England

Tewkesbury Fair – Re-Enacting a Medieval Battle

This is my seventh post on a recent trip to Great Britain with Canadian military history experts Liberation Tours on a tour titled Medieval Britain: Castles, Cannons & Crowns. One of the main reasons Alison and I signed up for this trip was the prospect of going to the famous Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, the largest of its kind in Europe. As part of this festival there is a re-enactment of the 1471 Battle of Tewkesbury one of the most decisive of the War of the Roses in which Edward IV’s Yorkist forces decisively defeated Henry VI’s Lancastrians. Won’t you join our group as we are going, not to Scarborough, but to Tewkesbury Fair?

What is Tewkesbury Fair?

Since we are a good five hundred years or more from the end of the Middle Ages or Medieval period of European history one might very well wonder why the hell are we still having medieval fairs? The answer is simple – because they are fun. Despite the fact that medieval Europe was ravaged by the Black Death, wars were endemic and the average lifespan in Britain was only just over 31 years, looking back from the social safety net of the 21st century, we think it was all very romantic. The Age of Chivalry, knights in shining armour, damsels in distress, crusaders, dragon slayers – all those things that weren’t really true, but definitely appeal to our imagination. So why not bring together thousands of people to pretend that time has stood still and that there are still real knights, real battles to be fought and real crowns to be won? That’s Tewkesbury Fair in a nutshell and boy am I glad I’m going to it.

We started our day by visiting Warwick Castle which was a blast and then made our way by bus to Tewkesbury on a day that was, for England, unbelievably hot and sunny. There is no charge to attend Tewkesbury Fair and I was surprised at how well managed the traffic and parking situation was. We had about a quarter mile walk from the parking lot to the fair proper, passing many, many people dressed in any multitude of costumes, some appropriate medieval, others like this guy, just plain bizarre.

The Green Piper, Tewkesbury Fair
The Green Piper

Tewkesbury Fair was divided into two halves alongside the country lane that served as the main entryway to the place. On the left hand side were at least a hundred vendors selling food, drink and an incredible variety of all things medieval. I was particularly struck by the number of people from all over Europe who were selling real arms and armour – not plastic or fibreglass, but actual heavy metal. The fact that there is actually a market and a big one at that, for these items should have prepared me for the re-enactment where fake light weight armour is a definite no no.

Unlike Simple Simon, I did not meet a pieman going to the fair, but we did have some really good roast pork sandwiches instead, among the many food offerings available.

After an hour or so of touring the vendors and resisting the urge to buy a tailor made suit of armour (a mere £2000) it was time to head to the right hand side of the Tewkesbury Fair where the battle was to be re-enacted starting at 4:00 PM.

The Real Battle of Tewkesbury

As I mentioned, we visited Warwick Castle in the morning which was quite apropos as Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, dubbed the Kingmaker, had just been defeated and killed at the Battle of Barnet in April, 1471. This was one of the most decisive battles of the War of the Roses and would set the stage for the Battle of Tewkesbury less than a month later which would effectively see Edward IV consolidate his rule for a dozen years until his death in 1483.  The opposing forces were the Lancastrians, led by the Duke of Somerset and Edward, Prince of Wales who were attempting to hook up with Jasper Tudor in Wales after being defeated at Barnet and the Yorkists, led by Edward IV in person. In those days, kings actually acted as commanders in the field which is how they earned the respect or disrespect of their subjects, depending on how they fared in battle.

The Lancastrians outnumbered their pursuers roughly two to one, but numbers are deceiving as it was the Yorkists who triumphed, ending the fight at a place still called Bloody Meadow where up to two thousand Lancastrians were slain. It is to this spot that we are now headed.

The Re-Enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury

The sight that greets us as we make our way to the battlefield is truly amazing. We might have stepped back 500 years in time.

Encampment, Tewkesbury Fair
Encampment

There are heraldic banners everywhere denoting various medieval companies.

Libertas et Honestas
Hedgehog Camp
Goblet & Key

And there are men and a few women, actually girding for battle.

Girding for Battle

We’ve all heard of knights and their squires. Watching these warriors get ensconced in armour I realized for the first time that there is no way they could do this without a squire, in this case a maiden.

Preparing for Battle

It’s mind boggling to me that these people, many my age or more, are going to put on up to 100 pounds of armour and keep it on for hours in the incredible heat of the late afternoon. There must surely be heart attacks and strokes awaiting.

Armoured Knight

Now, gradually, one by one, the company’s assemble and swear to fight for their king without fear and give no quarter to the enemy.

All for One and One for All

Here is but one of many troops heading for the battle field.

Soon both sides have assembled.

Yorkist Camp

The public address announcer then introduces some of the key players. These are the Lancastrians, loyal to Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI. 

Margaret wasn’t actually at the battle, but as re-enacted she makes for a dashing figure, slapping Edward IV in the face during a parlay that preceded the battle. That’s Edward IV on the right talking to Edward, Prince of Wales on the left with Margaret behind him.

Parlay

The parlay unsuccessful, a Yorkist outrider checks out the strength of the Lancastrian defenses.

Outrider

The Battle of Tewkesbury was one of the first that combined both artillery and arrows. You would think that the artillery would predominate, but in fact, these early pieces were so inaccurate and dangerous for the users, that they were really more about the smoke and noise than doing any real damage to the enemy. Still they herald the opening salvos of the Battle of Tewkesbury.

Artillery

The arrows on the other hand are lethal. I never appreciated how scary a hail of arrows coming at you would really be until I saw them fly at Tewkesbury Fair. How no re-enactors are actually harmed by these flying missiles is beyond me.

Archers Let Fly, Tewkesbury Fair
Archers Let Fly

And then, general mayhem as both sides come together in a clash which has all the spectators on their feet cheering them on and unfortunately, largely blocking my view, so I have no photos or video of the battle itself. Suffice to say it goes on for a good while and how these guys and women can keep it up in this heat is a tribute to their dedication. Thankfully, there are no apparent heart attacks or strokes and the only dead brought out are dummies.

Bring out your dead, Tewkesbury Fair
Bring out your dead

As we make our way back to the bus, I almost shake my head in disbelief at what I have just seen; surreal does not begin to describe it. And I note that in 2019 this same tour will make its way to Bosworth Field for a re-enactment of the final battle of the War of the Roses. You should be there.

Next we visit a place that has starred in many movies – Haddon Hall. Join us there.


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