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Norwich is a beautiful city, filled with green spaces, and exceptionally gorgeous parks. Known as the city in the country, Norwich’s reputation for being extraordinarily verdant was established in the early 17th century: in 1662 Thomas Fuller described Norwich as “either a city in an orchard, or an orchard in a city, so equal are houses and trees blended in it”. But even before then, Norwich was the place to be for gardeners, flower-fans, horticulturalists, and florists, thanks to the Florists’ Feast.
The first Florists’ Feast took place on May Day in 1631, and brought people from across the country to Norwich to admire the exquisite flowers grown in the region. Established by the Norwich Society of Florists, who were experts in the art of floriculture (that’s flower farming and breeding, to me and you!), the Florists’ Feast featured a delicious feast, a performance (more on that later), and showcased the beautiful breeds of tulips, irises and more.
The Florists’ Feast is thought to have been inspired by the Strangers, who not only brought weaving skills to the region, but new horticultural and agricultural traditions. Norwich and Norfolk’s strong links with the Netherlands had been in place for thousands of years: lying just across the North Sea, trade was strong, and traditions were swapped. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I invited Protestant refugees to the region, and they became known as the Strangers. The Strangers settled in Norwich, but maintained links to their family and former neighbours, and would have been kept informed of all the happenings in their homeland: including the sudden passion for flowers.
And what was the word from the Netherlands? Tulip Fever. Tulips (which were first cultivated in Persia, now known as Iran) were brought to Europe by an ambassador who visited the Sultan of the Ottoman, and was shocked by the beauty of these winter-flowering plants. The craze for tulips spread across Europe, with the bulbs being planted in private gardens, Botanical gardens, and becoming the must-have item for the very rich. In the Netherlands, tulips could make or break fortunes, whilst in France, it was rumoured that entire properties would be exchanged for a single bulb. Tulip mania really took off in Holland between 1634-1637, but the brightly coloured flowers were already in high demand at that point.
Meanwhile, Norwich was already known for its knack for horticulture. It’s easy to see how the Florists’ Feasts came to be created: the demand for rare and fascinating flowers would have offered an irresistible temptation. The rumours of riches to be made would have travelled across the North Sea, and Norwich was ahead of the game. What better way to make a fortune, and bring visitors to Norwich?
The Florists’ Feast was more than just a plant sale. It was a chance to show off new skills, and trade tips. It featured an amazing feast, and a specially composed play, called Rhodon and Iris, composed by Ralph Knevet. Rhodon and Iris told the tale of a war between flowers, with some of our best loved blooms battling, using witchcraft, poison, and more to arise triumphant. Rhodon and Iris was performed to an audience of competitive gardeners and eager buyers – we can only hope that it didn’t inspire murderous intentions!
From 1631, the Florists’ Feast became an annual tradition, ensuring that Norwich’s reputation for beauty and astounding plants, was well and truly established. The Florists’ Feasts helped to bring money into the local economy, and brought visitors from around the country to the city. Almost forgotten today, in the 17th century the Florists’ Feasts were crucial to Norwich’s identity and prosperity.
Now, 390 years to the day later, we’re celebrating the Florists’ Feasts in Norwich once again, with Spring Garlands. Businesses across Norwich will be decorating their doors with floral inspired creations, ready for the first May Bank Holiday.
Want to join in and celebrate the Florists’ Feasts? Then decorate your own front door with a Spring Garland! Or pop a pot of tulips by your door, or treat yourself to some cut flowers for inside – or do all three. It’s what your ancestors would have wanted!