate several times, taking a break while their leaders parley. Both groups kneel for a blessing from their Priest, drink water from hollowed-out horns and bang their shields, taunting the enemy. "Negotiations have broken down quite badly," observes the commentator. After the battle they charge full speed at the audience, a terrifying sight.

a photo of a group of Roman soldiers clustered under their shields in a defensive formation

The Ermine Street Guard demonstrate the testudo defensive formation with their shields

In the Roman camp, crowds gather around the gladiator arena, roaring with excitement as Emperor Nero decrees which defeated fighters would live to fight again, or die streaked in stage blood.

The Ermine Street Guard show off their legionaries' weapons: a spear, sword, dagger and metal-edged shield. They demonstrate the defensive "testudo" shield formation, and the wedge-shaped charge still used by police to disperse riots.

After deploying their mighty artillery weapons, the catapulta and ballista, they invite us to celebrate with them. The crowd cheers lustily for their redoubtable centurion Chris Haines who, after 35 years of re-enactment, was recently awarded an MBE for services to Roman history.

It was an action-packed day: I learned a lot, and I can't wait to go back next year.

Read Culture24's Teachers and Learners Editor Rachel Hayward on visiting the festival as a family and how reenactment can be a family business.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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