I’ve been wanting to attend this festival for at least 20 years and finally everything came together this year and I was able to take my family with me for an orgy of medieval shopping, weaponry, costumes and merchandising followed by the re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury on part of the original site of the battlefield and later ‘storming of the Abbey’ in the evening. People attend for many reasons – many to soak up the atmosphere and watch the weird and wonderful sights as the weekend unfolds, some for the history and some for the crac. Re-enactors travel across Europe – I saw stall holders from Prague, Lithuania, Germany and France this year and many take it seriously, making their own costumes with great attention to detail and demonstrating artisan skills such as wood carving, metal working, armoury and medieval crafts as well as the obligatory plastic sword and shield sellers for the many children who come to exercise their imaginations.
The hard-core re-enactors camp in two areas – King Edward’s Yorkist camp on the slope above the battlefield area or in Queen Margaret’s Lancastrian encampment close to the line of ditches where men were cut down in the rout across Bloody Meadow. Their tents and pavilions are fascinating to walk around with glimpses of wooden camp beds and carved chests, goblets and cooking fires as well as heraldic banners and pennants fluttering in the breeze and the sound of medieval bagpipes and the hurdy-gurdy man adding to the atmosphere.
It requires a complex accommodation though to visit the festival, especially with children and maintain contact with the real history which is being commemorated over this weekend. The scale for one thing. The festival guide explains that the real battle was fought over a larger area than the arena and showground and parts have been subsequently built on or turned into the nearby golf course yet Gupshill Manor, where Queen Marguerite spent the night prior to the battle, seems incredibly close to the action. You wonder what her personal bodyguard consisted of and whether much sleep was had by this woman who had fought so hard for so long and was about to lose everything. The manor house is now a pub and looks comfortable enough for a queen who had survived many changes of fortune, fled and re-grouped, lead armies and gone into exile. It was built in 1408 and we can imagine the kind of facilities it might have offered to Marguerite. You imagine her fatigue, racing up country from Weymouth, spooked by the news of Warwick’s defeat at Barnet and fearful for her son’s safety as he sought to prove himself on the field. Bath, Bristol – to get much needed but cumbersome ordinance, then Gloucester, which had kept the gates shut against her. Did she still feel like the outsider, the unpopular French princess, mistrusted by the English people who had landed in England as a strategic piece in the wider power-play of European politics. Where did her loyalties lie and how had they changed over time? A French agent at the English court, loyal to her French family who became the living symbol of the end of English glory in France through the terms of her marriage, a queen consort faced with a frighteningly unworldly husband who needed to lead from behind the throne, to live multiple lives in one in order to survive and protect her son’s interests and surrounded by ambitious men with their own agenda for gaining power. Had the English people ever factored highly in her consciousness? They had fought and died in their thousands for her cause and against her cause and tomorrow she would watch anxiously again from the side lines as her destiny was decided by men hacking each other to death and her son was either crowned with glory as the new hope for the House of Lancaster or destroyed during the attempt. What if Edward, Prince of Wales was captured alive and imprisoned, what if he was betrayed by another turncoat, as Clarence and Warwick had turned out to be? If her army was defeated could she run and live to fight another day or would she wait on news of her son’s fate for without him what was there to fight for? Everyone knew that Henry VI would never be more than a tormented pawn for the next strong man to step up to mark. Marguerite must have been completely aware that if her son died that his blood would sign her husband’s death warrant. Edward IV had held off from the cardinal sin of regicide for a decade for a number of reasons – he didn’t want to kill an anointed and ‘saintly’ king, he knew that popular sympathy would make a martyr of Henry once he was safely dead. Henry was a weak point rather than a figurehead for Lancastrian hopes, his son increasingly posed a more significant threat to the Yorkist regime, even if he remained in exile. However, in the all-or-nothing push to re-assert her claims, Marguerite was risking her husband’s life as well as her son’s. Edward IV was fresh from victory at Barnet and he wanted it finished and was prepared to make unpalatable decisions to secure ultimate victory. He had allowed Warwick to undermine his kingship, to manipulate his younger brother into open treason, had been imprisoned and sanctioned, suffered exile and humiliation and now he had a baby son to fight for too.
Tewkesbury would be no Towton – estimated numbers are a fraction of the bloodbath which ushered Edward IV to power in 1461. The Lancastrians had a slight numerical advantage – approximately 5-6000 against 4-5000 hastily mustered Yorkist troops. Both armies were tired after the chase up-country and the weather was hot for May. Marguerite’s hopes lay in a victory on the field that would buy her time to rendezvous with loyal forces in the Welsh marches, a dream of hearing the news that her hated rival had been killed on the field and, perhaps most importantly, a moment for her son and heir to shine and prove God’s favour for the House of Lancaster in such terms that public opinion would shift. If Edward, Prince of Wales could only emerge as a plausible military commander, the strong male heir so longed for since Henry Vth died prematurely and left a power vacuum at the heart of the monarchy.
Of course Marguerite’s hopes were dashed into a thousand pieces. By the end of the battle her son was dead, the Lancastrians routed or penned in the Abbey church and her great chance to re-gain power, status and what she saw as her God-given position as Queen of England lay in ruins. It is hard not to feel sympathy for Marguerite at this devastating point of her life or to fail to consider just how much choice she had in the path that her life had taken whatever you make of the contemporary sources about her decisions and character.
So, we return to a parched meadow, just outside a small English market town. The re-enactors look like a Graham Turner painting brought to life, the smoke drifts across the field of battle and the canons make the children jump and hold their ears. After the battle people drift off, mostly unconscious that bones may still lie buried beneath their feet.