Alex Marchant is author of two novels, The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man, together telling the story of the last three years in the life of King Richard III for readers aged 10+. The Order has been called ‘a wonderful work of historical fiction … altogether an enjoyable book for both children and adults’ by the Ricardian Bulletin and both it and The King’s Man can be bought as paperback or ebook through Amazon at myBook.to/WhiteBoar or through the author at AlexMarchant84@gmail.com.
Day one, first stop on my “Author Tour of Major Battlefields and Other Places Associated with my Major Character….” Barnet, Battle of. 1471.
At the end of last year, as author of a newly published children’s book about King Richard III, with a sequel due out in the spring, I realized I would have to start promotional activities if I wanted to sell any copies. Part of my planning involved identifying events where I might be able to have a stall. Middleham and Bosworth were top of my list, being festivals I’d been to at least once before. I also knew of the Tewkesbury medieval festival and, given that ‘the-battles-of-Barnet-and-Tewkesbury’ is a phrase that often trips off the tongue without much thought, I wondered whether there would be a similar event in the place that played host to the King’s first battle.
I was in luck. In fact, before I’d even begun looking in to it, I was contacted by the secretary of the newly formed Barnet Battlefield 1471 Society, Liz Bown, who’d heard about publication of The Order of the White Boar, to ask if I would supply copies for the Society to sell at its busy programme of events. And would I perhaps like to come along to the second annual Barnet medieval festival that the Society was organizing in June 2018 to give a talk and sign books?
It wasn’t a difficult decision to make (once I’d bribed my daughter – whose birthday coincided with the event – with the promise of an evening out in London afterwards). So that’s how I found myself, at an early (for me) hour of the morning of Saturday 9th June making my way through the quiet unsuspecting suburban streets of Barnet towards the Old Elizabethans rugby club.
Driving on to the club grounds was like entering a different world. Yet one with which I should have been somewhat familiar – having researched and imagined medieval battle camps when I was writing The King’s Man. But actually encountering such a camp as it was waking up was new to me. The drifting smell of woodsmoke from cooking fires, the distant clang of hammer on metal as the armourer started work, the colourful array of tents of all shapes and sizes, the flutter of standards, people clad in all manner of medieval garb, from the finest ladies and gentlemen to small children playing before breakfast. I’d been asked to come early to set up my stall before the gates opened to the public – and it was a pleasure to do that and enjoy the atmosphere lovingly recreated by the re-enactors before the invasion of modern visitors.
I’d been a little uncertain when asked to wear medieval clothing for the festival, but it wasn’t long before I was changed and ready in my page’s costume. (The leading character in my books, Matthew Wansford, is himself page at Middleham Castle to King Richard while he’s still Duke of Gloucester, so it seemed appropriate to hire such an outfit for the summer’s events.) Though I was worried about its lack of authenticity, given it came from a theatrical costumier rather than a re-enactment supplier, everyone was far too polite to make any adverse comments and I soon felt very much at home in it.
My stall was set up alongside that of the Barnet Battlefield Society, in a prime position overlooking the arena, so I was lucky enough to be able to watch the re-enactments without leaving it. These re-enactments were of the Battle of Barnet itself, and earlier in the day the second Battle of St Albans (possibly in order to offer some sort of balance in terms of victories for both sides). These were my first re-enactments and also the first at the Barnet Festival itself, and the companies involved – including the Medieval Siege Society, the Wars of the Roses Federation and the House of Bayard – acquitted themselves well. From the first sounds of the drums announcing the muster and the parades of troops, through the powerful cannonades and arrow-storms, to the fierce hand-to-hand fighting – all described for the watching crowds by a lively commentary – it was a stirring experience for the audience. And somehow the soldiers managed it all in the growing heat of the afternoon despite their full armour.
As well as the battles, there were of course a variety of other displays of hand guns and archery, the re-enactors’ camps and plenty of stalls selling authentic (and some less authentic) wares to occupy the many visitors, and medieval music group La Trouvère travelled down from Yorkshire to perform. My own talk – combining a passage from the start of the Battle of Bosworth from The King’s Man with a description of King Richard’s role at Barnet and the development of his ‘black’ reputation under the Tudors – was well attended and received, despite the competing attractions. I hope that a few people went away from the Festival with a different view of the King – or at least questions in their minds about what they thought they knew about him.
Overall, the weekend seems to have been a great success. Upwards of 5,000 people attended what was a free festival, organized in a remarkably short time by a very hardworking group of volunteers. Visitors came from far afield and all appeared to have a fantastic time. I certainly enjoyed it and have put the dates in my diary for next year (8th and 9th June 2019).
Some of my favourite memories are from the latter part of each day – when the dogwalkers who usually frequent the fields arrived for their evening strolls to find battles still going on – among the many children who had bought wooden swords, shields, helmets and bows from the stalls. At one point, the children even banded together into two smallish armies, with one streaming down from their vantage point at the top of the arena field to engage with their enemy below. This perhaps isn’t the way they learn history in school – but I think the festival may well have kindled an enduring interest in the medieval period in many of them.
Many thanks to Alex for writing sharing her experiences with us. Many of you may have met up with her at Bosworth last month or, indeed at Barnet.