Towton Battlefield Society Frei Compagnie Re-enactors
The work of re-enactors has provided invaluable research for history enthusiasts by means that cannot be learned in books. For example, there is no better way of testing how many arrows an archer could loose at the start of battle by trying it out for real. The strain of pulling a bow with a draw weight in excess of 100lbs soon gives a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles, which proves you cannot do this indefinitely. Fighting in a full suit of armour leaves you severely dehydrated after a matter of minutes, rather than hours, so we know that men-at-arms were stood down during battle and rotated with rested troops. Through Living History, we can enhance the historian’s knowledge of battles and medieval life in general and provide a better understanding of events which were often scantly recorded or poorly explained. Towton Battlefield Society has long supported the work of re-enactment groups and are proud to have one associated with our organisation.
Who are the Frei Compagnie?
The Frei Compagnie is Towton Battlefield Society’s affiliated re-enactment group, founded in 2007 by (and only open to) members of the Society and friends from the European Historical Combat Guild. Our members live mainly in Yorkshire, though a few are based farther afield. We are all volunteers, drawn together by our common interest in Towton and a passion for the fascinating ‘lifestyle hobby’ that is living history.
The Compagnie is similar to a Wars of the Roses Federation re-enactment group, and uses the same insurance, kit standards and conduct guidelines. However, as a sub-section of an historical society, we differ from many Federation groups in that we do not represent a specific household; and while our affiliation is predominantly Yorkist, some Frei members routinely portray Lancastrian characters (notably John, Lord Clifford of Craven, and a retainer of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland). We also actively encourage non-re-enacting members of TBS to appear with us at events, running the Society stall.
What do we do?
The Frei Compagnie supports the Society’s community outreach and interpretive work by providing TBS with a ‘medieval face’ – a powerful tool for publicity, fund-raising and engaging the interest of members of the public of all ages. The group’s objectives are to:
Support, promote and raise awareness of Towton Battlefield Society (TBS) and the Western Martial Arts revival, with particular commitment to delivering ‘local events for local people’ to a high standard of quality and professionalism.
Present an interpretation of aspects of 15th century English martial and civil society as accurately as possible, with particular focus on the Wars of the Roses period.Present swordsmanship, longbow/crossbow archery and development of firearms as living martial arts through formal shows and demonstrations. Present related aspects of military camp life.
Our role is appearing in costume at TBS events to show Society members and visitorswhat life was like during the Wars of the Roses. Our biggest ‘in-house’ job of the year is organising and helping to deliver the living history camp, shows and battle re-enactment for the Society’s Towton commemoration every Palm Sunday. We also play an active part in the TBS annual summer Open Evening – and our ‘mummer’s plays’ are a regular fixture at the Christmas party! Year-round, we also support the Society’s commitment to promoting the English longbow by organising archery sessions at the Crooked Billet (usually the third Sunday in the month). These are open to any TBS members wishing to shoot – and to any of the pub’s patrons who want to have a go.Our other main function is carrying TBS into the wider community, and at the same time upholding the Society’s charitable ethos by helping to support local/related good causes. So, over the summer season, we take our ‘road show’ out to other venues around Yorkshire. Regular slots include Sherburn Gala, Cawood Craft Festival and Ledsham Fayre.
We also support the Churches Conservation Trust Open Days at St Mary’s, Lead, and St Oswalds in Kirk Sandall; Help for Heroes events; and sites of related historical or military interest like Fort Paull. At these events we establish a small living history camp with displays typically including weaponry and medieval food. If possible, we also set up an arena for sword combat demonstrations, archery demonstrations and/or have-a-go archery. Another perennial favourite show is the ‘kiddies bill-drill’, where children learn 15th century infantry manoevres with miniature pole-arms. Any monies raised through these appearances are used to pay Compagnie expenses, and a proportion of any profits is donated to TBS.
How do we do it?
All active Frei Compagnie members acquire at least one full outfit of medieval costume, along with the kit consistent with the role they wish to play (archer, man-at-arms, gunner, cook, doctor, artisan or whatever). Some of these items we make ourselves; others we buy from specialist manufacturers and suppliers; and we encourage visitors to handle or try things on to literally get a ‘ feel’ for the period.
Our clothes and accoutrements are authentic working replicas based on 15th century examples drawn from a wide range of sources: painting, manuscript, stained glass and monumental images; descriptions and patterns from medieval documents; archaeological finds; and historical structures and collections. We try to reproduce all items as accurately as possible using the materials and techniques of the period. This means clothing of wool, linen and leather, often completely hand-stitched, and fastened with authentic buttons, laces or hooks.
We cook on a fire-range using cast-iron or ceramic pots, eat off wooden plates, and drink from pottery and horn cups (only using glasses if we’re being very posh!). What we consume is either recreated from authentic medieval recipes, or modern equivalents of foodstuffs available at the time.
Our activities on camp are also authentic to the period, with a natural focus on the weaponry and martial arts of the Wars of the Roses:
Archery – The longbow made English medieval armies highly successful, and gave the Yorkists an early advantage at the Battle of Towton. By law, all 15th century men were required to practise the longbow; many women shot too, for sport or home defence. Nicely reflecting this, most Frei Compagnie members are keen archers, and some can also make bows and arrows. So archery is an important feature of our shows, and the group is well equipped with longbows of varying draw weights, authentic arrows with goose-feather fletchings, horn nocks and replica medieval heads, and other archers’ equipment to show the public. If possible, we also let visitors have a go – as well as being great fun, archery is a way of connecting directly with 15th century experience and helps people understand the devastating impact of the longbow in medieval battles.
Artillery - The 15th century saw the advent of gunpowder weaponry on the English battlefield, and recent archaeological discoveries have proved that artillery pieces were used at Towton. Thanks to the Compagnie gun crew, we’re able to show visitors the type of firearms that gunners at Towton might have used – even (where it’s allowed) let them hear what they sounded like!
Arms & Armour - Representations of medieval infantry, from common footsoldiers to a knight in full harness, completes the military side of our displays. The Compagnie’s collection of fighting men’s weapons and equipment – swords, daggers, pole-axes, helmets, padded jacks, brigandines and armour – is always a great draw for the crowds, as is our sword combat practice. Members who train with the European Historical Combat Guild can demonstrate medieval combat techniques with all kinds of edged weapons – not merely stage fighting, but real martial arts drawn largely from period combat manuals from Germany and Italy.
Related Activities - Our Master Bowyer can show the public how bows, arrows and crossbows were made. We also have a doctor to minister to the wounded and sick – his impressive collection of ghastly surgical instruments and catalogue of revolting remedies inevitably make visitors thankful they live in the 21st, not the 15th, century! And as well as showing our medieval kitchen- and tableware, we demonstrate a range of textile crafts (making and mending clothes, spinning wool with a spindle, tablet-weaving, and making laces by lucetting or finger-weaving). We can also show medieval handwriting with a quill pen and oak-gall ink, and pastimes including buckler-ball and recorder music.
For further information and Frei Compagnie events, see the Frei Compagnie section on the Home page of http://www.helencox-herstorywriting.co.uk or http://www.towton.org.uk/re-enactors/frei-compagnie-events/
Frei Compagnie Officers:
Chairman: Mick Doggett
Secretary: Helen Cox Doggett
Treasurer: Stuart Ivinson
Second Signatory: Dean Davidson
Master Gunner/Health & Safety Officer: Des Thomas