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Tewkesbury Medieval Festival – Experience Living History

Every summer, the usually serene town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, England, becomes a vibrant hub of medieval pageantry and warfare – drawing history enthusiasts, families, and history re-enactors from across the globe.

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Tewkesbury Medieval Festival
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The Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

One of the largest annual festivals of its kind in Europe, it transcends time. It coincides with the anniversary of the Battle of Tewkesbury, a significant battle in the Wars of the Roses fought in 1471.

The first Tewkesbury Medieval Festival took place in 1984 and has become a regular occurrence, usually staged during the second weekend in July. Not all of the early events held were about the Battle of Tewkesbury, and there have been forays into local history, including the Storming of Holm Castle as well as the legendary life of King Arthur. The original event was the brainchild of Peggy Clatworthy and Celia Bennett. Over the past decades, it has grown to become the most significant medieval fair and re-enactment of a historic battle in the United Kingdom.

The Battle Re-Enacted

The Battle of Tewkesbury re-enactment is the festival’s centrepiece. Hosted on part of the real battleground, the re-enactment sees hundreds of participants dressing up in historically accurate 15th-century costumes.

As a visitor, the sound of hammering armour and numerous flags being brandished transports you back to England in the 15th century. Clanging swords and battle cries of the combatants fill the air, and the event is conducted with meticulous attention to historical sensibility and accuracy. It is captivating and gives visitors a new perspective on the art of ancient warfare and the methods used by knights and infantrymen.

Battle of TewkesburyThe Battle of Tewkesbury changed the course of British history, and the main attraction of the Medieval Festival was the re-enactment of this event. According to the organisers, the first outings were simple affairs, and the 150 or so participants used little more than knitted woollen chainmail and wooden weapons.

Some four decades later, the occasion couldn’t be more different and is recognised as a significant date in the calendar of ‘living history’ events. Today, over 2,000 enthusiasts travel from all over Great Britain and more than 20 countries to take part, and even an expert might be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the replica weapons and the historic originals.

Amour and clothing used by the re-enactors are as authentic as possible. The replica kit for a single knight can easily cost £5,000 and is worth considerably more in some special cases. The chance to take part as a re-enactor is by invitation only. Great care is taken to ensure that those involved will do their utmost to ensure both authenticity in their mannerisms and costumes and responsibility in their actions. Marshals are particularly focused on safety and closely monitor the re-enactors as they participate in the battle. Any dangerous or irresponsible behaviour is not tolerated, and the offending party is swiftly removed from the field.

Black Powder WeaponsAs the re-enactment uses muskets and artillery, special attention is given to the use of Black Powder (gunpowder). An interesting point is that black powder weapons are usually louder than modern ones of a similar size. After the primary battle, the reenactors sometimes also replicate the Yorkist storming of the nearby Abbey, followed by mock trials and the beheading of the captives. (The section about the history of the actual battle is later in this article)

The Medieval Camps

Many people taking part in the re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury camp at the festival using only traditional 15th-century equipment and facilities. The camp is usually located on the slopes of Holm Hill and overlooks the Bloody Meadow. It’s a remarkable opportunity to see how medieval knights and their squires would have lived while on a campaign. From the extravagant and luxurious pavilions of King Edward to the simpler tents of mere knights at arms. Racks of fearsome weapons await careful cleaning while servants sharpen swords and pike well into the dusk.Tewkesbury Medieval Festival Weapons Rack

The scene is not purely military, as the families of the knights sometimes accompany them. Ladies and squires can be seen tending fires and cooking meals while children continue playing their games, seemingly oblivious to the fighters around them. Minstrels drift from tent to tent, amusing the occupants while various religious men preach the virtue and benefits of prayer. At night, the campfire haze drifts amongst the tents as bottles of ale and mead are drunk to bring sleep or solace.

Camp Life Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

The Medieval Fayre

From fairly humble beginnings, the fayre has grown to host more than 120 traders and their stalls. For the visitor, the experience is vibrant and perhaps as close as you can get to a real medieval experience. Leather goods are nestled next to hand-carved furniture, and blacksmiths can be seen making and selling a fearsome array of weapons. Mead and beer are plentiful, and a tankard of ale or a specially brewed cup of alcoholic ginger beer is just the treat on a hot summer’s day.

Tewkesbury Medieval Festival Camp
Tewkesbury Medieval Festival Camp Women

Artisans offer everything from hand-forged jewellery to period clothing and armour. Further, the level of craftsmanship proudly displayed at the stalls is a living testament to skills that have travelled across centuries. Traditional food vendors are also essential to the experience, providing visitors with the opportunity to sample such staples as mead, pies, and other historical recipes that capture the palette of the medieval world.

Tewkesbury Medieval Festival Falconer
Tewkesbury Medieval Festival Dancer

Medieval musicians, jesters, dancers, storytellers, peddlers, magicians, jugglers and tumblers all add colour and excitement just as they would have when Edward IV was on the throne. Displays of archery and falconry remind us of how these largely forgotten skills were critically important in times gone by. Re-enactors demonstrate yarn spinning, pottery making and other medieval skills. If you’re lucky, you may even see the exotic gipsies performing their dances while around the corner, a witch is dunked in a pond to rob her of her dark magic.

Educational Encounters

For those who wish to understand the Middle Ages in greater depth, the festival offers an abundance of educational opportunities. Workshops and lectures covering different aspects of medieval life, from falconry and herbal medicine to the historical background of the Battle of Tewkesbury. They are led by knowledgeable experts and enthusiasts eager to share their knowledge and passion.

 Family Fun

The Tewkesbury Medieval Festival is family-friendly, offering a variety of activities to entertain children. Young visitors will enjoy knight schools, where they will learn about medieval combat in a safe environment and play various period games that have fascinated children for centuries. This is an educational environment that does not feel like one and, therefore, ideal for families looking to combine entertainment with education.

Tewkesbury Medieval Festival Story Teller
Tewkesbury Medieval Festival Weapon Instruction

Visiting the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival is an all-encompassing experience that educates, entertains, and fully immerses you in the riches of medieval culture. The festival offers a new and altogether unique way to explore Fifteenth Century intrigues and traditions. Whether you are a history fanatic, a family seeking an alternative vacation, or merely interested in the past, the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival is a must-see journey through time.

Access

At the time of writing, entrance to the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival is free, but a modest charge is levied for the onsite parking. Donations are always welcome as the event costs a significant amount to the stage and is largely self-funding. Most of the revenue is derived from tithes (percentages) paid by the traders but doesn’t always cover the costs. It’s estimated that approximately 25,000 visitors attend the event every year. The best parking is usually across the road from the Sat Nav Postcode GL20 5TU.  It is not a good idea to try to turn right from Gloucester Road into Lincoln Green Lane. Lower Lode Lane is usually closed during the duration of the festival.

BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BATTLE OF TEWKESBURY

Since 1337, the political and military feud between the Yorkists and Lancastrians (to see which branch of the royal Plantagenet family would rule Britain) had plunged the country into a sustained period of civil war. Over the years, the fortunes of each side had often changed, but finally, the Yorkists gained the upper hand.

Edward Plantagenet removed King Henry VI from the throne and was crowned King Edward IV in his place. Henry VI was imprisoned, but his wife, Margaret of Anjou, and son Edward of Westminster (Lancaster), the Prince of Wales, continued their struggle for power from their base in France.

In 1469, Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, changed sides and later raised an army against King Edward IV. Margaret and Prince Edward set out from France to join forces with Warwick and reclaim the throne. However, when Warwick’s army clashed with King Edward’s at the Battle of Barnet, the Lancastrians were soundly defeated. Warwick himself was killed on the same day that Margaret of Anjou arrived in Weymouth with her small army comprised largely of French soldiers. Realising that her only hope was to meet up in Wales with Jasper Tudor, 1st Duke of Bedford, Margaret headed north with the intention of crossing the River Severn at the city of Gloucester. Unfortunately for her, King Edward had raised an army and was in pursuit. Gloucester sealed its gates against the Lancastrians, and Margaret was forced to head even further north to Tewkesbury.

Tewkesbury Margaret of AnjouKing Edward caught up with her on the 3rd of May 1471, and realising that they could flee no further, the Lancastrians halted south of the town and prepared to fight. The following morning, their army was divided into three sections, known as battles. The western flank was commanded by Edmund Beaufort, 4th Duke of Somerset, the centre by Baron Wenlock and Prince Edward and the eastern flank by John Courtenay, the 15th Earl of Devon. The area that they had chosen was known as the Gastons and was bordered by a small brook on the western side and the Swilgate River to the west. The Yorkists moved into position and were also divided into three battles: Richard, Duke of Gloucester, took the western flank, King Edward the centre, and Lord Hastings took the eastern flank.

The battle started when Gloucester opened fire on Somerset, and King Edward’s battle attacked Prince Edward and Baron Wenlock. Seeing an opportunity to cut off the king, the Duke of Somerset swung around through the hedgerows towards the centre. He was beaten back and then attacked by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as well as ambushed by 200 mounted soldiers that King Edward had hidden on a nearby wooded hill. Somerset’s forces panicked and fled towards the ford across the River Severn. The Duke of Somerset fled first towards the centre, where he accused Baron Wenlock of cowardice before killing him with a mace – some say a battle axe. Realising that the battle was lost, the Lancastrians fled in all directions.

Tewkesbury Festival Battle LostThose who fled west were caught in a field near the Avon River, and so many were killed that the area is still known today as the Bloody Meadow. Those who fled east were massacred as they tried to cross the Swilgate River.

Many other Lancastrians headed for the town and tried to cross the Avon at an old mill. Around 30 Lancastrian nobles, including the Duke of Somerset, sought sanctuary in St. Mary’s Abbey, which was just north of the battlefield. Margaret of Anjou is said to have fled nine miles northeast to Little Malvern, where she hid in a priory. Some historians claim that Prince Edward was captured after the battle by King Edward’s brother George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, and executed on the spot. Others claim that Prince Edward was killed on the battlefield during the fighting. Either way, the battle was over, as was the current phase of the war.

Death of a PrinceHistorians estimate that over 2000 Lancastrians died at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Two days later, on the 6th of May 1471, the Yorkist forces stormed the Abbey and, after some perfunctory trials, executed most of the Lancastrians who had taken shelter there. Margaret of Anjou was captured and paraded through London alongside the victorious King Edward before being imprisoned. That same night, King Henry VI mysteriously and conveniently died in the Tower of London.