You’d never know it to look at her, but Escalon native Jerri Levers is living a double life.
At first glance, the fair-haired Levers is a wife, mother, and teacher at Connecting Waters Charter School based out of Waterford. Her roots are firmly entrenched in agricultural soil, with her great grandmother hailing from Farmington and her grandparents living in Oakdale.
But during certain times of the year, Levers trades her jeans for voluminous skirts, her blouses for corsets and hand-embroidered sleeves — and transforms into Mary Queen of Scots, In The Year of Our Lord 1562, as part of the St. Andrews Guild, Noble Order of Scots reenactment group, whose most recent faire appearance was at the Sonora Celtic Faire earlier this month.
And how exactly does one become Mary Queen of Scots?
Levers’ journey to the aristocracy started with small steps in the right direction.
A history lover at heart, Levers discovered renaissance faires while still in high school. In fact, her first date with her husband was to a renaissance faire and luckily, he was just as into the medieval reenactments as she. Attending simply as a faire-goer, later turned into going as a participant, and then, in 2000, she discovered a whole new world where she felt right at home with the St. Andrews Guild. Both Levers and her husband are guild members and their daughter has been involved with the reenactment lifestyle since she was a babe in arms. Her husband is currently the Court Master in charge of scheduling the court for events and faires.
“I have always loved Shakespeare and I liked watching Queen Elizabeth’s court at the renaissance faires. There’s just something about being submerged in a different time that appealed to me. And it’s always fun to play dress up, no matter how old you are,” Levers said.
After being recruited to the guild by the St. Andrews Guildmaster, Levers started modestly as a highlander whose main job was to tend to the nobles all day, ensuring they were properly watered and fed, as well as provide sunscreen. Later, she moved to the children’s house where she coordinated activities for the guild’s children. The previous queen asked if Levers would like to be her understudy and Levers agreed. It took four months of training to learn her role as well as craft her queen’s wardrobe. She followed the previous queen to three faires, watching and observing as a lady, and then she ascended to the throne.
By far, the hardest part of the job was creating her wardrobe, said Levers.
“I had to totally recreate the costuming for the queen. It’s a huge undertaking. It takes a long time because there’s so much detail work. I tore it apart and put it back together again a million times.”
Levers is currently serving her third year as Mary Queen of Scots and she feels quite at home as reigning royalty but it’s not all smiles and waves; as the saying goes, heavy is the head that wears the crown, as it’s hard work.
“Our guild feels like family,” Levers said of her double life. “We have such a great guild family. And being able to connect with people on so many levels, meeting all the patrons, it’s fun but exhausting. You are ‘on’ all day long.”
There are many different reenactment guilds but Levers was drawn to St. Andrews because of the people and their desire to remain as historically accurate as possible, right down to the fasteners on their doublets.
“There’s a degree of research that goes into the costuming,” Levers said. “We try really hard to portray the costuming as accurately as possible but there are times when we have to make fabric substitutions.”
For example, many of the nobles wore silk but today, silk is very expensive, and substitutions have been made to ease the burden on the pocketbook when building a costume.
But don’t for a minute think that there’s a whole lot of corners being cut.
A noble woman, particularly the queen, is made of many layers — and that includes her wardrobe.
“Costuming for this era is so easy to get right,” she said. “Many people believe that only certain colors could be worn by the nobility or the queen, such as purple. But in fact, Queen Elizabeth reserved the color madder (a shade of red) because it looked good on her but black was the most expensive fabric color to make and maintain because it eventually faded.”
And just like in medieval times, the guild hosts sewing days once a month where all the ladies get together to merrily sew on their latest projects.
“We all help each other to make our costumes look as good as we can,” Levers said. “And if someone is better at one thing than another, we will trade and work on each other’s projects,” she said.
Imagine if getting dressed for the day included: chemise, corset, hoops, bum roll, underskirt, overskirt, bodice, sleeves, and a snood (if you were married).
“They wore a lot of layers but you have to remember, Europe was going through a mini ice age and it was quite cold,” Levers said.
Many layers are useful when it’s bone-snapping cold, but the Central Valley rarely sees temperatures in the low 50s, and summertime is typically quite hot.
One of the challenges the reenactors face in costuming is maintaining historical accuracy without keeling over from heat stroke during a faire.
“We use neck chillers and feather fans and we never go anywhere alone,” Levers said. “We start watering up 48 hours prior to a faire and if it gets too hot, we’ll take off our sleeves. We all watch out for one another and know to look for the signs that someone is getting too hot.”
And speaking of sleeves, these aren’t your ordinary shirt sleeves of modern day — they are ornate showcases of embroidered art, that are detachable and in medieval times, they were so valuable, they would be included in a person’s will.
It’s these little known facts that help bring history to life and one of the reasons the guild often travels to school sites for educational purposes.
“I have always loved history and I had fabulous history teachers,” Levers said. “And when we go to the schools, the kids love it when we come with the costuming. It brings what they’re learning to life for the kids. All the girls love the dresses and the boys love the swords.”
As a nonprofit organization, St. Andrews Guild travels to eight faires a year and various school sites in between.
Anyone with a love of history can join the guild as a fictitious noble, but a year membership within the guild is necessary before anyone can assume an actual historical character and their portrayal bid must be approved after a panel has judged the applicant’s ability to portray the person accurately.
That means homework.
“You have to know about your character so if people ask you questions you can answer them correctly,” Levers explained.
There’s also etiquette to observe and rules to learn.
“The guild has training for its members,” Levers said. “And it’s a lot of fun. The chivalry was amazing at this time in history and our gentlemen are wonderful. They really take their jobs seriously, particularly the royal guards.”
After a faire is over and the costumes are hung up, it’s always a transition back to modern life.
“The modern day is lacking in courtesy,” Levers said. “I miss when doors aren’t opened for me. I miss the chivalry.”
For more information on the St. Andrews Guild, Noble Order of Royal Scots, go to their website at http://www.saintandrewsguild.com