2022 turned out to be a rather busy year for us – re-enactment wise. And it was completely unexpected.
When we had returned up North in 2018, found jobs and somewhere to live, we were looking forward to getting back into re-enactment. We were closer to likeminded friends and we made some tentative approaches to suitable venues in our area which might be interested in hosting living history events. Then Covid happened and everyone’s life got put on hold for 18 months. As the country got back to normal, people started to rediscover the joys of trips out to shop, meeting up with family and friends, and visits to historic sites again.
During 2021, we took part in one or two low key events, mostly for our own enjoyment. Late in the year, we were approached by a friend of a friend to ask if we’d be interested in helping at a living history event at Chester Castle.
Ancient & Loyal
Chester Castle is a medieval fortress in the heart of the ancient city of Chester in the North West of England. The castle is managed by English Heritage, and is a ‘free to enter’ site. To be honest, there isn’t a lot left to see anymore after 800 years. There were extensive alterations made during the 18th Century and parts of the buildings which survive are still in use by the local Cheshire Regimental Museum and as the county law courts. The main focus for anyone interested in the history of the castle is the surviving medieval Agricola Tower, three storeys high, and containing the castle’s chapel with traces of its original wall paintings surviving.
Chester Castle has not been open to visitors on a regular basis, and the idea was to open the site for free on a few key dates throughout the year with the addition of some high quality costumed interpreters to add value to the visit...and this is where we came in.
English Civil War Weekend – Feb 2022
The recreated year was 1646, when the Royalist garrison were under siege by Parliamentarian troops. I portrayed a lady, possibly an officer’s wife, and hubby Pete was a lowly pikeman.
We were based in the upper most chamber in the Agricola Tower. This was far from ideal – for me at least. It was accessed via a narrow spiral staircase, not easy to navigate wearing multiple very long, very full petticoats and heeled shoes which hurt my feet. We also had to transport a large plastic box up the stairs containing props and replica artefacts, as well as several bags full of table cloths and food. It’s a good job I have a strong bladder as once I was up in the tower I wasn’t coming down again to use the port-a-loo, inconvenient in full 17th century clothing anyway.
Once up there, the room was dark, lit by two narrow windows and a skylight which leaked. I had not intended to do any craft demonstrations which would have been impossible, as I would not have been able to see what I was doing, and I managed to eat a practically raw roast pigeon without noticing!
Photo - Henry Gage for English Heritage
As a lady I got to wear some fancier kit than the other female re-enactors taking part. I had recently made myself a new waistcoat made from black Abraham Moon wool, fastened with green and blue ribbons. This I made using a Modern Maker drafted pattern which I had modified myself to follow mid 1600s English fashions more closely, and I was really happy with the way it turned out. I’d also revamped my scarlet petticoat, removing it from its integral bodice and adding several bands of black guarding around the hem. I accessorised with matching bobbin lace linen collar and cuffs (completely handmade by me) - not a new make, but a first public outing since they were made several years ago. After spending the previous two years making needle lace for family and friends, I decided I needed some for myself, and had made myself a lace edged linen hood. It was just a pity my rag curled side locks dropped as soon as I got out of the car in Chester due to the damp weather conditions, which was a shame as they had looked fabulous at 7am in my bedroom!
Despite our elevated location, many visitors braved the narrow stairs to find us. Along with my friend's ten year old daughter (who taught all ages how to play traditional games such as Nine Men's Morris, and Fox and Geese) I was kept busy all weekend. As well as discussing the everyday lives for women nearly four hundred years ago, I also engaged with visitors in how women during the 1640s got involved with the war effort, including how they were utilised in espionage and spying.
It was lovely to meet up again with some old re-enacting friends, not seen for several years, but also to get to know some new people with similar interests too.
Despite some cold, windy wet weather, visitors flocked to the castle, and everyone was amazed by the numbers who attended, and the positive feedback and comments which were given.
Photo - Paul Burton for English Heritage
Medieval Weekend – June 2022
This fell on the same weekend as our wedding anniversary, and I’d also double booked with a work’s social event, so we could only attend this on the Sunday.
We’d dabbled in recreating medieval life when I’d worked at an 800 year old castle some years before. We still had all the kit, which had remained stowed away in boxes as we moved down to Somerset and then back up north again. We had actually been considering selling this off, as we had no further need for it.
Then we had the opportunity to get involved in some medieval re-enacting for English Heritage at Chester Castle. It was nice to be able to use some interesting bits of kit we’d acquired – namely a crossbow (Pete), not unique but quite a sexy thing to have, and a great wheel (Jo), which got a lot of attention from the public and fellow re-enactors alike.
I also got to do interesting things to my hair, all in the name of 14th Century fashion - think a medieval version of Star Wars' Princess Leia.
Honourable Mention – Heskin Hall July 2022
Not an event for English Heritage, but an invite from Okey’s Dragoon’s of the Sealed Knot Society to participate in a small living history event.
Heskin Hall is an antique centre/wedding venue set at an Elizabethan manor house near Chorley in Lancashire. I’d been asked to portray the lady of the manor, Pete once again got to play as a pikeman.
Photo - John Beardsworth
I re-wore a green brocade waistcoat and contrasting bronze taffeta petticoat – items I had made (and worn) several years ago. We were recreating the year 1642, a time when the country was poised on the brink of conflict with itself, but war had still not officially broken out. As such, my clothing was based more on fashions from the 1630s (as seen in the many portraits of Anthony Van Dyck). These styles were characterised by slightly raised waistlines and full gathered sleeves – a look I find personally very flattering. I had a minor tantrum when my carefully rag curled side locks started to drop as soon as I stepped outside our front door, and was looking pretty limp by the time we got to the site. Part way through the day I decided to loop my side locks round my ears and back up round the coiled knot of hair at the back of my head – a style seen in several of Wenceslaus Hollar’s illustrations of English women from the late 1630s/1640s. And it looked cute!
Medieval Event Buildwas Abbey – July 2022
We were asked if we’d like to help at a one day event at Buildwas Abbey, a sacred ruin in beautiful Shropshire. We were available so we said ‘yes’!
Photo - Paul Burton for English Heritage
Despite being a ‘Proud Salopian’ (Shropshire native), I’d never visited Buildwas before. The site is breathtaking, especially on what turned out to be the hottest weekend of the year. Luckily, one of my medieval cotes is made from linen. Poor Pete sweltered in layers of wool, padded armour and chainmaille. We were based in the surviving undercroft with its beautiful tiled floor. It was a wonderfully cool location, especially on such a hot day.
Although not heaving with visitors the people who came to the abbey were all interested in what we were portraying, and asked lots of intelligent questions.
Chester Cathedral Heritage Discovery Day – October 2022
Not an English Heritage event per se, but one supporting another local heritage site and a chance to publicise the work we were doing at the castle.
Organised by the cathedral’s resident stone mason, various craftspeople demonstrated Medieval crafts such as basket making, tile making and stained glass glazing. A selection of local re-enactment groups had also been invited along, all bringing life during the Middle Ages back to life.
Once again, my great wheel was the star of the show, and I was able to show off some Opus Anglicanum (English Work – a form of needlework prized throughout Medieval Europe), a skill I was just beginning to master. I’m not known for my talent for embroidery, preferring to concentrate on lace making. But as lace making was not even a twinkle in the 14th Century’s eye, I thought I’d have a go at some period appropriate needlework. This was something I’d always wanted to do, and this event gave me the push to make it happen.
Chester Cathedral ran a programme of events, musical recitals and talks throughout the day, culminating in a sensory look at funerary practices hundreds of years ago. Several of my fellow volunteers decided to attend, and it was quite an experience to wander around the very atmospheric cathedral after dark in full Medieval attire...and made for some interesting photo opportunities.
Medieval/English Civil War Event – November 2022
This event was postponed from September when the proposed date fell within the official national mourning period for the late Queen Elizabeth II.
Once again, I was portraying a higher status woman, and I had made myself some new kit for the event. For some time I had wanted to make a mid 17th Century gown, something which is hardly shown by re-enactors recreating this period of history – certainly in the UK.
I’d found some Abraham Moon wool on Ebay for a bargain price several months previously. When the fabric arrived the colour wasn’t what I expected, but I still liked it. The fabric itself was super fine and butter soft – gorgeous. I had a large quantity of black pure silk taffeta which I’d bought years ago – with the intention of making a 17th Century gown. I decided to line the new gown I was making with this instead. I thought the combination of the burgundy wool and black silk would be a striking contrast in colours and textures.
I had enough taffeta left to make a matching petticoat and undersleeves. Me being me I wanted the petticoat to have a scalloped hem and the sleeves to have a lower paned section – both seen in Hollar’s etchings of English gentlewomen from the 1640s. Unfortunately, I’d underestimated the amount of time it was going to take to complete these items (both required a large amount of hand stitching), so a compromise was called for. I made a simpler petticoat and matching sleeves from some silver grey silk brocade I had in my stash. Although a last minute substitute, the brocade gave an additional element of contrast to the gown, and I was more than happy with the result.
As the gown’s attached skirt was open all the way down the front, I was able to fold the edges back and pin behind, revealing the taffeta lining, another thing seen in period illustrations. I was really chuffed with how this worked in practice and the way it looked.
Photo - Paul Burton for English Heritage
Christmas Event – November 2022
This was a one day multi-period event (with Medieval, 17th Century and Victorian interpretation). No new fashions were premiered – I wore my burgundy wool gown again with the addition of a black velvet fur lined hood, and long suede gloves.
The event ran into the early evening and the castle looked gorgeous all lit up in the dark. One of the re-enactors had also prepared a typical 17th Century festive feast, and after the event closed to the public, this was devoured by the volunteers working throughout the day. Who knew I like umble pie!
Photo - Paul Burton for English Heritage
We are now half way through another year and have already attended two events at Chester Castle, both recreating life during the English Civil War of the 1640s. There are still several other events planned for later in the year - Medieval Life at Buildwas Abbey in Shropshire on 15th July and the Civil War Weekend on 15th and 16th September. Both events and entry to the sites are free to the public.
I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank Ginny and Gary from English Heritage for organising these events, and also all the other EH volunteers who give their time to help preserve our heritage and keep the love of history alive. A special mention must go to Henry and Paul, our fabulous photographers (both volunteers) who take such wonderful images of these sites and events.
Interested in becoming a volunteer for English Heritage yourself? There are sites covering thousands of years of our heritage throughout England, and many different roles to suit all interests and ways to get involved. Why not visit English Heritage's website to find out more.