Renaissance Festival: 16th Century Meets 21st Century

by Kate Dugger

Two sets of hooves pound the earth as the animals charge each other. Spectators are hushed for a few seconds in anticipation – then the sound of wood splintering on metal rings out. The crowd is on its feet, thrashing cheering fists and giant roasted turkey legs in the air. The joust has just completed another round.

No, it’s not 16th century England, although it certainly could be. This is a common sight every year during the month of May just outside of Nashville. For more than 30 years, the Tennessee Renaissance Festival has transported Covington Glen in Arrington, Tennessee to 1563, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1.

A real five-story castle is the centerpiece of the event. Castell Gwynn, Welsh for White Castle, is based on a 12th century border castle in Wales known as Castell Coche, or “Red Castle.” The castle has two white towers and a courtyard. It houses a tapestry collection and an armor and weapons collection. During the festival, the fee for a tour of the castle is included in the admission price. The castle’s owner and designer is Mike Freeman. Freeman and his wife reside in the castle year-round. The living space is 21st century, but special care has been taken to camouflage the modern amenities, keeping the castle as realistic as possible.

Castell Gwynn is enchanting, but it’s not the only attraction at the festival. Entertainment is always exciting in the Glen. There are performances and comedy shows with ratings from G to R. Costume contests, camel rides, and crafts are unique activities for small children. There’s even a chance for your child to compete in a jousting competition. There are tests of skill for adults including ax throwing and archery.

Enjoy people watching? The queen’s subjects are a merry bunch, who never breaks character. Stop and speak with them while they mosey through the glen or listen to them interact with each other. They create hilarious scenes wherever they go. Watch nobles, ladies-in-waiting, peasants, and even fairies as they help keep the atmosphere jovial and provide an entertaining distraction while waiting in-line. Watch out for the troll!

Festival attendees are also encouraged to come in costume. Some of the costumes make it obvious that people invest more than time and money. Many outfits are lovingly crafted down to the tiniest detail. Putting together historically accurate garb is a matter of pride for some festival-goers. Others come as fantasy characters, such as elves from the Lord of the Rings. You’ll see pixies, medieval maidens, queens, Vikings, druids, Celts, pirates and even a ninja or two.

Birds of the Gauntlet is a show not to miss. It’s a fantastic educational program about majestic birds of prey. Kitty Tolson-Carroll, Master Falconer, entertains and informs crowds while her birds soar overhead. She explains diet, habitat and human impact, and the crowd “oohs” and “aahs” as the owls, falcons, and more show off their impressive wingspans.

The main attraction of the Renaissance Festival is the jousting competition. Knights wear authentic, heavy armor and drape their horses in caparisons – decorative cloth featuring the knights’ heraldic symbols. The knights charge each other full tilt, each hoping to break their lance on the other. Jousting demonstrations are performed throughout the day. A tournament takes place over Memorial Day weekend. There is extra jousting in each demonstration over this weekend.

Plan on spending some time browsing through all of the different merchants’ tents. The collection of vendors resembles a street market or bazaar from the 16th century. You will find everything from jewelry to soaps to armor to period clothing. Listen for the call “Shiny things!” to find your way over to the merchants.

Planning on staying all day? Outside food and drinks are prohibited, but there is a large variety of food and beverages available for purchase. The huge turkey leg is a crowd favorite. Two adults could share one, eat their fill, and still have turkey leftover. Also, you can order barbecue, chicken, sandwiches, fries or ice cream.

Immerse yourself in the unique world that is the Tennessee Renaissance Festival. Come for an hour or stay for the day. You will never forget the experience!