The Legendary Frost Fairs of the River Thames, London

Thomas_Wyke-_Thames_frost_fair.jpg

Thomas Wyke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com as London Folklore: The Legendary Frost Fairs of the River Thames by zteve t evans on December 27, 2018

The legendary frost fairs on the River Thames are depicted in a number of works of art that show just how cold, icy and severe the weather became during winter, in comparison to the weather experienced in London in modern times.

The idea of a frost fair on the icy surface of the River Thames in London may seem a flight of fantasy today, especially when one appears, or is mentioned several times in one of the UK’s favourite sci-fi television series, Dr Who.  In one of the scenes set during the 1814 Thames frost fair, the doctor encounters an elephant walking across the frozen surface of the Thames.  In another episode the doctor takes River Song to the same event to celebrate her birthday. The Thames frost fairs are also featured in two tracks on Snow on Snow, by The Albion Christmas Band, a beautiful collection of Christmas and winter songs on CD.  Today, the idea of such a novel event with crowds of people, stalls, entertainments and all the fun of the fair on the frozen River Thames may seem surreal, but it did happen several times in the past.  Here we look at some of these times and see how it affected Londoners; what they did and how they coped in those frigid times.

The Little Ice Age

The River Thames has long been an important trade and transport route, and many kinds of businesses, large and small, flourished around it.  The river swarmed with large and small boats, manned by watermen who ferried people and goods up, down and across the river.   Many people lived, worked and died around the river and a rich culture of folklore and legend evolved, some of which remains today.

With the great river of such importance to Londoners, how would they cope when it suddenly froze solid, allowing no ships or boats to travel up, down or across it?

Although it is written in legends and folklore, it is also historic fact that the River Thames has frozen over a number of times, hard enough for the usual daily commerce to be brought to a halt.  These extreme cold events happened during a period known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ that some people believe lasted from 1300 to 1870.  (Expert opinion varies on this subject,  and is not dealt with here.) During the winter of 1536, Henry VIII was said to have enjoyed a sleigh ride to Greenwich from the centre of London on the Thames ice and in 1564, Elizabeth I strolled upon the ice and practiced archery on the frozen river.

The worst of the big freezes occurred between 1550 and 1750. During the winters of 1683 – 1684 and 1715 – 1716, the Thames was frozen for three months, but most events were usually much briefer.   When it did freeze over it not only brought the river to an abrupt halt, it brought the every day business of the city and its people to a standstill too.  However, Londoners, being innovative and enterprising, adapted.   In its frozen state, the river effectively became a highway that wagons and coaches could traverse while the boats were stuck in the ice.  Furthermore, it became an extension to the land, offering new opportunities not just to make money but also to have fun. Londoners like to have fun.

The First Frost Fair (1607-08)

In 1608, the first recorded London frost fair took place on the icy surface of the River Thames. During December, 1607, the ice was thick enough to walk upon from Southwark to the City, and by January 1608 the ice was thick and strong enough for a whole host of activities on its surface.  A small town of stalls, booths and tents sprang up selling many different kinds of food and drink.  Tradesmen such as shoemakers and barbers set up stalls selling their wares and services and even lit fires on the ice to keep warm and use for cooking.  Among them, skittles and bowling and many other sports and activities took place to the enjoyment of the people, including “folk“ football. This was not like the modern game of football where two teams compete and rules are followed.  This competition was between two mobs with virtually no rules and they often became free-for-all, no holds barred, riotous events.

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Warrior Women — The Battle of Britomart and Radigund the Amazon Queen

Imaged by Frederic Shields [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)] (Cropped) Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published under the title of British Legends: Warrior Women — The Battle of Britomart and Radigund the Amazon Queen on #FolkloreThursday.com, 28/02/2019 by zteve t evans

The Faerie Queen

The epic unfinished poem, The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, published 1590-96, created a parallel of the medieval universe that alluded to events and people in Elizabethan society. The narrative draws on Arthurian influences, legend, myth, history, and politics, alluding to reforms and controversial issues that arose in the times of Elizabeth I and Mary I. It is an allegorical work that both praised and criticised Queen Elizabeth I, who is represented in the poem by Gloriana, the Faerie Queene. The six human virtues of holiness, chastity, friendship, temperance, justice, and courtesy are all represented by a knight. Spenser raises many questions about Elizabethan society, especially about the role of women in maintaining the patriarchal order. This is represented by a spectacular battle between Britomart, the Knight of Chastity, and Radigund, the Amazon Queen.

Britomart the Knight of Chastity

Britomart is a virginal female knight, who not only represents chastity but is also associated with English virtue, especially military power. The Brit part of her name comes from “Briton while martis comes from the Roman god of war, Mars, meaning war-like person. From an early age she refrained from the traditional activities of girls at the time, and was trained in the use of weapons and combat, preferring such typically masculine activities. She dressed in the armour of a knight, acted like a knight, fought like a knight, and wielded a magical black spear.

After a long quest and many adventures seeking him, Britomart married Artegall, the Knight of Justice whom she had seen in the magic looking glass belonging to Merlin. Yet, as was often the way with knights, Artegall was bound to a quest he could not abandon without losing his honour. Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, had given him the task of rescuing the Lady Eirena from the tyrant Grantorto. It was his chivalric duty to complete the quest or die trying. Despite her sorrow at his leaving, Britomart knew she had to allow her husband to complete his quest, and looked forward to his return.

Queen Radigund, the Warrior Queen

On his quest, Artegall, accompanied by Talos, an iron-man who helped him in the dispensation of justice, came to the country of the Amazons, ruled by the warrior Queen Radigund. She fought against any knight who arrived in her realm and would not submit to her will. After conquering them, she forced them to obey her every command or die. Radigund made all defeated knights remove their armour and against their will wear female clothing, forcing them to work by spinning thread, sewing, washing clothes, and other tasks that women usually did. If any refused or complained, she executed them.

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