YEAR OF THE ERMINE STREET GUARD
SHORT HISTORY OF THE ERMINE STREET GUARD
Chris Haines MBE)
Over the years various versions of the history of The Guard have
appeared in several publications. However, it was felt that, in
our 35th year, it was time for an updated version – which
In the autumn of 1971 I was laying in Cheltenham Hospital having
been slashed in the back by a boar which had decided it did not
need my help to serve a sow. One of my visitors was the Reverend
Thornton, rector of our parish, who outlined his idea to hold a
historical pageant in the combined parishes of Witcombe and Bentham,
Gloucestershire. The Pageant was to reflect the history of the village,
which lies alongside the Roman road known as Ermin Street. Any monies
raised were to go towards the building of the present village hall.
At a meeting in the following January, attended by Founder Members
Bill Mayes and Geoff Matthews it was decided that we would be part
of a contubernium of eight Roman soldiers, representing the Roman
period of the village. From the start it was decided that the armour
and equipment would be above “theatrical” levels. Work
was started on eight sets of lorica segmentata based on the drawings
by H. Russell Robinson published in Graham Webster’s “The
Roman Imperial Army”.These,incidently, appeared in the second
edition of this book long after they were known to be wrong.
On the 2nd/3rd July 1972 the contubernium duly marched out three
times each day in their galvanised steel armour, with fibreglass
helmets and carrying hardboard shields. The two day event was called
“The Ermine Street Ghosts” and attracted some 2,500
members of the public. A month later a sponsored march in full armour
from Cirencester to Witcombe (12 miles) raised further funds for
the village hall. It was during this march, at our lunchtime break,
that the Landlady of the Five Mile House Pub locked us out.
Very soon we started to get requests to appear at local venues and
one evening, on the spur of the moment, we were asked what our title
would be. Without much thought we chose to be called “The
Ermine Street Guard”.
Early in 1973 some of our kit had been taken to the Limes Conference
in Cardiff attended by H. Russell Robinson (Keeper of Armouries
at The Tower of London). He was to remark that it was a pity so
much effort had gone into something that was so wrong. Our helmets
he likened to those of coal miners and he said our crests were like
Hitler’s moustache! “What did he know”, we said,
“it’s only one man’s opinion”.
It gradually dawned on us, however, that there were major inaccuracies
with all the equipment and it would have to be changed. A programme
was therefore started to research and replace the kit as funds and
evidence became available. From the onset a lack of funds meant
that most equipment was made by the Society – a policy still
followed to this day. It is with a sense of pride that we are able
to say that 90% of our equipment is made within the Group.
The replacement of loricae segmentatae became a priority and work
progressed slowly on this until Len Morgan joined us in 1978. His
enthusiasm and access to an engineering workshop greatly accelerated
production of Corbridge-type loricae, most of which are still in
use today, although their internal leathers have been replaced several
Belts, swords, scabbards, shields, sandals and tunics were upgraded.
Our original tunics were blue cotton but these were soon replaced
by red wool. The original “coal miners” helmets were
replaced in 1973 with another fibreglass version which unfortunately
turned out to be a hybrid of different types. It was not until a
chance meeting in Winchester with armourer Nigel Clough in 1982
that we began to acquire our first metal helmet bowls. Nigel, who
at various times was a member of the Society, produced metal helmet
bowls to which other Guard members manufactured and added cheek
pieces, ear and brow guards and other fittings. Founder Member Mike
Garlick made our first mail shirt (lorica hamata) in 1979. In the
early eighties he also produced an authentic horn ( cornu ) based
on the finds from Pompeii. Our earlier version had been very inaccurate.
I clearly remember holding the straight cornu pieces while Mike
stood on top of a wardrobe to pour molten lead inside prior to bending
them to shape – something that would give modern “health
and safety officers” a nightmare!
The loss of Len Morgan in early 1983 gave Martin White the impetus
to start producing more accurate and intricate swords, scabbards,
phalerae and buckles. These gradually replaced items that had replaced
original kit, but which, even after a few years, were no longer
considered to be accurate enough. David Hare (see later Exercitus
article) has now come to the forefront in the research and production
of these items.
In 1993 at the request of Howard Giles, then Head of English Heritage
Events Unit, and much advice from Dr Mike Bishop, we made the equipment
for two Roman Cavalrymen .Using saddles provided by Peter Connolly
the cavalrymen were, and still are, a very popular addition to our
The original contubernium of legionaries was equipped with an onager
made of railway sleepers and a waterways winch. This was quickly
replaced by a more authentic version from drawings produced by Bill
Mayes, based on the work of Eric Marsden. This second onager was
made from old oak beams which rotted away over five years. A third
version was made in the late seventies which continues in use to
In 1977 a three-span catapulta was made based on the Amphorius remains
from Spain. This also continues in use, although it, together with
a second copy, has recently been refurbished and upgraded. A ballista
was produced in 1984.
1984 saw the production of as small Ballista (palintone ).
In 1980 The Guard commissioned the making of a canvas contubernium
tent based on the findings of Sir Ian Richmond. Later findings of
Roman tent leather at Vindolanda and Carlisle proved that this interpretation
In 1993, with information from Carol Van Driel-Murray, Bill Mayes
produced working drawings for the construction of an accurate goat-skin
tent. He and Tim Haines then completed the mammoth task of hand
sewing some 70 goat skins together. It is calculated that this work
took 800 finger-sore hours to complete. A second goat-skin tent
was made some four years later using a larger team of workers. As
far as we know these remain the only hand stitched contubernium
tents in the world. Others have been produced in leather but these
have been machine stitched. Very sadly no other Roman Groups have
followed the Guard’s example. Indeed there has, in recent
years, been a proliferation of small Roman groups equipping themselves
with white canvas tents more suitable to the American Civil War
As membership increased so various officers were added to the group.
Very soon a Centurion was elected together with a standard bearer
(Signifer). When the first cornu was made Mike Garlick took the
role of horn blower (Cornicen) which he still holds today. After
about five years a flag bearer (Vexillarius) was added together
with a Centurion’s deputy ( Optio) in 1980. 1989 saw the election
of a carrier of the Emperor’s image (Imagnifer).This is the
extent of our officer corps even today apart from contubernium leaders
and their deputies. It has always been our policy to make sure that
the Society did not have too many chiefs and no Indians. In other
words, plenty of ordinary ranks to each officer.
In the early days of The Guard, when re-enactment was in its infancy,
displays were performed at local fêtes, local shows and school
galas. Very often these were a “fête” worse than
death. However as we became better known and people began to take
our aims more seriously, venues became more appropriate to the period
we depicted. By 1978 the programme consisted almost entirely of
venues with a strong Roman connection. At one time or another we
have displayed at all the major Roman sites in Britain including
all those on Hadrian’s Wall, Richborough, Portchester, Fishbourne,
Wroxeter and, of course, Caerleon. The Group was first asked to
go to the Lunt in 1974 at the opening of the Granary building and
attended the opening of the Gyrus in 1976 .The site remained on
our programmes for many years but it became a Guard joke that we
usually outnumbered the public.
The first museum visit was to Corinium, once again in 1974, when
David Viner realised the value of historical interpretation. Important
museums visited include York, Chester, Exeter, Colchester, National
Army Museum and the British Museum.
With the founding of the English Heritage Events Unit we were immediately
asked to appear at three or four of their Roman sites each year
– a practice which continues. We are also the only group,
of any period, to appear at all Kirby Hall “History in Action”
weekends and all five “Festival of History” weekends;
two at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire and three at Kelmarsh Hall, Northants.
In 1983 we took our first trip abroad, on that occasion paying for
ourselves on a very precarious trip where we were not always sure
of our next billet or where our next meal was to come from. We have
been abroad at least once every year since, visiting such countries
as France, Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Spain
and Sweden. For some unknown reason we have never displayed in Italy.
Gloucester City took the Centurion to New York in 1997 to promote
their Roman heritage.
Guards of Honour have been provided on several occasions for Royalty.
Twice for the Duke of Gloucester, once for HRH the Princess Royal
and on two occasions for Her Majesty the Queen who at Carlisle was
accompanied by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh.
We have also marched down the hallowed steps of the Royal Military
Academy Sandhurst to give a display on their famous parade ground
to assembled top brass and their guests.
The Guard has appeared in many television documentaries during its
history. Indeed one member, whilst visiting New York, saw the Society
on three separate programmes during the course of one day. We have
taken part in five “Time Team” television programmes.
Mick Ashton (of Time Team) had always been a fan of the Society
and brought us into their second programme filmed at Ribchester.
However, our most memorable “Time Team” programme was
at Cirencester where our Roman crane (Trispastos) lifted a 10cwt
piece of stone column.
One of the best programmes we were part of was called “The
Roman Way of War” about Trajan’s Dacian campaigns. This
was part of TV’s “Timewatch” series.
On many occasions we have been in programmes about the Boudiccan
revolt, the most memorable being at Butser where three Celts were
injured, two with puncture wounds and one with concussion. I shall
never forget the sight of our legionaries dragging Celtic women
by the hair. At the time of writing six members will soon be travelling
to Swansea for another Boudiccan film session with the director
With filming we soon realised that, far from being glamorous, it
involved much repetition, great discomfort, being too hot or very
wet and cold and many long hours trying to get that elusive shot.
On some shoots The Guard was treated with respect, on others like
the hired help.
Filming has however become less frequent of late as production companies
expect turnouts at very short notice for very little money. Some
of the fees offered are an insult.
From the beginning the Society recognised the importance of having
a static display or camp where we could talk to the public and show
information about the Roman Army. By our second year we had commissioned
a large tent where display boards gave this information and artefacts
could be put on show. A “touch table” also gave the
public the chance to handle armour and equipment.
Our first display tent was made in light orange canvas which unfortunately
let in the rain as a fine mist. When funds became available this
was replaced with the large white marquee still in use today. The
display boards were updated in 1997 by Clive Constable using artwork
supplied by Peter Connolly, Graham Sumner and himself.
The contubernium tents are, of course, a very important part of
the static display and form the centrepiece of our camp scene. The
public can see food being cooked over an open fire and learn about
the diet of the Roman soldier. Many tools and artefacts help to
explain the soldier’s daily life. A set of medical instruments
is of particular interest to the public and the “Time Team”
crane mentioned above is also displayed. The size of our static
display is rather restricted by our pursuit of authenticity which
means we cannot add any more tents without the mind numbing task
of sewing goat skins together.
Since its inception The Guard has had a democratic constitution.
Indeed, when the Society received charitable status in September
1998 very few changes had to be made to this. Each year an annual
general meeting elects a Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer together
with six other committee members to run the group. One of its duties
is to approve Guard equipment. A clause in the constitution states:
“The design and materials of all general equipment must be
approved by the Officium” (committee).
By adhering to this we have been able to make sure that nothing
inappropriate or non-authentic is used. Only recently a heated discussion
took place, in committee, about the finer details of shield covers.
For the smooth running of The Guard it is now essential that someone
is available almost full time. It has been my job to fill this role.
Indeed, looking back, I cannot understand how I was able to run
both the Group and the farm, until pig keeping ceased at Oakland
Farm in 1993.
The Guard has always been fortunate to have the facilities at Oakland
Farm, which is its headquarters. A small workshop and store were
built there in the early years to be replaced by one twice the size
some years later. When farming ceased in 1993 further buildings
were taken over for workshops and storage. There is also space for
members to stay over when making kit or attending events.
At this point it is important to mention the considerable contribution
made by my ex-wife, Liz, from 1972 until we parted in 1994. Not
many women would have put up with the considerable disruptions caused
by the Group. This included providing accommodation, impromptu meals
(who can forget Dan Peterson eating all the cake?) and putting up
with the continued inconvenience of people in and out of what was
a family home. Without her help the Society would not be where it
We have always had good Secretaries but none could surpass the present
occupant of this post, Mike Knowles, who gets things done immediately.
Recruitment has always been a lot slower than we would have liked,
rising to 35 in 1981 and 41 in 1995. Today membership is higher
than it has ever been with 60 on the books. The members are mainly
male with a small female contingent. In the interests of accuracy
we do not allow females to take male roles.
In 1972 and for a few years after, recruits all came from the local
area. However, as we grew, additions to the ranks came from farther
afield. Our membership is now scattered all over Britain, as far
north as Aberdeen and as far south as Exeter. Most counties of England
have at least one member and a sixth of the Society lives in Wales.
Scotland provides a contingent of three.
Today members come from all walks of life and include bankers, prison
officers, police officers, a toy maker, a bricklayer, an archaeologist,
an electrician, a landscape gardener, a sewage engineer, schoolteachers
and social workers to name but a few. All are brought together with
a common interest in the Roman period and in the Society itself.
In its 35th year it is worth considering what has made The Ermine
Street Guard so successful and so unique.
From the start it has always aimed high and pursued a policy of
“getting things right”. However we have never been complacent
and are always questioning ourselves and are willing to consider
new research and finds from the academic and archaeological world.
The Guard has always had a good two way relationship with the academic
We have greatly benefited from the unique blend of people who at
one time or another have been members of the Society. When one has
left or when another’s energy or enthusiasm has waned, sometimes
only temporarily, there have been others to take their place.
Our “all for one and one for all” policy has always
stood us in good stead, particularly when it comes to armour and
equipment. Most kit is made by the members and belongs to the Society.
This is the wealth of the Society and means that no one can leave
and take Guard kit with them. In 1983 we survived a breakaway when,
out of a membership of 40 just five members formed another group,
but could not take any equipment with them.
The re-enactment world in general, but the Roman one in particular,
is very prone to breakaways. I have heard recently of a group of
only six breaking in half as egos clash.
Overall I think our success is because we aimed high but never became
complacent and never thought we had reached the top.
Forgive the pun, but we have always aimed for “high standards”.
In this very important year for us there are no signs of their diminishment.