The first Festivalis Biennis was held in 1130 in the fields south of Coquet Castle in Northumbria during the adventus or arrival ceremony of Henry I, who was conducting a rare royal tour of the regions. Consecrated on pagan holy ground and a stopping point on the pilgrimage route to Lindisfarne, the festival benefitted from this already-established traffic, attracting pilgrims, travellers, merchants and performers from across Europe. Boasting a range of events, feasts, performances and novelty acts, the event lasted for at least a month, beginning with May Day and ending on the Summer Solstice. It was in many ways a continuation of the spirit of All Fool's Day with an emphasis on jest, and overlapped with the Festival of Fire (resulting in the first dragon boat race in 1132). The Biennis seemed to have played a vital role in boosting the local economy, though records show repeated appeals by committee members questioning its exorbitant cost. When King David I of Scotland raided Northumbria in June of 1138, his army pillaged the site, slaying hundreds of revellers and bringing a tragic end to the legendary festival.
The High Table
Festivals were organised by committee, an assembled group of local leaders who represented the interests of the landowners and peasants, known as the ‘high table’. Their monthly meetings were held in the western dugout and took on a festival spirit of their own, with ‘tasting sessions’ and performance auditions lasting long into the evenings. Banquets comprised of gourmet handpies and potages (stews) were served by local butchers and farmers, while more exotic fares were brought by travellers across the channel. A succession of dancers, jesters and minstrels were led to a central stage to perform for the high table. If judged unsuitable, performers were jeered at, punished and often imprisoned overnight to be paraded through the streets in shackles the following day. News travelled far and wide of the high table auditions, which was seen as an early form of talent contest that could as easily make as break an artist’s career. High table gatherings were reigned in under King’s orders, due to increasing strain on the crown’s resources.
A major exhibition wall was erected as a main feature of the Biennis, with certified painters adding to the visual narrative throughout the duration, based on a set theme. Protected from the elements by a grand central pavilion, painters were under pressure to complete their compositions by the end of the third week of the festival, when they would be unveiled and a winner announced. The panel was made up of members of the high table and judged the frescos on stylistic continuity, iconic symbolism, and the quality and vibrancy of pigments. Similar competitions were held for needlework, textiles and pottery, which took place in tents around the perimeter of the fresco pavilion. The competitions were designed to search out new talent, with work by gentry and peasantry considered on equal grounds through an application process, although bribes and nepotism were rife. At the end of the festival the frescos were broken up into pieces and became relics of a sort; with fragments found in museums as far as Germany.