If the last nine months have taught me anything, it’s that human beings are excellent at finding increasingly inventive ways to socialise. For many Naturists, Dog Show-ers, Goths, Morris Dancers and Sci Fi fans, the social side of the community is far more important than their respective activities. Battle Re-enacting – I learnt this weekend, while fighting in the Royalist Army at the Battle of Cheriton – was no exception.
“We’re like a family,” I am told by Tosh, the Commanding Officer of Sir Marmaduke Rawdons’ Regiment of Foote, which was to be my home for the weekend. “The community is what keeps us coming back and the battle just gives it all structure”.
The regiment has around 140 members, including Tweety, a big burly chap with a bushy beard who was ‘born’ in the regiment. “My mum and dad met here”, he tells me, “and my sisters all met their husbands here” he laughs, “it’s a bit incestuous really!”
This ‘muster’ – organised by the Sealed Knot, an English Civil War re-enactment society – is a multi-period event, attracting hundreds of re-enactors from WW2, the Napoleonic Wars and the English and American Civil Wars.
Just behind the WW2 trenches in the Living History area is our camp, an authentic 17th century site devoted in its honesty to the period. I feel like I have stepped back in time, drinking from clay mugs and tankards and cooking over a blazing fire, all ‘anachronisms’ out of site in our tents. I sleep in a mock 17th century canvas tent made by Vic, an exceptionally knowledgeable chap who makes his living crafting period replicas.
That evening I try out the two different outfits brought for me by my generous host, Chris ‘Ribbit’ Burfitt. First, the men’s kit: a pair of brown leather boots, a vast pair of grey woollen britches that tie at the knee with a thick ribbon, a cotton shirt with an open neck, a yellow woollen jacket and a black hat.
Chris looks up as I emerge from the tent, “you look like you’ve been doing this for years!” he says with a grin. Vic gives me an enthusiastic thumbs up.
My lady’s kitis less successful; a long green cotton skirt, a head covering (‘coif’), a white linen shift and a blue jacket. Vic shakes his head when he sees me. “Nah,” he says, “you look better as a man”. So I decide to be a man for the weekend in order to experience some real action, but more importantly, because I look better.
The next morning it is time for battle, and today I am fighting with the Musketeers, commanded by Trefor, or ‘Christmas’ as he is known in the regiment (after accidently knocking a girls teeth out with the butt of his musket).
“Maaaaaake ready!!!!” he hollers, as those with licenses load up their weapons with gunpowder. “Prepare to fire”, we lift our muskets onto our shoulders and take aim. “Aaaaand fire!” The noise is deafening and the world flashes yellow and white as the guns explode around me. Even though I know this is all pretend, I am surprised how nervous I am, and how competitive the battle seems to be. I am reassured when the Parliamentarian I am fighting hand to hand combat with winks at me, smiles, and shouts “ah, you got me,” before collapsing on the floor.
As per the script – which is at a regimental rather than individual level and basically says which side will win and which will lose in line with historical accuracy – we lose the battle. After about an hour of acting and dying on the field, before being ‘recycled’ and miraculously getting up again, we ‘run away’ back to campsite. Once there we sit around a crackling fire, pass bottles of port around the circle and tell stories. Before long, a squeezebox emerges and the stories turn into folk songs. We sing for hours before heading to the beer tent, were Tweety hands me a pint of ‘Skull Crusher’ and I dance with an old man who looks like he has stepped straight off the set of Les Miserables.
On the second day I make the dubious decision to try my hand in a different fighting unit. The pike is a 6m long weapon that looks like a sharpened telegraph pole. It is used for charging and skewering the opposition to protect the musket unit from a distance. But that’s not the hard part. Once you have missed each other – which happens pretty much every time – you launch yourself into the opposition, forming a tight unit like a scrum, only with armour and giant wooden skewers involved.
I am the only girl in our unit of twelve and am immediately put into the second row. Unlike most of the men, I am also not wearing any armour. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you!” Chris says, as we march off to battle.
When I charge into my first contact all of the air is squeezed from my lungs and I don’t have space to fill them again. I try to focus my attention on pushing with all my might, simultaneously trying to hold onto my pike and stay on my feet to avoid the whole unit falling on top of me.
After about 40 minutes of continuous ‘pushing’ in thick woollen clothes and a metal helmet, soaked with sweat in the baking sun and panting like a Labrador, all I can think is, when will this torture end?
It ends rather abruptly, minutes later,when my thumb gets caught between a piece of armour and my pike. I hear a crunch and a stabbing pain shoots from my hand and up my arm. Unable to hold my Pike any longer I sit out for the final five minutes, before we are defeated by the Parliamentarians, again, and pushed off the field.
Aside from the broken thumb(!), I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend in the regiment. I love the diversity of the different characters and the way they interact and banter together, the beer, the fire cooked sausages, the folk music, the dressing up and the camaraderie; I love it all.
I think Rawdons’ may have just found themselves a new member.