370 years after the Battle of Rowton Moor, Parliamentarian and Royalist forces returned to Chester, bringing history to life and making for a very interesting weekend. Organised by The Sealed Knot society, the largest and oldest re-enactment group in Europe , and the council, the event began with an impressive parade as the soldiers marched from their camp in Handbridge through the city.
The large force marched through the Groves, up Souters Lane and towards the Eastgate where they were met with a trial version of “Mr Chester” Gordon Vicker’s ceremonial gates. I only saw this from the distance as the voice of the Town crier could be heard shouting “Open the gates!” There was a sense of theatre and drama in the air, and for those few moments it was like time was unfolding before our eyes, the soldiers marching blank faced to their goal.
It was great to be part of this shared experience… Chester isn’t the giant city , it’s the parade city. Meanwhile the drums and chanting soldiers were distressing the “collecting for local disabled children” tiny horses, and they had to be led away from the scene.
At the Town Hall the Lord Mayor welcomed the Sealed Knot and the various regiments to the city. “It’s a great pleasure to see you all.. part of the huge wealth, depth and breadth of history that we have as a city here in Chester, the envy of many” he said , before leading the parade back through town to the Roman gardens. Here a plaque was unveiled to those that died on both sides of the Siege- the first time the city has formally commemorated the war dead . Following a short religious dedication and prayer, Mayor Deynem then gave a speech remembering the siege and also the battle of Rowton, “We can only begin to imagine the trials that the residents of Chester went through during that siege.” he said. During the real siege, Cestrians were bombarded by cannons and many starved. They often sought shelter in the undercrofts, now the modern-day shops at street level. With these being wooden, as soon as the cannonball hit, fire ensued causing more death and destruction.
HD pointed out the logos of The Sealed Knot and Cheshire West and Chester council on the memorial : “a great example of the excellent collaboration and co-operation that the Sealed Knot does with local authorities to promote and bring the life the historical past of cities like Chester.”
After this there was a range of pop up activities across the city centre, almost too much as I struggled to see as much as possible. At the Cross, the Earl of Manchester’s Regiment of Foot re-enacted a clash between the city’s MP William Brereton and Royalist supporters. Chester was a firm supporter of the King during the war , as regular contributor Ed Abrams of Chester Civil war tours explains: “Chester’s always been loyal to the King but Sir William Brereton was desperate to recruit parliamentarian soldiers and marched brazenly to the Cross… The Major and the local militia rounded on him and marched him out of the city.” History came to life once more , with the MP being heckled and jeered by the pro Royalist crowd, including local hero Pauline from the Lovelies who shouted out “hang him!” at one point.
A scuffle with the militia resulted in two “deaths” and Brereton being led away. From this point on, he made it his personal objective to take the city for Parliament and he commanded the force that eventually ended the Siege.
Other events included a Civil war themed wedding at the town hall, also attracting a large crowd. Meanwhile the Plague doctor was on the prowl on Eastgate street checking passers by for symptoms, and later on the militia were out looking for new recruits. The Civil war takeover of the city was complete, with reenactors chatting to people in the street, posing for photos, or walking around WHSmiths with a sword at their side.
Onto the second day, with a living history camp on the racecourse prior to the battle itself. This was another great display, and free of charge. The members of the Sealed Knot immerse themselves in the culture of the time , so it was a chance to learn not just about the battle and military techniques, but the social history of ordinary people. The Pike, I was told, was seen as an honourable weapon, but guns were treated with suspicion, as it wasn’t seen as fair play for an ordinary man to shoot an officer from afar. Attracting a crowd was the 17th century doctor and his range of treatments/tortures. From injecting hot mercury into the urethra to cure STDs , to mercury pills for poisonous bites. The doctor said that toothache was believed to be caused by a worm , so doctors would stick a red-hot needle into the affected tooth. Leeches and blood-letting were also popular treatments, Charles I was bled twice a day in order to be “cleansed” and maintain a fashionable white complexion.
One of the re-enactors Ray had a quick chat to us, saying he joined the society in the 1990s, but there a few in the group that have been members since the 60s. He performs as a Qwack doctor, dishing out potions and charms and also teaches period board games. He said that, although this event was free, “we often put events on at stately homes, for English heritage where they charge an admission fee” also attracting similar crowds.
He described how many reenactors make their own costumes, “it started off as a hobby, but as the whole industry , the re-enactment took off, it becomes more of a business to do it commercially, people take it on because they’re good at researching, or leather work .. my wife made the breeches, the linen shirt” . The Sealed Knot is family friendly, with activities for all ages and abilities. Before the battle, the next generation of re-enactors, the young apprentices gave a display of combat formation and tactics.
Eventually the two opposing armies took to the wide open space of the racecourse.
Throughout there was excellent commentary from two opposing commentators, providing the historical background to what was going on. It was often hard to understand exactly what was going on, but only due to the size of the event and the complicated tactics on show.
Throughout the ear-splitting sound of cannon fire tore the sky open , with the smoke creating a fog of war. The battle raged for over an hour . Finally, both armies paraded past an enthusiastic crowd, cameras and cell phones held high with the commentator reminding us that what happened outside the walls of Chester had a huge impact on British history. They do not seek to glorify the war , but to honour those that died and to bring us all closer to an often overlooked period of history and Chester’s key role. Brilliant for the city , well done to all those involved!
Thanks to Ed Abrams, Earl of Manchesters, and David Mitchell