The first Tewkesbury Medieval Festival took place in 1984 and has become a regular occurrence usually staged during the second weekend in July. Not all of the early events held were about the Battle of Tewkesbury and there have been forays into local history including the Storming of Holm Castle as well as the legendary life of King Arthur. The original event was the brainchild of Peggy Clatworthy and Celia Bennett and over the past 29 years it has grown to become the largest medieval fair and re-enactment of a historic battle in the United Kingdom.
Staged on meadows that were once a part of the Tewkesbury battlefield the festival also attracts well over 100 traders and stall-holders – many of whom are specialists in medieval goods from rabbit pies to traditionally made armour and clothing. There is also an area where many of the re-enactors set up a medieval camp and where they stay over the weekend. The focus is on authenticity and the re-enactors often live without any modern conveniences exactly as people would have done nearly 600 years ago. The success of the festival is such that participants in both the fair and the battle re-enactment travel to Tewkesbury from all over the world.
Entrance to the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival is free but a modest charge is levied for the onsite parking. Donations are always welcome as the event costs a significant amount to stage and is largely self funding. Most of the revenue is derived from tithes (percentages) paid by the traders but doesn’t always cover the costs. It’s estimated that approximately 25,000 visitors attend the event every year.
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BATTLE OF TEWKESBURY
Since 1337 the political and military feud between the Yorkists and Lancastrians (to see which branch of the royal Plantagenet family would rule Britain) had plunged the country into a sustained period of civil war. Over the years the fortunes of each side had often changed but finally the Yorkists gained the upper hand. Edward Plantagenet removed King Henry VI from the throne and was crowned King Edward IV in his place. Henry VI was imprisoned but his wife, Margaret of Anjou, and son Edward of Westminster (Lancaster), the Prince of Wales, continued their struggle for power from their base in France. In 1469 Richard Neville, the 16th earl of Warwick changed sides and later raised an army against King Edward IV. Margaret and Prince Edward set out from France to join forces with Warwick and reclaim the throne. However, when Warwick’s army clashed with King Edward’s at the Battle of Barnet the Lancastrians were soundly defeated. Warwick himself was killed on the same day that Margaret of Anjou arrived in Weymouth with her small army comprised largely of French soldiers. Realising that her only hope was to meet up in Wales with Jasper Tudor, 1st Duke of Bedford, Margaret headed north with the intention of crossing the River Severn at the city of Gloucester. Unfortunately for her King Edward had raised an army and was in pursuit. Gloucester sealed its gates against the Lancastrians and Margaret was forced to head even further north to Tewkesbury.
King Edward caught up with her on the 3rd of May 1471 and realising that they could flee no further the Lancastrians halted south of the town and prepared to fight. The following morning their army divided into three sections known as battles. The most western flank was commanded by Edmund Beaufort, 4th Duke of Somerset, the centre by Baron Wenlock and Prince Edward and the eastern flank by John Courtenay the 15th Earl of Devon The area that they had chosen was known as the Gastons and was bordered by a small brook on the western side and the Swilgate River to the west. The Yorkists moved into position and also divided into three battles Richard, Duke of Gloucester took the western flank, King Edward the centre and Lord Hastings the eastern flank.
The battle started when Gloucester opened fire on Somerset and King Edward’s battle attacked Prince Edward and Baron Wenlock. Seeing an opportunity to cut off the king, the Duke of Somerset swung around through the hedgerows towards the centre. He was beaten back and then attacked by Richard, Duke of Gloucester as well as being ambushed by 200 mounted soldiers that King Edward had hidden on a nearby wooded hill. Somerset’s forces panicked and fled towards the ford across the River Severn. The Duke of Somerset fled first towards the centre where he accused Baron Wenlock of cowardice before killing him with a mace – some say a battle axe. Realising that the battle was lost the Lancastrians fled in all directions.
Those that fled west were caught in a field near the Avon river and so many were killed that the area is still known today as the Bloody Meadow. Those that fled east were massacred as they tried to cross the Swilgate River. Many other Lancastrians headed for the town and tried to cross the Avon at an old mill. Around 30 Lancastrian nobles, including the Duke of Somerset, sought sanctuary in St. Mary’s Abbey which was just north of the battlefield. Margaret of Anjou is said have fled nine miles northeast to Little Malvern were she hid in a priory. Some historians claim that Prince Edward was captured after the battle by King Edward’s brother George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, and executed on the spot. Others claim that Prince Edward was killed on the battlefield during the fighting. Either way the battle was over as was the current phase of the war. Historians estimate that over 2000 Lancastrians died at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Two days later on the 6th of May 1471 the Yorkist forces stormed the Abbey and after a some perfunctory trials executed most of the Lancastrians who had taken shelter there. Margaret of Anjou was captured and paraded through London alongside the victorious King Edward before being imprisoned. That same night King Henry VI mysteriously died in the Tower of London. For more information about thye region visit Things to do worcester.
RE-ENACTMENT OF THE BATTLE OF TEWKESBURY
The Battle of Tewkesbury changed the course of British history and the main attraction of the Medieval Festival is the re-enactment of this event. According to the organisers the first outings were simple affairs and the 150 or so participants used little more than knitted woolen chainmail and wooden weapons.
Reenactment of the Battle of TtewkesburySome 25 years later the occasion couldn’t be more different and is recognised a significant date in the calendar of ‘living history’ events. Today over 2,000 enthusiasts travel from all over Great Britain as well as more than 20 countries to take part and even an expert might be hard pressed to tell the difference between the replica weapons and the historic originals. Amour and clothing used by the re-enactors is as authentic as possible. The replica kit for a single knight can easily cost £5,000 and in some special cases is worth considerably more. The chance to take part as a re-enactor is by invitation only. Great care is taken to ensure that those involved will do their utmost to ensure both authenticity in their mannerisms and costumes as well as responsibility in their actions. Marshals are particularly focused on safety and closely monitor the re-enactors as they take part in the battle. Any dangerous or irresponsible behaviour is simply not tolerated and the offending party is swiftly removed from the field.
As the re-enactment makes use of muskets and artillery, special attention is given to the use of Black Powder (gunpowder). An interesting point is that black powder weapons are usually louder than modern ones of a similar size.
After the main battle the re-enactors also replicate the Yorkist storming of the Abbey followed by mock trials and the beheading of the captives.
THE MEDIEVAL CAMP
Many of those people taking part in the re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury actually camp at the festival using only traditional 15th century equipment and facilities. The camp is usually located on the slopes of Holm Hill and overlooks the Bloody Meadow. It’s a remarkable opportunity to see how medieval knights and their squires would have lived while on campaign. From the extravagant and luxurious pavilions of King Edward to the simpler tents of mere knights at arms. Racks of fearsome weapons await careful cleaning and while servants sharpen swords and pikes well into the dusk.
The scene is not purely military as the families of the knights sometimes accompanied them. Ladies and squires can be seen tending fires and cooking meals while children continue playing their games seemingly oblivious to the fighters around them. Minstrels drift from tent to tent amusing the occupants while various religious men preach the virtue and benefits of prayer. At night the haze from the camp fires drifts amongst the tents as flagons of ale and mead are drunk to bring sleep or solace.
THE MEDIEVAL FAYRE
From fairly humble beginnings the fayre has grown to host more than 120 traders and their stalls. For the visitor the experience is vibrant and perhaps as close as you can get to a real medieval fayre. Leather goods nestle next to hand carved furniture and blacksmiths can be seen making and selling a fearsome array of weapons. Mead and beer is plentiful and a tankard of ale or a specially brewed cup of alcoholic ginger beer is just the treat on a hot summer’s day.
Medieval musicians, jesters, dancers, story tellers, peddlers, magicians, jugglers and tumblers all add colour and excitement just as they would have when Edward IV was on the throne. Displays of archery and falconry remind us of how these largely forgotten skills were critically important in times gone by. Re-enactors demonstrate yarn spinning, pottery making and other medieval skills. If you’re lucking you may even see the exotic gypsies performing their dances while around the corner a witch is dunked in a pond to rob her of her dark magic.
Guided tours of the battlefield are organised by the Tewkesbury Battlefield Society and last for around two hours. The route includes Lower Lode lane, the Bloody Meadow, Lincoln green, Priors park, Forester’s lane and up to the Swilgate river and the abbey.
– Best parking is usually across the road from the Sat Nav Postcode GL20 5TU
– It is not a good idea to try and turn right from Gloucester Road into Lincoln Green Lane
– Lower Lode Lane is closed for the duration of the Festival