Into the fray

I knew i was in the right place when I exited my hotel room the first morning to find an SS officer adjusting his uniform in the hallway. At breakfast, my coffee was generously poured by a Roman centurion in full body armour.

I had travelled to Corby, Northamptonshire, keen to see 2000 years of British history in a weekend. Every year in August, English Heritage presents its centrepiece, the Festival of History. The two-day event tours the country’s crumbling stately homes, and allows 3000 historical re-enactors the chance to fight each other in aristocratic surroundings.

On the battlefield at Kirby Hall, the fun began when the Early and Late Roman societies joined forces to form a century. My centurion friend ordered them into tortoise formation. They then unexpectedly charged the crowd. Other Romans appeared on horseback to slice open cabbages on poles, while artillery units demonstrated the ballista and siege catapult. The latter fired lead projectiles 200 yards into a formal garden, where they bounced around the potted plants like squash balls. Somehow, nothing was broken.

I walked past Saxons and Vikings limbering up for the Battle of Maldon. ‘Good morning,’ they said to each other, ‘ready to die then?’ A Viking observed, ‘I think we might win this one.’ Saxon lord Brihtnoth was arranging his aftermath: ‘Nobody dies before this guy stabs me in the back.’ None had a problem taking orders from a cockney pub owner dressed as a Saxon lord. But then, war is a serious matter. During the skirmish, a Viking invader picked up a fully armoured Saxon and threw him in a river. I was told that a recent Battle of Gettysburg re-creation in the US recorded more than 500 injured.

The largest set piece was the Battle of Franklin. The blast of a thousand infantry firing at once was debilitating. When the Confederates got rolling cannon fire going it was time to cry. Over all this was an excitable commentator. As the battle swung, he couldn’t help editorialising, revealing strong Union sympathies.

I followed the disciplined Federal troops back to their encampment, a canvas city on a hill. They sang as they marched, then dispersed to clean rifles and do drill. The Rebels were not far away, about 20 yards in fact. Quite a few were women. Those who weren’t often had frazzled grey beards and sunburn. They whistled Dixie. I hoped that when they spoke it might be ‘drawl’. But no; most seemed to hail from the Home Counties.

But a Festival of History must offer more than violence and folk whistling. In a medieval village, intriguing stews were made while black bread was pulled from an earth oven. It all smelt great and from the recipes it seemed everything was healthy too. There was 16th-century dancing to melodies played on forgotten instruments. I bought a booklet titled Pies (1580–1620) and another on 17th Century Liquor Laws. The devotion to accuracy and detail won me over. One soldier from a Jacobite brigade gave a crowd of women a comprehensive presentation on his codpiece.

Re-enactment societies are not just pools of cheap film extras. They are a tremendous source and preserve of knowledge. And an aspect of Britishness—like model airplane flying and bus spotting—that makes this country so fascinating to outsiders.




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