Donington-le-heath Manor House
Historical re-enactments occur throughout the summer months in the UK and many of these gatherings are on a grand scale and enjoyed by thousands of people, but I prefer the smaller occasions because you can mingle with the participants and talk to them when they are “in character”. One such event took place recently at the 700-year old Donington-le-Heath Manor House in Leicestershire in the English Midlands. Entitled a St George’s Day Wedding 1651, it was organised by a local re-enactment group, the Society of the Open Rope, with support from other groups. The marriage was between a Roundhead groom and a Royalist bride. In the true spirit of the times, some secret discussions were taking place amongst the Cavalier hierarchy, who were deciding if they should support the return of the king. When this news leaked out the trouble started involving a few muskets, some pikes, and a variety of swords. However, the day had started off peacefully enough.
When I arrived the Roundhead family and their friends were eating from wooden bowls, chatting away, and having a laugh amongst themselves. With their hands they were eating meat that had been cooked over an open fire that was continuing to smoke. Nearby, but out of earshot, some of the Cavalier men were huddled in a tent telling visitors how they had given up their estate for the good of the Commonwealth. Despite this imposition, they were still able to afford the finest lace (5 shillings an inch – Honiton of course) embroidered on their tunics, at a time when the agricultural wage rate was 12d. per day. The Cavalier women were keeping themselves to themselves in a separate tent.
After eating lunch, the roundhead pikemen were put through their paces by their leader, whose arm was in a sling after a mishap in a recent battle. The longest pikes were 20 feet long and most useful when they were planted at an angle of 30 degrees to repel cavalry. Shorter pikes, around 8 feet in length, were easier to control and use against infantry in hand-to-hand combat. At the far end of the grounds, a group of infantry were gathered in the bushes practicing their techniques, though judging from some of the flashes and bangs, plus 17th-Century swearing, it seemed as though some of the musketmen were having a problem keeping their powder dry.
A few swordsmen were practicing their skirmishing techniques, including one who looked as though he had escaped from the Jacobite rebellion. A couple of the fighters broke off their bout to illustrate the different types of swords of the time. The fine rapier was excellent for thrusting at opponents as long as they didn’t have a broadsword, which was considerably longer and used to slash away at an opponent. These facts were all patiently explained by the Roundheads to around 20 people including me. This is the kind of living history that you don’t find at larger spectacles, where you don’t get the feeling of the personal touch. You learn more and can relate to what you are being told when there is only a small group of visitors.
The bride was wandering around the gardens of the Manor House with her long skirt brushing against the ground. She was accompanied by her father who was dressed in his finest clothes with lace collars, and cuffs, plus a beautifully decorated hat. They were playing their roles to perfection, answering questions about their way of life and allowing curious children to play with their sword and inspect their clothing.
Donington le Heath Manor House is run by Leicestershire County Council and is on the southern outskirts of Coalville near Hugglescote and is open every day from 11.00 to 4.00pm. Admission and parking is free. A number of historical events, not all of them involving fighting, take place throughout the year. It’s the Anglo-Saxons versus the Vikings in July, civil war opponents take each other again in August, while The Tudors have their turn in October.
Tags: Donington , Cavaliers , Roundheads , Restoration , Skirmish , English Civil War , Marriage
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