Sometimes I wonder how I get myself into these situations. As the afternoon sun beat down, I stood facing an ever increasing number of enemies across an open field. Sweat trickled down the nape of my neck as I began to assess my chances of survival. They had the high ground, but we had the numbers. A massed volley of muskets exploded in front of me, and I heard the unmistakable command to move forward. The sound of drums mingled with the sound of my heart pumping in my ears. I survived the first day, why not the second? My hands shook with a rush of adrenaline as I hoisted a sixteen foot stick to my shoulder and moved through the ranks of musketeers as they calmly reloaded. Weighted down with armour and my visibility impaired by a my helmet, I could just make out a large contingent of nasty looking fellas similarly kitted out and heading right for us like a heat seeking missile. As we closed on each other, over the noise of battle I heard a voice behind me say, “I bet you’ve missed this, eh Nic?”.
“Too right mate”, I replied.
Perhaps now would be a good time for an explanation as to why, at the end of August, I found myself slap bang in the middle of the siege of Newstead Abbey, sweating bricks and questioning my sanity. Well, as part of my holiday plans I had decided to return to a hobby I had last participated in over two years ago. The Sealed Knot Society is one of the biggest Re-enactment societies in the world with thousands of members, and made up of contingents from all around Britain and Europe. In fact, unbeknownst to me, somewhere on the battlefield were a large group of German re-enacters from down the road in Memmingen. Ironically, I had only a week before left on flight from that very place. Now, I know what you are thinking as you read this: re-enactment? Is that just a load of odd balls with plastic swords, hitting each other and arguing about not being dead. Well no, although I am a bit of an odd ball.
Essentially I would describe the Sealed Knot as an extreme sport. Possibly the most extreme sport, aside from base jumping or cycling head first down a sheer cliff face. Added to the mix is an element of the great British festival season. The society is also a great example of the diverse nature of British culture. It is the only place where I’ve seen students, butchers, farmers, civil servants, ex military, milkmen, rocket scientists and Geordie wannabe blog posters gather in total harmony. Also it certainly isn’t a prerequisite to actually have much historical knowledge, all types of people are welcomed and find themselves being easily sucked into some of the most fun you can have while carrying seventeenth century weapons.
One of the main aims of the Sealed Knot is to entertain and educate people on one of the oddly forgotten, yet defining moments of British history, The Civil Wars of the 17th Century (1639-1651). This ranges from small events in schools to the raging war zone I found myself walking into featuring thousands of members and eagerly watched by hundreds of spectators. Usually, but not always, centred around one of the many English/Scottish/Welsh or National Heritage Sites throughout the UK, the SK set about showing visitors how it was to live and fight during this turbulent period. Authenticity is key, which is why you will never see a stray watch, plastic accoutrements, nylon socks or people wandering around babbling into a Samsung Galaxy. Of course that’s only off site and in full view of the public. On the actual main camp site, the aim of any member is to live in the relative luxury of the 21st century camper. At the beginning of any well organised SK event, a sea of tents, caravans and mobile homes begin to appear from a Friday afternoon onwards.
For those more hardy souls, the opportunity to get a real taste of the 17th century can be found within the confines of the living history camp site. In my opinion, this is one of the most impressive aspects of any event. As we more modern types hammer in tent pegs, fold out awnings and begin to bbq our time away, a few minutes walk and off the main site you find yourself walking into a fully functioning version of a soldiers camp from the period. Essentially a mobile museum, you will see men, women and children willing to educate members of the public on how a travelling army fed, clothed and slept. Unlike many museums, the living displays will happily explain what they are cooking, sewing, fixing or sharpening and give an incredible insight into the lives of the ordinary people who lived, fought and died during the civil war.
Within the main site, people camp within their chosen regiments. As a Geordie, it would have been sacrilege not to have joined up with the mighty Newcastle’s Regimente of Foote. Although you are camped with your regiment, you are not confined to their company. Many members have been part of the society since it’s very inception way back in the 1968. As such members have friends from all over the SK, which can lead to the slightly odd vision of Royalists merrily drinking a beer with their mortal enemies the Parliamentarians within the central hub of many events, the beer tent. Surrounding the beer tent is what is fondly named ‘Traders Row’. Within you will find food stands, the Greek food and the stone oven pizzas being the highlight for me, as well as those selling equipment of all kinds. Newer members are always able to take advantage of the various spare equipment each regiment brings with it, but after a while, investing in some swanky armour or a flashy new pair of handmade shoes/boots is highly recommended. Not only that, there is always a group of handy types willing to hammer out some dents in a breast plate or in my case fix my severely damaged helmet after the first days fighting.
So how did I manage to damage it? Well, being as I have a small brain and big arms I was part of the pike block. This is a group of men and women who are willing, at a moment’s notice, to carry a sixteen foot stick in a scorching summer’s day, for the entertainment of others. Although it has a pointy end (OK, this is rubber…we aren’t entirely mental!) we are more commonly seen packing into tight groups and competing in a ‘push’. This is a rugby scrum style contest of strength between regiments, and can be seen occurring all over the field. Don’t fancy that? No problem, you can become a musketeer. Although it might take a bit of time to acquire the requisite training and licenses, you can eventually be part of the frankly amazing sight of massed groups firing muskets (blanks mind you, still not mental) at the enemy. Still not your cup of Tea? Ok, how about the vital role of camp follower. Like horses? If they like you too, you might consider becoming part of the cavalry. Musket too small? Maybe you can hook up with the artillery and get the chance to fire a cannon. Yes, we have horses and gunpowder. Obviously some of these roles require extensive training and health and safety requirements, which is why I carry a stick. Training required: minimal. Intelligence: optional.
So, what have we learned. Well, the Sealed Knot is infinitely more than three blokes with beards, shouting bang at each other in tin foil hats. It’s a society of people who take a weekend to have an amazing experience, hang out with some of the nicest people I have ever met and as a bonus help people understand a complex part of Britain’s collective history. If you think it’s for you, try it. If you don’t think it’s for you, try it. I mean after all, you could do something less adrenaline-fuelled with your time. I hear shark baiting is kind of fun.