Our house backs onto a churchyard, home to around 1,000 bodies (or so I was told) and an ancient church. I mean actually ancient – it celebrated a 950th anniversary at the weekend.
This, though, was not its actual anniversary – it just so happens it was mentioned in the Domesday Book. But the parishioners of 1066 would have heard of the Battle of Hastings and the church would have been an old building then, with (literal) roots going back to Roman times.
To celebrate the anniversary, someone on the church council came up with the inspired idea of inviting re-enactment society Regia Anglorum for the May Day weekend.
The society recreate living history from the first millennium, around the Battle of Hastings and before. They have their own longhall in Kent and a fleet of Viking longships. There were no longships in our churchyard (despite the bloody rain) but tents of solemn women dyeing wool and cooking over pots, as well as stonemasons and woodcarvers. And warriors.
Fighting was a hell of big deal in those days. Viking hoards could descend on your settlement at any time, so if you were a bloke you had to drop your plough and grab your axe. Tussles for land escalated into massive battles, with professional warriors making a full-time job out of fighting – for as long as they could stay alive.
Watching the battle re-enactments is a revelation. This ain’t like it is on the TV…
There were no lithe, dashing swordsmen a’leaping over carts and swinging from trees. This is heavy, cumbersome and brutal. Warriors wore padded leather and chainmail – coming in at well over a stone – and would carry a wooden shield and wield a sword, with an axe and a seax (big, long pointy knife) in their belts for back up. The seax was practically disposable – you would plant it in someone’s neck and hope to be able to retrieve it later.
If you didn’t have chainmail you would be in a flappy wool tunic with what looked a baby blanket pinned round your neck. It would be sweaty and uncomfy, horrible when wet, and no protection whatsoever from any kind of blade. You would also be running around with a great long spear – not for chucking (because then you have no weapon at all, durr) but for stabbing.
I always thought axes were just for show (or dwarves), but they are vital for yanking shields away while your mate aims for the belly with his spear.
‘Oof’ is what you hear instead of ‘avast ye varlet’, and there is no breath left for witty banter. Even if you live you will be so battered and bruised I can’t imagine how you would recover in an age devoid of antispetic and ibuprofen.
A word about footwear: It was rubbish. A soft piece of leather wrapped round your feet like a nappy. With no tread – this is a world without segs. So if the ground is in anyway soft you will be slipping, and who wants to be flat on their back in the mud surrounded by Anglo Saxon spears?
And while shields may protect your front, who’s creeping up behind? The number of fighters who were felled by a sword in the small of the back while they were hand-to-hand with someone else was terrifying. The sound of grunts, clashing iron and bashing shields is so loud you can’t hear anyone shouting “watch your back Ulf!”.
This shows how medieval warfare was a numbers game – if they had more than you, it often didn’t matter how well you fought.
One thing the Regia Anglorum members said they couldn’t recreate was the devastating psychological effect of lining up to do battle and seeing the opposing army lining up on the opposite hill in their armoured thousands.
Not a fun day out, especially for King Harold’s men, who had just marched down from Stamford Bridge, where they had been fighting Harald Hardrada. Peering towards William the Conqueror’s 10,000 or so Frenchmen would not fill you with joy.
For us, 1,000 years later (one thousand years – imagine it! No – you can’t), seeing and hearing about it makes for a fascinating day out – and a prayer of thanks for modern day everything.
- Regia Anglorum (it means ‘The Kingdoms of the English’) carry out re-enactments across the country – check out their website here for info on the next one, fascinating historical facts and details on how to join.