It is mid afternoon in the summer of 1466, and the heat haze shimmers over the fairy-tale setting of Herstmonceux Castle on the southern coast of England. Amongst the woods and fields outside the massive limestone walls, a tented village has sprung up in the last few days. This is no ordinary collection of travellers lying up for the night. We are in the latter stages of a war, the War of the Roses, fought between the great Houses of Lancaster and York. The Yorkist king, Edward IV, sits uneasily on the throne whilst his bitter Lancastrian enemy, Henry VI, gathers forces in the north. As events unfold, it is easy to draw parallels between this conflict and wars of more modern times. To a point: what we are about to see is for entertainment purposes only. And the year is not really 1466. This one-off re-enactment is being staged as part of the activities at England's Medieval Festival. Some 2000 re-enactors have gathered together from around the world for the three-day event, all with the single aim of making this the biggest and most sensational show yet.
But we're jumping ahead. Let's go back over five hundred years and set the scene, because what is about to happen has as much to do with a love story, as it does a power struggle.
By 1466, the War of the Roses is drawing to a close. Or so it seems. An uneasy peace has spread across the land, yet the atmosphere remains tense. These are dangerous times: after long years of struggle, there are plenty of armed groups loyal to each side that can easily be rallied to a cause. And there are mercenaries, too, not just from England, but from all over Europe, for whom the only cause is money.
Edward IV's most trusted ally (or so he believes) is Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. He is, perhaps, better known by his nickname: the Kingmaker. And he is becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of power given to him by Edward. Now he is being wooed by the Lancastrian side.
The love story is set amidst this murky world of power and politics. John Fiennes, the son of the owner of Herstmonceux Castle, Lord Dacre, has taken a fancy to Alice Fitzhugh. And who wouldn't? This gorgeous, unattached medieval babe just happens to be the niece of the great Earl of Warwick, our friend Richard Neville. So that would be a match made in heaven, then.
Or would it? Well, you know the old saying? the course of true love never takes a straight path. John's father, Lord Dacre, counts himself as a true supporter of King Edward, and is deeply suspicious of the treacherous Nevilles. He fears that Warwick will soon betray the king for Henry and the Lancastrian cause. He will not have his son marry into such a family. Worse, for young John: his father can enforce his wishes through the laws of the land. And as his son is not yet twenty-one, he can forbid the marriage.
So will that be an end to the matter? Probably not. Now we come forward some five hundred years. And outside Herstmonceux Castle, forces are gathered. On one side Lord Dacre, determined that the boy John will not marry Alice, and ready to defend that right by arms if necessary. On the other the Warwick/Neville's with their own soldiers, equally sure that the marriage should take place. Now: can they settle the matter peacefully, or will blood have to be spilt by sword, axe and spear amongst the cannon smoke?
What follows is a showcase for the latest in 15th century warfare technology. Fast, highly mobile cavalry will be used here. The accuracy of the English longbow, along with the crossbow, will demonstrate its deadly accuracy in eliminating the benefits of the steel body armour worn by some of the combatants. The Castle walls will be battered by cannon fire and heavy rocks flung from a trebuchet, a siege catapult that hurls a devastating load of stone or burning pitch over 500 yards. Tunnels will be dug to plant gunpowder charges against the Castle's foundations.
Great teams of foreign mercenaries are put into play. The Irish. The Czechs. The Germans and the French. The Belgians and the Dutch. The Italians. The Norwegians. (Norwegians? Yes: there is even a Norwegian contingent here for the occasion, not that they played a great part in the original war, but more a sign that today's re-enactment fever spreads far and wide). (And on that note, we could add Americans, Canadians and Swedes, for this is a truly international gathering).
And as the smoke of battle clears, and the dead and injured rise up, ten thousand spectators go wild, applauding and smiling at the spectacle of it all. This has not been real war, but it's pretty close, save for the drawing of real blood. The arrows may be rubber-tipped; the cannon are real enough but fire nothing more than wads of straw; the hand-to-hand combat looks frightening but is strictly regulated by health and safety rules, and the devastating load from the trebuchet turns out to be a bunch of humble cabbages.
With all of this, and more, Herstmonceux Castle Medieval Festival aims at providing both re-enactors and the public with a taste of the way things were, but couples this with a need to supply modern comforts in terms of entertainment, accommodation and gastronomic fulfilment.
England's Medieval Festival has now become the largest event of its kind on the UK mainland. Some 30,000 people are expected to visit the Festival during the August Bank Holiday. And they will be treated to more than just the two set battles a day: the jousting tournaments are a regular highlight (and become more spectacular with each new season). Destrier, a group of medieval jousting enthousiasts widely known for their television and film appearances, has made Herstmonceux its venue of choice. This anniversary year will see the addition of a specialist in traditional medieval hunting with a wide variety of birds of prey. And there are time-honoured Herstmonceux Castle Medieval traditions: if you want to try your hand at archery with a longbow, this is the place to come.
Hogs roasting over open fire pits and two on-site taverns, which provide copious amounts of award-winning ales, all help to ensure that Festival visitors enjoy a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. Children are particularly well-catered for: they have their own Kid's Kingdom, a small zoo and pony rides. They can discover what life was really like in medieval times at the Living History Village, where crafts of a bygone age are authentically reconstructed, you can even buy the results. Clive Geisler, Managing Director of the Malcolm Group which runs the Herstmonceux Medieval Festival, set out with the aim of making history fun. Judging by the growing number of performers that the Festival attracts each year, plus the fact that the event draws an ever-increasing amount of visitors from outside the UK, he has succeeded.
England's Medieval Festival at Herstmonceux Castle began as a half-day fund-raising event for Queen's University, Kingston, who own and run Herstmonceux Castle as an International Study Centre. Over the years it has grown into a three-day event that is the biggest event of its kind in Northern Europe. The moated castle itself dates from the fifteenth century, and funds from the Festival still provide welcome support for its upkeep. The Festival now covers most of the 500-acre site, and is held annually over the August Bank Holiday weekend. The Castle is ideally situated near Hailsham and Eastbourne with excellent road access. A special shuttle bus runs regularly to and from nearby Polegate Station during the Festival.
Open: 10am to 6pm daily
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