The Medievalists

‘Jesus christ!’ I tell you what mate, I bet the boys back then didn't have to worry about this kind of situation!’

I’m standing in the queue to the bathroom at Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex, watching a rotund man attempt to exit the toilet cubicle, dressed in a full suit of battle-ready armour. His belt has attached itself to the door handle and he can't turn himself far enough to get his freedom. In any other part of the world, at any other time of year, this would be a bizarre scene. Instead, it's hilarious.

On the August bank holiday weekend, it is England's yearly Medieval Festival. A three day event that brings craftsmen, sword masters, archers, and shield maidens from across Europe to reenact their favourite medieval time period. Saxons rub shoulders with crusading knights, French Sappers try to woo ladies with longbows, all while in the queue for the soft serve ice cream van. It’s a uniquely British experience.

Walking through immaculate castle grounds, the occasional shout of ‘Huzzah!’ bounces through the crowds, spear tips and drinking horns raised to the sky. A huge blast of gunpowder sparks from one of the several canons, signalling the start of the daily siege. The front of the castle is cordoned off from the punters, as several hundred participants march into place, swords drawn and foam tip arrows nocked.The functional gun battery launches clods of earth at the castle's defenders with satisfying booms as the fighters come to blows with a clang of swords on armour. It’s not the bloodiest trial of combat ever seen, but the passion and effort from the participants shines through.

As the battle draws to a close, the reenactors hastily retreat back to camp, most of them drenched in sweat and smiling. Throughout the day the bizarre charm of the medieval fest continues, with magic shows from the Jester ‘Devilstick Peat’ entertaining crowds of children, followed by Skill at Arms displays on horseback, betting on ferret races, and photo sessions with a pack of wolves. The ultimate displays come at the end of each day, including the Battle of Agincourt being reenacted by children and their parents, armed with foam swords, in what can only be described as utter chaos.

This is followed shortly by the pinnacle of medieval entertainment: The Jousting. Hailing from Germany, the Pferdestunt Company of jousters enters the fray. Dressed in full regalia and polished armour, they make triumphant laps of the arena, jeering and shouting at the crowd to bring the spectators to a feverous pitch. Before long, the knights are going full tilt, balsa wood lances aimed for each other's chests as their horses gain speed. The skill to land a blow is phenomenal, and the crash of wood into metal as the two knights collide makes for a dramatic crescendo! The show continues as the knights battle in theatrical hand to hand combat before the crowd favourite is crowned the champion.

As the sun sets after the show, the crowds begin to leave, but the party's just beginning. The reenactors pour forth into the beer tents, one dutifully named ‘The Buxom Wench’, for flaggons of local beer and ciders, as well as the ever popular medieval mead. The party continues well into the night, with singers and stringed instruments keeping the music playing and the crowd dancing. After the last song has been played and the bottles of mead are empty, the triumphant reenactors haul each other back to their camps, singing merrily and preparing to do it all again the next day.

The following day, as the ‘Huzzahs’ begin to be called across the castle grounds, in preparation for the first battle of the day, I spot the Rotund Knight from the cubicle debacle trudging his way towards the soft serve ice cream van, head hung low, in full armour and carrying a large sword. ‘At least nowadays we’ve got a Mr Whippy to help with the hangover right?’ I call out. He shook his head and smiled in response, ‘You’re right there mate, but the hangovers are worth it for a weekend like this!’. Someone else responded to him with a triumphant ‘Huzzah!’. I laughed at the bizarreness of the weekend and went to watch several hundred people play dress up in battle armour, and have the time of their lives for two more days.

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