I am Jon, 37 years old. I am one of the senior members of Unknown Vikings – my role is ringmaster, show runner, and buck stopper for the group.
My love of history has been there since I was a kid and it was my favourite subject at school but I couldn’t do anything with it in the real world, could I?
Well I have been re-enacting for about fifteen or so now in a few different periods. I first got roped into the hobby by a few guys in the local university re-enactment group, who were also locals. They would frequent the pub where I worked for their meetings, knowing that if nothing else, they could chat to me about anything and everything historical. It was while chatting one day that I got invited to a training weekend with them and the main group they were looking at working with – John Hampdens Regiment in the English Civil War Society (ECWS).
That first weekend I had borrowed kit – shirt, jacket, breeches, hoes, and latchets (the shoes). I learned to use a pike (15 foot long stick) and as this was the birth of the modern army, we learned marching and commanded movements while wielding the pike. It was a lot of fun and I was hooked. I enjoyed the crowd and learning the history, as well as the practicalities of fencing and pike battle (both reality and re-enactment), as well as the general and minutiae history of the period. I found myself drawn more towards the pike and sword fighting styles, rather than the musket and cannon.
In just a few shows and training sessions, I had learned the types of re-enacter you find;
The Quoter - a dry, history book lover, sounding like the old information videos you got in school, only wanting local authentic kit found within 20 miles of their base location and just quoting dates and times of each moment in history. Not a bad thing but not entertaining for the public or fellow re-enacters.
The Stitch-Counter - who do strive for 100% accuracy in all their own kit with very little tolerance or understanding of those who can only afford a “that’ll do” level of kit. Nothing but glares at being modern or wrong. Also not a bad thing but difficult if you’re on a budget or unable to get truly authentic kit at first.
Then there is the Story Teller - the kind of re-enactor who knows we are showing life of a time gone by and how this life only differs from ours due to the date. So they mix their kit, they portray a character, not just Pikeman number 83 of the regiment but someone like John of Chester, volunteered for Hampdens Regiment rather than starve.
It was from such a story telling reenactor that I learnt the true joy of the hobby and how things never happen in isolation in history – learning of the European stuff of the 1630s and 40s added to the portrayal of the English soldier in the same time. For example, going to Italy with members of this and other ECWS and Sealed Knot groups to fight in Ducal Wars re-enactment events. Getting cannon, muskets, pikes and swords through customs was entertaining. By this point the university lads had all moved on, life took over for me and so I had to bid farewell to the Hampdens lot, though I still speak to some of them at multi-periods events and such.
The next phase of my reenactment history was when a local Chester group, composed of several of the university lads, had a change of direction and invited me to join. They were looking at doing Roman period, which is a big thing in Chester. The local Roman group (Deva Victrix XX) was looking at expanding its show from purely Orman Army to having regular Britons (Celts) to fight, as well as more guys for their Gladiator displays. I found myself heading up this little group of six eager lads to join in with the Romans.
I now found another aspect of re-enactment - showing the public what they expect rather than what is accurate. One of the ECWS guys had told me that for them woollen jumpers and pipes were banned, though they were both 100% right for the 1640s, however, you do look like a fisherman with them and most people would not think they were seeing soldiers of nearly 400 years ago. It was clear that too much authenticity confused the general public, which was useful to know.
This went almost the opposite with the Romans – as I was to be what was affectionately called a Battle Smurf. The popular image of the Ancient British Celt as lime washed white hair and blue woad body paint was the image the Orman group wanted to promote at first, right at the gate as it were, and then we Britons could show them the more authentic stuff once we had reeled them in. Many shows I ended up sunburnt, though some of the guys, both Roman and Celt, along with the women showing their displays, had a bit too much fun woading me up of a morning!
And so my kit grew – helm, chain mail, tunics to go with the trews and other bits and pieces. I ended up becoming the Chieftain character of the group. So the Celtic display had become two pronged – attracting attention as the expected battle smurf, reel them in with the promise of shiny things to see and feel and then bash them with the, equally as interesting, true life Celts of 2000 years ago.
After four years life took over once more, I was unable to re-enact with the Roman group for a while. Though I did several good shows with them around the place and had several interesting encounters such as a woman in Lancaster thinking my shoulder length hair was a wig and trying to pull it off.
I have always been interested in Vikings since I was young and my dad sat me down to watch a certain film with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis (The Vikings, 1959). The times I learnt about them in school were lessons that really caught my attention, as did the visits to the Jorvik centre in York. As a teen, I would find myself buying history books on the dark ages, even though they had next to no pictures. When I worked in the pubs, regulars would loan me books to read. One of the first, who has now become a dear friend, lent me what was the Orkneyinga Saga (The Saga of the Earls of Orkney).
When I heard of someone setting up a Chester Viking group in 2012, I was apprehensive. The trouble with re-enactment is that you end up learning so much more than what makes it into one general history book, even specific ones, and as re-enacters we learn from many sources, including practical trial and error and anecdotal discussion. I had seen people come to shows of Celts and ECWS and since with the Vikings, having definitive ideas and their own certain knowledge of what the period and people were really like, only to have it blown away within half an hour of talking to members.
So I had an image of Vikings in my head and I did not want to learn they were nothing like that. I was wrong. I discovered that Vikings were infinitely more complex and interesting than what I had first learnt. Like everyone in the group, I began at the bottom – I was a slave, a thrall, and I was to earn my freedom - to be a freeman by the Jarl’s grace and then allowed to interact with the public. This, I was told, would take a few shows maybe up to a year. After a 20-minute conversation with one of the matriarchs of that group, however, she ordered the Jarl to free me. My personal interest in the Vikings, and learning a few of their unusual traits such as writing in Runes, proved my value. That I had experience in talking with public from previous experience got me in the position of ringmaster, attracting the attention of the public, introducing displays and narrating what was going on.
My kit was still basic for Celtic but it soon grew more Norse - thanks to hand me downs and the universal re-enactment trait of buying kit from former members leaving the hobby. I was allowed to accelerate through the ranks of the group as it was independent of larger societies and so within a year I was among the three “lead characters” of the group. This was due to my experience of the hobby and knowledge of the era, but mainly it just seemed more fitting to have a character of rank running the public displays, rather than a Thrall or freeman.
Things happened with this first group of Vikings based in Chester, and many of its members moved on to form this group – Unknown Vikings Living History Society (UVLHS).
I am not the real life Jarl of the group, as it is not a title we use officially and I do not make all decisions. There is a council of members who discuss all options, from show dates to insurance, to talks and avenues for expansion and growing the group. But I am where the buck stops in certain matters and I like to think I am called Jarl more out of respect and affection rather than anything else.
With Unknown Vikings, I drew on my experiences from ECWS and DVXX and all associated groups and individual reenactors I had met along the way, the good and the bad. We try and make UVLHS as friendly and accepting as possible whilst maintaining a certain standard of presentation – such as real wool will not burn like polyester wool and so its more safety than accuracy to use it.
A certain standard for accessibility for the public - the old “Keep It Simple Stupid!” when talking.
For knowledge - I have almost 200 books on the subject and era which I am happy to recommend whatever is needed.
And finally, authenticity – a couple of us wear the furs across shoulders to grab the attention!
We encourage a Horrible Histories style of presentation, which will be understood by everyone, however, if all you can do is quote dates by rote then that is still a talent we like. Stich-counting is not discouraged but we do not lecture about authentic dress if you are drinking from a can of coke briefly, for example. We do accept all sorts of little pieces for display, regardless of if they are found in Britain or not, anything found in the sphere of Norse contact – which is Greenland to Jerusalem - are accepted by us as long as you can explain how you got it. For members we try to find a fit for them when it comes to displays and on site activities. Naturally most people will want to play with the weapons but as we are not fighting all the time, then another talk or activity is sought, even if it is one you cannot do on site. Behind the scenes crafts are encouraged and we support any ability you have. Speaking as one with almost none – I do the reading and the talking!
So as long as all this has not put you off then please feel free to come a chat to us at shows, or on the Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages or contact us on the main page. If you are a long-term veteran of the hobby then so much the better. While UVLHS starts you at the bottom, you stay there only as long as it takes you to show you are able to handle yourself to our satisfaction. It can be one show, three shows or more but there is no rush or pressure and we encourage everyone with any level of knowledge to join us.
We DO encourage you to borrow our group kit at first, ask us questions no matter how mundane you think it is - about general era stuff or if a certain websites tunic is any good or if a technique was used while cooking or about what jewellery to wear. Questions mean you are learning and that’s what we love. We try not to encourage anyone who does decide to join to rush out and buy up all the stuff with Viking in the name only to find its either wrong or you don’t want to carry on the hobby. We are just happy to share our hobby with you and hope you want to share it too.
Anyway, I think I have rambled enough for now. Thanks for reading.
Halvdan Halvdanarson Tveskegg.
Formally Snorri Sound Drawer.
Formally Calgacus Arnabarbus Decianglii.
Formerly John Of Chester.