So, after a winter hibernation it was time to dust off the kit, polish the blades and head to the traditional beginning of the re-enactment season in Britain- the York Viking Festival.
For a lot of re-enactors this is not the first show of the year (taking place on the last week of February), but thanks to its size, atmosphere and Viking feel many of us consider this the kick-off of the season. The Yorvik show, as it affectionately known, is a multi-society event, hosted by Regia Anglorum and attended by several of other societies. Of these the Vikings are the largest one by far, followed other, smaller societies from around Britain and guests from abroad. The big plus of the event is a large trader’s market, where traders from across Europe ply their wares and many a re-enactor goes there to purchase new kit or get replacements, before the new season starts off properly in the second half of Spring.
I myself have made a few purchases there this year, though I had to show some brazen cheek to get myself in… Having considered a meal and a cup of tea a more urgent priority, I have arrived at the market just as it was closing down and no one was allowed in. Myself and my good friend Sven the Short had to do a good bit of blagging, with Sven explaining how I arrived all the way from Poland for this (much more impressive than a town few hours drive away), while I looked doe-eyed at the Steward in charge… Let’s just say that after some shameless begging we were allowed in, followed by stares of righteous condemnation from those that were denied entry. But hey, since when did the Vikings bother with such things as queues or closing times?
I have of course written about the Yorvik festival before. Some of you may remember that it lasts all week, with the final day being the culmination of the event. This was the day that we attended (as is the case with most re-enactors, there aren’t that many of them around for the whole week, but they descend en-masse for the final day, when the battles take place) and as every year the day consisted of a mid-day competitive fight, followed by a grand finale in the evening, where the re-enactors would recreate a story that serves as background for an epic battle. The theme of the grand finale changes every year- two years ago it was a war between the Norse Gods, last year it was the fall of Erik Bloodaxe and this year it was the invasion of the Great Heathen Army and the death of king Aella of Northumbria.
I will only talk about this epic evening battle shortly, as from my personal perspective, it was not much of an attraction, fun as it was. The acting and talking bit at the start went on for too long to my liking, resulting in some 30 minutes of standing in the cold, awaiting a signal to enter the battle arena. Armies formed, and a mighty battle ensued, at which point, the real the fun began. This evening fight is purely for show and all that is expected of us is to stick to the script and give a good show, while trashing each other. We are not expected to take or make kills, unless the script calls for it, we know what will happen before hand and we can just have fun with the fight. It’s just that this year the fight was somewhat too short (the acting bit cut into it too much) and the organisers decided to use a lot of smoke machines, blowing smoke all across the battlefield. Whilst great for mood, it did not help the fighters (especially my group, who were right by the machines and could hardly see through the damn smoke). It was a fun fight and there was a great fireworks display at the end, but I’ve seen better show fights.
The competitive mid-day battle was what the show was all about. As usual, we had 3 rounds, re-setting the battle each time. The armies consisted of Regia Anglorum (the hosts) on one side and the Vikings and other societies on the other, with numbers pretty much equal ( a fact hotly contested each year, usually by the defeated side’s grumpiest few or the winning side’s most boisterous few). As Regia were the hosts, it was their combat rules we were using when it came to the fighting (pretty much every society has different combat rules). Without going into details, Regia system greatly favours spears and results in armies consisting mostly of lightly armed spearmen supported by a few mailed swordsmen. The Vikings and other societies rely more on close-quarters and are not as adept in using spears en-masse or at a distance Regia warriors are most comfortable with (they use a LOT of long, two-handed spears). In previous years, many a battle was lost by the Away team by trying to win with Regia at their own game. The line would advance forward, then stop and engage in spear-range fight, which they would inevitably loose. Usually, one or two groups (usually Y Ddraig, my group) would try to charge past the spear-points and pin the Regia warriors in close-quarters, where it was us who held the advantage. This ended, more often than not, in one band of warriors breaking through the enemy line and then being cut down by their reserve, whilst the rest of the line were content with being poked to death by massed spears.
This year common sense prevailed and an agreement was reached, where all the Away line would charge down the Regia lines and bring the fight to them on our own terms.
This resulted in one of the best, hardest and most enjoyable free-fighting I have taken part in. No one likes an easy battle that’s over in a minute. This time, in each of three clashes that made up the competitive battle, we had a real fight on our hands, with neither side giving a quarter and all of the warriors coming back with a sense of a battle well-fought and a victory hard-earned (or a defeat that was by a narrow margin).
Instead of talking through the whole of the battle, I will simply post a few links to some great videos, showing all the clashes- you will find the at the end of the article. There, better than any of my words can describe, you will see on your own, how the battle unfolded. What I will mention, is that the Vikings and Others did not do enough on their left flank- there were too few men there (especially in the last of the three clashes) and they did not advance or pressed the enemy hard enough. More men should have been moved from the centre, where they were not needed and more effort should have been made to get stuck in and push on. Other than that however, the Viking plan worked great and gave Regia a great deal of trouble. The Hosts did win 2-1 in the end, but you will see yourself, how close the final clash was and how close Regia came to defeat. Especially after a few years of the Away team getting beaten flat each time, this felt great.
I will tell you in more detail about the exploits of the right flank of the Vikings army, where me and my comrades from Y Ddraig fought. We formed the first line of our flank, with another group behind, ready to charge in after us. The plan was simple- advance, then as one bear down on the enemy, past their deadly spear points and into close range. Move as one, keep pushing and never stop, whilst killing as many opponents as we could. Once through their line, flank their centre and get them from the side and from behind.
The plan was the same for all three clashes. Three times, me and my friends of Y Ddraig were at the vanguard. Each time we advanced towards the enemy, spears waiting. Thanks to discipline and momentum, we pushed on hard. All of the front line dispensed with spears entirely, this would be a closely-fought affair after all. All armed with hand weapons, our first task was to parry the spears and get them down. An axe is the best weapon for this, thanks to it’s shape and balance. Was I glad I brought mine with me… After pushing through the spears, we then had to keep going, until we were in reach of hand weapons. Then, we had to keep going and keep pushing to drive the enemy back, to make them lose their fortitude, their balance, maybe even fall over under the pressure of our advance.
Some of us concentrated on controlling opponent’s weapons and parrying any attacks that came- I was one of those. My job, as an axe man, was also to pull down enemy shields and open them to attack. It is not an easy job to do under pressure and whilst under attack, but when your timing is right and when you keep with your unit and if you remember to keep your defences up- it works a cinch. The press of bodies was considerable, especially when our secondary unit charged in and we kept on going, without stopping.
Three times it was us, Y Ddraig, to form the first line. Each time, we pushed past the spears and into the enemy line. Three times we pushed them back and hewed them down, forcing Regia to send reinforcement and deplete their reserve. Each time we pushed as far as we could, coming out on the enemy rear. We earned a lot of glory that day. It was not quite enough to win all three clashes- our left was not as lucky and whilst on the first clash it fared well, on the other two it fell and so what we had achieved on the right, was undone on the left. It was a hard fight and we fought well as a unit. Each time I pulled down a shield with my axe a mate of mine would find a way to put an attack in at the exposed enemy. As I was holding down spears or weapons with my axe, others kept pace as a unit, allowing us to push forward. We all pressed hard, always keeping the enemy on the back foot. And once the lines broke, we stayed together, to attach the enemy rear. Regia fought back well and fought hard, putting enough resistance in the centre to keep it at standstill and fighting back our left, routing it in 2 of the 3 clashes.
The battles were exhilarating. Win or lose, this was the most fun I have had at York ever. An OK scripted battle, successful market visit and a fantastic competitive fight. A good start to the season- now, time to finish off some kit…
As promised, here are some videos taken during the competitive battles (both are filmed from behind the Away team lines, mostly from the left wing perspective. Look for Y Ddraig on the extreme right, duded with white shields with red circles):
Videos filmed by Gordon Bailey, published on Ost Centigas channel. Photo credit to Jon Brownridge and Max William, from whom I have shamelesly pillaged the photos.