As some of you know, 2005 was truly an experience of “a dream come true” for me. As a celebration of my 40th birthday, my dear wife, Felinah, arranged for me (and 12 of my most tenacious friends) to have a tournament in Chepstow castle — the home of William Marshal.
It was a great experience — not just the tournament, but the whole journey. I wish I could share all my stories with everyone on this website, but there’s just not enough time and bandwidth.
So, as a small way of sharing the Chepstow Tournament with the whole Known World, below are three “photo essays” that I hope will allow you to get a sense of what it was like to travel to, and fight in the environment of a real medieval castle. Enjoy!
The Hawks of Peace
Is there anything more knightly than strolling along through an English meadow with a trained bird of prey on your arm? Well, okay, repressing the peasants and refusing to wash your gambeson come to mind … but you get the point. Seeing a hawk on the arm of a falconer is certainly an image right out of the Middle Ages.
Ironically, for us “American-ized” knightly types, the closest you’re going to get to a real bird of prey is in some kind of wildlife show at a zoo or amusement park — and even there, they’re going to disguise what the hawk does (which is, technically, “kill stuff”) with all kinds of feel-good language about “natural behaviors” and “environmental stimulus” and “the circle of life.” Unless you’re willing to undergo years of intensive training, you’re not likely to ever have a hawk flying under your own control.
Which is why, on our recent trip to England, we were quite enthusiastic to discover the Forest of Dean Falconry Center, where they offer full-day “adult flying lessons” in which you can handle, fly and (with just a bit of luck) hunt with hawks and falcons under the guidance of professional falconers. We couldn’t sign up fast enough.
Our falconers were Andrew Nedoma and Graham Howley, the directors of the center. They began our session by introducing us to the birds and allowing us to sit with them (the birds, not Andrew and Graham) on our gloves in order to be sure that having birds of prey just inches away from our personal eyeballs would not (as they say in England) “freak us out.”
Then we proceeded to a nearby meadow for some field time with Dodger, the Harris hawk. We sent Dodger ahead into the branches of a tree, then strolled along for about 100 yards or so, and then Graham instructed me to put a small bit of meat on my glove, which was Dodger’s signal to come back and chow down. Then Felinah and I repeated the process again and again over the course of several beautiful English miles.
For better or worse, we never found any game for Dodger to strike at, but we did have a great afternoon, and we gave Dodger a good work-out (as measured in quantity of meat consumed in the course of the session). Andrew and Graham are extremely skilled falconers; their methods were always gentle, patient and respectful of the birds. They would make fine falconers for a knight, duke or king of any realm.
If you are ever in Gloucestershire, I highly recommend scheduling a day at the Dean Falconry Center. (Also, there’s lots of interesting information on falconry on their website.)
Visit them at: www.ForestFalconry.co.uk
Behind the Scenes at the Royal Armouries
Say to the people in your office that you’re going to spend a whole day of your vacation getting lectured on the technical specifications of 14th century arms and armor and you’ll get some funny looks. (Trust me on that … ) But say you’re going to get to handle real, medieval weaponry and —- well, you’re still going to get funny looks, but, let’s face it, who cares?
Despite the funny looks from our friends, neighbors and co-workers, Felinah and I, along with several of our Chepstow tournament companions, arranged to spend a day touring “behind the scenes” at the Royal Armouries at Leeds.
The Royal Armouries moved from the Tower of London to a brand-new facility in Leeds in the mid-90’s. The new museum provides the staff with a fantastic amount of space, which they’ve used to great effect. Unlike most museum galleries, which are devoted to specific periods of history (Egyptian, Roman, Renaissance, etc.) the galleries at Leeds are segregated to focus on the intended function of the items on display. There’s a gallery dedicated to hunting, another on self-defense, and another on warfare. But the thing that will probably make every SCA member’s eyes light up is the fact that there’s a whole gallery devoted to tournaments and jousting.
The Armouries is also unique in that it’s set up to help you forget you’re looking at a bunch of antiques locked inside glass cases. Every display area incorporates four elements: the historical pieces (of course), as well as ongoing video displays, interactive computer demonstrations, and live interpreters in costumes and armor putting on shows of jousting, sword-fighting, falconry, archery and shooting. There is (to say the least) a lot to be seen here.
As much as we all would have enjoyed strolling leisurely through displays (and believe me, we could easily have spent several days doing that), we had been given an invitation to meet with the Armouries’ academic director as “ambassadors” of both the SCA and the Chivalry Today Educational Program. We expected to simply shake hands and get a “welcome to the museum” speech; instead, we were treated as honored guests and given the opportunity to view and handle a wide variety of historical pieces in order to help us improve the understanding and awareness of chivalry and medieval history in the United States.
Which is a really fancy way of saying, “We got to handle real swords and armor!” (But, of course, that doesn’t sound very professional.) Yes, the accompanying photo shows me with my grubby mitts wrapped around a 14th century longsword. (The museum director eventually pried it out of my grasp, but I put up a good fight.) Here’s the surprise we discovered at the Royal Armouries: You don’t have to be Conan the Barbarian to wield a medieval sword. While a lot of spectators who come to Ren Faires and SCA events consider our wooden swords “fake” because they’re way too light, the truth is the sword I’m holding in the picture weighs a few ounces under 3 lbs.
I also handled a pair of 14th and 15th century broadswords (that is, 36″ swords meant to be used in one hand), each of which tipped the scales at around 2 lbs. The director of the sword collection explained that even the Scottish claymores on display, which are between 5′ and 6′ long, have an average weight of just 5 lbs.
So, it seems that the pound-per-foot rule we generally adhere to in the SCA is reasonably realistic – not “way too light.” The swords should be as heavy as a Chevy bumper rule I’ve seen utilized in some other “live steel” re-enactment groups borders on ludicrous — at least, according to the director of the Royal Armouries. (And, after all, what does he know?)
But the biggest surprise of all in Leeds was that re-enactors (both visiting “ambassadors” and the on-staff members of the Armouries) are treated as serious scholars, not overgrown geeks obsessed with swords-and-sorcery. As the director explained to me:
Going to the Royal Armouries provided some great new information for historical research, but it also reminded me that what we do in the SCA (and other re-enactment groups) is more than just fun-and-games. Putting on armor and taking part in tournaments on the weekends is a way of learning about the past, and of bringing history to life for others — and that is a responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
The Royal Armouries is definitely a vacation spot that any history buff should visit – regardless of the funny looks from the people in your office.
Visit the www.royalarmouries.org for information regarding current displays and events, as well as several outstanding articles on the history of arms and armor.
The Chepstow Tournament
The “main event” of our trip to England was, not surprisingly, a tournament at Chepstow castle. When we arrived at the castle gate on the morning of the tournament, we were (as you might imagine) a bit apprehensive. After all, not only were we a bunch of foreigners trying to portray English history to English people, but we were also keenly aware that in many circles the name of the SCA is associated less with the words, “serious historical scholarship” than with the words “chain mail bikinis.” We hoped we could live up to the quality of the environment we were about to enter.
Fortunately, we had lots of help from the Chepstowe Garrison, a historical re-enactment group based in the castle. With the assistance of Roger, Thom, Amanda, Beryl and Josh, who graciously loaned us benches, tables, two arming tents and their combat arena, we soon had the castle’s lower bailey looking just like it might have in 1189, when William Marshal took possession of the castle as part of the dowry of his wife, Isabella de Claire. In fact, the lower bailey and the gatehouse it protects were built under the supervision of the famous Earl of Pembroke and star of the European “tourney circuit,” so we hoped that maybe the spirit of William Marshal was looking down on our little tournament with a smile from one of the upper windows of the nearby tower.
With all of us in our costumes and armor, it was time to open the castle gates and begin the tournament. We all gathered in the middle of the sunny field to hear the words of King Renee of Anjou, one of the most famous knights of the 15th century and author of The Book of the Tournament, which provided the inspiration for the activities of the day:
For those of us in the armor, fighting in the castle was an amazing experience. Typically at an SCA event you’re looking around at things like shopping malls, basketball courts, parking lots or freeway overpasses — all things that blatantly remind you: This ain’t anything like the Middle Ages. Looking through the eyeslots of my helm during the Chepstow tournament, all I could see was … castle! I have to admit that there were several times I was admiring the scenery so much that I had to force myself to remember Sir Padraic or Baron Thorvald was over on the other side of the lists field, trying to whack me with a sword.
During the course of the day, several hundred spectators came to the castle to see our SCA demonstration. (Sir Padraic and Lady Runa even went strolling through the streets of the town to generate visitors.) Although we were worried that in the land of “real medieval history” our combat style — which is done with wooden swords instead of steel ones — would be scoffed at, in reality, everyone seemed sincerely intrigued that we were actually hitting each other. They respected the fact that our rattan weapons gave us the ability to carry out our fighting techniques without any worry of “pulling blows” or “choreographed movements.”
We demonstrated both sword and shield combat, and two-handed great sword combat. (If you really want an amusing story, find me at an SCA event in the future and ask me how much fun it is to check wooden great swords through the TSA baggage screening station.) All of our fights were done in “counted blows” style (three blows received), and we concluded our matches with the defeated fighter surrendering his sword and yielding, rather than “falling down dead.” Since two of the SCA’s more laughable customs are fighting from your knees (“Come back here! I’ll bite yer kneecaps off!”) and playing dead, we decided to eliminate those aspects in respect for the authenticity of the castle atmosphere.
Another thing that caused us some initial concern was the fact that two of our fighters were, technically, women. For those of you keeping score at home, the number of period references to women competing in jousting tournaments is: zero. (Yes, there are several accounts of women fighting in wars, going on Crusade and taking part in judicial duels — but history seems to be silent regarding women participating in jousting tournaments.)
Knowing this, we were somewhat worried that our lady-fighters would cause us to lose credibility with the spectators at Chepstow. Turns out, our worries were completely groundless: Everyone who spoke with Baroness Ceridwen and Duchess Felinah congratulated them for “getting out there with the boys,” and every time one of them won a fight against one of the male fighters, the castle courtyard echoed with applause.
Of course, we took plenty of time in-between our tournament fights to stroll through the castle and enjoy being part of the medieval atmosphere. Finally, as the shadow of the castle wall grew long across the field, it was time to pack up our armor and head home. As we were leaving I wanted to stand for one last picture in the gateway of William Marshal’s castle, and as I did, the gate opened up and Nina, the castle manager, poked her head out and asked: “Would you like this?”
Then, she handed me a key — the key to the castle! There aren’t many knights, I suspect, that can truthfully say they’ve taken a castle after a day of battle. I considered it quite an honor, and I look forward to a day (in the not-too-distant future) when I can use that key to open the gates at Chepstow once again to begin another wonderful SCA tournament in the courtyard.
Chepstow is one of the many fine castles and historical sites managed by Cadw. To find out more about visiting these sites when you are in Britain, visite the Cadw website: www.cadw.wales.gov.uk
To play these videos you will need the free Quicktime player. You can download the necessary software through this link: For Mac or PC
In the Courtyard of the Marshal — is a chronicle of the tournament itself, including a brief tour of Chepstow, as well as some thoughts and reflections from many of the people who were there that day.
(68 mb – this file will take about 3 to 5 minutes to download on a cable/DSL connection.)
The Rose of Chepstow — is a musical restrospective of the whole event, and a tribute to my dear duchess, best friend and favorite traveling companion.
(24 mb – this file will take about 2 minutes to download on a cable/DSL connection.)
Did you enjoy the music in these videos? Buy them online:
From “In the Courtyard of the Marshal”
From “The Rose of Chepstow”
Time After Time by Eva Cassidy