The tradition of making armour for battle goes back thousands of years. Strapping leather together to make a strong material resistant to bronze sword blows was probably the first type of armour ever created. Leather was replaced by chain mail and then this was superseded by full suits of armour made from steel and iron, so heavy that their wearers couldn’t regain their feet if they fell off their horse.
All these forms of armour are celebrated at the Armour Making Contest at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, which is held on the Sunday nearest to August 22nd, the day that the nearby Battle of Bosworth took place in 1485.
There are many different categories to enter. The most popular is the chain mail contest where rings of metal are joined together to form a strong protective barrier against sword thrusts and arrows. There is a children’s version of the contest where kids link safety pins together in playful imitation of the real thing. A knitting contest also takes place with the aim of producing a half-length chain mail coat made from wool within three hours.
The contest started in 1685 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth and the succession of the Roman Catholic King James II. In the first year there were only two contests – the leather armour one and the chain mail for men. Contestants had “ye lengthe of burnningge of a six inch candle” to complete their armour. The armour then had to be tested; the original idea was for the local Protestant vicar to put on all the armour in turn and then be attacked by the largely catholic judges with swords until the vicar screamed for mercy. This idea was vetoed by the town’s mayor who decided that it was in the best interests of religious tolerance for the armour to be tested on a tree stump.
The first winners were Miles Cronden in the leather contest and Paul Merrill in the chain mail. Cronden hardened his leather in urine and according to the judges “ye stenche was exceeding stronge and diluted thy desire to be neare.” Merrill was an exceptional blacksmith whose designs for chain mail were tightly packed and so strong that some swords were blunted on them. Two hundred years later one of Merrill’s direct descendants, Josiah, was the first winner of the chain mail knitting contest.
A tree stump is still used to test every contestant’s leather and chain mail armour to this day despite suggestions from the organizers of the barbecue in the 1870s that perhaps their meat could be fresher and more tender if pigs and cows were used for testing.
Over the years more contests were added for men and women including the piece de resistance the full body armour contest, which is awarded for work done during the previous year. Points are awarded for historical accuracy, but the ultimate test is for the contestants to walk across the Bull’s Field belonging to Farmer Grinlow and see how well their armour stands up to the attack of the Aberdeen Angus purebreds. The judges note how quickly the bulls give up their attacks, how many dents the armour has sustained, and whether the contestant needs medical help afterwards.
David Graham is the best builder of full body armour in the country and has won on six occasions since 1996. He uses stainless steel coated with tungsten and zinc all of which is highly polished – it has been suggested that this is deliberate so that the bulls will be blinded by the sun glinting off the metal, but Graham still won after the bulls were fitted with sunglasses.
There was almost a tragedy in 1948 when Sir Lawrence Hislop entered the contest. His armour was the Tin Man costume worn in the 1930s film The Wizard of Oz, which Hislop had recently bought at auction. The costume was flimsy at best and Sir Lawrence was knocked unconscious as soon as he entered Bull’s Field. Luckily, his wife and daughters dragged him clear whilst the bulls were being distracted by a Judy Garland impersonator.
The knitting contest was won most often by a local shepherd Wilf Worrall, who won 12 times between 1872 and 1910. He used wool from his own sheep to create the imitation chain mail. He practiced his technique out in the fields and honed his skills so well that he could produce a full set of imitation chain mail in just 90 minutes. His concentration on the knitting was legendary, but this did mean his sheep were left unsupervised and he lost 50% of them to rustlers on average throughout the year.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker