FEATURE: ‘We don’t just love history – we live it,’ say re-enactors

re-enactors - crusaders battling
re-enactors - crusaders battling
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He is a welder. She is an accountant. They live in a Suffolk village where they are renovating a cottage. So far, so ordinary.

But a glance around their home reveals there may be another side to “Wobbly” Walter and Maria Legg.

re-enactors Maria Legg as Saxon lady (c.Andy Pillkingon)

re-enactors Maria Legg as Saxon lady (c.Andy Pillkingon)

Two swords are propped against the fireplace. There are steel helmets where most of us might settle for a nice vase, and a wolf pelt is draped across the back of a chair,

Maria and Wobbly – his real name is a closely-guarded secret – are history re-enactors, with a special love of the Anglo Saxon era.

They are members of Wulfheodenas, an elite society which recreates the world of the military aristocracy of the 6th and 7th centuries.

The group’s name comes from the Old Norse word for “wolf coat”. Their emblem is a wolf-headed warrior.

re-enactors - "Wobbly" Walter with saxon warriors (c. lindsay kerr)

re-enactors - "Wobbly" Walter with saxon warriors (c. lindsay kerr)

They pride themselves on authenticity. All their kit is based on finds from graves like the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, thought to be the resting place of 7th century East Anglian King Raedwald.

Wulfheodenas has its own Raedwald – in real life he is called Paul Mortimer – whose regalia is copied in exquisite detail in the same precious materials as the originals.

Members come from all over the country, but only real enthusiasts with extensive knowledge and unswerving commitment are invited to join

“All re-enactors take it seriously, but these take it to another level,” says Maria.

re-enactors - "Wobbly" Walter as saxon warrier (c. lindsay kerr)

re-enactors - "Wobbly" Walter as saxon warrier (c. lindsay kerr)

She and Wobbly, who live in Bildeston, met through their passion for the past. But they came to it in very different ways.

While she always loved history, he hated it ... until a biker mate took him along to the Viking Festival in York.

Even then it was the idea of a no-holds-barred scrap that first attracted him to re-enactment.

“I was more into the combat and thuggery at the start,” says Wobbly who has been involved for almost 30 years.

The couple also belong to other groups including one that covers the Norman period and the Crusades.

For him, it is not the safest way to spend a weekend. Sometimes, even though the weapons used are blunt-edged, the blood is real.

And one of his Norman helmets has a nasty dent. “That was when I finished up with concussion,” he recalls.

“Now my body can’t take it so much, but I’ve got better and better at making stuff.”

His skill as a welder means he can craft accurate copies of knives, and weapons like axes and spears.

Those not made for re-enacting combat are razor sharp.

“I once dropped a seax, a large knife carried for status, and it nearly took my finger off,” he says, and has the scar to prove it.

His workshop is equipped with modern tools, but sometimes the metal is hand-beaten.

He also works with wood, making anything from massive, leather-covered shields to tables.

Some wood deserves to be revered. He points to planks of 500 year-old oak from Lincoln Cathedral.

“It was going to be thrown away. A friend of mine, who is verger there, saved it for me,” he says, clearly horrified at its nearly-fate.

Serious re-enactors make every effort to be accurate. But along with authenticity comes weight.

Wobbly’s Norman-style armour, including 55,000 links of chain mail, tips the scales at around five stone.

“Everything we use is so big and heavy,” says Maria.

“That means anything from iron tent pegs, to the tent so hefty she can’t lift it, to the wooden loom she uses for weaving demonstrations.

She creates beautiful strips of patterned tape through a process called card-weaving which is an incredibly slow, intricate process.

“It was used to bind the edges of garments because the fabric was so precious,” says Maria.

She also makes necklaces from ceramic beads that are exact replicas of Anglo Saxon ones.

“The clothes are really heavy too, made of wool or linen.

“And while you might think they just wore brown, they had lots of bright colours.

“The ladies were very ‘blingy’. You wore your wealth,” she says, lifting out cloaks, tunics and dresses from a wardrobe packed with the couple’s costumes.

“History has been a passion for me as long as I can remember.

“I discovered my first re-enactment group when I was researching for a book. and met Wobbly at my first event.”

They have been together for 12 years during which time their love of history has flourished.

Maria is also one of few people who can talk like an Anglo Saxon. She speaks fluent Old English, and did the voiceover for the Sutton Hoo museum exhibition.

A re-enactment weekend is not just two days living in the past. It involves days of hard work.

Loading Wobbly’s heavy-duty van takes a couple of days, then another two to unload afterwards.

Cooking for his fellow re-enactors over an open fire is another of his tasks – he is a dab hand with 7th century-style food.

Meat, especially pork, is on the menu, as are many vegetables we know today, like carrots, peas and cauliflowers.

Despite their devotion to Anglo Saxon life they would probably not swap places with the East Anglians of 1,400 years ago.

“On the downside, life was physically harder and probably much shorter,” says Maria.

“Also, some of the medical and surgical ideas of the time don’t bear thinking about.

“But on the positive side it was simpler and more rational way of life. Have I got enough to eat? Am I warm enough? Is my family safe?

“There were no cars, no computers, no telephones, no light pollution.

“Life was very rural and governed by the seasons; sowing and harvesting, shearing, spinning and weaving.

“But we know they still had fun – communities regularly coming together for feasting, story-telling, poetry, music and games. These things were really important to them.

“I think the same thoughts apply to living in any period of history.

“Although 7th century life was very basic, later periods also had their drawbacks.

“Some 18th century medical procedures were no better informed than the Anglo Saxon ones one thousand years earlier.

“And there’s a direct correlation between the appearance and development of large towns in the later medieval period with the deterioration of general health as people could no longer grow their own food and hadn’t yet solved the issue of sanitation.”

Wobbly and Maria both have Saxon names. She is Hild. “It means battle – a joke because I’m the least warlike person you could imagine.”

He, true to Wobbly form, is Tealt, which in Old English means “tilt”.