'A whack on the arm with a blunt sword does sting a bit'

11th August 2006 at 01:00
My other life

Robin Field, 27

Day job: teacher at Engayne primary school, Upminster, Essex

Other life: medieval re-enactor

Re-enactions of medieval skirmishes are great fun, but out there on the battlefield there's often one thought in my mind: "If this was real, I'd be terrified." Back when these battles were actually fought, soldiers swung razor sharp swords and axes with deadly accuracy; injuries would have been horrific. Thankfully, we at the Medieval Siege Society - the UK's largest medieval re-enaction group - use blunted weapons. Nevertheless, when hundreds of us are in full costume, the drummers pound their drums, and smoke from cannons is drifting across the battlefield, I still get a tingling in my spine.

My imagination was fired as a boy, when my mum and dad used to take me to Lincoln Castle. There were amazing jousting tournaments in the grounds, and back at home my brother and I would dress up as knights and race at each other with wooden swords. At the Siege Society, we re-enact battles from the Wars of the Roses - the war that raged for the throne of England, between the houses of York and Lancaster - all over the country. Our public displays are intended to provide a visual and historical spectacle. The society is made up of a number of households. I'm a member of the Household of the Red Crow; our founder was a Viking from Scandinavia and you can spot us by our red and green costumes, and the red crow emblem on our backs.

We're a mercenary group - meaning we fight for whoever pays most - and I'm a foot soldier, the lowest rung on the ladder. Well, I've only been re-enacting since winter last year. Swords and axes are my weapons of choice, but I'm far from the best fighter out there. That means re-enactment can bring me the odd bruise. A whack on the arm with a blunt sword does sting a bit.

That aspect of re-enacting can confuse the public, who often think that battles are completely staged. Yes, we'll have a basic script - say a Yorkist army is to come across a Lancastrian settlement, attack it, and be defeated - but within that, the action is improvised; soldiers on the field are trained in the use of medieval weapons, and are trying to land blows, albeit with minimum of force. Weapons are real steel, but blunted, and the rules are that we can hit anywhere from the knees to the shoulders; combatants wear helmets, steel gauntlets and padded jackets, along with medieval hose and linen shirts. It's about swordsmanship, and it gets very competitive. Of course, some theatrical licence is allowed. If an opponent lands a fatal blow early on it's acceptable to say, "good hit", stagger back a bit, and then continue. You can save your death for closer to the end.

Last month was our biggest event of the year, a re-enaction of the 1471 Battle of Tewkesbury, held at the real historical site. From the middle of the battlefield, all I could see were hundreds of soldiers, waving banners, and arrows (rubber-tipped, but still) raining down from the sky. I was completely immersed; it was thrilling. In the July heat we even had water carriers alongside us, just like medieval soldiers did. Back then, knights in full armour could die of heat exhaustion during battle.

The Red Crows were fighting for the Duke of Lancaster, the losing side. And if there's one thing I love about re-enacting, it's indulging in a spectacular death. Preferably close to the public. This time, I met my fate when five enemy soldiers surrounded me with spears - and of course I groaned as I was impaled. The public reaction is one of the best aspects of re-enacting; I love hearing the "oohs" and "aahs" from the crowd. Children, especially, get so involved in what they're seeing. It's made me realise that the way to teach history is to let them touch, smell, and hear. I'm planning plenty of field trips for my class. I even heard about a school that uses codes of medieval chivalry to teach manners; they knight the most polite children.

The heart of re-enaction is making a connection with a time and place you can never visit. But if I had a time machine that could take me to Tewkesbury on May 4 1471, it wouldn't be Edward IV or Margaret of Anjou that I'd seek out. I would speak to the ordinary foot soldiers, the men who had to follow orders, who had no property, and who left families at home.

We know so little about what they thought, and felt. But sometimes, when the Siege Society stands on the site of a real historical battle, I feel a strange and moving closeness to those men.


Robin Field was talking to David Mattin

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