“Better than a history lesson”: Marlborough’s Civil War battle comes alive in a spectacular re-enactment and a display of civilian life
The primary school boy standing as close as he could get to the action, had it in a nutshell: “It’s better than a history lesson”. It was spectacular and as muddled looking as battle can be.
The English Civil War Society's re-enactment - with about a thousand participants - of the Royalists' capture of the town in 1642 was watched by big crowds on the Common on Saturday afternoon (July 26.)
However, though the uniforms, flags, arms, artillery, chants and war cries were all authentic, it was not quite history. It was better than history and, as far as this reporter can remember them, certainly better than history lessons too.
The English Civil War Society’s commentator Tony Cullen (who used to take part as a General) was quite open about this: “We're going to mess around with history a bit – because we want a fight and we know you want to see one.”
Much of the real battle, he told the crowds, actually took place near Aldbourne and the Commonwealth troops – about 700 of them – got together in a hurry to defend Marlborough, had no artillery and probably no cavalry.
The battle started with a ‘parlay’ between the sides to make sure a battle was necessary. This really did happen and we even know what was said.
The Royalists asked the town to surrender and the town said a very firm “No” – and there was Mayor Marian Hannaford-Dobson giving the Royalists that very firm “No”.
Then battle commenced. For this re-enactment, each side had artillery and a troop of cavalry. But the main fighting was between the musketeers and the pikemen.
It was sunny and very hot on the Common and you felt for the re-enactors dressed up in all their leather and authentically thick clothing – for a battle that was really fought in winter. And the crowds were big and very attentive – and when the battle got noisy lots of small children ran around with their fingers in their ears.
A s Tony Cullen put it, the noise was largely to frighten people: “Most of them would have heard nothing louder than a church bell or a cow giving birth.” At a distance, the musket was a wildly inaccurate weapon and the sixteen-foot pike is a difficult weapon to wield.
However, it was the pikemen as they joined battle with almost balletic movements that caught the attention of many spectators.
Suddenly people were ‘dying’ on the battlefield – and just as suddenly someone was going round rifling their pockets. One of our local policemen did not think a lot of this – but he was off duty and the Geneva Conventions had not been invented.
Then history was routed and took to its heels: the Parliamentarians appeared to be winning. Someone standing close to the action thought this was ‘a bit rich’.
Perhaps at the Sunday afternoon re-enactment, reality will be restored and the Royalists will run the defending Commonwealth forces off the Common and back down Kingsbury Street.
In this re-enactment it mattered not who won the field, but rather how they fought. And people were very appreciative of the re-enactors’ skills – even after they had faced the final ‘General Salute’ with muskets fired right over their heads.
Sky Productions, making a documentary series on re-enactors for the Yesterday channel, were there with three cameras – two of their cameraman were dressed as foot soldiers so they could get some good close ups of the action.
And a group of soldiers from the 4MI battalion in Bulford, which has special connections with Marlborough, were on hand to keep people safe from galloping hooves and stray pikes.
There were chickens roasting on a spit, lace making, spinning, spice sellers, a pub (called The Cock and Bull), a surgeon explaining how he would have operated on a child’s skull with some gruesome looking implements, and two blacksmiths – one of whom was explaining how some pretty nasty looking spikes would have stopped cavalry in their tracks.
And there was a JP – he hailed from Shropshire and in real life was a real JP. He took on the character of one of his forebears, Arthur Henry de Banke. And, as any good upholder of the law should, he was drinking water from his tankard.
The history of 1642 had come to life in Marlborough – civilian and military. A real slice of Marlborough’s past brought to the town by the English Civil War Society and the Town Council with Marlborough History Society and volunteers. A huge number of people were out in the sunshine enjoying the spectacle and the history.
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