For one week every year the Vikings return to York, and as Adam Sloan explains, provide a spectacle enough to make a bearded man cry
Living in York, it is almost impossible to escape the city’s ancient, and sometimes bloody, history. This takes on a whole new meaning for one week in February where history buffs like myself break out the chain-mail and crack open the mead for the week long Jorvik Viking Festival, characterised by feasting, fighting, dancing and drinking in the manner of those fierce Scandinavian raiders from across the North sea.
A love of history can take on many forms. Some may read the odd book about Hitler or tune in to Tony Robinson and Time Team on occasion, and some poor souls even choose to study it for a degree. However since my arrival in York (unfortunately not in a longboat), I have become involved more literally in history and been transformed into a ‘Medieval Re-enactor’.
Now there are many stereotypes that come with that label, most of them thanks to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. However I would like to re-assure you that during the week we are indeed ordinary and everyday members of society. We sit next to you in seminars and possibly even take some of your lectures. You might think the estate agent that sorted you out with that house down at Sinclair Properties is dull and uninteresting, but come the weekend he could be just as easily marching into battle dressed as a fierce Viking, side by side with hundreds of other battle hungry warriors who are also ready to transport themselves back to a time of honour, heraldry, and when you weren’t frowned upon for having a beard.
Viking festival week allows all of us like-minded people to show our true colours. Throughout the week there are period markets and historic walks, taking in the city’s many Viking treasures. However it is the final Saturday of the festival that we get our main event, the longboats arrive down the River Ouse and the stage is set for the great battle, the evening finale that everybody has come to see.
Each year of the Viking Festival, of which this is the 20th, a different tale gets re-enacted from a period of our Viking past. This time our tale took us back to 939 A.D. and the royal wedding of Princess Edith to King Sihtric. On the afternoon of Saturday, 25th February 2006 (or 939, depending on how into it you were getting), there was a re-enactment of a battle waged by Vikings opposed to the marriage. Hardened warriors in armour and chain mail marched through York, spears aloft, and entered the battlefield to the roaring cheers of the crowd that had assembled to witness the spectacle. Fighting was fierce and all we could hear was the sound of swords hitting shields and armour.
After the battle, the wedding was allowed to go ahead in the atmospheric candle light of York Minster. The full ambience of a candle-lit gothic cathedral created the mood that everyone attending was hoping for. It was definitely unlike any wedding I had ever previously been to, partially because of the costumes and partially because both the bride and groom had died over 1,000 years ago.
As the festival drew to a close, I even saw a glint in the eye of the large bearded fellow sitting a couple of seats away from me as everyone left to exchange their armour for business suits, and their swords for laptops, until the next great call from the battle field when the Vikings come marching again.