Living History at Lulworth Castle

PUBLISHED: 12:49 20 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:34 20 February 2013

A soldier clasps his pike at Lulworth

A soldier clasps his pike at Lulworth

Muskets, pikestaffs, feasting and jousting, Jeremy Miles meets the men and women who are bringing history back to life at Lulworth Castle, Dorset this summer

Living History at Lulworth

Muskets, pikestaffs, feasting and jousting, Jeremy Miles meets the men and women who are bringing history back to life

Its the summer of 1643 and in the fields beyond Dorsets Lulworth Castle, a small group of women and children are enjoying the afternoon sunshine. Though you would never know it from this idyllic scene, the county is rife with tension as the violent clashes of the English Civil War begin to wreak havoc.

Suddenly, a single musket shot rings out and a child falls, mortally wounded. As his mother wails in anguish, word is passed to Sir Humphrey Weld, owner of the castle. Within minutes this former Sheriff and Lord Mayor of London, devoted Royalist and defender of the Crown, is mustering the waiting troops of his friend, Sir Thomas Tyldesley. Meanwhile, Oliver Cromwells Parliamentarian forces are gathering in an attempt to take Lulworth.

Within the hour a bloody battle is raging as the Royalists push forward, determined to repel the advances of the Roundheads. In a blaze of musket and cannon fire the two sides become locked in brutal hand-to-hand combat. They drive hard into each other, a forest of pikestaffs clashing, their muskets useless at such close range gripped by the barrel and used to club the enemy to the ground.

Fast-forward 367 years to 2010 and were standing amongst the crowds of Bank Holiday visitors to the castle watching this painstakingly recreated battle, courtesy of the good men and women of the English Civil War Society (ECWS).

Although Dorset never saw any great battles, the countys geographic and political position made it the scene of many a bloody skirmish such as this. The Society is impassioned about the accuracy of its recreations.

We do everything we can to make it as authentic as possible, says Sue Sampson, who is playing the role of a Royalist camp follower and seamstress, and is busy working on raw, undyed linen, making a soldiers shirt. Ironically, in real life, 58-year-old Sue has little time for war or the Crown. Im a Quaker and a republican, she proudly tells me. However, she is fascinated by the 17th century and believes the ECWS does a brilliant job educating, informing and entertaining.

Indeed, beyond the impromptu Lulworth battlefield both inside the castle and within its grounds, a full-scale living history lesson is underway. Society members in authentic dress cook for the troops, carve wood, make musket balls, give displays of weaponry and discuss military strategy. Each and every one of them is more than happy to explain their skills to curious visitors.

Even crime and punishment is under the spotlight. I find former psychiatric nurse Brian Hammond offering to clamp people in the stocks. Hammond, who spent 33 years working at the high security Broadmoor Hospital, has some robust views about how to deal with 21st-century delinquency. Frankly, I think the stocks would be more effective than dishing out ASBOs! he tells me.

Inside the castle there are herbalists, musicians, painters and a kitchen full of cooks, maids and servants, all hard at work producing a banquet for Sir Humphrey, his family and guests. Their magnificent feast is consumed in full public view, with a series of set pieces of banter thrown in to underline social standing and political position.

Outside, more lowly fare is being prepared for the troops and camp followers by Mark Heath, who is stirring a bubbling cauldron of potage. Like many members of the Society he was persuaded to join through the interest of another family member. In this case his 15-year-old daughter, Bethan. Mark normally wields a pikestaff rather than a wooden spoon but he had been asked to put in a couple of hours as a pot-boy before going out and killing a few Roundheads. I love it, its absolutely fascinating. You learn a huge amount, he tells me.

Among the members gathered at Lulworth are perhaps the oldest and youngest in the Society. I find 90-year-old David Mason chatting to young mum Helen Smart, who is bouncing her four-and-half month old son, Edward, on her lap. He may be a babe in arms but hes wearing handmade replica 17th-century clothing and became a member of the English Civil War Society the day he was born.

David was one of the first members of the Society back in 1972. He still attends re-enactments but admits that his days of action on the battlefield are behind him. It seems the clashes, although played out with immense attention to detail, are not what they once were. In the early days there would be a major battle once or twice a month, he recalls. There could be up to a 1,000 people on the field. Its down to a few hundred now.

However, the love of recreating combat seems to continue unabated and in many and varied forms. There are a number of other re-enactment groups from across the ages and sooner or later they all seem to arrive at Lulworth to indulge in their authentic role play.

John Kearney runs Horses Impossible, a company which provides equine extras for movies like the recent Robin Hood film, but every summer youll find him busy jousting as the Knights of Lulworth prepare to defend the castle and their honour. The knights are incredibly popular, he tells me. People love the idea of the age of strength and chivalry.
Throughout August, the gallant Knights vie for the hand of the fair damsel, dazzling the enraptured crowds with their brilliant swordplay, thundering steeds and stunning horsemanship at the all-important jousting tournament.

The following month the castle provides an imposing backdrop for an entire festival of historic combat, organised by Pike and Shot Events, who manage a wide variety of historical events around the UK and Europe. At this multi-period event you will find Roman gladiators camped next to Vikings and members of a 17th-century hunting party rubbing shoulders with tommies from the trenches of the First World War. Alongside a wide variety of historical tableaux will be battles, displays and demonstrations of skills across the ages, with re-enactors in authentic costume happy to talk about their period lifestyles. Its not often that you can walk through 1500 years of living history in the grounds of a Dorset castle.

Fact Box
4-30 August
The Knights of Lulworth

Watch the Knights battle it out for the hand of the fair damsel, with jousting and swordplay at 12 noon and 3pm Sunday to Friday. In the Medieval Village you can see authentic cooking demonstrations, meet the armourer, and watch falconry displays.

18-19 September
Historic Combat Festival

A historical pageant of warfare through the ages, from medieval times to the Great War. 10.30am-6pm

For more information call 0845 4501054 or click here

Lulworth Castle, East Lulworth, Dorset BH20 5QS

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