By newcomer Kate
To be honest, I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to join the fifteenth-century. The dresses (not a flattering century for women whose shape is anything other than Nicole Kidmanesque), camping at weekends, portaloos. And yet… and yet …
Re-enactment wasn’t a new hobby for me. I’d participated in one century or another when younger, both fighting on the battlefield and taking part in living history. I’d always preferred living history and learning new crafts, although I’ve done my time running a cannon crew in the C17th and being in a shield wall even further back in time. After a number of years it had seemed time to ‘grow up’ and do sensible grown up things as a hobby. Which I did. And it bored me witless. Which is why I found myself talking to Harrington’s Company about possibly, maybe, joining them …
After meeting a number of them at a pub one lunchtime and apparently passing the sniff test – on first impression would we fit in with the company – my husband and I joined a training session one evening.
Training is taken seriously by the Company. If people are going on the field they have to know what they are doing with the different weapons, with swords, with poleaxes, with daggers. All the weaponry is blunt, but even so they can inflict damage if mishandled (so can anything – think about a well-aimed blow with a lavatory brush …) so training is a must. Women can fight alongside the men with the Harrington’s, although you don’t have to, and all are encouraged to try their hand at different skills. Sword fighting – enthusiastic but untalented would be a kind way of putting my ability and my skills with a poleaxe aren’t much better, but I’ve been encouraged to keep practicing with these weapons if I want to. It’s great exercise – and way more fun than working out in a gym. Some of our best ‘knights’ are women, and they go on the field in armour exactly the same as the chaps. If you come to one of our events and you hear of a Sir Bob on the field – that will be one of our lady knights. Don’t be surprised if they win their competition – they are extremely good!
Our first year’s events have gone by in a flurry of memories. Cold Delapre Abbey where the men-at -arms (our people-in-armour) battled outside in the snow; Hedingham Castle where the skies were littered with stars;
another event, I forget where, and a hot air balloon race passed over our fifteenth-century world.
Because it was such a bakingly hot year, and I hadn’t yet decided on a role in this century, I spent a lot of events acting as water carrier for our people on the field. It has been a good chance to get a sense of how a fifteenth-century battlefield works, as well making sure nobody overheats. The past year (2018) was blisteringly hot throughout the summer. Our knights’ armour can weigh 60lb; wearing it in that heat, let alone fighting in it means they need water frequently. Water carrying isn’t a secondary ‘girlie’ role in the fifteenth-century but core to enabling the company to put on a performance for our sponsors, while ensuring our people are safe.
Helping with last minute kit adjustments (try doing up buckles if you are wearing armoured gloves); collecting arrows, keeping an eye out for smouldering wadding fired from cannons to make sure it goes out and doesn’t set light to already dry grass; helping exhausted knights out of armour pdq; making sure nobody who is ‘dead’ on the field is actually injured – all part of the water carrier’s role.
The first year with Harrington’s is spent on probation, allowing you to work out if you feel comfortable with the Company, as well as the other way round. When you are spending weekend after weekend with people, camping in all sorts of conditions, you get to know each other very well and it’s important you all ‘click’ otherwise the hobby stops being fun. So while I wait to find out if the other half and I have been accepted into that fine body of folks who make up the Harrington Company (a tenner alright Anthony?) here are the things I’m taking away from my first year:
The things I really like:
- The Harrington’s ethos is everyone mucks in together. Role, rank, car type doesn’t matter – we all put up the big company tents, and each others’, together, so no-one has to do everything, or is left behind after others have packed up or gone.
- We eat together. The midday meal is often provided, put together by our people on the living history site. It can be hot, can be cold, or you have the option. Having one point in the day when we all stop and come together really helps the ‘family’ feeling of the company.
- Everyone is encouraged to try their hand at different skills. Some of our people are very good martial artists but even if you are a complete novice, you’re not made to feel like a waste of space if you are genuinely trying to learn how to use something.
- There is a strong company identity. I don’t mean a waving flags/ we are the Harringtons (ok, there is some of that on the field) but there is a sense of we are all in the same crew and we’ll help each other out. At Goodrich Castle we had to move three or four big tents, a display arena and grandstand, five or six sets of armour into and out of a moat. After a long weekend people were shattered – but using a human chain we got everything up onto the hill – and there wasn’t a grumble. Laughter, singing – no moaning or wingeing. So we could all leave together and no-one was left behind.
- Everyone’s ideas are welcome, even the newbies. In another fifteenth-century society I’d seen everyone stop while the Angelus, the midday prayer, was said, as would have happened in the fifteenth century. I mentioned this – and in the chapel at Goodrich Castle, a group of us said the midday prayer. Thinking this might have been the first time the chapel had heard this since the sixteenth-century made me shiver; there is something profoundly satisfying in bringing old rooms back to life again.
- And I love, love, love stopping overnight in different locations, after the public has gone, and you have a castle, a hillfort, a manor house to yourselves. If your imagination has the slightest life to it, it is impossible to not feel the presence of people from earlier times around you as you sit by a camp fire or walk around castle walls.
There are plenty of opportunities to develop living history with the Harrington’s and I will be looking in this direction in my second year. Becoming an arquebusier – a fifteenth-century musketeer – is something for another year, but there are opportunities to look into making the slow match used to fire cannons and guns, or making the lead balls that would have been fired. Because it is always interesting to understand what women were doing in other times, I’ve also been looking at fifteenth century make up and hope to put something together around the way we looked. Looking at fifteenth-century sources there are picture of women traders on military encampments – there are plenty of things to investigate that aren’t about the fighting.
So was it a good choice to stop being ‘grown up’?