Monday, 17 February 2014


I’ve always hankered after a job in a Museum: one specific and rather showing-off sort of job. I’ve told stories in a couple of historical settings myself so I am fascinated by the people who step into role, interpreting history for all and every visitor.  This week, when the afternoon was wet and the audience few, I had a chance to meet an archer from Flodden Field. 

I wasn’t as far north as Flodden Moor, but I was definitely North. I was in Leeds at the Royal Armouries Museum, designed as an outpost of the Tower of London. 

If ever a museum called out for effective ways of explaining exhibits and putting them in context, it must be this imposing, fortress-like block on the banks of the Aire. The galleries are full of well-displayed and documented armour and weaponry, from the arrows and swords of medieval conflict through to dainty, discreet hand guns of the twentieth century.

For me, the museum has a problem. As visitors, we  comprehend things - like an embroidered baby’s cap, or a spit over an oven or even a weaving loom - because they relate to some aspect of our own lives. Buildings of all sorts cast their own spells. But how do we, for the most part, relate to weapons? 

Weapons sometimes appear inert, in dignified military parades, or else as split-second, on-screen action when no attention can be spared to check the truth of the thing. They are also evident in the damaged bodies in the news bulletins when the outcome is what matters. So how do you “explain” the contents of such a museum? How do you “explain” conflict?

Arriving mid-afternoon, I began at the Tournament section – did you know that people could choose the designs for their armour from pattern-books? – but then realised the only event left of the seven on offer that day was down as “Battle of Flodden.”
So it was I heard a Lancashire Archer’s tale. This famous battle took place in 1513, and was a fight between England and Scotland, when Scotland was an ally of France. Although the battle took place in Tudor times, it is known as the last medieval battle because it was the last pitched battle when men faced each other and fought wielding only hand-held weapons. Although the Scots had twenty cannons, there were no guns or pistols. There was no “English army” either, just men who left heir homes in the Northern counties to rally under their lord’s flag, and fight against the Scots.

Our Archer told us how he’d been lured away by the excitement of the fight, and how, despite there being no beer, no food, and fighting between the Lancashire and Yorkshire men on the journey, it became a different story as they began following the river up from Durham. From there, they came across villages ravaged by the Scots, and the tales of atrocities fired them up to fight once more. After his account of the battle and the power of the archers, and the joy of the victory, our archer also paused to tell of finding a dying lad, and helping the boy to a swift death rather than leave him as a victim for any wandering Scots. It was a fictional account that showed both the general and the particular, as Dorothy Heathcote, doyenne of educational drama, used to demand..  

When the tale was done, I talked to the “Archer.”, wanting to know more.

Where did he get this story from? The inspiration was the earliest recorded war memorial in England: a stained glass window in the church at Middleton, Lancashire. One panel shows the band of archers, arrows at their chests, and names inscribed above, who went to Flodden Field. Roles are often created through one person’s personal interest or area of knowledge and the study behind them is usually self-led. 

This kind of work is not for an actor with a set script; the role-player needs to adapt the story each time. Audience questions that can’t be answered lead to further study and searching and the Museum’s academic staff are there as support.

However, once the role has been created, it is changed by the audience. Sometimes, this is in the half-hour of delivery. The audiences at the Armoury vary in size. At weekends, there are large family crowds where loud declaiming (and maybe an ability to deal with heckling?) is welcome. Weekdays can bring local pupils studying a particular topic or groups like mine: a small audience of adults with a few wide-eyed pre-school children. 

In this afternoon’s version, the archer’s voice and gestures slid swiftly through the mention of raping and torture in the villages and the death of the boy. The two little ones would not have noticed, yet one did not miss the meaning. It was easy to see how for other groups, those moments could be amplified for a stronger effect.

The audience varies in this time afterwards, too. Sometimes all that people want to do is rush up, hold and pose with the weapons. At other times, the interpreter can face a single expert or a group of special interest enthusiasts who have travelled up from the South coast to get to the Museum.  All come with different needs, wanting different information or recognition.

Literature can lift a tale above the ordinary. At other times our “Archer” had created other characters:: a Spartan warrior at Thermopylae facing the Persians as described by Herodotus; an archer or a nobleman at Agincourt, hearing the St. Crispin’s day speech, or, inspired by Kipling’s poem, the story of a Roman soldier not wanting to leave what is now his home at Hadrian’s wall. As an author, I was glad to hear that the work was fed by a range of writing.

What other skills were needed for this work? Originally, the Museum had a large number of event staff, and was able to stage jousting, archery, falconry, historic combat displays and more in the purpose-built arena outside. This all went under cuts, but is slowly reviving. The Archer was brought up on a farm in the country,  riding horses from an early age, which made him able to take on any horseback roles. Later as an actor, he had trained in various forms of stage fighting. All the skills and knowledge made him adept in a variety of situations, small or large scale.

But what I most remember him saying was that he - this white man - was the only one of his family for six generations born in England. His people had lived in India and across the Far East, and in a way, he felt he was not far from being a foreigner himself. Despite the context of war and battle and conflict within the museum, he tried to stress this fact: all through history, England has become a home to foreigners. And how, after some performances, soldiers come up to him and the other staff and tell of their own experiences, knowing it is a place that understands and where they are not judged by the views of civilian society..

Finally, it was time to go. The visit was the kind that leads to another lengthier visit, maybe with some specific question or writing project that needs some precise details. There's something "live" every day:  Introduction to Armour; Whale of A Tale: Indian Treasures Tour; War Horse; Court of Henry VIII: Guns of the West and more right now. Talks and “interpretations” are not timetabled on the website – rather annoyingly – because they depend on staff being available for each particular topic. But, even so, if you are ever in Leeds, the Armouries may be worth a visit, especially if you can catch yourself an archer.

Many thanks to Andy – his real or stage name? – for his time and generosity in answering my questions, and to all the other staff, and apologies for any errors on my part. The work certainly sounded much harder than the role I’d imagined in my idle dreams.

Now, History Girls and Boys, are any of you re-enactors or interpreters? Can you add any more thoughts on how you prepare for your roles? Or how it helps your fiction?

Penny Dolan


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I really enjoyed the post Penny, thank you!
Yes, I'm a re-enactor and have been so for more than 20 years. It makes one heck of a difference to one's understanding of the life and times - you're working in the 3D that a book, no matter how informative, will never give you. For example, I have a humble Anglo-Norman earthenware clay cooking pot that's a museum quality replica - made by Trinity Court Potteries if anyone's keen enough to Google! Having used the item, I can tell you that it doesn't burn on the bottom, it simmers forever without evaporating and the top rim remains cool enough to hold without a glove. It's nicely heat resistant too. You can boil water in it. As a re-enactor you get to wear the clothes (I have a dress the cloth of which was commissioned and woven to an 11thC design), handle and use the tools and condult living history experiments that I personally feel bring one a lot closer to the people one is writing about. It's a hot wire to the past!

Susan Price said...

Loved the post, Penny - and Elizabeth's comment!

Eleanor said...

I love it when posts make me reconsider my prejudices. I always run a mile when I see the word 're-enactment' - imagining it's going to be the sort of toe-curling embarrassing am-dram they used to have when my children were little, twenty years ago. It sounds as if there's been a change for the better. Next time I may resist the urge to flee when a wench in a mob cap lurches towards me in a museum.
Thank you

Eleanor said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eleanor said...

I love it when posts make me reconsider my prejudices. I always run a mile when I see the word 're-enactment' - imagining it's going to be the sort of toe-curling embarrassing am-dram they used to have when my children were little, twenty years ago. It sounds as if there's been a change for the better. Next time I may resist the urge to flee when a wench in a mob cap lurches towards me in a museum.
Thank you

Eleanor said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Theresa Breslin said...

Thanks for this post Penny. I love re-enactments and this gave great insights.

Penny Dolan said...

i was away & travelling yesterday so unable to respond to all the comments here.

Thank you for your account and tales of the cooking pot, Elizabeth. 3D research must be so valuable! I too have felt wary of "mob-caps", Eleanor, but partly caused by the shyness one feels when unknown role-players are clearly set on a conversation, and you don't know where it's going. However, once you are able to ask questions back, it's a much easier experience. I was also pleased to hear that the new head of this museum has a strong academic background, so the "entertainment" aspect will be led by historical interest and study, not just visitor numbers.
Sorry about all the deletions. Not someone sending rude words about those cunning English archers, but existing comments repeated.

simon.poe said...

I'm not a re-enactor. I sometimes deliver day-long sessions on Ancient Egypt to visiting school groups at Bagshaw Museum in Batley. I have a horror of dressing-up and pretending, but it's true that the children invariably assume that I'm a real archaeologist. I'm regularly asked whether I dug up the items in the displays myself. I always answer honestly, though. Apropos the usefulness of objects: we have a 'handling collection' of genuine antiquities that the children can hold and examine closely. The one I use to introduce this part of the day is a mould-made clay shabti (a servant for the after-life) which bears the makers finger-print. I often use the same expression Elizabeth did, 'a hot-line to the past'. It never fails. The children all want to put their fingers in that old potter's finger-print.