Towton 555: Remembering Palm Sunday

For the first time in ten years, I’m not stressed out as the date approaches Palm Sunday. Why? Because the Towton Battlefield Society annual event to remember the fallen of Britain’s bloodiest battle on Palm Sunday 1461 has been, if not cancelled, then radically scaled down.

Since my first participation back in 2005, the event steadily grew and developed, helped by a series of freakishly perfect Spring weekends which attracted ever more re-enactors and traders keen to start off the new season, and ever larger audiences keen to find something interesting to do on a fine sunny Sunday. From 2007 I was on the management team; and as secretary and chair of the Society’s in-house re-enactment group, the Frei Compagnie, it naturally fell to me and hubcap to organise the living history camp, guest re-enactors and programme of field entertainment, including combat demonstrations and a battle finale. Planning and preparation involved a massive amount of work – not only for us but for the TBS chairman and committee, other Frei Compagnie members, and many Society members who spent successive weekends gathering and processing wood for the camp fires, cleaning the barn to receive traders and exhibitors, and mowing and marking out the field. Then the event itself spanned four days of preparation, delivery and cleaning up afterwards, with everything from setting cones out on the roads, marshalling the car-park and cleaning out the Portaloos being done by volunteers, many of whom were fitting all this in around full-time jobs.

By the battle’s 550th anniversary, a low-key day of guided walks and a small living history camp had turned into one of the biggest private events of its kind in Yorkshire and, arguably, one of the best. Many re-enactors and visitors would come along year after year to enjoy the very special atmosphere of an event held in the grounds of Towton Hall, where the famous mass graves were found, courtesy of landowner and Society President Mrs. Elizabeth Verity; and in terms of commemorating ‘our boys’, I like to think we did them proud.

Alas, in the process we all ran ourselves ragged and it became too much to cope with. By December it was obvious that TBS wouldn’t have enough volunteers to run a large public event safely and professionally in 2016, and it had to be cancelled. To be honest, my relief was as huge as the task-list we would otherwise have had to embark on straightaway in the New Year. Realisation soon followed that neither hubcap or I could face ever picking up that burden again – it had always been very tough for a self-employed pair at the financial year-end, and start of the busiest season in Mick’s gardening business – so whatever might happen on future Palm Sundays, any living history element won’t be organised by us!

But of course the Battlefield Society will always commemorate Towton, and this year I’m looking forward to taking part in a far more chilled-out way. Our main public event is next Saturday, 19th March: a series of guided walks of the Battlefield Trail between 9.30 am and 2 pm – we’re leading the 11.30 walk – plus a couple of Society stands in the barn on Old London Road, where I’ll also have a Herstory stall selling new and pre-owned books, and the trilogy of Richard III CDs by The Legendary Ten Seconds. Then on Palm Sunday itself we’ll go round the trail again on a special members-only walk, which will include a wreath-laying service at Dacre’s Cross, before repairing to The Crooked Billet for lunch and a spot of archery. Compared to the amount of effort we’ve put in over the past decade, two walks and a little stint on my book-stall seems like a mere bagatelle!

So if you’d like to join us next Saturday, dress warm, wear stout shoes and come prepared to pay £3 into the Society coffers for your guided walk. You can also enjoy various medieval experiences at venues in York, including beautiful Barley Hall in Coffee Yard – see http://barleyhall.co.uk/event/battle-of-towton-commemorative-event/ for further information. Or if you’d like to support TBS but are too far away to attend these events, log onto Just Giving and sponsor our intrepid friends Wes Perriman and James Hodgson of the Red Wyverns (Clifford Household) who are marching from Skipton on March 18th and meeting up with the Beaufort Companye to complete the trek to Towton on the 20th. But wherever you are and whatever you’re doing next weekend, please join us in spirit and spare a thought or prayer for the thousands of poor souls who died in miserable conditions on that snowy Palm Sunday 555 years ago…

 

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Fantasy Writing: The Lay of Angor Trilogy

As a newcomer to the magnificent Game of Thrones, I was wryly amused to discover how many of its motifs and themes crop up in my own opus, Lay of Angor: messenger ravens, cold northern and warm southern kingdoms, graphic sex, torture and battle violence, consensual brother-sister incest, jolly prostitutes, same-sex romps, creatures not too far removed from living species and plotlines drawn directly from real-world history. I was a bit dismayed too, lest I be thought derivative, because this is purely accidental; the Lay is mine own, begun long before I’d ever heard of George R.R. Martin – but I suppose it’s inevitable that in the realm of fantasy writing, imaginations will sometimes collide.

And that’s where the similarities end. My world of Urth, a planet not unlike our own, is a smaller, cosier place than Westeros and the story revolves around one principal heroine and hero (Elinor, Princess of Gondarlan, and her suitor Jehan Sol-Lios, Elect of the Republic of Angor). It’s a tongue-in-cheek homage to the ‘high fantasy’ style I’ve always loved; a coming-of-age story in which Elinor finds herself (and finds out what a prissy, spoiled idiot she’s been all her life!), leavened with a thread of farcical humour; and unlike Game of Thrones, it’s now finished!

Yes, after more than 12 years of endeavour, false starts and re-writes, the trilogy is at last complete and all three volumes available in electronic and paperback form. It’s been a very strange and occasionally rough ride; friends from back in the manic ‘virgin author’ days will probably remember my glazed expression and abstracted presence as I split between Urth and the here-and-now, the former often more insistently real to me than the latter as the story constantly played out behind my eyes and the characters nattered in my ears. I could see and hear it all so clearly that I felt like an inept secretary trying to minute a meeting and simultaneously describe the surroundings while the participants wandered through the rooms of a palace – a most curious sensation, and sometimes deeply frustrating as it took hours and pages to capture on keyboard scenes and conversations which flashed through my mind in a matter of seconds. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this is quite a common experience for authors).

But gosh, it was fun – and it became even greater fun as the story progressed, all the characters were introduced and plot threads laid down, and I simply had to develop them. Gondarlan, the first book, took by far the longest to write and required the most revision; if it hadn’t been radically cut it would have ended up the length of War and Peace and I doubt if I’d ever have finished! But Breath of Gaia rolled along much faster, and Wolfsbane came out at breakneck speed as I sensed the end in sight, together with the chance to finally write some climactic scenes I’d envisaged almost from the start of the project.

Now it’s done, I’d like to thank everyone who read and commented on the work in progress, and put up with me while I was so consumed by it (especially my long-suffering husband); and I hope other people will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you happen to be in the North Yorkshire area on Saturday 2nd August, you could drop in at The Crooked Billet on the B1217 Wakefield Road between Garforth and Towton from noon – 5 pm; I’m launching Wolfsbane at the Towton Battlefield Society Yorkshire Day event, and you can snag copies of the full trilogy, signed by my fiction alter ego Rae Andrew, for a mere £9.99 (saving over £13 on the RRP). Otherwise, you can get the same deal (plus P+P) from YPD-books.com by quoting ‘Trilogy Offer’ – or pick them up at £2.99 apiece on Amazon Kindle or e-pub from Kobo books. Happy reading!

Travellers v. Towton

I’ll make this clear at the outset: I’ve got no beef with travellers. (I do have a beef with criminal and anti-social behaviour, whoever it’s committed by, but that’s a different story). Although I’ve never met any genuine Roms, I’ve known plenty of New Age travellers and water-gypsies who live on boats – perfectly decent folk who, for whatever reason, choose to live outside mainstream society. Besides, travelling is our common ancestry; all humans started out as nomadic hunter-gatherers, and a small section of the population – gypsies, itinerant workers and travelling show-people – maintain the roving lifestyle to this day (frequently as the objects of prejudice and deep suspicion on behalf of the static population). So I view the travelling life as part of our shared cultural heritage, and in that respect, as worthy of protection and preservation as our historic landscapes and buildings. And therein lies the rub at Towton, site of the bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses, and long placed on the English Heritage register of battlefields at risk from, among other things, development and change of land use.

Back in 2009, risk became reality when a traveller bought a plot of land called The Gallops in Towton village, laid down hard standing, parked a caravan there and retrospectively applied for planning permission. Unsurprisingly, this generated a massive upsurge of protest from local residents and concerned members of the wider heritage community. Faced with this outcry, Selby District Council initially refused the application; but when the site owner appealed, had to grant temporary planning permission until January 2014, conditional on a number of criteria being met (to date, as I understand it, none of them have been). Underlying this decision was a serious problem: if the traveller had to move, there was nowhere for him to relocate to, because the Selby district is badly under-provided with suitable sites to accommodate people staying in or travelling through the area.

This deficiency was acknowledged by the council, who put together a very sensible policy on travellers. It stipulated that an adequate number of pitches should be provided in locations with privacy and screening, good access to the road network, local shops, schools and other amenities, and NOT on sites of historical, natural or archaeological significance. It all looked great on paper… but five years down the line, nothing has happened to implement this policy. So last week, the meeting to discuss the granting of permanent planning permission at The Gallops was held against the backdrop of the site owner, and other travellers in the Selby district, still having no other place to go.

From a heritage and green belt preservation perspective, all the arguments mustered against the development since 2009 still hold true. The Gallops falls within the extended battlefield boundary currently under review by English Heritage (thanks to strenuous lobbying by leading Towton archaeologist Tim Sutherland and the Towton Battlefield Society). Towton village is known to have been one of the sites of the rout, as defeated Lancastrians fled the field hotly pursued by the Yorkist army on Palm Sunday 1461. So The Gallops could well contain battle-related artefacts and possibly human remains – hence any further development of the site, or disturbance to sub-soil features, threatens the archaeology of a nationally and internationally-significant heritage site.

Added to this are the wider issues of adherence to planning legislation. If permanent planning permission were to be granted at The Gallops, it would set a most worrying and undesirable precedent: that anyone could purchase land and begin to develop it, safe in the knowledge that the council would do nothing except, eventually, cave in to the fait accompli.

These were the grounds on which I added my voice to the latest hue and cry (as I would oppose any development or change of land-use in this area). Despite the meeting having been announced over the Christmas holiday period, over 170 members of the public registered overwhelmingly negative comments on Selby District Council’s website. (Disappointingly, English Heritage failed to take a similar stance; they seem to believe that the caravans presently on site constitute no risk to the archaeology, completely disregarding the likely consequence of further development and disturbance if the planning permission is granted and The Gallops becomes a permanent traveller site). Some 40 people also attended the meeting at which, according to two Battlefield Society committee members present, there were NO votes in favour of permanent planning permission being granted. The proposal was accordingly rejected.

On the face of it, this is good news for Towton – but the story is unlikely to end here. The meeting, having been badly publicised, must be held again (although apparently the decision will not be overturned). The site owner may, and probably will, appeal; and there is always a possibility that central Government will intervene to reject Selby District Council’s decision and grant permanent planning permission. So altogether, I see it as a catalogue of disastrous failure: by English Heritage, who despite recognising Towton as a battlefield at risk have done zip to mitigate said risk; and by Selby District Council for not acting on their own policy to provide quality alternative pitches for the travelling community in their area.

Talk about a no-win situation…

History Matters: Palm Sunday, our best non-event ever

So the Palm Sunday event was cancelled – and considering that it’s the first time Towton Battlefield Society has ever pulled it at such short notice, our ‘exit plan’ worked a treat. Everyone who’d been responsible for booking personnel or services simply reversed the process – for me, that meant contacting all the re-enactors and places I’d sent out publicity to – plus a collective blitz on websites and Facebook.

Nonetheless, those TBS committee and Frei Compagnie members able to travel on Sunday morning set out with some trepidation – but luckily we found no knot of hypothermic re-enactors on the snow-covered field, huddled round a camp-fire stamping frozen feet and saying plaintively, ‘Where is everyone?’; no Society volunteers, no traders or exhibitors; and – thank goodness! – no visitors who’d struggled through the weather to our great non-event.

Paradoxically, the cancellation has done TBS some favours: thousands of hits and a 5% increase in ‘likes’ on our Facebook page, scores of posts and emails expressing sympathy, shared disappointment, gratitude for the (relatively) early announcement, undimmed enthusiasm for attending next year, and mercifully few complaints. Although we did get some funny reactions, the commonest being, ‘I’ve seen/heard the event’s cancelled – is this true?’ To be fair, the internet is rife with pranks and malicious hoaxes, but jeez… look out of the window, or listen to the weather forecast, and make an educated guess – is it likely we’d try and go ahead? Then there was, ‘Can’t you hold it on Monday instead?’ – a splendid suggestion from someone who’s clearly never organized anything bigger than the weekly shop. Oh, sure – the snow’s bound to clear in a day… so we simply un-cancel everything we’ve just cancelled, tell all our site volunteers and participants with jobs (not to mention the visiting public) to book a day off work and take the kids out of school to attend, and hire a fleet of giant hot-air blowers to dry the field out…

Or how about, ‘Can you get all the re-enactors to still come in costume so we can film them in the snow?’ Um – actually, some of them are snowed in. And I doubt the rest will be keen to drive for hours through hazardous conditions to freeze their butts off while you faff about with camera angles, then risk life, limb and expensive kit skidding about trying to recreate Towton in slippery medieval shoes – all unpaid, too, just like Margaret of Anjou’s troops. Of course, we could tell them to leave their cars at home, shoulder their gear and hoof it like the original armies – no danger of road traffic accidents en route then, or ruining the site with wheel-ruts. (Which thought prompted me to wonder: what percentage of the troops never even made it into battle at Towton because they’d succumbed to illness, exposure or incapacitating injury along the way? Sadly, I’ve never found a contemporary source to answer this; but combined with the difficulties of feeding and moving large numbers of men and horses on bad roads in the lean season, it’s probably why medieval armies didn’t normally fight at this time of year). In the 15th century, the whole campaign from Wakefield in December 1460 through Mortimer’s Cross and 2nd St Albans to Towton was forced by political crisis; but while the men of the time had no choice in the matter, we 21st century hobbyist soldiers do – and I’m sorry, film-makers, but it ain’t gonna happen.

Honestly – some folk don’t have the sense they were born with – or the capacity to think outside their own little bubble and understand the implications of what they’re asking of a group of volunteers. Meanwhile, the twenty of us who did get to Towton on this authentically snowy Palm Sunday had a very special time – as you’ll see if you check out the News page of my website.

History Matters: Palm Sunday: Hail the Towton Warriors

Towton Battlefield Society’s flagship event, the annual Palm Sunday commemoration of the Battle of Towton (March 29th, 1461) has just been cancelled.

Since the Society’s founding in 1994, this has only ever occurred as an advance decision forced by outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. Not so in 2013… we’ve been planning it for months, expecting a bumper turnout of guest re-enactors, traders and exhibitors. But now all that hard work, preparation and anticipation has come to naught, five days before the event – and for what? The weather, with more heavy rain and snow forecast atop a week of wet, freezing misery for Yorkshire.

‘How ironic,’ remarked a friend with tongue tucked firmly in cheek, ‘that a battle fought in terrible snowy conditions in the 15th century can’t be recreated in the 21st because, though infinitely more advanced, our technology cannot cope. Oh, and someone might get hurt.’

Yes – these were indeed the conditions that tens of thousands of men and horses travelled, camped and fought in, back in 1461. The chronicler Jean de Waurin wrote of the Yorkist army (who had just marched up from London through another bitterly miserable Spring) that, ‘It was so cold, with snow and ice, that it was pitiful to see men and horses suffer, especially as they were badly fed.’ A nightmarish thought: all those weary feet trudging through the slush and muddy ruts of unmetalled roads, the miles of baggage train slogging behind, and the unfortunate souls equine and human at the very back, struggling through the mire left by those who’d gone before. And at the end, frozen nights of camping followed by a battle fought in driving snow, with Henry VI’s Lancastrians eventually driven off the edge of Towton plateau to skid helplessly down the steep defile into the flooded River Cock, in what became the bloodiest rout of the Wars of the Roses.

Ugh. Still, it wasn’t just the forecast weather that forced our cancellation. On the contrary, the prospect brought out a ‘Blitz Spirit’ among re-enactors and traders, with plenty keen to share the medieval experience as an homage, a challenge, or simply for fun (well, we are a strange breed). And I dare say a hard core of ‘Towton pilgrims’ among the visiting public would have braved the elements too, for similar reasons.

But as another friend observed wryly, ‘No-one sued back then for twisted or broken bones, stranded vehicles or destroyed fields. Yes, gone are the days you could freeze yourself close to death, knee deep in mud…’

Quite. As organizers, we’re taken inescapably into the realm of Health & Safety, risk assessments, legal liability, insurance claims etc etc.. It can all sound unbearably nanny-ish and precious, but existing and predicted conditions do ratchet up the risk levels from the norm expected at any public event to the strong likelihood of things going badly wrong, and serious incidents occurring. That could be disastrous – not only for anyone injured, or whose property was damaged, but for the Society’s reputation and the whole future of the event. Like it or not, we’re collectively responsible for delivering a safe, well-run and enjoyable experience for participants and public alike… which we can’t, when severe weather and travel disruption may prevent key personnel and services from even getting to site. The uncertainty of what we’d have, what we could cope with, the endless proliferation of ‘what if?’ scenarios all added up to an unacceptable degree of risk.

Because one factor we are sure of is that the event site is completely waterlogged, and won’t dry out even if it’s fine on the day. Normally, because the ground drains well, we’ve been able to manage with wet weather immediately before and during the event weekend – but normally, it hasn’t come on top of the wettest year we’ve had since God knows when, a deluge that started straight after our last Palm Sunday and has barely stopped since. My husband and I began to panic about the conditions last Sunday, when we went to do some site preparation and his barely-laden van sank three inches into the field. It took us a very fraught hour to extricate it, leaving a set of deep ruts and a deeper sense of foreboding. There’s no hard-standing car-park at Towton Hall (we’re talking someone’s private garden, after all) – so what would happen when hundreds of cars and vans drove over that beautiful grass and pristine ridge-and-furrow? Cue visions of it churned into a Somme-full of bogged-down vehicles and mud-bespattered, irate people, blocked access causing traffic jams and chaos in the village, and huge messy damage to the grounds that could take years to fully repair… on an archaeologically-sensitive part of a nationally-significant battlefield, an area we hope will soon be incorporated within an extended battlefield boundary.

No – we couldn’t, just couldn’t do it. So I’m not disappointed by the cancellation – quite the reverse. I’m applauding the Society Chairman for taking the brave decision (and whatever flak might go with it). I’m dancing in relieved delight that we won’t be stuck out in foul weather, watching our pride and joy degenerate into a shambles. I’m saluting with hundred-fold increased sympathy and respect those 15th century warriors who did have to march and fight in similar horrendous conditions. And the only thing that does disappoint me is the root cause of it all: this dismal bloody weather.