The history of... re-enacting battles

Julian Humphrys looks at the origins of re-enacting battles...

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

When were the first battle re-enactments?

The Romans regularly staged re-enactments of land and even sea battles as part of their public games. Unfortunately for the participants, health and safety did not feature on the list of the organisers’ concerns.

 

Has the British Army staged battle re-enactments?

Yes, and earlier than you might think. In 1638 members of London’s Honourable Artillery Company staged a mock battle between Christians and ‘Saracens’ and in 1645 a parliamentarian officer in Kent tried to distract the local population from traditional May Day pursuits, which he saw as ‘ungodly’, by putting on a mock battle at Blackheath. Half his men played the parts of disciplined Roundheads, and half played unruly Cavaliers.

The Royal Tournament regularly featured re-enactments of military events, while the hugely popular interwar Aldershot military tattoo was famous for its historical displays, which used large numbers of serving soldiers. The 1925 show included not only a re-enactment of Waterloo but also a re-creation of the burning of Moscow, carried out to the strains of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

 

When did battle re-enactment become a popular pursuit in the UK?

Although one-off re-enactments were relatively common in Britain and elsewhere in the 19th century, battle re-enactment as a hobby traces its roots back to the era of peace and love. The year 1968 saw the foundation of two major societies: the Southern Skirmish Association, which recreates the American Civil War, and the Sealed Knot, which re-enacts the British Civil Wars.

 

Why is it called the Sealed Knot?

It takes its name from a secret royalist society that operated during the Interregnum. Founded by distinguished soldier and Sandhurst lecturer Brigadier Peter Young, it is Britain’s largest re-enactment society. One of its earliest events was held at Basing House in 1969. At that time it lacked a Roundhead wing and so numbers were made up from a variety of local sources, some of whom received a severe ticking off from Young when they started throwing clods of turf at advancing Cavaliers. The sheer novelty of the event ensured that it received considerable media coverage at the time, notably on Thames TV’s cult children’s show Magpie. 

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