The Medieval Parties Thrown On The Surface Of The Thames

Festivals on the frozen rivers of the Little Ice Age

Grant Piper
6 min readOct 8, 2020

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Going back as far as 250CE, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the River Thames would freeze solid during the winters. It is an event that rarely happens today. The last time the Thames froze solid was in 1963. Before that, the river would freeze periodically, with 1814 being the last major freeze before 1963.

During the period known as the Little Ice Age, the major rivers of Europe would freeze far more regularly than they do today. Not wanting to put an ecological event to waste, the intrepid natives of medieval England would use the frozen surface of the Thames as a place to hold festivals and fairs.

By the early 17th century, the events had become so common that they were given a name, frost fairs. These events drew hundreds of people onto the ice for drinking, eating, shopping, singing, and gambling, all taking place on the hard freeze of the river. Such an event is almost unthinkable today for a multitude of reasons.

The Earliest Frost Fairs

There are sporadic reports of people meeting on the hard ice of the River Thames going back nearly two thousand years. The earliest reports date back to 250CE when merchants wrote about being allowed to set up shop on the tidewaters of the Thames in order to sell their winter goods.

In 695CE, the first significant frost fair is recorded, though it will not be known by that name for some time. It was said that this year saw the Thames freeze solid for six weeks straight. The unusual cold and the rare sight of a mighty river frozen in place for such a long period drew curious locals.

Booths were erected on the surface of the river to sell goods, treats and cold weather wares.

Already predisposed to winter festivities, pagans of this time flocked to the river to meet and be merry when the river was frozen.

In 1309, during another frigid winter, people met and held sporting tournaments and feasts on the ice. The river was reportedly so cold that large bonfires were lit on the river. Despite the number of people running, congregating, and building fires on the ice, the…

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Grant Piper

Professional writer. Amateur historian. Husband, father, Christian.