Before Charlotte Gilbert's father passed away, when she was just 11 years old, he used to take her to the Texas Renaissance Festival. It was like walking into a magical land, like “a fairy tale you've read about or seen a Disney movie about, and here it is in real life,” Gilbert said. After her father's death, she didn't return to the RenFest for many years – not until she met the man who would become her husband, James Gilbert.
One day, after stumbling across a couple getting married at the festival, James picked out a golden ring from a booth for Gilbert's daughter, and Gilbert realized what was coming. Though James didn't propose then, Gilbert knew there was only one place they could get married: the RenFest.
“I had made up my mind right then and there,” she recalled. “He wanted me to look around a little bit, but no. I knew.”
Every year, couples have a destination wedding in the Middle Ages by getting married at one of the RenFest's five wedding venues. Vee Brauner, the wedding and event coordinator for the RenFest, said she's booked 57 wedding ceremonies so far this year. She expects about 30 of those couples to also hold their reception at the festival. And though it might seem like only hardcore history buffs would want to get married at a festival dedicated to the Middle Ages, Brauner said that all types of people get married there: Sometimes it's festival lovers; sometimes it's people who have never even been to the RenFest before.
When Gilbert told people that she planned to hold her wedding at the RenFest, “Honestly, at first I got some negative reactions,” Gilbert said. “'Oh, it's not a church,' or, 'Oh, you know, you're not going to take that seriously.' Those are the people who have never been there…They have no idea about the atmosphere. All they knew is that it wasn't traditional and they didn't like that.”
“It just fits us as a couple,” Gilbert explained. She said that she and her husband aren't hardcore medieval history buffs. They don't get into costume when they visit (though they do camp on festival grounds). Rather, they just like taking the opportunity to leave the modern world behind. “This is like my escape. I have a very serious life, very serious world because I'm working, I'm a graduate student, I'm a mom. This is my vacation every year.”
From scanning the RenFest's list of wedding packages, at least two reasons for choosing a medieval wedding immediately emerge: It's easy and it's cheap. (Well, it's cheaper than $30,000, which is the average cost of an American wedding in 2015, according to The Knot.) The $7,500 “Royal Celebration” package is all-inclusive, including everything from a wedding cake to musicians to a procession of festival characters – surprisingly, Brauner said the most popular choice for weddings is the barbarians. When he was asked why, Brauner's answer was simple: “Because of Game of Thrones.”
The barbarians, though, aren't the only less-than-traditional embellishments you might see in a RenFest wedding. After spotting a black-and-white photo of a falconer in a wedding party, Gilbert decided she wanted to have a falcon deliver the rings at the ceremony. As it turns out, though, falcons are not the most cooperative of birds, so Gilbert ended up using an owl to deliver the rings instead. At another couple's wedding, Brauner said, the wedding party decided to add some futuristic flourishes to the Middle Ages: The bride's father wore a Darth Vader suit, complete with helmet.
And George Vander Hey and John Adcock, who plan to get married this season at the festival at the end of October, also plan to sprinkle some Game of Thrones into their ceremony. They're using that show's marriage vows, despite Game of Thrones' notoriously poor record when it comes to happy weddings. “As long as it doesn't turn into the Red Wedding, we're fine,” Vander Hey said.
Adcock first got into attending renaissance festivals around a decade ago, and when he met Vander Hey three years ago, the two started going together. Vander Hey, like Gilbert, hadn't gone to the festival since he was a kid. Now, unlike Gilbert and her husband, the two get dressed up in costume every year.
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“When I found out he liked it, I was like, 'I used to love going!' So it kind of became our October tradition. We take off pretty much the whole month of October for work and we're out here a lot,” Vander Hey said. Vander Hey even proposed to Adcock at the RenFest a year ago, with the help of the Pirates of Tortuga, a “clan” of costumed friends who attend the festival together and who the couple consider to be part of their “fairmily.” Their wedding of more than 200 people will likely be one of the RenFest's biggest ever, Vander Hey said, and will also be the first time two men get married at the festival.
But Vander Hey said that, while he and Adcock are excited about the milestone, it hasn't weighed on their minds. (Same-sex female couples have gotten married at the festival before.) “We're not really thinking about it because the Renaissance Festival is a judgment-free zone,” he explained.
“The people are amazing; everybody's so inviting and welcoming,” Adcock added. “Come be who you want to be.”
If the person you want to be is someone who got married in the Middle Ages, as of press time, there are still openings for weddings available this season.