2016-10 Battle of Hastings 950th; Battle 9 cropped
Copyright Benjamin Sharkey, 2016

It is perhaps true that 1066 is the year most easily associated with something momentous in the minds of the British (or at least English) public. William of Normandy facing Harold Hardrada at Hastings, an arrow in the eye and England was forever changed. The truth, of course, is far more complex. Hastings was important, and defeat for the Normans there would quite probably have safeguarded Saxon control over the country for the immediate future, but victory didn’t mean that the Normans under Duke William would inevitably take over.

Still, it was doubtless an important battle, a pivotal moment in British history with consequences which rang down the centuries, and 950 years after Norman and Saxon clashed along Senlac Ridge the splendid ruin of Battle Abbey saw hosts clothed in maille and armed with sword, spear, and axe once again wrestling for control of that ground, and in the imagination of the 10,000 members of the public who were able to get tickets, fighting for the crown of England.

Historical re-enactment is not new to Britain, and for half a century groups and individuals have brought the past to life (with varying degrees of success and accuracy). The 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings drew reenactors from around the world to create a large and spectacular recreation of medieval combat. Recreating the battle allowed the public to not only understand what happened nearly a millennium ago, but to experience it. Reading or being told of the past allows for understanding on one level, but on the 15th and 16th of October 2016, no imagination was needed to see what happened, to see the ebb and flow of fortune, as the horror and heroism of combat was displayed for all to see.

Those who took the field experienced, to some small degree the events of the 14th October 1066 gives a unique insight into the realities of medieval warfare. I was there as part of the University of Birmingham’s ‘Battle Re-enactment Society’ (affiliated with ‘Crusade’, a nation-wide, multi-period society) and though this was my first experience of eleventh century warfare, I have previously taken to the early-modern battlefield with the English Civil War Society, and it gives an understanding of combat which is difficult to gain through more traditional academic avenues.

Taking my place on the ‘field of honour’ at Battle Abbey, fighting with sword and shield whilst wearing a full hauberk of maille on the first day, and holding a great banner aloft the second, was a great opportunity. It was my first outing on a recreated medieval battlefield, my first experience of crossing sword and axe with strangers in front of massed crowds, my first time carrying a banner to a fight – and I really enjoyed it. Walking through the living history encampments of the Norman and Saxon hordes, hearing the cheers of the crowd during the battles, and being stopped to have my photograph taken afterwards, made clear that the public enjoyed it too.

Battle (and battlefield) re-enactment is but one facet of historical re-enactment; living history and historical interpretation are other ways in which people attempt to bring aspects and elements of the past to life, and I have experience of these. These provide valuable experience for the public, and can give a more nuanced understanding of how people lived in the past, of how material objects were created and used. How better to understand material culture than by engaging with it directly? By recreating elements of the past, or events wholesale, details become clearer, accepted historical ‘truths’, and different interpretations of the past all become possible.

For heritage organisations, historic properties and sites, and museums more generally there are advantages to inviting reenactors and living historians to visit. Events draw the public, increasing footfall and encouraging those who might not otherwise visit the site. They also bring sites to life, displaying them in a way which is different to the norm, and illustrating and interpreting a moment in the past. Battle Abbey, which often features characters from the past, certainly benefited from increased footfall over the anniversary weekend. Tickets were sold out a week before the event, and feedback from visitors made clear that it was the recreation of the battle that drew them on a cold and wet October weekend.

For most re-enactors and living historians bringing the past to life is a hobby rather than a vocation. It is not only satisfying to educate and entertain the public but is also interesting and personally rewarding for those who take part; one advantage I have found from creating historical food is that it is not only interesting but also deeply delicious. Marigold tart is my particular speciality, and without becoming a reenactor it isn’t something I would know how to bake. Which would be tragic!

Academics, too, can take advantage of the experiences of living historians and reenactors; the ‘lived experience’ of the enthusiastic people who recreated the forced march south from York, and the Battle of Stamford Bridge, to Hastings can give insight into what happened, and how it affected those fighting in the days following. Similarly, by creating food to historical recipes using reproduction tools and pots it is possible to get a real taste of the past, and to understand something of the lives of those long past.

Though far from a normal part of the academic approach to understanding and interpreting history, experiencing it offers a unique opportunity to examine the past in a different way. Reading that experiencing a charge by cavalry is intimidating is simple, but feeling the earth move as a relatively small number of horse gallop past, even knowing that there is no real danger, gives a more visceral understanding of how inexperienced and nervous soldiers might have felt.

2016-10 Battle of Hastings 950th; Battle 13 (Benjamin Sharkey)

Related links:

University of Birmingham, Battle Re-enactment Society – https://www.guildofstudents.com/studentgroups/societies/batsoc/

Crusade Re-enacment Society – http://www.crusade-reenactment.co.uk/Main/Home.html

Sir William Pennyman’s Regiment of the English Civil War Society – http://www.1643.net/index.html

The English Civil War Society - http://www.ecws.org.uk/