History. For some families it is extremely difficult to get children interested in what makes us Brits so proud of our heritage. This activity can be an exciting way to bring the whole family together and do something different for a change.
There are many groups across the UK performing many different styles of re-enactments and ranging across centuries of historic periods. The most common and educational of the styles is that of the ‘living history’. This type will continually be in character of a certain time period, drawing on people’s everyday lives through representation with theatrical elements.
Here is my list of top ten re-enactment groups:
1. Brigantia – Iron Age
Travelling back furthest first, we arrive at the Iron Age. This prehistoric era of time was seen as the final stage of the ‘three age system’ (preceding Bronze and Stone), we see a time just when tools and weapons had just started to be invented, usually created from iron (ironically) or steel.
Britgania is a historical society dedicated to the pagan tribes of the Britain during the third to first centuries, also known as The Celts. Their name is derived from a tribe in the North of Britain, the group is actually based around Portsmouth, Hampshire.
During the Iron Age, Britain and Europe were considered to be very superstitious and inclined towards the magic through pagan priests known as druids. Druids were described to be mysterious characters that wore white robes and golden sickles. At this point in time priests had all but just as much power as Kings or rulers.
Britgantia, has been following Iron Age history religiously for two decades now and often travels around the UK and Europe to perform public displays of combat and living history. Often working with English Heritage, the group can proudly say they have done films, television appearances, documentaries, and fairs.
2. The Roman Military Research Society – The Romans
The Roman age, and then empire was the turning point from ancient civilisation to an autocratic empire, being that of one leader who took charge of all power. Britain was controlled by the Romans from AD 43 to about 410. Here the Romans brought with them new developments in the field of agriculture, urbanisation industry and architecture.
The RMRS (Roman Military Research Society) has been specialised to follow Roman life during the latter part of the first century. Specifically they stylize in the fourteenth legion, ‘Gemina Martia Victrix’ which is one of the most well known units of the Roman Army. The group has about 50 members ranging from male and female to the young and the old. RMRS often visit schools and popular adult education courses in Britain, where their main base is at the constructed Roman Fort at Lunt, Coventry. Although specialised in military aspects of Roman Civilisation the group seek many different aspects of Roman day-to-day life.
This group is even more dedicated through the fact that their drill commands, songs, and chants are all in Latin, as are the names of the legionaries and civilians within the group.
3. Vikings of Middle England
Originally from Scandinavia, the Vikings are a notorious part of British history. The word Viking itself comes from the language of ‘Old Norse’ and means ‘a pirate raid’, so those who had gone to loot ships were said to have ‘gone viking’. Before the Vikings invaded Britain in AD 787, the southern half of England was controlled by Anglo-Saxons, which lead to a fierce struggle between the (then) English and Vikings.
The Vikings of Middle England are a group based in Leicester, and their main aim is to entertain audiences using as accurate representation of history as possible. All members are voluntary, and like most groups offer displays of ‘combat’ and ‘living history’. During a typical fair, or similar event, the Vikings of Middle England set up a multitude of tents, with crafts and different small scenarios throughout the day. The group also has crowd participation activities such as archery stalls, so visitors can really feel apart of the history. During the full battle scenes, many different special effects are surged into action, such as the life size replica Longship, and the use of blood and corpses and sound effects – perhaps not for those who are squimish.
4. 1066 Battle of Hastings – The Normans
Remarked as the year that changed England forever, the Battle of Hastings took place 14th of October 1066. It symbolised the moment when William the Conquer became the first Norman King of England after he allegedly shot King Harold in the eye with an arrow.
Nowadays East Sussex sees this battle is re-enacted annually on the actual battlegrounds. Subsequently, the military action the Battle Abbey was actually built upon the bloodshed ground. The event see’s over 400 solders clash in full chain mail armour. Many participants play the roles of the Norman Cavalry charging their horses down around the grounds in a truly epic battle scene. During the day members of the public can see weaponry makers, view the infamous Bayeux Tapestry, gaze at the medieval falconry display and purchase genuine 11th century goods and crafts.
There is even a specially devised mock children’s scene, where you can get the youngsters to join in the fun mock Battle of Hastings tussles!
5. Ye Company of Cheualrye – Medieval era
Medieval re-enactment groups are by far the most popular amongst these historical groups – yet the medieval age spreads an enormous amount of time between that of the Roman withdrawal to arrival of the Tudor period, equating approximately thousand years!
Ye Company of Cheualrye (aka Company of Chivalry) specialises in the 14th Century, most recognised for being an unpleasant era of the Black Death. Known under many names ‘The Pestilence’ or ‘The Great Mortality’, this bacteria born disease, culled over a third of the whole of Europe. Usually carried in the blood of the wild rats, fleas would pass on the Versinia pestis. Flea bites would create bubones – big fist sized swellings– these would turn black/purple over 2-6 days where the victim would then die.
On a more positive note, the CoC was formed three decades ago back in 1988, gathering people from all walks of life with a love of medieval Britain together. From being a small group initially, the re-enactment group now has a strong forty members all fascinated with 14th century life.
The CoC comments that they are ‘not just another battle orientated society but one just as interested in the social and practical aspects of our predecessors lives.’ In their accurate efforts to mirror these ancestors, their good repuation has enabled them to work with groups such as English Heritage, Scottish Castles and Cadw. The group has also worked for the entertainment industry through the BBC, HTV and many other film production teams.
6. The Great Northwood Bowmen – Medieval longbow and archery
Based in London, the Great Northwood Bowmen are a medieval longbow archery and re-enactment society. Originally starting at a longbow archery club back in 2002, the society now focuses on the 14th and 15th centuries, providing a particular niche in exciting and varied shows for their audiences.
What makes this group stand out from the others selected is the characters set out from at the start as a hierarchal family unit. First there are ‘The Nobility’, this group includes the Neville/Plantagenet family and characters such as ‘Sir Edward Northwood’. From here follows ‘The Retinue’ the longbow army with roles such as Zarchary Black and Sergeant Bill Bowman protecting the family of Neville/Plantegenet. Finally the last group of actors play the ‘Household Staff ‘ to ‘The Nobility’.
From here the All of a quiver team, create interactive shows demonstrating ‘The Dressing of a Lady’, ‘Knights In Combat’, ‘Medieval Dancing Displays’, ‘Mummers Plays’, and of course Archery displays.
7. Hungerford Household – The Tudors
The Tudor Dynasty ruled England between the 15th and 16th century. This era followed the end of the Black Death and agricultural depression of the late 14th century, and saw a population increase begin once more. However this created a large gap in the social hierarchy of Britain and so the rich became wealthier than ever as the poor struggled to achieve a minimum wage.
The Hungerfold Tudor Household re-enacts around the lifestyle if a typical Nobel family during the 16th century. With more than 15 years of experience the group recreates the domestic scene of a country gentleman’s household, with activities reflecting the household routine, including the preparation of meals, practicing of textile crafts, teaching of courtly peasant dance and the noble art of defence.
Performing generally in the southern regions of Britain today, The Hungerford Household often create shows within the grounds of manor houses, historic gardens and castles. Yet they are not purely constrained to the finds of historic buildings. The actors happily work with fetes, museums and village halls alike. Like many of the other groups mentioned the National Trust and English Heritage have recommended the team.
8. The Holly Holy Day Society “The Battle Of Nantwich”– English Civil War
The Battle of Nantwich took place during the 17th century, four years into the first English civil war between Parliamentarians (Roundheads) and the Royalists (Cavaliers). This struggle broke out in 1642, between those who believed we should follow the lead of one ruler in the traditional Royalty manner, however the Roundheads believed that to follow royalty for no other reason than that was ridiculous and we should follow a democracy.
The Battle of Nantwich specifically depicted January 1643 when the Roundheads took siege of the town of Nantwich, Cheshire. By December the Cavaliers surrounded the town and the battle broke out. After nearly two months of fighting 25th January 1644 saw the day that the Roundheads were triumphant and people celebrated by wearing holly sprigs in their hair – hence The Holy Holly Day. Nantwich is a small market town, specialising in a wealth of pubs and restaurants attracting thousands of visitors annually.
The HHDS commemorates the battle with a wreath-laying ceremony at the war memorial in The Square in 1971. This began the trend to start the first modern re-enactment of the Battle of Nantwich every year without fail since 1973. These days’ those who come to see the performance, will witness armed troops with guns, drums, swords, cannons and muskets march across the town’s newly adopted site of the battle.
9. Queen’s 2nd Volunteer Battalion – British Army during the Victorian era
During the reign of Queen Victoria, the longest serving monarch to date, the British Empire was at its peak with control over 458 million people – that’s a quarter of the world’s population to date.
However just before this time, we meet the Queen’s 2nd volunteer Battalion. It’s history follows the great concern the Brits had growing over the expanding size of the French Navy who were planning on invading Britain. As a result, of this public angst, Lord Derby’s Government authorised the formation of Volunteer Rifle Corps in May 1859.
The Guilford based group today represents the Queen’s Royal West Surrey 2nd Volunteer Battalion from between 1881 and 1901 (just before the Victoria’s death). This society was set up by Surrey County Council as a way of teaching young people in the area of Surrey and gives the undervalued regiment more awareness.
Always looking for more volunteers, members proudly bear their Sword Bayonets, Home Service Helmet, Martini Henry Rifle and Ammunition Pouches to audiences during events like festivals and annual Christmas lights displays.
10. 53rd Welsh Division – World War II
Unlike the other nine re-enactment groups seen above, we there are also re-enactment societies specialising in modern history too. WW2 being a global military conflict involved some of the world’s biggest nations forming two opposing military alliances. Lasting for six years from 1939-1945, over 16,000,000 allies and 8,000,000 military men dead, this combined with each other and civilians totted up over 73,000,000 dead. The 53rd Welsh Division, totals 14 members, and provides an abundance of historical knowledge and acting flexibility.
Standard performances include Home Front and Combat displays, and can adapt from small school displays or village fetes to large national re-enacting shows. Past events include specific remembrance holidays such as D Day and other fictional events like ‘The Victory Show’.
53rd Welsh, has worked on and off screen with film and television crews over the years, and are referred upon for extra advice and historical consultancy for motion picture productions.