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Historical re-enactment

Published on 29th July 2017


Historical re-enactment is a hobby which involves recreating aspects of history at events open to the public. The two main types are military battles and Living History displays where re-enactors in costume demonstrate crafts of the time. Some events share both elements and there are also 'multi-period' ones where Viking re-enactors will be rubbing shoulders with Civil War Roundheads or WW2 fighter pilots. It's a thriving scene with over 18,000 re-enactors, and dozens of events throughout the UK. People of all ages and walks of life become re-enactors – but what draws them to it and what does it involve?

Maria Legg, 50, an accountant from Bildeston, Suffolk

I discovered re-enactment when I was writing a novel set in Viking times. I'm now a member of the Wulfheodenas, a group which recreates the world of 6th and 7th century Anglo-Saxons.

Authenticity is paramount and a great deal of research goes into everything we make and wear. Our costumes are based on finds from graves such as the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, thought to be the resting place of 7th Century East Anglian King Raedwald. I wear a decorated linen tunic which I've made myself from suitable material bought at re-enactment markets. My shoes are handmade and cost £130. I can't wear my spectacles during a Living History event as of course they weren't available then. This means I'm not able to sew but I can demonstrate weaving, which is by touch. It's a great hobby if you enjoy learning craft skills and sharing them with others. I've also learned to speak Old English and I was asked to provide one of the voice-overs for the BBC's 'King Alfred and the Anglo Saxons' series.

Over a weekend event when the public have gone home the cry goes up of 'wimples off' and we can become more relaxed about authenticity. For example, I can put my spectacles on and some re-enactors change back into everyday clothes. It's a very friendly scene. You can sit around the camp-fire and really get to know people. I met my partner, Wobbly, through historical re-enactment. He plays a warrior and his Saxon name is Tealt, whilst mine is Hild, which means 'battle' – a joke as I'm the least warlike person you could imagine.

I was drawn to the Anglo-Saxon period because the way of life really appeals to me. Anglo-Saxons were very social and also made beautiful jewellery and weapons. I want to help dispel the myth that the 6th and 7th centuries were the 'Dark Ages'. By chatting with the public at events I feel I can give them a new perspective on history, inspire them to find out more – and maybe even get involved in historical re-enactment themselves.

John Horgan, 56, educational consultant from Horncastle, Lincolnshire

Historical battle re-enactments tend to appeal to people who like the adrenaline rush and don't mind a few bumps and bruises. My group is based around Sir John Tiptoft, a knight supporting King Edward 4th during the War of the Roses. I wear armour, which means that I and other armoured re-enactors can strike each other with historically accurate weapons and have a proper fight. You're not allowed to take part in active combat until you've had weapons training and passed a competency test. There's a camaraderie during the conflict and those in your group will support you. For example, I've fallen on the battlefield and my son Fred, 28, who is also a keen re-enactor has stepped in to defend me. My armour was made to measure and cost £2,000. It can get very hot inside on a summer's day, especially as a battle can last for up to two hours.

The battles the public see are run to a basic script and are often recreations of actual battles, so the outcome is predetermined. However the fighting between individuals is not choreographed and that's what adds to the excitement and spectacle.

The Federation of the Wars of the Roses acts as an umbrella organisation that co-ordinates bringing together local groups such as my group, The Worcesters from around the UK to re-enact events such as the 1471 Battle of Tewkesbury. In this case the battle mirrors the original as much as possible and of course we know in advance that the Yorkist side is going to win!

For us, re-enactment is very much a family affair. 14 years ago, when my daughter Alice was 12 she went to a Tudor re-enactment event and was keen to find out more. Gradually I, my wife Annie and our son Fred got drawn in as well – we've become involved in Medieval, Tudor and WW1 re-enactment. If anyone wants to try out re-enactment the best route is to get chatting to people at Living History events – they'll generally lend you some kit to get started and you can get involved in small ways such as helping with cooking and take it from there. It really is a fascinating hobby for anyone interested in the past.

Fee Worrall 57, BA student textiles, from Huddersfield, Yorkshire

I heard about the Sealed Knot when I was 15 from a friend in 6th form, got involved and have been a member ever since. The Sealed Knot started in 1968 and is the oldest historical re-enactment society in the UK. It performs re-enactments based on battles that took place during the English Civil War.

I've experienced so much variety over the past 40 years. I've been a Royalist, a Scot and a Parliamentarian – the public perception is that you choose one side and stick to it, but people do change.

Whilst I sometimes adopt female roles such as a camp follower or civilian in the Living History camp, I also take to the battlefield dressed as a man, portraying a drummer, a musketeer or artilleryman. It can get hectic on the battlefield and you need to keep your wits about you – especially when it comes to being aware of where the cavalry and cannon are.

I met my husband Tim through the society and my children Katherine, 27 and Adam, 26 grew up within the Sealed Knot. I first took Katherine to an event when she was six weeks old. She became a drummer at 16 and is now an experienced musketeer holding the rank of Sergeant.

It's a great activity for families, as the children can safely play together and often love to get involved in non-combatant roles on the Living History site.

Between Easter and October there are about 2 to 3 Sealed Knot events a month and members choose the ones they're available for. They usually happen in lovely settings such as castles and the society camps there during the event.

I've found historical re-enactment a wonderful hobby. I've had some amazing experiences, met lovely people – and intend to stay involved for many years to come.