Matilda Marshal: A Favourite Historical Figure

It is my turn on the Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop today. The theme this time is Favourite Historical Figures. Now, usually, I would automatically go for Nicholaa de la Haye – and she is still my favourite. But today I thought I would have a change and introduce a lady I met whilst writing Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of History in Thirteenth Century Europe.

Matilda Marshal, Countess of Norfolk, Warenne and Surrey.

Matilda – also known as Mahelt or Maud – was the eldest daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, known to many as The Greatest Knight! She lived through on of the most tumultuous periods of English history, the reign of King John, Magna Carta, the First Barons’ War and the minority of King Henry III.

Effigy identified as William Marshal, Temple Church, London

Although we do not have a birth date for Matilda Marshal, given that her parents married in 1189 and she had two elder brothers, Matilda was probably born in 1193 or 1194. She was the third child and eldest daughter of William Marshal and his wife Isabel de Clare. The Histoire de Guillaume le Marechale praises Matilda saying she had the gifts of ‘wisdom, generosity, beauty, nobility of heart, graciousness, and I can tell you in truth, all the good qualities which a noble lady should possess.’1 The Histoire goes on to say; ‘Her worthy father who loved her dearly, married her off, during his lifetime to the best and most handsome party he knew, to Sir Hugh Bigot.’2 Of William and Isabel’s five daughters, it is only Matilda who is mentioned in the Histoire as being ‘loved dearly’ by her father.

In 1207 when the Marshal family moved to Ireland, William looked to settle Matilda’s future. Now aged 13 of 14, Matilda was old enough to be married and William approached Roger Bigod, second Earl of Norfolk, to propose a match between Matilda and Roger’s son and heir, Hugh Bigod. Hugh was Roger’s son by his wife Ida de Tosny, former mistress of King Henry II and the mother of the king’s son, William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury. Roger and Ida had married at Christmas in 1181 and so Hugh was probably in his mid-twenties when the marriage with Matilda was suggested.

Coat of arms of Matilda’s 1st husband Hugh Bigod, 3rd Earl of Norfolk

According to the Histoire William asked Roger Bigod ‘graciously, being the wise man he was, to arrange a handsome marriage between his own daughter and his son Hugh. The boy was worthy, mildmannered, and noblehearted and the young lady was a very young thing and both noble and beautiful. The marriage was a most suitable one and pleased both families involved.’3 The match was a good one. After the marriage, Matilda lived with her husband at the earl of Norfolk’s magnificent thirteen-towered castle at Framlingham. In 1209 she gave birth to a son, Roger, who would succeed his father as 4th Earl of Norfolk. Another son, Hugh, was born in 1212, and a daughter, Isabelle in 1215. A third and final son, Ralph, was probably born in 1216 or 1217.

Matilda’s family was deeply divided by the Magna Carta crisis and subsequent civil war. Her husband and father-in-law had joined the ranks of the baronial rebellion in 1215, as had her brother, William Marshal the Younger, whilst her father remained a staunch supporter of the king, holding the Welsh Marches for the Royalist cause during the civil war.

In 1216 the war touched Matilda personally, with Framlingham Castle being besieged by King John, who demanded the castle’s surrender:

The King to his well-beloved men, William le Enveise, constable of Framlingham, and all the knights presently with him in that castle, greetings. We command that you deliver up to our trusty and well beloved William de Harcourt and Elias de Beauchamp the castle of Framlingham. And in testimony hereof we thereto send you these our letters patent. Witness myself, at Framlingham, the thirteenth day of March, in the seventeenth year of our reign.4


We do not know whether Matilda was in residence at the castle at the time of the siege; her father-in-law was in, or on his way to, London and her husband Hugh’s whereabouts are unknown, but he was not at Framlingham. The king allowed the constable, William le Enveise, to send messengers to the earl and seek advice on what they should do. The earl probably advised the constable to surrender as the castle capitulated to the king without a fight two days later. One of Matilda’s sons, most likely the eldest, Roger, was taken as hostage.

It is not hard to imagine what thoughts and feelings – and fears – must have gone through Matilda’s mind, knowing that her young son, only 6 or 7 years of age, was in the custody of King John. The king’s treatment of Matilda de Braose was common knowledge, and rumours of what had happened to Arthur of Brittany were rife. Her own two older brothers, William and Richard, had also been held for several years as hostages to their father’s good behaviour. It must have been a comfort to Matilda, however, to know that King John depended on the loyalty of her father, and so would treat the boy well, if only to avoid alienating the man whose support he sorely needed.

Framlingham Castle, Norfolk

Despite King John’s death in October 1216, Matilda’s husband and father-in-law remained in rebellion, supporting the claims of Louis of France, the dauphin, who had invaded England early in 1216 and controlled much of the south. The earl of Norfolk only came to terms with the Royalist government when the French prince returned home in September 1217; after which he was finally restored to the earldom of Norfolk and Framlingham Castle was returned to him. It was probably also at this time that his grandson, Roger, was returned to his mother; his last year as a hostage would have been when his own grandfather, William Marshal, was in power as regent. Which must have allowed Matilda to rest easier and allayed her fears for her son.

Matilda spent time with her father while he was dying in April and May 1219. The Histoire says of Matilda at her father’s deathbed:

‘My lady Mahelt [Matilda] la Bigote was so full of grief she almost went out of her mind, so great was her love for him. Often she appealed to God, asking Him why He was taking from her what her heart loved most.’5


It goes on to tell the story of the ailing William Marshal calling for his daughters to sing to him. William asked Matilda to be the first to sing:

‘She had no wish to do so for her life at the time was a bitter cup, but she
had no wish to disobey her father’s command. She started to sing since
she wished to please her father, and she sang exceedingly well, giving a
verse of a song in a sweet, clear voice.’6


Matilda’s husband, Hugh, succeeded to the title of earl of Norfolk when his father died sometime between April and August 1221, probably aged well into his seventies. The new earl, however, only enjoyed his title for four years; he died suddenly in 1225, aged only 43. He was succeeded by their eldest son, Roger, then only 16 years old and therefore still a minor. His wardship was given to William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, the young earl’s half-uncle, but when Longespée died the following year, the wardship was transferred to Alexander II, King of Scots.

With custody of the young earl of Norfolk, and of all his lands, Alexander II married Roger to his sister, Isabella of Scotland. The only lands not granted to the king of Scots were those which Matilda held in dower as Hugh Bigod’s widow. Matilda was still only 32 when Hugh died, with three of her four children still to care for. As a valuable marriage prize she, or her family, acted quickly to secure her future and safety and within three months of her husband’s death, Matilda was married once more.

Arms of William de Warenne

Her second husband was William de Warenne, 5th Earl of Surrey, also known as Earl Warenne. William was the only son of Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey in her own right, and her second husband, Hamelin de Warenne, half-brother of King Henry II. Matilda was the earl’s second wife, his first wife, Matilda, daughter of William d’Aubigny, second Earl of Arundel had died childless on 6 February 1215 and was buried at Lewes Priory, Sussex. William de Warenne was a neighbour of the Bigods, having lands centred in Castle Acre in Norfolk, and he had joined the rebellion against King John at about the same time as Roger Bigod, although William was back in the Royalist camp by March 1217 and was a prominent participant in the negotiations which ended the war in August 1217.

Probably born in the late 1260s, William was considerably older than his new wife and the marriage appears to have been one of practicality, rather than affection. The earl had purchased Matilda’s marriage, essentially meaning her dower in Norfolk, before July 1225. Matilda continued to style herself as ‘Matildis la Bigot’ in charters, with ‘Matildis de Warenne’ added only as an afterthought, or not at all. For example, a charter from the early 1240s, following the death of William de Warenne, has the salutation, ‘ego Latilda Bigot comitissa Norf ’ et Warenn.’7 This may be an indication that this second marriage was not of Matilda’s own choosing and may even have preferred to remain a widow, rather than entering into this second marriage. The continuing use of her name from her first marriage possibly being her own mark of rebellion against her new situation.

After the resolution of the crisis of 1216/1217 William de Warenne served the crown faithfully, save for his brief involvement in the confederation against it led by Henry III’s brother Richard of Cornwall, between July and October 1227. He was forced to surrender Tickhill Castle, but his disgrace was only temporary and in 1228 he received the third penny for the county of Surrey for the first time, an honorary payment previously denied to William and his father. In 1230 William de Warenne was appointed keeper of the east-coast ports of England during the king’s expedition to Brittany. In 1236 he was cup bearer at the coronation of Eleanor of Provence and in 1237 he witnessed the reissue of Magna Carta; the ageing earl was one of the few surviving barons who had been witness to the original charter in 1215.

The Warenne stronghold of Castle Acre Castle, Norfolk

In his early 70s, William de Warenne died in London on 27 or 28 May 1240; he was buried before the high altar at his family’s foundation of Lewes Priory in Sussex. In his memory, the king ordered that a wayside cross be erected on the road between Carshalton and Merton, in Surrey. Matilda bore her second husband two children, a boy and a girl, John and Isabel (later Isabel d’Aubigny). John would succeed his father as earl and attained his majority in 1248, when he succeeded to the vast Warenne estates. He would pursue a martial career and was one of Edward I’s fiercest generals. Matilda did not marry again after William’s death. In 1246, as the last surviving child of William Marshal, and with neither of her five brothers leaving a son, Matilda was granted the Marshal’s rod by King Henry III. She did, at this point, change her name on charters, to ‘Martill marescalla Angliae, comitissa Norfolciae et Warennae.’8

Emphasising her Marshal name as her father’s eldest surviving child, Matilda was, significantly, claiming the title Marshal of England as her right, thus increasing her power and prestige, and taking the authority of the marshal as her own. Matilda appears to have acted independently during her second marriage, purchasing land in the Don Valley in South Yorkshire, close to the Warenne stronghold of Conisbrough Castle and after the queen she was ‘undoubtedly the most powerful and wealthy woman in England from 1242 onwards.’9

Tintern Abbey Monmouthshire

Matilda Marshal died in 1248, in her mid-50s. Choosing to be interred with her Marshal family, rather than either of her husbands, Matilda was buried at Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire. Her three Bigod sons and their Warenne half-brother carried their mother’s bier into the church, where she was laid to rest close to her mother, Isabel, two of her brothers, Walter and Ancel, and her sister, Sybil. It is through Matilda’s marriage to Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, that the present duke of Norfolk also bears the title of Earl Marshal.

To follow the rest of the blog hop:

Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia except Castle Acre Castle which is ©2019Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Footnotes:

1David Crouch and Anthony Holden, History of William Marshal: Text and Translation; 2 ibid; 3ibid; 4Letter of 13 March 1216, Rich Price, King John’s Letters; 5Crouch and Holden, History of William Marshal: Text and Translation; 6ibid; 7Chadwick, Elizabeth, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’, livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com; 8Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com; 9David Crouch quoted in Chadwick, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’.

Sources:

Rich Price, King John’s Letters Facebook group; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made EnglandThe Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of BritainOxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Ralph of Diceto, Images of History; Marc Morris, King John; David Crouch, William Marshal; Crouch and Holden, History of William Marshal; Crouch, David, ‘William Marshal [called the Marshal], fourth earl of Pembroke (c. 1146–1219)’, Oxforddnb.com; Flanagan, M.T., ‘Isabel de Clare, suo jure countess of Pembroke (1171×6–1220)’, Oxforddnb.com; Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight; Chadwick, Elizabeth, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’, livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com; Stacey, Robert C., ‘Roger Bigod, fourth earl of Norfolk (c. 1212-1270)’, Oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com.

My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

*

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

*

©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Sons of Rome by Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty

As twilight descends on the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire is but a shadow of its former self. Decades of usurping emperors, splinter kingdoms and savage wars have left the people beleaguered, the armies weary and the future uncertain. And into this chaos Emperor Diocletian steps, reforming the succession to allow for not one emperor to rule the world, but four.

Meanwhile, two boys share a chance meeting in the great city of Treverorum as Diocletian’s dream is announced to the imperial court. Throughout the years that follow, they share heartbreak and glory as that dream sours and the empire endures an era of tyranny and dread. Their lives are inextricably linked, their destinies ever-converging as they rise through Rome’s savage stations, to the zenith of empire. For Constantine and Maxentius, the purple robes beckon…

Ever wondered what happens when two of your favourite authors get together and write a book?

Well, when its Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty, the result is a real page turner of an adventure that is impossible to put down!

Sons of Rome is the first in a new series by these two stalwarts in the field of Roman fiction. I only finished it yesterday and I am already desperate to read part two. The book fulfills the promise offered by combining two incredible authors. It is beautifully written, fast-paced and completely addictive.

Telling the story in alternating chapters, from the viewpoints of Constantine and Maxentius, it highlights the power struggles of the latter part of the Roman Empire. The Empire has got so big that a tetrarchy of two emperors and two caesars shared control of the eastern and western empires, with one emperor claiming seniority – Augustus – over the three other rulers.

Constantine and Maxentius – friends since childhood – are set to challenge the existing order of the tetrarchy, testing their friendship to its limits and beyond. Distrust and misunderstandings abound when destiny and the quest for ultimate power forces the two into opposition to each other.

Maxentius

By the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber, the next day

off to the left a centurion screamed imprecations at his men, driving them on across the churned turf and into the press of battle, while the clash and clamour of Rome’s armies at war filled the air around us.

I had to pause to adjust my rich wool hat, for it had become so sweat-sodden that it constantly threatened to slip down across my eyes, and it doesn’t do for an emperor to be cursing and blind as he fights for his throne. IN the searing heat of the sun’s glaring fiery orb, my horse stank of sweat and my purple cloak clung damp to my back, sticking to the beast’s rump behind me.

My sword had become heavy in my hand. I’d had only a brief chance to use it that morning, when I had managed to slip my overprotective bodyguard and join the cavalry in a brief push. But I had waved it around enthusiastically from time to time, giving orders to charge here and hold there. I knew my histories. Julius Caesar’s men would have followed him into the jaws of Cerberus himself just because of that great general’s presence on the field.

And I, Maxentius, emperor of Rome, had to be a new Julius Caesar this day, or I would be no one.

Briefly, across the sea of glinting helms and the forest of spear points, I caught sight of him. My enemy. The man who would wrest Rome from me. Constantine. My brother, my oldest friend, and yet my last and most bitter adversary. Like a hero of ancient myth, he rose in his saddle, sword rising and falling in a constant spray of blood.

The two leading characters, Constantine and Maxentius, are skillfully recreated by Turney and Doherty, each with their own personality and quirks; and each with their own pain and ambition. Constantine is the more martial of the two – you get the impression that he could march across the whole empire and subdue any who stand in his way. Whereas Maxentius has a first-rate political mind; what he lacks in military experience, he makes up for in his own battle arena, the corridors of power.

The contrasting qualities and abilities displayed by Constantine and Maxentius serve to create a unique story that has the reader gripped from the very first pages. You can’t help but have a favourite when you read of Constantine’s exploits and how he won the loyalty of the legions once sworn to his father. And then, of course, he was proclaimed emperor in York and I’m a Yorkshire lass…. But you may feel your allegiance changing when reading of Maxentius’ own abilities in winning favour with the people of the city of Rome itself, with the way he wins the loyalty of the African legions.

This is a totally absorbing book which combines action, political intrigue and divided loyalties to recreate a story that is fascinating to read and unputdownable – there’s that word again, it needs to be a real word. Honest!

Oh, and you get to spend the whole book, trying to work out which author is Constantine and which is Maxentius. Or, indeed, wondering if they even wrote it that way. The transition from one author to the other is seamless; the styles of each certainly complement the other. The benefit of two authors is obvious; each of the two leading characters – Maxentius and Constantine – narrating the story have clearly defined, individual voices. It gives Sons of Rome a strength and individuality that you rarely come across in a book.

I can heartily recommend it!

*

About the authors

Simon Turney

Simon Turney is the author of the Marius’ Mules and Praetorian series, as well as The Damned Emperor series for Orion and Tales of the Empire series for Canelo. He is based in Yorkshire.

Gordon Doherty is the author of the Legionary and Strategos series, and wrote the Assassin’s Creed tie-in novel Odyssey. He is based in Scotland.

Pre-order links
Gordon Doherty

Amazon: https://amzn.to/3gfhvIr

Follow Simon

Twitter: @SJATurney

Website: http://simonturney.com/

Follow Gordon

Twitter: @GordonDoherty

Website: https://www.gordondoherty.co.uk/

Follow Aries

Twitter: @AriesFiction

Facebook: Aries Fiction

Website: http://www.headofzeus.com

*

My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

*

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Birthday Giveaway

Competition Closed

Competition is now closed and the draw has been made. The winner is… Lisa Graham. Thank you so much to everyone for taking part – there were over 300 entries! And thank you for the many wonderful birthday wishes. Apparently a ‘big’ birthday doesn’t feel as overwhelming when you have so many wonderful friends. THANK YOU!!!!

It’s my birthday!

Today is my birthday, and its one of those big ones with a ‘0’ on the end. I’m not going to say exactly, but here’s a few clues:

I’m not 40 or 60;

My son keeps telling me that I’m now a part of history;

and he keeps making sly remarks about half centuries.

So, you work it out…

Anyway, seeing as its such a big birthday, I thought it would be nice to celebrate with a giveaway, seeing as I haven’t done one in a while.

The Giveaway!

The giveaway is a signed and dedicated – for you or someone you love – hardback copy of one of my books. And its your choice of book You can choose from my first book, Heroines of the Medieval World. my second book Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest or the latest, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century Europe.

It’s easy to enter!

The competition is open to everyone, wherever you are in the world. To win a signed and dedicated copy of one of my books, simply leave a comment below or on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.

The draw will be made on Monday 12 October.

Good luck!

*

My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

*

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post: Frost Fairs by Toni Mount

Today it is a pleasure to welcome historian Toni Mount to History…the Interesting Bits, with an article on the Frost Fairs on the River Thames.

Frost Fairs

Anyone who was in the UK, Ireland or much of Europe in February and March 2018 will probably remember the weather phenomenon of anticyclone Hartmut, better known as ‘The Beast from the East’. The Beast began its onslaught on 22nd February, bringing heavy snowfall and unusually low temperatures which lasted into the first week of March. Across Europe, it caused 95 deaths, seventeen of them in the UK. The deepest snowfall in England was 22 inches [57 cm] in Gloucestershire. The lowest temperature, measured in the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland was -14℃ [7℉] with winds up to 70 mph [110 km/hr]. Two weeks of such intense cold weather is unusual in the UK today, though who knows what may lie ahead in the future with the effects of climate change. However, climate change is nothing new. The lifetime of Isaac Newton, from 1642 to 1727, saw far worse winter weather during ‘The Little Ice-Age’, as it is known, and the period from December 1683 to March 1684 saw an unprecedented cold spell in England.

Engraving of the Frost Fair on the Thames in London, 1683-84 [British Museum Collection]

Thermometers were a recent invention and a universal scale of temperature readings had yet to be established but descriptions of the thickness of ice formed on ponds in a single night suggest the long spell of exceptional freezing weather was worse than any winter before and has still to be surpassed. December 1683 began with a hard frost, followed by a bitter east wind laden with snow. In London, the snow melted on the 7th but a sharp frost on the 12th was succeeded by a week of heavy snowfall and a north-easterly wind. Places other than London suffered similarly. Bristol suffered badly on the 19th; Durham on Christmas Eve and Oxford had its worst snow on Christmas Day, although London only saw snow showers that day.

The previous October 1683 had seen temperatures more than 4°F below the average, so the ground was already colder than normal when the bad weather began in December. Daily thermometer readings – however inaccurate – were recorded by Dr John Downes in London. According to him, the greatest cold occurred on 15th-16th January when ‘the spirit fell within the ball’ of his thermometer so gave no reading. His thermometer probably hung indoors, close to a window was the usual position for such instruments, suggesting a likely reading of 25°F indoors when he took note of it, mid‐morning. This would probably indicate a temperature of below 10°F outdoors. It was almost as cold in the first days of February.

In Durham, farther north in Teesdale, a fellow scientist, Mr Sanderson, made occasional records of the thickness of ice formed ‘where John Aislaby gets his water, on 12th-13th February, ice formed two inches thick overnight’. He then adds ‘it was in my gazette [newspaper] that at the Downs [part of the English Channel off the coast of Kent] the water was frozen a mile into the Sea, which was never known before’. This occurred during the latter part of January. From other sources we learn that, for fourteen days, in the English Channel, packet‐boats with the mail could not leave the Belgian coast and that ‘the sea was frozen for two leagues off Caen [in Normandy, France]’. Near Manchester, Sanderson noted, ‘it did freeze ice more than half a yard thick, and some ice continued till 25th March’.

Undeterred by the cold, the people of Leeds in Yorkshire held a frost fair on the frozen River Aire. According to Ralph Thoresby, an ox-roast was set up there and various sporting activities organised. January saw no improvement and in the south, by the end of the month, the Thames estuary was frozen a mile out to sea and wagons were hauling goods downriver from London as far as Gravesend in Kent.

In London, John Evelyn’s diary provides a wealth of information, noting that brewers and other tradesmen reliant on a water supply were out of work because all the pipes were frozen. He was greatly concerned that:

The fowls, fish and birds and all our plants and greens universally perishing. Many parks of deer are destroyed and all sorts of fuel so dear that there were great contributions to keep the poor alive. … London, by reason of the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of sea-coal that one could hardly see across the streetes… and no one could scarcely breathe.

Evelyn also tells us that ‘every moment was full of disastrous accidents’ and trees were being cracked asunder by the frost as if by a lightning strike. Despite these gloomy realities, Londoners made the best of the weather conditions. A broadsheet of the time calls it ‘Great Britain’s Wonder or London’s Admiration: a prodigious frost which began about the beginning of December and continued till the fourth day of February following’. The Thames had frozen over before but never had the freeze lasted so long. The river ice was more than a foot thick [30cms] enabling it to be crossed by coach, carriage, sledge or on foot. Enterprising boatmen, robbed of their livelihood otherwise, put wheels under their boats to ferry passengers across the river. By 1st January, a fair and marketplace had been set up on the ice.

King Charles II and members of the royal court visited the makeshift town, enjoying eating meat from an ox-roast, taking part in a fox-hunt on ice and having souvenir cards printed in a booth where a printer had set up his press. The cards proved popular, the printer reckoning to make at least £5 per day at sixpence a time. In other words, he was printing around 200 cards every day and making an excellent income from his ingenuity. Food stalls sold everything from pancakes to roast beef and there were numerous taverns, goldsmiths’ shops, a toy shop, coffee-houses, a lottery booth, a music booth and even a brothel: all doing a brisk trade on  ice. A circus was put on by Mr Chipperfield: the first known performance of a family business that still continues today, if in a very different health-and-safety, animal-welfare conscious, twenty-first-century format. No such niceties concerned the entrepreneurs who arranged the bull- and bear-baiting spectacles either.

John Evelyn wrote that:

Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple… to and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes [skates], a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes [short dramatic sketches], cooks, tippling [drinking] and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or a carnival on water.

Others noted sporting activities, including football and skittles being played. The ice began to thaw a little on 4th-5th February and the booths began to be dismantled but it froze again so that Evelyn could still cross in his coach to Lambeth Palace to dine with the Archbishop of Canterbury. On other occasions, he walked upriver on the ice from his home in Deptford.

In Newton’s long lifetime the Thames would freeze over again in 1709 but the ice did not last so long as to allow another frost fair that year. However, the winter of 1715-16 was sufficiently severe and long-lasting that the river was frozen for almost three months and a fair was set up once more. On this occasion, there was far more snow than in 1683-84, ‘vast quantities fallen at different times in the season’, so that London was described at the time as being ‘almost impassable’.

Below, is an excerpt from a poem written in 1684:

BEHOLD the Wonder of this present Age,

A Famous RIVER now becomes a Stage.

Question not what I now declare to you,

The Thames is now both Fair and Market, too.

And many Thousands dayly do resort,

There to behold the Pastime and the Sport

Early and Late, used by young and old,

And valu’d not the fierceness of the Cold….

Back in history, the Thames had been frozen before. For example, in the reign of King Stephen, in 1150, ‘after a very wet summer there was in December so great a frost that horses and carriages crossed it [the Thames] upon the ice as safely as upon the dry ground, and that the frost lasted till the following month of March’. Again, in 1281, the Thames was frozen over and when the ice broke up at last, it carried away five of the stone arches of London Bridge, causing it to partially collapse and making this entrance into the city impassable until it was repaired. In 1434, ‘the Thames was so strongly frozen over, that merchandise and provisions brought into the mouth of the river were obliged to be unladen, and brought by land to the city’. In 1515, too, carriages passed over on the ice from Lambeth to Westminster and once more, when the ice melted a number of arches of London Bridge were ‘borne downe and carried away with the streame’. On the 21st of December 1564, during a lengthy hard frost, football and ‘shooting at marks’ were played on the Thames. Courtiers came from Whitehall Palace to mix with common citizens and watch the fun. Tradition says that Queen Elizabeth I herself walked upon the ice but all was gone by 5th January. However, Londoners had the chance to play all manner of sports and visit trading stalls on the river again in 1620, in the reign of James I.

The River Thames last iced over completely, enough to hold a Frost Fair on its frozen waters, in 1814 but, since then, the building of the Victoria and Albert Embankments has made it faster-flowing and less likely to ice up. However, it partially froze in the harsh winters of 1947 and 1963.

Who can say whether or not even more extreme weather events may happen in the future as a result of climate change? Only time may tell if another Frost Fair, like those experienced by Isaac Newton and his colleagues, will ever be held again on the Thames.

The World of Isaac Newton by Toni Mount

For nine decades Isaac Newton strode the world of science and discovery, religion and thought – from 17th century Lincolnshire farm-boy to one of the most influential scientists of all time – his discoveries have relevance for us today and for our future.  This fascinating new biography looks at his world, his times, the people he influenced and the breakthroughs in science and thought that would change the world.

About the Author

Toni Mount’s first career was in science, leading to many years in a second profession in teaching. Her love of history led to a third career as a writer with her first book, released by Amberley Publishing in 2014, Everyday Life in Medieval London. She continues to teach history to adults both in person and online and has now written many successful non-fiction and fiction books. This latest study allows her to return to her first love, science, and the chance to bring a fresh look at one of the world’s most famous characters.

Links

www.tonimount.com

www.facebook.com/toni.mount.10

www.twitter.com/tonihistorian

*

My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

*

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Toni Mount