In WWII, signs near American military bases encouraged drivers to give lifts to uniformed soldiers. That’s how my working-class uncle met his wife—the daughter of the governor of Mississippi. (When it got serious they invented a new story to tell the governer, since debutantes didn’t generally marry people from the hitchhiking classes.)
I wasn’t looking for a husband but just doing my civic duty when I gave a soldier a lift here in Surrey the other day. He wasn’t in a uniform, exactly; he was in the costume of a member of Prince Rupert’s Blew Regiment of Foote, which fought for the king in the English Civil Wars of the mid-1600s (yes, wars plural—there were three). That’s long enough ago that soldiers didn’t have uniforms but just went to war in ordinary clothes. In the case of my passenger that meant truly voluminous black knee breeches (pronounced britches) with gold chevron stripes, a woolen coat and a wide-brimmed floppy hat.
He and over 1500 like-minded and similarly costumed people spent this year’s August Bank Holiday (a Monday holiday you can think of as marking the break between summer and autumn—the British don’t call it fall—something like Labor Day weekend) on the grounds of a local stately home, demonstrating the fighting techniques, clothing and equipment, and camp conditions of 17th-century soldiers and their families.
Troops loyal to the king were known as Royalists; they fought troops loyal to Parliament, known as Parliamentarians. The sides had nicknames as well: the Parliamentarians, who wore their hair cropped short, were called Roundheads and the Royalists, who went in for long flowing curls, lace cuffs, and feathers in their hats, were known as Cavaliers. Modern versions of both were in ample supply on the field on Monday, all of them allied as supporters of what they call ‘living history’, all members of the same re-enactment society: the Sealed Knot, which takes its name from a secret society of Royalists who plotted to restore the king to the throne.
That king was Charles the I, who was eventually tried and beheaded by Parliament, after which (I’m condensing a lot of the story here, you understand) Oliver Cromwell headed up—or possibly Roundheaded up—the only military dictatorship in English history. Eventually, after the fighting and some years as a Commonwealth, the country decided it wanted a monarchy again, and Charles the II, son of the previous Charles, became king.
The fighting went on between 1642 and 1651, although there wasn’t a whole lot of military activity in this part of Surrey in that conflict. But being only 10 miles from Farnham, which was held by Parliament and did see fighting, was excuse enough. So I and a several hundred others—history enthusiasts, tourists, parents who needed something to do with the kids on the last weekend before school started—went to see the re-enactors pretend to kill each other with muskets, cannons, pikes, and assorted other weapons.
For this holiday weekend, the Sealed Knot re-enactors were joined by British and French ‘troops’ from the Napoleonic Association, who re-enact military engagements from roughly 150 years later, the period made popular in recent years by films of Jane Austen’s novels, Horatio Hornblower books, and the escapades of Sharpe’s Rifles. (Don’t worry; the Napoleonic and Civil War forces didn’t all take part in the same battle. They’re sticklers for historical accuracy.)
And just to round thing out there were some GIs—that is, British guys dressed as American GIs—from Rolling Thunder, another living history group, this one specializing in Vietnam war militaria. They displayed US military vehicles from WWII and the Vietnam era under an American flag (though they were upstaged during their turn in the spotlight by a helicopter ambulance that landed nearby to help a man who had collapsed).
I’ll have more photos and more comments on my day with living history next time; for now I hope you’ll enjoy these images of some of the individuals I met there, puffy knee breeches and all.