IT’S March 25, 1470 – and there’s trouble at the gates. Edward IV has been on the throne for nine years but his friendship with kingmaker cousin Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, has soured.
After backing the Yorkist forces in the Wars of the Roses, Warwick has had a change of heart since being accused of treachery and has instead nailed his flag to the mast of Henry VI, the very king he helped depose.
Now, the white rose has arrived at the gates of Warwick Castle in the shape of a reconnaissance roster of spies armed with a cannon and they’re testing the defences of the fortress, getting closer and closer to causing real damage.
Trouble is, all Warwick’s knights are off at a tournament – don’t they know there’s a civil war going on? – and the castle is virtually defenceless. What’s a lady of the manor to do? Cue ‘The Legend of the Trebuchet’.
In the good old tradition of derring do, she mobilises a handful of minstrels and farmers, a latrine dung collector, a veteran archer past his prime and a trainee trebuchet master to hold off the Yorkists until the Earl gets back.
Performed by a humble cast of around a dozen on the River Island arena, the real star of the show is the newly constructed trebuchet siege engine, which impressively hurls an 18kg ball and chain some 200 metres.
And, of course, soon has the villainous Yorkists on the run.
That’s the storyline of the new show which opens at 21st century Warwick Castle from April 1 as the latest addition to the fortress’s formidable edutainment line-up of live shows lending history some family-friendly fun.
Made of more than 300 pieces of green oak, air-dried oak, ash and steel, the weapon – the largest of its kind in the world – has replaced its predecessor, which fell into disrepair and had stood forlornly fireless for some years.
Standing 18 metres tall, and weighing 22 tonnes, it has been crafted by specialists at Devon firm Carpenter Oak – builders of the castle’s original 2005 trebuchet – based on drawings from a Danish living history museum.
Then it was transported on the 180-mile journey up to Warwick by lorry, re-assembled over a number of weeks and exhaustively tested, with a dress rehearsal last week, and the media launch of the show last night.
There will, however, be no fireballs flung through the air this time around. In 2015 stray sparks from a flaming projectile landed on the thatched roof of the river boathouse, which had to be completely rebuilt.
So, does it live up to the hype? Here’s what to expect.
The audience is seated on the grass bank on the opposite side of the River Avon, a safe distance from the firing. There’s some bench-style seating but we took a picnic blanket and sat on the grass. If you’ve been to see The Falconer’s Quest birds of prey show here, you’ll know the drill.
The introduction to the show and the beginning of the story are played close-up as we get to know the characters before the action moves to the other side of the bridge. It’s initially played for laughs with inoffensive toilet humour and silly slapstick.
But things move up a gear as the Yorkists start lobbing cannonballs at us, with some special effects splashing about in the river, smoky explosions and gouts of flame. It’s clear they mean business.
Our rag-tag bunch of reluctant heroes is spurred into action, and there’s a comic cannon routine straight out of the circus clown handbook, before trebuchet trainee Thomas gets his act together.
“I know the workings of the trebuchet like the back of my hand!” he says, guiding the minstrels into the huge hamster wheel at the heart of the weapon they’ve named Ursa. As they walk on the spot, the wheel turns, lowering the weapon’s ash-crafted arm tight for launch.
We’re told – and kids will lap this up – that they used to fire all manner of mayhem from the trebuchet including wasps’ nests, burning lime, dead animals and human waste. But today, it’s a hefty ball and chain.
There’s the obligatory countdown after the yell of “Trebuchet live!” then the arm swings up, dragged by the huge counterweight, and the projectile flies through the air. It’s impressive, to be fair.
The production itself isn’t on the same scale as, say, Warwick’s Wars of the Roses Live and Dragon Slayer, and lasts for around half an hour. It’s perhaps not worth the cost of admission on its own, but a worthy addition to the castle’s many other attractions included in the price.
It also adds to the interactive impact of this area of the grounds, which was once under-used. In the same riverside setting, The Falconer’s Quest returns on April 1; and both Wars of the Roses Live and Zog Live, based on Julia Donaldson’s trainee dragon, are back from May 27.
Overall, then, the very impressive trebuchet absolutely steals the show and, just like the small cast, it is fired with enthusiasm.
For full details of Warwick Castle’s shows, special events and attractions, lay siege to www.warwick-castle.com
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