Life at Court – The Court Guild of ORF

Life at Court – The Court Guild of ORF

Good morrow and welcome to the Ohio Renaissance Festival 2022! I hope everyone out there is as ready for the season as I am, and with that in mind, I would like to make a few quick announcements.

I want to try something a little different this season to keep things fresh. We’re going deeper into the festival, getting to the nitty gritty of how Renaissance Parks brings you year after year of entertainment. With this in mind, the blog will now be released at 7 pm on Wednesdays to allow for more research and communication time after the busy weekends. We hope this will allow for better content and greater readership for fans of the festival.

Thank you for understanding and I hope you get to enjoy this blog for many years to come!


The Court and It’s Trappings

Welcome Library, London(CC BY 4.0)

It seems like the ideal life, doesn’t it? Waking up every day to servants dressing you, food waiting, and plenty of money to spend. Who wouldn’t want just a little taste of excess in their lives to keep things fresh? In truth, life at the court of Queen Elizabeth I was full of contradictions. England was enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity and expansion, giving the palace a healthy treasury with which to entertain itself. Yet being at court was not merely for pleasure. It was full of cunning political ambition where alliances rose and fell in an instant. Yet as with any hierarchy, it was considered better to be a part of the game than utterly ignored by it. One could not rise without risking the fall.

Being a part of the Queen’s entourage was an honor to be coveted, and Her Majesty showed her favoritism with considerable aplomb. While her advisors and ambassadors might wait upon her word, it was the ladies of the court who waited on her hand and foot, quite literally. The Queen was never truly alone. Servants came in early to warm her chambers and prepare water to bathe her face and hands. Once she rose her ladies in waiting would arrive to dress her and prepare her for the day. Afterward, she would go to her private chapel for devotions, but a lady would never be out of earshot. Breakfast would be laid out for Her Majesty, who was quite fond of a peasant dish known as pottage.

After this, the ladies would be responsible for preparing Her Majesty for court. Caring for Her Majesty’s wardrobe was a considerable task, so much so that it was an official position belonging to Lady Stafford, Mistress of the Wardrobe, for much of Elizabeth’s reign. Her resplendent imagery was not merely for the sake of egotism. A monarch was a reflection of their kingdom, and if the Queen was always at the height of regal splendor and health, then so must England be. Such a display did not come easy, and it took more than two hours to completely dress the Queen.

A detailed photograph of the Bacton altar cloth, which is believed to have belonged to Queen Elizabeth.
CLAIRE COLLINS / COURTESY OF HISTORIC ROYAL PALACES

While the ladies who attended the Queen were strung about her like her favorite jewels, even those nobles who were considerably lower in her sights were still expected to attend court. From here, she could both keep an eye on them and be a constant reminder of her authority over their lives. Queen Elizabeth I was something of a micromanager and liked to know what everyone was doing at all times. She trusted very few and often strolled the gardens with her closest advisors to discuss business in a more private setting. As she took counsel and met with her advisors and ambassadors, she kept her ladies in waiting about her dais, doing needlework as she did politics. Her ladies followed her in every activity, whether hunting or strolling in the gardens, they were there to tend upon her every need. It was considered much more than a duty. It was an honor.

Consider the nuance of such a statement. You are nobility. You are above the vast majority of the population. You have wealth, estates, titles, and political power. Yet with little more than a nod, you are a servant before the throne. At a whim, the Queen can raise you up or send you crashing down. Everything you do, every move, every word, every breath, is an act of dancing on the head of a pin. For all your wealth, you cannot afford mistakes. At best you may end up a subject of mockery. At worst, your life could find its halt with the grace of Her Majesty’s signature, Elizabeth R.

Queen Elizabeth’s signature

The Court Guild of ORF

Court & Dance Guild displays popular dances from the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st.

Thankfully our Court Guild at the Ohio Renaissance Festival is nowhere near as threatening, although joining comes with its own set of rules and duties to keep one busy all season long. Getting on Court involves a great deal of study, dedication, and hard work. As opposed to making up one’s character, Court becomes the historical figure that would have been alive during Elizabeth’s reign. How they choose to portray those figures may differ greatly from actor to actor, but at the end of the day, they have to know their role inside and out.

I wanted to do this because I’ve always wanted to be a fancy lady. I spent a good month researching my character even though there wasn’t much about her. I struggled to find garb but I ended up borrowing from a past court lady. The hardest time I’ve had on court is the heat. It gets really hot and sometimes itchy so that’s a bit hard to deal with. It makes it worth doing because you get to have an awesome time with the members on court and Connie. You always have fun when you’re around other court ladies/guys.

Samantha Howard, who plays Lady Anastasia Nadasdy-Báthory (daughter to Countess Elizabeth Bathory)
Court ladies await the Queen’s presence.

There is no denying that the court has a presence in the lanes. They are the show stoppers, attending our own Queen Elizabeth as she makes her way through the shops and to each of her shows. There is very little time to dally as Her Majesty has a packed schedule right up until Pub Sing. It’s important to recognize that the Queen, and thus the Court, is always On Stage. Our villagers might be able to find a corner and take a deep breath after a show, but it’s impossible to miss the Queen and her Court. As such, they don’t get to drop character or their duties until the last guest leaves.

I chose to join the Renaissance festival because my inner child wanted to play and I was not going to deny her. I chose Court specifically because I firmly believe you should never have to choose between pretty and strong – and Court ladies in particular embody that. I will wear the pretty jewelry and fight to the death in chess match, I don’t have to choose one or the other. I spent about a year researching my character, Erszebet Báthory, before deciding to portray her and I am still learning more about her and her life all the time. She was fascinating! It took about a year from concept sketch to final fitting for my garb to come together but I am so in love with it that it was all worth it. Court garb is expensive and heavy and can be very uncomfortable, but as they always say, beauty is pain! It takes me about 20 minutes to get dressed in everything and I need assistance at times. Court is not easy. You have to essentially become a princess, a historian, a talking head, a teacher, and the Queens hype man all at once. The hardest times are the days where you see peasants blissfully enjoying the rain and mud and their breezy linen garb while we are sweating away in a sofa’s equivalent of upholstery fabric and clinging to our parasols and covered roofs in an attempt to stay dry. For me, what makes it all worth it is the magic we create by bringing history to life. All of court is made up of historical characters – people who actually existed at the time. I have had a few people tell me that they wrote a paper about me as I was dressed as Báthory and others gush about how her episode was their favorite on a true crime podcast. Watching peoples faces light up – especially little kids – when they see the glowing Court approaching will never get old to me. I’ll never get tired of little girls oohing and ahhing at my gems and jewelry. The interactions with other cast members and patrons are what make it all worth it to me.

Morgan Egbert, Countess Erszebet Bathory
Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I, waves to the crowd as she makes her way to the joust dais.

Many of their duties are subtle but add to the glamour of the faire in ways you may not have recognized. For instance, someone must carry the Queen’s basket for her and fetch her items as she requests. Seems small, right? Why wouldn’t the Queen carry her own basket? Ask instead, what Queen WOULD carry her own basket when there are ladies in waiting vying for the opportunity? Likewise, there is someone to watch after her goblet, keeping it full and at the ready. Many of our cast members also attend Dance Guild so they can participate in the Court Dance at the Rose & Crown. As everyone gathers for parade, Lady Morton (Michelle Anderson), rushes over to the Joust Dias so she can prepare lunch for the Queen as she watches the knights compete.

There’s a little trick to this part! Remember how I said that Court always attends the Queen? Well finding ways to take a deep breath during the festival day away from the crowd is something everyone needs from time to time. There is the only room on the Dias for a few people at a shot. So while Her Majesty gets to take a much-needed rest, the court members trade out attendance duties so they can grab a bite to eat before the next stage of the day.

It is rare for the Queen to make it more than a few feet before one of her many admirers, especially the tiny, awestruck ones, catch sight of her. One of the many court duties is to facilitate that meeting by helping shy children feel brave when approaching the Queen. It can be easy to get intimidated around such a big presence, even one who is thrilled to see you and more than happy to make you feel welcome. The court does a beautiful job helping to guide the little ones, teaching them how to bow or curtsy for a portrait.

Never underestimate Lady Bathory.

If you’ve attended the Human Combat Chess Match then you’re certainly seen much hacking and slashing from the finely dressed courtiers. Fight Guild requires additional hours of study and practice with your stunt partner, adding to the time any Court member already spends on their research and development. Nonetheless, it’s impressive to watch one of the ladies in waiting hike up their hoop skirt and run screaming at a pirate with blood on their mind. The Queen herself has entered the fray on a few occasions, displaying her swordsmanship to those daring enough to contest her!

And all of this is taken on willingly. It helps to have a Queen (our own dear Connie Pfeiffer), who is continuously gracious and supportive during the entire process. It helps even more when your Guild Lead, Betsy Chrisman, puts in the hours to make sure everyone is fully prepared.

So the next time you see the swaying of hoop skirts and the crunch of boots on the gravel, take a moment to appreciate the dedication and effort that goes into making these wonderful members of cast into a glittering court assembly. Stop for a portrait, ask them about their character, and give yourself a memory that will last a lifetime.