Bosworth Re-enactment: the moral maze.

I have been considering various angles for a blog about Bosworth this year. I think there is an interesting debate to be had about the ‘re-enactment’ phenomenon that seems to be increasingly popular and to what extent these events are a tribute to the fallen warriors of long ago, a commercial merry-go-round, a deeply serious lifestyle choice for the people taking part or a bit of harmless fun for all the family for spectators? People attend these events for so many reasons but when they are enacted on the same soil as the original battle is there a ‘moral’ dimension which needs to be considered amidst the picnics and face painting?

Is it partly a question of the distance of time? Could we imagine a D-Day re-enactment with our children dressed in WWII costume? Is there a romance about watching knights in armour and massed archers which removes the action sufficiently from reality to disconnect it from the actuality of the real battlefield for some viewers?

These are difficult questions to answer personally because I do not feel that distance of time which might be the case for many people who aren’t passionately engaged with C15th history. I have never felt the past to be another country and indeed often find myself more attuned to that period than my own age whilst I am always conscious of the deep divide in ideology and experience which separates me from those men and women who actually lived then. Of course our personal perspective slews our responses to these issues and without asking everyone present to answer a detailed survey we can only speculate about the motivations of those who decide to buy a ticket for the Bosworth Heritage Centre event for 22nd August this year.

I have no doubt that the level of interest this year will have increased due to the coverage of the Re-interment of Richard’s remains in March and the global media coverage since the discovery of his remains. You can’t visit Leicester or live nearby without being aware of the connection with this event and many people are probably more likely to visit on the anniversary weekend due to these factors. However for many other people who are interested in medieval military history or The Wars of the Roses generally Bosworth is one date on the calendar that also marks an annual ‘pilgrimage’ to Towton, Northampton, Tewkesbury etc… and even further afield to Azincourt and other European battlefields with names that resonate through the ages.

Having attended other re-enactments recently I know that often the commentators ask those watching to think about the human cost of these ancient conflicts and request a minute’s silence before the commencement of the engagement. What would the men who fought and died or were injured or executed after the battle think about people coming to mark the anniversary of the event by re-enacting it? Lord only knows we might reply and should we care? Once we become a part of history we have no control over how our lives will be perceived by future generations, no influence over their emotional investment in the tragedies and triumphs which led to our deaths. Is it better to be remembered even if that opens the flood gates for notoriety, infamy, crass insensitivity, ridicule?

For me there is a fine line between re-enactment and the ‘Disneyfication’ of the past but when it is done well there is also an element of commemoration and respect as well. When the artillery is fired and I watch the smoke drift across the battlefield I wonder whether the vibrations stir ancient bones beneath the soil. We know that the Towton mass grave can not be the only such grizzly find waiting to be unearthed from the area. There must be human remains under many of these battlefields who never made it to consecrated ground and most likely these were from among the ranks of the poorer soldiers or mercenaries. After Bosworth mass graves were dug at Dadlington churchyard for those killed on the field yet the earth remains charged with the events which took place there. One of the most touching symbolic acts of the Re-interment ceremony saw three small containers of soil taken from Richard’s birthplace at Fotheringhay, from his residence at Middleham and from the field of Bosworth which were enclosed in his new tomb. The ground itself remains significant as does the wider topography of the battlefield site.

As with many other battlefield sites there is debate over whether the standard that flies on Ambion Hill truly marks the spot where Richard watched the engagement unfold. Walking the trail you have a strange sense of dislocation and sometimes frustration at a glimpse of a field which might have been where Norfolk met his end or notice a line of ditches which may have been lethal for men fleeing the Earl of Oxford’s vanguard in the initial phase of the battle. Everything is approximate and compromised and this is reflected in the process of re-enactment. You can’t begin to really replicate Richard’s doomed cavalry charge or the final melee with anything like the real number of men or horses let alone the poor soul playing Sir Percival Thirwell who famously lost both legs but kept the royal standard aloft til his last breath. Do the difficulties of accuracy and authenticity detract from the aims of such events, if indeed, the aims are more than providing entertainment to the crowds and filling up the coffers in the Heritage Centre shop? Is there an element of trivialization if you can’t actually represent the final change in terms of scale and drama and indeed tragedy where these events are better left to the imagination?

Education is a major factor in these displays as well. Re-enactment and living history allow children in particular to engage with history in a more direct way than visiting a museum or watching a documentary might. My own children love dressing up and role playing historical events and characters and I encourage this in the hope that it will lead on to a better understanding and empathy with the past and that as they grow older they will learn the skills of a historian – the ability to see all sides and weigh evidence but to make judgement with compassion and wisdom because they have formed a real attachment to the lives of these people and see them as flesh and blood people. If the children present take something away with them that informs their later relationship with history that is surely all to the good as long as they also take away more than the veneer of clanking armour and kings with gilt crowns who get up again after they have been slain. History has be more than entertainment, more than figures seen at a distance and two-dimensional commentary which reduces the protagonists to goodies and baddies to be cheered and booed in equal measure before a dash to the car park. Accessibility is a good thing but education must also be rounded and full-bodied if it isn’t to run the risk of being ‘dumbed -down’ to the level of spectacle.

So where does all this leave me? Conflicted is probably the best description as I love to watch a trebuchet be fired and cheer a jousting team with the rest of them. I want to ‘enjoy’ a re-enactment but am also terribly conflicted about what I am actually commemorating and how it should be contextualized and never more so than on 22nd August every year.

I have deliberately opened up multiple questions and failed to answer any of them as I am interested to hear other opinions on these issues and to consider more questions which I have not covered in this blog so I look forward to your responses. I would also temper my criticism of re-enactments by saying that I have been generally very impressed by the level of detail and knowledge of re-enactors who devote many hours to making costumes and learning a variety of skills to a high level of competence and who are often extremely gifted at communicating their interest and knowledge to the general public at these events. My reservations are not leveled at these individuals but at the wider context in which these events take place.

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8 Responses to “Bosworth Re-enactment: the moral maze.”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.

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  2. Jenny Colley Says:

    I was a re-enactor and to be honest, there are a huge range of attitudes within re-enactment itself. The group I was with also did living history and many were more interested in the fine, historically perfect details of reproduction cookware and strap ends than the doings of kings and nobles. I was the only one who was passionate about the events and people and I quietly carried around on my belt a belt pouch with “Loyaulte me lie” carved into the leather in a group with was broadly Lancastrian.
    Battles-wise, I loved Tewkesbury every year because despite the iffy levels of authenticity, it was a Yorkist vistory and I could stand on the same ground as men I admire and respect, but I could never in a million years have been involved in a re-enactment of Bosworth, the place just upsets me too much. In general though, reasons for involvement in battle re-enactments in particular range from pure adrenaline and fun to passionate partisanship, respect and admiration and everything in between. I was definitely the latter and it was amazing to see Yorkist banners flying against blue sky, and I got to experience at least a little of that thrill of apprehension which made my stomach flip and my hands sweat in my gauntlets, because, despite the fact nobody was going to be killed, there were sometimes serious accidents, so although it was very watered down, I got a tiny inkling, a glimpse into the past which was visceral and at moments, weirdly real.

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    • giaconda Says:

      Thank you Jenny for your feedback on this. It must be amazing to be on the field and in costume. I also think that you are less distracted by the crowd as well and able to get into a better headspace and also need to be concentrating as well to avoid injury. My husband is a first aider and works at Blenheim Palace and had to deal with a musket malfunction which resulted in a re-enactor being taken off to A&E during a Sealed Knot event so I know these events can be fraught with dangers! I watched Tewkesbury this year and saw a man ripping his gauntlet off and pouring water over his wrist which had been burnt from contact with one of the cannons!

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  3. merlynmacleod Says:

    I am reminded of a story told of the fans of the “Highlander” television show, who were on their way to Culloden in a tourist bus with the actor who played a character on the series. There was much laughter and happiness on the way to the battlefield. On the way back, there was not.

    The battlefield where the clans died and the stones marking where each fighting clan was buried — had its effect on those who visited.

    I cannot imagine anyone wanting to re-enact the Battle of Culloden as they do the Battle of Bosworth Field. And yet, something more than men was lost in each battle. And Culloden is mentioned in popular culture much, much less than Bosworth. Most don’t remember Culloden at all.

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    • giaconda Says:

      Indeed Merlyn I would imagine that actors are quite a receptive bunch to take to a location like that and would have been moved by the evidence of the lives they were about to play out on screen.

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  4. Andrea Povey Says:

    A thoughtful and well written blog. I too love to attended medieval re enactments. When I look around I often wonder what each visitor is thinking and the reasons they choose to attended. Bosworth, I feel, gets the balance right, its considered and respectful, I don’t feel that I am dancing on the graves of the dead but paying my respects. As long as these events make a point of showing and informing people about what really occurred on the site and they don’t fill the grounds with unrelated stands and attractions then I will continue to attend. My blog Towton 25 was born out of the sight two reenactors who fought right in front of me and the thought that in 1461 many men died an awful death and of what these poor soldiers were thinking and feeling. I didn’t want to come home just thinking what a lovely day I had.

    http://meanderingthroughtime.weebly.com/blogs-on-the-wars-of-the-roses-1376-to-1478/category/towton-25

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  5. halfwit36 Says:

    Interesting, especially in view of the controversy over re-enactors of the US Civil War (or War Between the States, if you prefer.) Why that war, and not the Mexican War or the War of 1812, which were further back in history and therefore more ‘chivalric’ and less ‘modern’ and messy. I don’t mean putting up monuments and statutes, which was often done while survivors of the wars were still alive, but the tendency to ‘romanticize’ a period of history.
    Would anyone be re-enacting the Wars of the Roses if not for Shakespeare, or the battles of our Civil War if not for all the literature, plays, and movies,good, bad, and indifferent, which had already been produced, on that theme?

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