In 1471, England was in turmoil. King Henry VI had been declared insane and locked in the Tower of London some years earlier, leaving the country without a strong leader. Henry's son, the obvious choice of successor, was deemed too young to rule in his father's place and arguments soon broke out over who should take over the throne. The Houses of Lancaster and York - two rival branches of the royal family - each made their claim, but the arguments over lineage and dynasty quickly descended into a series of civil wars that we have come to know as the War of the Roses after the emblematic symbols of the rival factions. Edward, Earl of March, the House of York's oldest son, had ultimately been crowned King in 1461, but his hold on power was frequently tenuous and tested to its limits as Lancastrian supporters made bids for power. Ten years into his reign, the Lancastrians made their most audacious attempt yet to dethrone him.
Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, and her now adult son returned to England from their exile in France with an army fiercely loyal to her. Landing in Weymouth, they marched towards Wales, seeking to join forces with loyal Lancastrian Jasper Tudor and then turn towards London to bring a large combined force to bear against Edward. Learning of this, Edward quickly called in his allies and set off at a rapid place towards the River Severn, knowing Margaret would need to cross it to reach Wales, and once the two armies joined, any advantage he held would be lost. The nearest crossing Margaret's army could use was at Gloucester, but Yorkist supporters barred the city gates to her. Lacking time to besiege the city, she was forced to march another 10 miles to Tewkesbury to reach the next possible bridge across the river. Meanwhile, Edward's army moved in from the east, preventing the Lancastrians from getting to the bridge in time, and forcing them to stand and fight in Tewkesbury. The battle that followed involved around 11,000 men and was so violent that one area of the battlefield site is still known today as Bloody Meadow. Exhausted and outnumbered, Margaret's army was easily defeated, and an estimated 3,000 men died either directly in the battle or in the pursuit of fleeing soldiers that followed it. Many of the fleeing men sought sanctuary in nearby Tewkesbury abbey, but found themselves dragged outside and killed just two days later, leaving the abbey to be re-consecrated after the armies had left. The battle was a pivotal point in the War of the Roses, and added considerable security to Edward's reign; as such, it stands as a very significant event in English history.
Aware of the important role their town played in this period, a community event to commemorate the battle featuring around 150 soldiers was first held in Tewkesbury in 1984. The day was a great success, and the event became an annual affair, growing in size and popularity to what it has become today: an annual two-day festival recreating the battle of Tewkesbury. The festival is billed as the largest annual battle re-enactment in Europe, and features 2,000 soldiers in the battle as well as and hundreds of others recreating 15th century life in the camps surrounding the battlefield. Such is the popularity of the event that re-enactors from all over the world come to take part in it; a remarkable investment of time, energy and funds given the battle lasts for about an hour a day for two days.
The festival is not just popular amongst those who like to spend their weekends dressing up in suits of armour, though. Thousands of visitors each July descend on the fields surrounding Lincoln Green Lane on the edge of Tewkesbury to attend the event, more when the town is lucky enough to have good weather for the event. Things open around 11am on the Saturday, but with the battle - the highlight of each day - not taking place until late afternoon, it is not until after lunch that the site really starts filling up. As a tip, we have learned from experience that car parking (available for a small fee on site) is quite limited and soon gets full. While anyone with land around the site offers overflow parking to visitors, this also rapidly fills up and it is therefore a good idea to go by public transport if you can (the 41 and 42 bus services link well from Cheltenham, while the 71 will bring you in from Gloucester - see www.stagecoachbus.com).
The festival site itself is massive, and includes much of the area where the battle was originally fought. Spread across two fields close to the abbey, one field is used as a giant market area, while the other has the battle area and period campsites. The market is generally dominated by those selling period items: medieval clothes, tools, weapons, glassware, woodwork and leather items. These are aimed primarily at the large numbers of re-enactors present at the site, but are still interesting to browse around, and can provide some unusual gift ideas for history-loving friends and family, of course. There other things on offer here as well, and though they run mostly to food and drink sellers (including the ever-popular offering of Tewkesbury Festivale), you can also find activities for the kids (for the past couple of years there has been the Bright Knight Learning Zone and have-a-go archery sessions), medieval entertainers and stalls representing come of the independent shops in town. Depending on how much you enjoy markets, food and beer tents, you expect to spend a good hour or two wandering around this part of the festival.
Moving through into the battle field, you can find the army followers camped out in their tents, waiting for the battle to begin. While I once saw a good jousting session organised down here, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of organised demonstrations in this area, which I have always found a bit disappointing - there is so much on offer for the kids, and it would be nice to have something for the rest of us, too. Sure, it is interesting to see men and women pottering about in their medieval clothes, making medieval food and generally enjoying themselves, but it would be even better if visitors could learn a bit more about what was going on here, and it would really make the best use of all the historical societies represented at the site.
The main event of each day is, however, the battle, and on a fine day in particular you need to be at the field in plenty of time to get a good seat (experience suggests bringing a blanket or folding camp chair as you will be there for a while). It is an event well worth waiting for. As you sit in anticipation, hundreds of pikeman, archers, knights and men-at-arms march solemnly past you to take their places at either end of a large roped-off area of field. This is of course a much scaled-down version of the battle itself, but if it was completely accurate then audiences would struggle to follow events, and health and safety officers would be having kittens. In the centre of the audience stands a commentary tower, where the events of the battle are described and explained for you as you watch volleys of arrows loosed into the air by longbow men and hear replica cannons firing along the field (they may be small, but I bet the artillery captains don't half get a headache by the end of the day). To anyone who has been to re-enactment events (and I have been to an awful lot of them) the sight of men in armour remains a thrilling one; the sight of hundreds of men in armour fighting a well-organised and enthusiastically hammy battle complete with screams and dramatic "deaths" is nothing short of bloody marvellous.
As a testament to how entertaining it is, at this year's event I was sat next to a pair of whinging, wriggling under-fives who instantly fell into awed silence once the battle began and remained that way for a full forty minutes. Yes, it is that good. And if you didn't get your fill then, the armies head over to the abbey in the evening (once they have had chance to rest and rehydrate - I have it on good authority that full plate armour is incredibly uncomfortable to wear on a hot day) to recreate the final stages of the battle - dragging out the Lancastrians seeking sanctuary and chopping off their heads in the field outside.
And the best thing about all of this? It is completely free.
Attending the medieval festival has become an annual treat for us, and it represents a very good value day out that we continue to enjoy each year. It comes highly recommended from me for all ages, and I am already looking forward to going next July - and I hope they bring the jousters back then!
Tewkesbury Medieval Festival is an event staged once a year by the Companions of the Black Bear who are based in Tewkesbury. It is held in mid July, over a weekend, on the Gupshill Fields, Gloucester Road, Tewkesbury, this year(2001) it is taking place on the 14th and 15th and is open to the public from 11am until 6pm both days. The sight of the event from the Gloucester Road with all the colourful tents and clothing of the re-enactors is something to behold. The Battle of Tewkesbury is re-enacted on the Saturday and Sunday afternoons usually at about 3 or 4pm.Over 1000 soldiers take part in the battle many of whom wear full armour (not very easy on a very hot day). The sound of the swords, arrows and cannons being fired takes over the air and the gleaming of the weapons in the sunlight keeps you fixated whilst the battle takes place. The fair which has grown enormously in recent years boasts over 100 stalls I believe. You can see anything from a trinket, to clothing, arms and armoury and many every day items any 15th century citizen would have been proud to own and use. There will be many craftsmen demonstrating their crafts like blacksmithing, spinning and pottery There are other things to keep everyone occupied such as jugglers, acrobats and other sideshows, also an exhibition of pictures depicting various battles and last but not least a tavern to quench the thirst of those in need. All in all a great day out for all the family. Wheelchair access is good, allowing for weather conditions, the ground is fairly flat except in the car parking area where the disabled can park at the base of the hill.