A short history of Bonfield Battle and the Tournament at Baron’s Howe
By Finnvarr de Taahe and Ragni Dzintara of Amberhall
The origins of the Tournament at Baron’s Howe go back to our earliest days living in the Near North in 1991. We had owned a country place before, but the lot we had bought in Bonfield, which we call Ravenhill, was so big and so varied that it took us weeks to explore it thoroughly. Soon enough we were saying, “We’ve just got to share this with our friends.”
Two things occurred to us immediately. First, the woods and clearings on the south end of the property were ideal for melee scenarios that are just impossible at most sites: there was room to run around, and hide, and stage ambushes and sudden raids. Also the whole area was fenced off – keeping fighters and other attendees apart was going to be simple.
Second, we had room and beasts sufficient to do something that was hardly being done in the SCA – put people on horses. At that time there was no formal structure in the SCA for riding. If you had the resources you could do it. But of course normally no one had the resources. We had the opportunity to do something special and medieval at Ravenhill.
There really is only one good time to have an event on our land, Labour Day weekend, so we advertised our first one in 1993 as “Bonfield Battle” and aimed our publicity at people who hadn’t had enough “war” at Pennsic War, mentioning riding while we were at it. Then we waited to see how many would show up, hoping we’d have enough attendees to cover expenses but not so many that we’d be overwhelmed.
That’s what happened. But right from the beginning the potential growth of this event was clear. At our very first Bonfield Battle we had attendees from the
area who came all that way simply to be at an event with horses. And the
fighting was of course a lot of fun.
Both the riding aspects and the fighting aspects of our event underwent a lot of development. Bonfield Battle was one of the places where SCA-wide riding games – codified as the Inter-Kingdom Equestrian Competition – were invented. As the most regular riding event in our kingdom it’s been the site of experiments of all sorts: we’ve had hunts, we’ve had jousting, and we’ve had lots of less ambitious but enjoyable games for people who would have few venues to ride in medieval costume.
The fighting has also developed. We started out with running around in the woods with a “hunt the wild animals” scenario and a “find the treasure [bag of rocks] and bring it home” scenario. Eventually we abandoned both for something a lot better: a “Twelfth-Century Tournament” where teams tried to capture each other and gain largely theoretical ransoms. This scenario has been fought and fine-tuned over the years and has been wildly popular, with sometimes over 30 people in up to 7 teams competing.
The woods battles always take part in a secluded area where non-participants could not see the action. We quickly devised others for the enjoyment of spectators and warriors alike. Pick-up fighting in the center of the original camp evolved into formal tournaments and pas d’armes.
Two of these more public competitions have been sponsored over the years by Viscount Mordain and Viscountess Aelflaeda. Castle Mallory, named after a faithful hound, was financed by them and built by various members of our household and theirs. More interesting in a way has been Mordain’s Rings, a game invented at Ravenhill, because there was room to play it.
Room to do things has always been one of the big attractions of Bonfield Battle. When we first scouted the property with an event in mind, we focused on the bowl we called “Skull Field” (from a cow skull found there), and identified the spot where we said, “Here is where Sylard and Mortraeth will camp.” When they showed up, the first attendees at the first event, they went without any consultation with us straight for that spot. They have been there ever since, the core of an Iron Age themed encampment that in 2006 went so far as to actually make iron on site! Other groups, such as Petrea Thule, have also found permanent homes.
Ravenhill also boasts a number of permanent installations for everyone’s use. Besides Castle Mallory and Mordain’s Rings, there is a list field for pas d’armes and tournaments, a list for equestrian sport and jousting, a barrier for combats at the barrier, and of course the most impressive of all, the Mead Hall. Again it was a matter of room. Lord Hrolf of Flaming Sky knew of an old barn coming down in the vicinity, and acquired the rights to the beams and the roofing, in hopes they could be used for something more creative than practice for the fire brigade. Surely something could be built on the Ravenhill site? Indeed it could. Baron Cynred took up the challenge to create the Mead Hall, and with the help of Earl David, Baron Foote, Baron Halfdan and other occasional workers made it a reality. The Viking Feast that took place in the Mead Hall this year just hints at how it may become a real rallying point for people at Baron’s Howe.
Baron’s Howe? A lot of people know the story, but others do not. Duchess Eanor’s first horse, and the first in our family, was a pony she named Baron. Until we retired him, he was the most reliable mount we had, especially for beginners, whom he never took advantage of. In 2004 Baron died at an advanced age, and was buried on a prominent spot on the site. After that we decided that the event should be renamed after him and the “howe” or burial mound that commemorates him.
A lot more could be said – about the wonderful site tokens Mistress Eleanor Cadfan has made over many years, about the visitors from far lands, most notably Calontir who have crossed many miles to join us, about the little monuments that have been erected – but in the end the best thing to remember is how many people have come time and again to build, to celebrate, to ride, to compete. It’s been something of a community, thanks to the right people coming together at the right spot, each to make their unique contribution.