Early on Sunday I made my way northwards along the Cotswold Edge to the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, now in its 27th year. I had been meaning to go for a number of years, hearing good things about it – what, I couldn’t quite say, but there was a general consensus it was ‘a good one’. It had started, in the words of the introduction to this year’s programme:’an idea thought up over a pint by some of the ‘Companions of the Black Bear’…’
I raced through the sunshine to be there in time for the opening ceremony performed by druid friends, including Elaine and Greywolf. Apparently, they had a countdown for me to arrive. I might have made it if not for the army maidens demanding a parking fee at the entrance – and me clumsily dropping my gloves several times. I parked up by a mobile home and raced in, over the tilting field and over the little wooden bridge that provides a threshold into the festival’s medieval timewarp. They said to meet my by the beer tent – typical druids. I saw a suspicious looking circle in the distance and headed towards them. Sure enough, the druids were in a circle outside the Drunken Monk Inn. I arrived and joined them just as they chanted ‘And may peace prevail throughout the whole world!’ They finished casting the circle with air – in the form of Greywolf’s flute; fire – with incense; and water – scattered before us. I pulled on my bardic cloak. Phew – I had made it! Elaine asked people to speak on behalf of whomever they wished to. Immediately, the PA kicked in, which made everyone laugh. The ceremony was good-humoured, especially with Greywolf’s light touch, and such disturbances didn’t derail things (indeed the success of any good ceremony is about being full present in the moment and opening to all). Heartfelt words were said about those fallen at the Battle of Tewkesbury – one of the decisive battles of the War of the Roses – that took place on the site, on 4th May, 1471.
Around two thousand five hundred souls met their end that day – on what became known as the Bloody Meadow – more than the two thousand re-enactors that would recreate the battle later in the main arena. Fortunately, the festival was a far more peaceful affair, even though many of the stalls sold armour and weaponry. Strange how so much creativity and culture has thrived off the back of a slaughter. Warfare seems a peculiar thing to celebrate – but for many I imagine it just a chance to escape from the mundanity of their daily lives with a bit of dressing up and role-playing. Yet some take it very seriously – the cost of the costumes and equipment isn’t cheap. I wonder what draws people to certain periods – why do people re-enact? Is it a past life thing? a way of connecting with and honouring ancestors? or a form of OCD (as my friend Jay suggested later when we discussed it over a pint in the Woolpack in Slad, Laurie Lee’s local in the Five Valleys near Stroud)? It is easy to mock the likes of the ‘Sealed Knutters’ (members of the Sealed Knot Civil War re-enactment society, The Sealed Knot). I used to know one in Northampton who was a bona fide eccentric clearly born in the wrong century – a complete obsessive, with tankards and armour cluttering up his bedsit in a tower block – his great-great… grandfather had fought in the battle of Naseby and he still took it personally. But I can see how it gives those who participate a sense of tribe, of community.
A reassuring idyll where everyone has a clearly defined role, and life is simplified to a village green arcadia – with all your needs met by individuals like the blacksmith, the baker, the brewer, etc. It is healthily low-tech but highly skilled – craftsmanship is highly prized. Things aren’t mass-produced by hand-made, often bespoke. When I had a chance to wander around the market – rows of stalls (offering a wonderful assortment of medieval wares and skills including alchemy; leech-craft; clayware for daily use; beautiful things in leather, velvet, ring mail; shiny feudal bling; wimples and snoods, doublet and hoseries, and the like) I was impressed by the sheer creativity and craft. It also occurred to me that alot of this is Peak Oil proof – and might be a glimpse of how society could be in the future (as imagined by Richard Jefferies in his post-apocalyptic novel, ‘After London’). However, I can imagine it not being so picturesque and bucolic.
Folk lolled about in the sweltering sun (one of the hottest days of the year), enjoying a flagon of cider while watching ‘knight combat’ or listening to a band of prancing loons in the beer tent. There were a couple of guys were ‘pet dragons’ on their arms – but these were trumped by a man with a python wrapped around his neck, which he was letting small children stroke. I had to have a go as well. ‘Some pythons can be mean, but he likes people’, the owner reassured. There were lots of panting dogs around, tongues lolling (imagine sweating through your tongue – and then giving someone a sloppy kiss – eeeuww) including several large, shaggy wolf-like varieties. One husky pulled a small boy along in a cart – ‘it’ll all end in tears’, I said, seeing it running along. Next thing, it jack-knifed on a tussock, throwing the boy out. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt – indeed, seemed to enjoy the experience. Health and Safety seemed marvellously absent from the whole affair – although St John’s paramedics were there in force, especially for the final battle – where there services were required after one particularly rough skirmish resulted in an ambulance arriving. I watched an archery demonstration – just for a chance to lie back on a grassy bank in the sun. Far more impressive was the archery-on-horseback demo later, where Korean-style horsemanship/archery was shown in dramatic fashion by three folk dressed up like Mongols.
The grand finale was spectacular – two thousands re-enactors marching onto the field of battle in all their armour and colours, waving their banners, shouting insults at the opposition. The crowds were encouraged to join in with this good-humoured ribbing. I ended up on the Yorkist side – not by choice, by chance – so I suddenly found myself a Royalist for the first time in my life. When the King and the Young Pretender finally met for parlez in the middle of the field, there was a certain frisson about the whole thing – enhanced by the commentary from the PA tower. It reminded me, visually, of Arthur and Mordred at the fatal Battle of Camlan – it seems this ‘script’ has been played out through time. The young will always try to overthrow the old and perhaps that’s healthy, as one generation must make way for the next.
Yet there is something Darwinian and brutal about how the upstart, eager to prove himself, will try his luck against the established pro with his reputation (like an old stag – the alpha male – with his hinds, having to defend himself against a young rival). The battle slowly got under way – large armies don’t move fast: an unwieldly behemoth, once it gets lumbering in one direction, it’s almost impossible to stop. The chain of consequences led to the inevitable endgame, the slaughter of Bloody Meadow – men bashing the crap out of each other, rather than talking it out (a display of relentless stupidity – all violence is an insult to evolution, to the sacredness of life – I witnessed in microcosm with my friend later, as we sat on a bench in the churchyard where Laurie Lee is buried, opposite his favourite local, The Woolpack in Slad. A booze-fuelled altercation broke out, complete with screaming girlfriends, shattering the peace of a quiet Cotswold village on a Sunday afternoon). After watching about an hour of the ‘carnage’ – albeit with the Tewkesbury miracle of battlefield resurrection – swathes of arrows darkening the skies, the report of cannon and rifle fire, the shouts of men – I grew weary of it all. It’s sad that so much energy and talent is put into recreating death and destruction rather than the arts of peace. I’d had enough – it had been a full on weekend and I needed to rest, but there was still the ride home, via Stroud, where I met up with my dear friend Jay, for a heart-to-heart over a pint. We do not need to use our fists. We can be better than that. Jay shouted over to the brawling boozers ‘Stupid! Stupid!’ and there is something Neantherdal about such behaviour. Yet, despite such reflections, it had been a worthwhile endeavour – the medieval festival in Tewkesbury is worth seeing. It makes for a colourful and interesting day out. It certainly brings history alive, which has got to be a good thing (for if we learn from the past there’s a chance we don’t make the same mistakes). We can take the best of it – the value of craftsmanship, of ‘human scale’ social structure and interaction, of etiquette, of community-belonging – and leave the rest.