History Live 2014

This Sunday I attended English Heritage’s History Live event at Kelmarsh Hall in the rolling Northamptonshire countryside. The event bills itself as ‘2,000 years of history in one weekend’, with ‘With thrilling battles, spectacular displays, living encampments from Roman times to the Second World War’, there’s something for everyone.

Myself and my time traveling companion paid our money (£23 each a day for non-members) and parked up on the grass before heading into the throng. All around me were re-enactors; that curious community of folk who like have never lost the sense of fun that comes with dressing up. There were Romans, Vikings, knights in armour, green-jacketed Riflemen, Native American ‘braves’, pith-helmeted colonial Redcoats, WW1 ‘Tommies’ and loads of British squaddies, American GIs and members of the Wehrmacht.

Hundreds of tents stretched out across several acres and stalls sold everything from honey and mint cordial, to chain mail, top hats and full military outfits. There were potters, jewelers, linen drapers, archers and armorers, and even an apothecary tent. The air was rich with cordite, barbecues and the smell of wood smoke.

the explosive final battle!

We wandered through encampments of early to late medieval re-enactors, past the neat rows of Hanoverian and Napoleonic tents, to the bivouacs and fox holes the Second World War enthusiasts had dug for themselves in the nearby woods. On the show fields we saw recreations of battles from the ‘anarchy’ of Stephen and Matilda, the Wars of the Roses, the 17th Century Civil wars and D-Day was as well as skirmishes from the War of 1812 and the Zulu Wars. Elsewhere gladiators scrapped and knights jousted.

The last stand of Newcastle's 'Whitecoats'

The overarching theme was warfare. To me, as an academic historian it was a curious experience watching this history take place all around me. There was interpretation and a couple of lecture tents (if anyone wanted to brave the heat) as well as book stalls, and experts left, right and centre. It was all about history but that history was, as I’ve said, predominantly military history.

a soldier from the American War of Independence

And it was detailed military history where the emphasis was on authenticity. We were told that the uniforms the D-Day re-enactors were wearing were those worn by the Wehrmacht in 1944, after Germany’s war machine had begun to unravel as funds dwindled. Anachronism is a dirty word in the world of the historical re-enactor.

But within all this military history is a broader social history; a history that allows women (and children) to get involved. The Sealed Knot allow women to join in as soldiers (I spotted several female musketeers for example) but mostly women appear as camp followers, nurses, and cooks. There were Suffragettes (one being led away by an Edwardian police constable) and several beautifully turned out Becky Sharps adorning the arms of Redcoat officers. There were whole families of re-enactors including children and pets (a Viking with a huge raven was my favourite on the day). Everyone gets to play and so this means it’s not just about soldiers and war games.

a 'Peeler' leads away an 'unfortunate' woman

If the huge numbers of participants and visitors is indicative of anything other than wanting something to do on a glorious July weekend then it surely suggests that there is a fantastic appetite for history. Given that many many people were happily sitting though some (to be honest), what was often a fairly dull commentary on what they were seeing it struck me that academic historians could be engaging with this more.

At universities up and down the country there are historians of all aspects of history, all shapes and sizes and periods, who are passionate about their subject. How many of us interact with re-enactment groups, or dress up ourselves? Why is it only the amateurs that are having the fun? Why is a little bit of sniggering and sneering from the academy when you mention ‘living’ history?

the US armored in the woods

This was my first time at History Live but I want to go again, and maybe next time I’d like to take part. I’m not sure in what capacity; giving a talk about highwaymen, or Jack the Ripper, or running a workshop on archival records? I don’t know, but I’d love to find out more about how I, as a professional historian, can get into the tent with these amateurs, because it looks like a lot of fun.

the WW2 nurses were clearly enjoying themselves

The best moment? Well that was easy – it was the Spitfire that saw off the Me108 attacking the Allies in the woods. Anyone who remains unmoved by the sight of a Spitfire bursting out of the clouds and swooping across the sky is, in my opinion, as dead as the bones of Richard III.

Drew Gray


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