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'The Frost Fair of 1814' by Luke Clenell

England's most famous forgotten fairs

'The Frost Fair of 1814' by Luke Clenell | Public Domain

For centuries, huge annual gatherings would take place over several days, drawing in visitors from far and wide – from foreign merchants to local farmers, from tavern keepers to royal courtiers – to trade and to have fun. These were the great fairs of medieval England.

Fairs began in England with the Normans and so-called ‘charter fairs’ became the norm in the Middle Ages, with the authorities in certain towns receiving charters to hold fairs from the crown. Around 2,200 royal charters to fairs were issued between 1199 and 1270 alone.

The major fairs had endless arrays of stalls, selling everything from spices to iron pots and hosted everything from tournaments and circuses to all manner of feasting and entertainment.

Some of these fairs went on into the 19th century, and some have even been revived somewhat in the modern era. But the great age of the fair in England, from the 11th-14th centuries, is long gone.

Here we journey back to visit six of the most famous forgotten fairs from English history.

1. Stourbridge Fair (1211-1933)

Every September since the early 13th century, Cambridge’s Stourbridge Common was the site of what was medieval Europe’s largest fair. Stourbridge Fair began as a small fete at a local leper chapel and grew exponentially, at its peak involving virtually everyone in Cambridge in some way.

Daniel Defoe said Stourbridge Fair was ‘not only the greatest in the whole nation, but in the world’. Bunyan was inspired by it and Isaac Newton bought a copy of Euclid’s Elements there.

Stourbridge Fair was full of the eclectic, from exotic wild animals and comedy shows to astronomical clocks and colourful traders with nicknames such as Stupid Stephen and Nimble-Heels. In a central open space known as the ‘Duddery’, scholars partied alongside farmhands and young singletons danced and flirted.

The fair was well in decline by the late 18th century and it was abolished in 1933. Stourbridge Fair was revived in 2004 but its current form is nothing like the mighty fair which was internationally famous for centuries.

2. St. Ives Fair (1110 – 19th century?)

The fair of St. Ives, near Cambridge, was so famous in the Middle Ages that some believe the traditional English rhyme ‘As I was going to St. Ives’ refers to a man going to it.

When the fair was on, the waterways leading up to St. Ives would be crammed with merchant ships from the Low Countries, Germany, France, and Scandinavia, bringing fine cloths, jewellery, furs, wine, and skins.

Records survive which relate to proceedings of the fair courts, sometimes known as ‘piepowder courts’, a familiar fixture at English medieval fairs. This tribunal would hear disputes and cases involving everything from theft and brawling to certain complaints against traders.

3. Bartholomew Fair (1133-1855)

900 years ago, the Priory of St. Bartholomew’s and the hospital bearing the same name were both founded by Rahere, an influential monk and occasional royal jester. In 1133, Henry I gave Rahere a charter to hold a fair to raise funds for the priory and hospital.

Over its 700-year history, Bartholomew Fair became the biggest fair in London and a central feature of life in the city. Ben Jonson wrote a play about it in 1614 and Samuel Pepys visited the fair in 1663, recording in his diary that he’d seen monkeys dancing on ropes, a four-legged goose, and a three-legged cock.

The enormous fair took place every August in Smithfield, in the City of London. It attracted merchants, stallholders, and revellers from all over England, and abroad. It was famous for its entertainment, and featured plays, puppet shows, tightrope acts, sideshow ‘freaks’, music, and drinking.

From the late 16th century, the fair’s reputation for rowdiness and debauchery grew and grew, until the authorities finally tired of the troublesome fair and abolished it in 1855. The site was then cleared to make way for the Smithfield covered market.

4. Scarborough Fair (1253-1788)

These days Scarborough is known as a quaint, popular English seaside town. But for over 500 years it was famous throughout the land and overseas as a giant, bustling fair. Traders and showmen descended on Scarborough Fair from as far afield as the Ottoman lands of Western Asia, and the fair had entertainment and sideshows in abundance, such as animal circuses and comedy plays.

According to a 19th-century account of the medieval fair, which ran for 45 days in late summer, ‘Minstrels, jugglers, and all the ancient scenes of merriment abounded.’

Beginning with a royal charter given for the fair by Henry III in January 1253, the old Scarborough Fair formally ended in 1788 after two centuries of decline.

There is a modern fair today, but it is very different to the famous and ancient Scarborough Fair which inspired the traditional English ballad of the same name.

5. Winchester Fair (1096-15th century)

One of the first, if not the very first, medieval fairs in England was the fair of St. Giles at Winchester, usually referred to as the Winchester Fair. In 1096, William II of England granted the bishops of Winchester the right to hold this fair, and in 1200, Winchester Fair pulled in the whopping sum of £150 for the royal coffers.

For hundreds of years, between 31st August and 15th September, the fair took over the entire city of Winchester and much of the surrounding countryside, with the influx of international merchants, mass of trade, food stalls, buyers from the royal household, and entertainment constituting one of the largest fairs in Europe in the Middle Ages.

Winchester Fair had a strict night-time curfew, and the ‘marshal of the fair’ would ride through the city to remind people of this. Armed guards patrolled the fairground areas of the city at night on the lookout for thieves and brawlers. But nobody minded staying indoors at night, as the nightlife was notorious. At the innumerable watering holes, rowdy locals drank copious amounts of ale, and there were gambling dens and ‘bawdy houses’ (tavern-brothels), the latter often being run by respectable local landlords.

6. Thames Frost Fair (1608-1814)

There are records of a Thames Frost Fair being held on the river as far back as AD 695, but they were only held as regular events from 1608 to 1814. During these years the Thames would freeze over in winter to such an extent that pop-up fairs would be set up on the ice.

At these fairs a range of stalls provided all manner of food and booze, there were games such as football and ice-skating, and even reportedly elephant rides. There was dancing and partying, and even brothels. There were vendors selling expensive cloths, sweets, meat, and tobacco, and traders printing certificates of attendance from heavy industrial presses set up on the ice. There were cobblers mending shoes and large horse-drawn coaches taking people to and from the fair and riverbank.

At the final frost fair of the winter of 1813/14, the ice was so thin that it opened up in places and drowned several fairgoers.