BIG READ: ‘It’s not just big hairy people hitting each other over the head’

Weorod at a reenactment
Weorod at a reenactment

It was a period of barbarism and religion. The advances made by the Romans had been squandered, and the Catholic church dominated.

The Early Medieval and Dark Ages are looked upon now as a bleak period that no one in today’s civilised society would want to return to. 

Weorod at a combat display

Weorod at a combat display

Or would they?

There is a small band of warriors from Portsmouth who spend their weekends researching and recreating decisive periods in 6th and 7th century English history.

Weorod (which means troop, or army, in Old English) is a group set up 10 years ago by Wayne Letting who moved to Portsmouth with his family and was on the lookout for a reenactment group to join.

He has always been fascinated by the period when the Jutes, Angles, Frisians and Saxons left their homelands behind and with their families and possessions, their culture and their social structure, found for themselves a new home that would one day come to be known as England.

Weorod members in a display of fighting from the Early Medieval period

Weorod members in a display of fighting from the Early Medieval period

Wayne says: ‘We had taken part in historical interpretation and living history in the past and when I moved down to Portsmouth I looked for a group to join and could not find anything I liked or anything that sparked my enthusiasm.

‘So we decided to put our own group together. 

‘Because we had a background in reenactment and living history we knew the basics of it and then it was about deciding exactly what we wanted to cover in terms of time period. Then we advertised for members.’

The group spend their weekends and other free time researching, reenacting and creating events from the year 532AD through to 683 AD. 

But it’s not just about bloody battles and gore (although they do reenact fight scenes at events). For Weorod it is all about the people.

Wayne says: ‘It is more the social history and how the people would have lived their lives.’

Eager to keep everything as realistic and factual as possible, the group, which has eight members, visits settlements and grave sites.

Wayne says: ‘What we do is based extensively on local archaeology so our aim is to reconstruct the contents of various graves that are found in the cemeteries in the area.

‘We replicate artefacts – from brooches to weaponry, through to cooking and eating utensils, fabrics, clothing and leatherwork.’

Wayne and the other members have learnt a number of new techniques and disciplines through their research of archaeological sites in the area including Portsdown Hill, Horndean and Droxford.

He says: ‘A big part of what the group is research with the opportunity to learn new skills and crafts.

‘It can be anything from weaving and leatherwork, to bronze casting through to antler and bone working.

‘We go and look at the archaeological evidence and we come back and try and find out how they were made.’

History can be a subject that bores many at school but Wayne believes there is a part of the past that can interest everyone.

The 52-year-old says: ‘The history fascinates me and the period concerned was primarily a pre-literate culture so not a lot was written down.

‘I think we all have this fascination with what was there before we came along. We ask the questions, how did people live in the past? How did we get to where we are now and what makes us who we are?

‘The history that we do have of that time period was written down 150 to 200 years after and so we have to look at the historical works of people like the Venerable Bede and Gildas and other contemporary European sources to try and understand how people may have lived their lives.

‘We have to base what we do quite extensively on the archaeological records and that can anything from graveyards through to settlement sites.’

The group visits local heritage sites and museums such as the Weald and Downland Museum and Portsmouth Museum and Worthing, Winchester and Salisbury.

Wayne explains: ‘We tend to do a day of active demonstration which includes cookery and food or fabrics and textiles, and we talk to people about trade and diplomacy.

‘We show people leatherwork, bone and antler work. We have someone who makes chainmail, and we have a potter, so there is always lots and lots of different things going on.

‘We try to take an educational stance on it.

‘We try and base everything on as much hard evidence as we have and stay away from common stereotypes of big hairy ignorant individuals who are only interested in hitting each other over the head. 

‘Our aim is to paint a fuller picture about what life would have been like.

‘And there were big hairy individuals that would go round hitting each other over the head,  but there is much more to it than that.’

Wayne adds: ‘Part of it is about learning new skills and experimenting ourselves and to spend time with like-minded people and have fun.

‘What we do is a hobby and unfortunately our day jobs get in the way of it sometimes but it is all about enjoying yourself and so that is why the members do it as we share a common interest.

‘We have an inordinate amount of enthusiasm for our chosen period and believe that this is infectious to those around us – be they prospective recruits or members of the public visiting our encampment at a show.’

To find out more about join, go to weorod.org. 

Who was the Venerable Bede? 

Also known as Saint Bede, Venerable Bede was an English monk who lived between 673AD and 735AD.

At seven he was sent to a monastery to be educated and only himself and his teacher survived a plague which broke out in 686AD.

By 19 he had become a deacon and was promoted to priest at the age of 30.

Over his lifetime he wrote more than 60 books about history, science, nature, theology, music and poetry.

Bede’s most famous work, which is a key source for the understanding of early British history and the arrival of Christianity, is Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. Bede died in his cell at the monastery in May 735 AD. 

Weorod use Bede’s work to inform their reenactment.