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Black Knight Historical

 



 


 

blackknighthistorical.co.uk

 

Digger talks to Ian Pycroft whose company Black Knight Historical provides fascinating and impressively ambitious, authentic and well-researched costumed interpretations of historical events and characters spanning the last 2,000 years of history. 

 

Henry VIIIth with hawk and ale

Henry VIIIth era costumes

School fun

Feudal archers

Saxon maidens

 


 

Ian: Good morning, Black Knight Historical...

Digger:  Morning Ian. How are you?

Ian: Hello David. I'm good thanks.

Digger:  I spent a lot of time looking at your website last night. And I was also looking at the image galleries and there were so many great photos I couldn't make up my mind which ones I liked so I downloaded lots of them. (Laughs) There's some good stuff there. They cover a lot of eras and a wide range of events, don't they?

Ian: They do. I'm very pleased with them.

Digger: Can you please tell us about your background and how Black Knight Historical came about?

Ian: My own personal background - educated at Paston Grammar school in north Walsham. Their claim to fame was that Horatio Nelson went there, a famous son of Norfolk and a great British hero. The school was founded in 1606 so it does give you quite a historical context. I lived just over the road from the school for a number of years and it was an inspiration. I loved history at school. 

Digger: Why was that?

Ian: I don't know, things just touch you sometimes, don't they?

Digger: Yes they do.

Ian: I was asthmatic, so I wasn't particularly good at PE and that sort of stuff. The history side of things certainly appealed and I enjoyed studying at school.

Digger: That' almost ironic because you're out and about and active all of the time these days.

Ian: I've almost got rid of it and it only gets me now if I'm feeling under the weather - touch wood I'm pretty good now.

Digger: The business itself - was that a series of accidents or how did it come about?

Ian: (Laughs) A series of accidents. Isn't everything in life?

 

 

Guinevere and Lancelot

 

 

Digger: That's right. I'm talking to lots of people all the time who are running retro, vintage and nostalgia-based businesses and they all share a joy and a passion for what they do but a common theme is that they ended up doing what they are doing as a result of unplanned events.

Ian: Well, I suppose after leaving school and college I was unfulfilled and didn't know which direction to go in and ended up in a retail career which was obviously not for me long term. Too many interests in history and historical reconstructions. And once I found myself in that world I wanted to do more and more quality things. And the event management came as a result of doing lots of events for other people and the hobby groups around Europe. What got me interested in 'the dressing up' side, for want of a better phrase, was a combination of an interest in mediŠval arts and armour and role-playing and such things that were prevalent in my youth and formative years. I wanted to experiment to see what it would be like to wear a suit of armour and that got me in contact with a local group in Norwich called The Norwich and Norfolk MediŠval Association.

Digger: The British spelling of mediŠval rather than the American?

Ian: Yes, with a proper diphthong. There are not many people who know what they are. That was back in 1985 before re-enactment had been coined as a term. 

 

 

MediŠval archers

 

 

Digger: It's quite a broad brush now, isn't it? Looking at your website and photos. 

Ian: You can see the sort of things we get up to.

Digger: Yes.

Ian: And just making people happy is basically what Black Knight do, with a historical twist. Educate them, entertain them - there is this new buzz word called "Edutainment" (Digger winces) I don't like it either - I'm happy to use real words rather than invent words to describe what we do. And so there's a number of slightly different services we provide - costumed interpretation and living history. Bringing characters to life in a stately home or a castle who are actually representing real people from the past.

Digger: When we went to Hampton Court it was great because there were all these people dressed up in the authentic-looking gear and they really are good actors.

Ian: Yes.

Digger: Rather than just walking around the palace, which is just a lot of empty rooms really in that sense, these actors and role players bring it to life.

Ian: They are very good down there - they are costumed interpreters and they know their stuff and are prepared to talk to you, usually in role as well. Although there's two types of costumed interpretation, depending on whether you're doing it in the first person or the third person. 

Digger: I see.

Ian: First person is "I am and I am going to make you believe that the year is 1525" and everything they say to you will be appropriate to that year and be the society and lifestyle that person would have known and experienced at that time. They will ignore planes flying overhead or mobile phones going off and just treat them as though they don't exist. That's quite nice and can work very well indeed if you've got somebody who's good doing that.

Digger: You have to suspend that disbelief just as you do if you're at the theatre.

Ian: Absolutely. If you do third person, so you're talking to the public as though you're a modern person and say "This is how it was done back then" using the past tense and talking about 'them' rather than 'I'.

Digger: I think the former one works best for me.

Ian: First person works very well, but you do need people who are entertaining and have got the knowledge to be able to carry that off. There's no point in doing first person if you can't answer simple questions about the particular period you're doing.

Digger: No.

Ian: You have to have more confidence to do that and more training is required.

 

 

World War I flying display 

 

 

Digger: Can you tell us about The Mannington Hall event?

Ian: Certainly. The Norfolk Living History Fayre - this is the fourth year of doing it, is 2,000 years of history presented in one of Norfolk's most lovely locations.

Digger: Not ambitious then? (Laughs)

Ian: It is ambitious and I'm proud to make it so. English Heritage run a flagship event every year at Kelmarsh called The Festival of History which is a much larger and grandiose version of what I try and do here. This is my own humble, Norfolk-based version of it and it's set inside the grounds and inside of Mannington Hall which is the actual home of Lord and Lady Walpole, so a nice Norfolk connection there with our first Prime Minister. And it's a fifteenth century moated manor house.

Digger: How many people do you expect to go?

Ian: We've probably got 300 performers, which is no mean number and I'm hoping for 3,000 members of the public. I have two of the world's best jousters coming along this year, so I hope we get more visitors.

 

 

Dover castle - leeches!

Hogarth's heroes

Lace wars

 

 

Digger: How do you judge that, them being the world's best? Do they still meet up in some field in France each year like they used to in 'the old days'?

Ian: Almost right. There are a number of jousts that happen around the world now it's an international sport again. Teams from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, America, Britain , France, and the best exponents of them regularly meet. These two who are coming, Dr Toby Capwell and Dom Sewell, regularly joust at place like The Royal Armoury in Leeds and Hampton Court and The Tower of London. Toby is curator of arms and armour at The Wallace Collection in London. He's doing it from a position of authority and the two of them put on a very special show. I've got people flying in from America especially to see them joust. They have their own, I won't say cult following, but they're both members of the jousting team called The Order of the Crescent and they're half of a four man team. 

Digger: I'm just bringing to mind poor old Tony Curtis who died yesterday. He appeared in The Black Shield of Falworth and other sword and sandals Hollywood movies and didn't do the genre any harm, getting people interested in history in a way.

Ian: Absolutely. The modern jousters wear modern armour, hand-forged in steel plate and I think armour can fetch ú30-40,000.

Digger: Just a couple of obvious questions. Do people ever get hurt?

Ian: Yes, of course they do.

Digger: And the size of people - you'll see the old armour, the horse amour too, and think were they smaller then. Were they that much smaller?

Ian: I think there's a number of answers and I don't think they were that much smaller than we are today. There are definite cases where people were small but the best way to find out someone's height is to measure the coffins, of course. I would say their diet wasn't as heavy as ours is today and we probably have the benefit of some of the best dietary and nutritional times.

Digger: At least we have the choice of even if some of us choose not to take advantage.

Ian: Absolutely. But they were fit men in heavy armour and you had to be reasonably fit - you can't run around and do these things if you're unfit and you'll see this. Obviously they do a lot of horse riding too.

Digger: What's the best time to get there?

Ian: It starts at 11:00 - it's October and the day is getting shorter. To give people a chance to get there, although it is well signposted with yellow directional signs, but 11:00 gives people at least five hours on site and they get a day of diverse entertainment with lots of child-focused activities as well. And there's free admission for kids.

Digger: What's our fascination with historical events and characters?

Ian: I think since having been following re-enactment and been developing the business with the way it's grown, like any business, once it starts to become popular and people get more interested in the past, so a set of service industries and suppliers and manufacturers are building up to further the need. And now you can quite happily trawl the web or attend historical pageants like Mannington and find traders and manufacturers and demonstrators of historical crafts, all of whom are providing products and services to enable this reconstruction to happen. If you have an open cheque book, you can happily wander through a market or fayre and pay your money and walk away completely equipped in something that took me twenty years to achieve.

Digger: The whole infrastructure is there.

Ian: The whole thing is there and the only restriction now is on the size of your cheque book or bank balance. But with that is brought the danger that people can do that now without doing the historical research. And I've got a big library here which is full of historical reference books which try and back up the personas and the knowledge that I find necessary to bring the past alive in a credible way.

Digger: To avoid it being a pastiche.

Ian: Yes, otherwise it's just like going and buying a caravan and having a holiday. There are, in every sport or every theatre of pastimes, there's different levels of quality and the poor quality does, unfortunately, bring the hobby down and lead to ridicule in some ways.

Digger: I went to an event called The Battle of Malden and it was commemorating a battle in Essex 1,000 years before. I can't recall when.

Ian: That was in 1991.

Digger: Thank you. And the crescendo was the burning of the Viking boat in the estuary. There was a village, which was great and they'd built stands for the public. But, there were two 'armies' and each only had a handful of men. When they were 'killed' they'd lie down and then sneak away and rejoin the battle. It wasn't very convincing or entertaining, apart from us laughing.

Ian: Back in 1991, as a hobby, there probably weren't enough people to take part. Now you can put 1,000 people, possibly 2,000 people, on a battlefield. Even then, watching mediŠval battles is like watching paint dry to me. Fortunately, health and safety is a double-edged sword - to use that phrase...

Digger: Good one!

Ian: ... Today, we obviously have to make things as safe as possible. Because people then have to go and do their real job on a Monday morning. But, you don't get realism and that's good actually, because mediŠval or historical battlefields were horrific places to be and you wouldn't want to wish that on your worst enemy.

Digger: No.

Ian: To see and experience the carnage and  realities of warfare, before and after gunpowder and cannon were introduced. 

Digger: We're very creative at finding ways to knock the wotsits out of each other, aren't we?

Ian: Absolutely. Not just in the battles, but we do live in more enlightened times, fortunately, and it does give us the chance to do this, and we can and show things like crime and punishment of the past. The power or religious thought, for example.

Digger: Grrr. Don't get me started on religion! I went to a Catholic Jesuit Grammar school and religion has caused so much of the trouble in the world.

Ian: You can see that with The Inquisition. For us to be able to show how the instruments of punishment and torture functioned and why people believed so passionately in Catholicism and then why we end up with The Reformation.

Digger: I love the pictures of the scold's bridle. And what would your crime have to be to be hung up by the ears? (Both laugh)

 

 

 

Scolds bridal and hanging up by the ears

 

 

Ian: I don't know exactly.

Digger: And would you be let down once you'd promised not to do it again?

Ian: Probably not. You've got to remember that among that barbarity there is some beautiful artwork and some wonderful things coming out of The Middle Ages and The Renaissance. But in The Renaissance, this new era of learning and refinement which swept across Europe, we were finding more and more ways to hang, draw and quarter people and more torture devices. The rack really comes into its own in the sixteenth century and if you really want to know about horrific ways to torture and mutilate people then just look at what The Germans were up to. Surprising, isn't it? But I think that each nation and culture has its own methods of extracting information, and torture and punishment. And fortunately those days are gone.

Digger: You travel the length and breadth of the UK and your events cover over 2,000 years of history. What are the challenges you face when planning and organising these events?

Ian: Historical integrity and making sure that all the performers are up to standard of their kit and equipment and behaviour. And their ability to communicate - the ability to interact with the public and deliver a quality product. My interpretation of quality product means not having to constantly look over their shoulders but I often go round shows when I'm not performing. I might just introduce myself and watch them as a member of the public.

Digger: I was in heaven a couple of years ago because I went to Duxford and that was fantastic - they had all the WWII re-enactors there and the pilots scrambling for their Spitfires but they also had some of the real Battle Of Britain pilots there as well.

Ian: Fabulous.

Digger: What a wonderful day but they also had, and what I enjoyed most, was a bit big boys toys - they had the anti-aircraft guns and the searchlights and the barrage balloons and so on. I love to see all that equipment in original order and working.

Ian: We are at Duxford in four week's time. I'm there doing a 617 Squadron Dambusters pilot on the 30th and 31st October.

Digger: You have actually got the job from heaven haven't you, really Ian? (Laughs)

Ian: I have the WWII full flying kit from 1942/'43 onwards.

Digger: I saw you were squadron leader Johnny Ball.

Ian: Yes, totally fictitious but the idea that balls bounce and he takes on the camaraderie and humour of them all having nicknames at the time.

 

 

Squadron Leader John 'Bouncer' Ball

 

 

Digger: Is that a bouncing bomb in the photo on your site? Is that how big they were?

Ian: Yes, that is Upkeep - a thousand pounds in weight with a 4,500 pounds explosive Torpex core.

Digger: It doesn't look very aerodynamic.

Ian: It didn't need to be because it was, as you know, designed to skip and was slung underneath the Lancaster bomber rather than inside the bomb bay and with a motor running at 600 r.p.m. to make it spin backwards.

Digger: What are your historical passions?

Ian: Oh dear!  How long have you got? (Laughs) Right - the De Haviland Mosquito, fifteenth century England - The Wars of The Roses period and The Swiss Burgundian Wars appeal to me. I love pageantry in the middle ages and the colour and spectacle and I'm interested in religion - theology rather than personal religious belief, and in the history of religion. That includes the, shall we call it anti-religion, which in common culture would be described as witchcraft and heresy and that kind of thing. I'm interested in it, not practising it of course, but I'm interested in how it all evolves and things like witch trials and such things. I'm gradually getting more and more into The Romans - "What have The Romans ever done for  us?" (Digger laughs) 

Digger: Obviously you learned Latin at school like I did and at the time I thought it was useless but it gives you an insight into things and actually proves quite useful. Not a week goes by when I don't see a word or hear a phrase and can work out what it means based on Latin.

Ian: Yes, I've got some really funny ones when I do mediŠval banquets and I cut and paste them out and let the visitors have little quips on bits of parchment or card which I put in front of them. Then they have to try and work out what they mean. One of them, which I can't remember the translation for, is "Do I drink this or is it for washing my fingers?" referring to the little hand washing bowl. Just some funny little quips. And I have got a couple of those funny Latin phrasebooks knocking around on my shelves somewhere. But can I find them now?...

Digger: No, that would be useful!

Ian: Exactly.

 

 

 

Pilgrims at Foulsham

Saxon village crafts 

 

 

Digger: One thing that always fascinated me was about the wedge formation of the Roman soldiers when they were in battle. That was so effective so that no matter how people were coming at them they could break through with maximum impact and minimum losses. And it retained the integrity of the formation to drive through anything.

Ian: Pretty much, yes.

Digger: What sort of feedback do you get from your clients?

Ian: Usually very positive. I can't think of a situation where I've put on a poor show or a bad show and where we haven't been gratefully received. There are testimonials on the website as I'm sure you've seen and they fairly reflect the quality and diversity of what we offer.

Digger: That doesn't mean that you're complacent. You're always looking at new things to do and ways to improve or enhance?

Ian: Yes, that's absolutely right. Going on from my passions that we were discussing, I'm constantly developing new characters as you've probably gathered. The eighteenth century humanitarians are something that I'm getting interested in right now, people like Wilberforce and Howard. I'm fascinated by them and their anti-slavery and prison reform work. Their work is probably under sung and I'm quite interested in them and brining those two to life. Nineteenth century scientists, archaeologists - I played Fox Talbot this year down at his home at Laycock Abbey and it was fantastic. We were doing photographic pioneering shows and a colleague from Wales come over with all his original and repro Victorian-style full plate cameras so we were doing wet collodion and pinhole camera techniques. But I really enjoy playing my World War II pilot and I'm a big Mosquito enthusiast - the De Haviland DH 98 is by far the greatest plane of World War II - (Laughs) I will put my neck on the block there and it's so under sung. You can quote me on that and I'll wait for the flak!

Digger: What are the best things about running Black Knight Historical?

Ian: That I wake up each morning knowing that the day ahead is going to be fun. It's a great life, it's a hard life and it's not a career that's going to make me a rich man.

Digger: You must spend a lot of time in hotels or camping?

Ian: Yes, we do spend a lot of time under canvas. During the course of the year I would think fifty days under canvas a year. The company now has ten tents or so of different sizes and shapes and historical periods. We keep adding to and expanding that and the range of costumes and props keeps growing. I have just been asked to do an Anglo-Saxon school day for the first time so I'm looking at getting ninth century clothing and artefacts together.

Digger: And as you said earlier there are now a lot of companies who make these sorts of things now.

Ian: I've got a number of companies now who supply me with bespoke historical costumes, and I don't like the word 'costumes' - historical reproduction clothes, I suppose, because costume still has a tendency to be seen in the pantomime sense. 

Digger: Almost fancy dress?

Ian: Absolutely, so I don't like using the word 'costume' for that reason. But it's important to describe what we do although at the same item it's almost the antithesis of what we do. The word is just not good enough to describe the level of research and quality and attention to detail that goes into many of these outfits. The bespoke tailoring and getting people to make correct patterns and to use the authentic fabrics - silks, velvets and furs. Or even something as simple as the most historically accurate thing that I posses, which is a fourteenth century shirt and breeches. These are basically long drawers, which are made from east European hand-spun, hand woven linen that is nearly 100 years old. It had never been used and was still up on the loom in the roll. I managed to buy some of that from an antique seller and have now made something that is the closest facsimile I've got. Because this east European loom was almost the same as a mediŠval one would have been.

Digger: Does all this mean that you're probably living at the best time, the best era that you could possibly be?

Ian: Absolutely.

Digger: Yes, because we've got all this technology and the capability and The Internet now.

Ian: That's why more and more people are exploring their past and doing reconstructions.

Digger: And with DNA as well...

Ian: Exactly, yes.

Digger: ... It's almost as if the past is coming closer to us now that at any other time.

Ian: Yes. We've obviously, if we wanted to, got more than 2,000 years of history to explore and I probably will one day develop a Neolithic persona and wander around going "Ug" with a big club.

Digger: Like on The Armstrong and Miller Show?

Ian: Have you seen their RAF pilots?

Digger: Yes, they're great. They've also got the Neolithics as well where they are trying to communicate the birth of modern ideas and concepts in Neolithic-speak. 

Ian: The RAF pilots they do are an absolute hoot and the standard of the sets and props - they really are in well-dressed form and this common Chav-speak that they use.

Digger: Very funny and Monty Python used to do that a lot where there's the juxtaposition of things.

Ian: I hark back to Monty Python and The Holy Grail which is a classic in its own right. Films like that, and the series Robin of Sherwood which is has been shown again on TV, these were inspirations for me. I despair with most Robin Hood films and TV series - the one with Michael Praed has pretty much nurtured my interest in that mediŠval dressing up thing. Looking back on it that was almost 25 years ago when that came out.

Digger: What about Braveheart? Or is that a rude question!

Ian: Ooh! It's a great film but it's not historically accurate and very few of them are.  In terms of accuracy, one of my favourite films is Master and Commander with Russell Crowe as Nelson's navy captain. That is a really nice film and you get a good idea of what it was like and, yet again, I'm developing a Nelson's navy captain as one of my costume personas. 

 

 

Dynamo evacuees

Wartime reenactment - Peterborough

Airborne jeep crew

 

 

Digger: What of the future for Black Knight Historical?

Ian: Lots of new personas coming out all of the time...

Digger: You're the historical equivalent of Madonna, Ian. (Laughs)

Ian: For the future - what do I see? Things I will invest in personally for me - more quality costumes and artefacts so I can carry on developing my own range of costumed interpretational characters and for ones to use in schools. For the business - well I hope all the clients who I work for currently are happy enough with me that they want to carry on using our services ad infinitum and also adding and developing new ones. It's always very pleasant, of course, to get a call or an email from a new prospective client - a historic house or a castle or a college or a school that I haven't been to before. And to see where that's going to lead and follow that one to a successful conclusion. You never know where these things are going to lead and at the moment I'm negotiating with Blickling Hall here in Norfolk for a Tudor Pageant weekend for the first time next year. There are so many wonderful historic buildings - I'm hoping to get across to The mediŠval centre in Denmark next year. Also, hopefully, to the ChÔteau Chillon in Switzerland, which is one of the most beautiful looking castles in the world on the shore of  Lake LÚman in Switzerland. And, believe it or not, even with all this history as a job I still enjoy doing it on occasions purely for the hobby side of it. I am member of The Company of St George which is a Swiss-based international top level living history group that portrays a Burgundian Artillery Company of the Swiss Burgundian Wars of 1475/'76. They totally immerse themselves in it 24/7. So, unlike me who is doing a show over here which requires 10 o'clock to 5 o'clock and then at 5 o'clock the costume comes off. 

Digger: And down the pub!

Ian: Well, no, I normally find that sort of thing doesn't appeal. Yes, I enjoy a drink as much as the next man, but I feel too attached to the presentation - usually there's tents involved and normally I'll stay on site for my own security and rather than leave that responsibility to someone else.

Digger: It's been fascinating Ian, so thanks very much for that and for the great images as well. I am looking forward to seeing you on 15th/16th October.

Ian: Thanks David. As I mentioned, it's free admission for children, so bring them along and see you then.

Digger: Thank you Ian.

Ian: No. Thank you.

Digger: Take care. Bye.

Ian: See you soon. Bye now.

 


 

16th-17th October Mannington Hall, Norfolk. The 4th Annual Norfolk Living History Fayre

 


 

We specialise in historical event management, and provide personnel and costumed performance services for heritage sites, schools, corporate and private clients, film and TV. We also organise historic markets and fashion shows.

Our events cover more than 2000 years of history, from the Roman empire to WWII.

We offer a wide range of activities for all ages and tastes, including Living History displays, costumed interpretation, historic craft demonstrations, mediŠval banquets, lessons for children and lectures for adults, themed costumed parties, jousting tournaments, murder mysteries, weddings, corporate parties and product launches.

 

 

blackknighthistorical.co.uk




Contact us: telephone 01692 535613, mobile 07717 482823, email info@blackknighthistorical.co.uk


 

 

 


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