The Medieval Parties Thrown On The Surface Of The Thames
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.
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 integrity of the surface was never in doubt.
(William of Orange, the Dutch king of England, depicted / Public domain)
While the local English and Britons had a history of meeting on the ice, it is speculated that the fairs grew in popularity and became fashionable through the influence of Flemish immigrants. Ice fairs and frozen festivals had long been popular in the Netherlands and the surrounding regions. Low wet marshy land would often freeze in the winter allowing locals to hold gatherings in areas that were simply uninhabitable during the warmer months.
During the 17th century, England saw an outsized influence from Holland with their king, William III (also known as William of Orange) taking the throne in England. William III was of Dutch decent and highlighted a period of close cultural ties between the Dutch and the English.
It was also during this time that the official term “frost fair” appears in the record. Previously, people would take advantage of the frozen rivers spontaneously when it seemed appropriate and reasonable. Following the popular frost fairs of the early 17th century, people began to look forward to the coming freezes and plan larger festivities.
Later Fairs and Warming Winters
(A depiction of a typical Thames frost fair / Public domain)
The late 17th century saw a rapid increase in the interest and size of the frost fairs on the Thames. The frost fairs of the 1780s were some of the largest and most widely celebrated of the era.
John Evelyn gives an account of the fairs writing:
Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.
These festivals appealed to the commoners. While they, possibly, grew in popularity from noble influences from the Dutch regions across the English Channel, it seems as though the frost fairs were impromptu gatherings made by and for the ordinary citizen. This can be seen from the inclusion of illicit gambling and dangerous activities that would have appealed to regular folk rather than the more poised events in the halls of the nobility at the time.
It was also speculated by Evelyn that these festivals were not only done for the sake of revelry but also for the common good. The winters that froze the Thames were often harsh leading to shortages of food and fuel leaving many of the lower strata of London struggling to survive.
He writes in his account:
The fowls, fish and birds, and all our exotic plants and greens universally perishing. Many parks of deer were destroyed, and all sorts of fuel so dear that there were great contributions to keep the poor alive...London, by reason for the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal ...that one could hardly breath.
The people would come together on the ice to host events that were aimed to help sustain the impoverished and downtrodden in the area. With public bonfires and community coming together to supply food, fuel, and fun to those who would otherwise have had a hard time procuring any of the things above during these periods of intense cold.
Sometimes these fairs would be dangerous where the ice was not universally solid throughout. There were multiple reports in the 18th century of ships cracking the ice as well as tents falling through into the waters below, killing unsuspecting people. The increase in the dangers associated with the fairs, along with the gradual warming of the English climate, began to lead to a decline.
Despite having a rich history on and off throughout the centuries, frost fairs would slowly die out. As England transformed into a world empire and the industrial revolution reclaimed the rivers as things for commerce rather than vessels for the common man to use as they saw fit, the fairs slowly disappear from history.
In 1814, the last frost fair is held on the River Thames to great fanfare. There are even reports that an elephant was led across the frozen ice in a show.
For a few days in February 1814, the modern world got to witness a relic of the past with the last frost fair. It only lasted four days, and it was an event that would never retake place.
There has not been another one since.
Today, frost fairs are an intriguing glimpse at times past. During the periods when life was the hardest, people took the omen of a frozen river and turned into a place of merriment and charity.