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

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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.

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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

Book Corner: The Peasants' Revolting Crimes by Terry Deary

By Lewis Connolly

Popular history writer Terry Deary takes us on a light-hearted and often humorous romp through the centuries with Mr & Mrs Peasant, recounting foul and dastardly deeds committed by the underclasses, as well as the punishments meted out by those on the right side’ of the law.

Discover tales of arsonists and axe-wielders, grave robbers and garroters, poisoners and prostitutes. Delve into the dark histories of beggars, swindlers, forgers, sheep rustlers and a whole host of other felons from the lower ranks of society who have veered off the straight and narrow. There are stories of highwaymen and hooligans, violent gangs, clashing clans and the witch trials that shocked a nation. Learn too about the impoverished workers who raised a riot opposing crippling taxes and draconian laws, as well as the strikers and machine-smashers who thumped out their grievances against new technologies that threatened their livelihoods.

Britain has never been short of those who have been prepared to flout the law of the land for the common good, or for their own despicable purposes. The upper classes have lorded and hoarded their wealth for centuries of British history, often to the disadvantage of the impoverished. Frustration in the face of this has resulted in revolt. Read all about it here!

This entertaining book is packed full of revolting acts and acts of revolt, revealing how ordinary folk – from nasty Normans to present-day lawbreakers – have left an extraordinary trail of criminality behind them. The often gruesome penalties exacted in retribution reveal a great deal about some of the most fascinating eras of British history.

It has been a strange week for us all, I’m sure. And on Tuesday evening we got a message from my son’s school saying it was closed until further notice, so Wednesday morning was my first day of home schooling. School have been amazing and set tons of work to keep the child occupied. However, on Wednesday, there was no English so I had to set some myself; which was basically for said child to write a review of Terry Deary’s The Peasants’ Revolting CRIMES. I received this book as a review copy from the publishers, Pen & Sword, but the child got to read it first, and loved it. He’s a die-hard fan of Horrible Histories, so this book was right up his street.

So, it’s over to Lewis:

I liked, no I LOVED Terry Deary’s The Peasants’ Revolting CRIMES. I would recommend it for people who are age 13+ (due to minor swearing content) and you will not need to know your history because this book educates you in the revolting and hard life of the peasant.

Opening with ‘Norman Nastiness’, the book gives you a vivid taste of peasant crimes right up until the ‘Georgian Jokers and Victorian Villains’ and beyond.

The last witch

After seeing a smiling ‘medium’ at a psychic fair, a friend of mine punched her. When I asked him why he would do such a thing, he replied, ‘My father always taught me to strike a happy medium’,

In 1944, Helen Duncan was a Scottish spiritual medium, working in Portsmouth. She began broadcasting information from the port’s gullible sailors wjhho came ot consult her. D-Day was approaching and she was a security risk. She had to be stopped.

Duncan was originally charged under the Vagrancy Act 1824, relating to fortune telling, astrology and spiritualism. Then there was a change of plan. The paranoid government’s legal experts sent her to be tried by jury at the Old Bailey for contravening section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735, which carried the heavier penalty of a prison sentence.

Winston Churchill even described the whole episode as ‘obsolete tomfoolery’ but Helen went to prison for nine months.

The 1753 Act was later repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951.

So, no more witch trials.

You could call it hex-it

In this book, you will explore various ages of history, from the Middle Ages to the Stuarts, to the vicious, unforgiving Victorian era and the modern era. You will hear various quotes from all sorts of people, from William Shakespeare, to Martin Luther King and many, many others as you explore the book.

I particularly like the funny jokes like “Bring a man a fire and he will be warm for a day. Give a man a fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life” and “Will Shakespeare. Great writer, dodgy historian”. There are various other jokes, which are scattered throughout the book.

There was nothing to dislike about this book, despite its gory and bloody moments. It will tickle your funny bone for hours on end, so much so you will never put it down!

In conclusion, this is a great book for children and adults alike. It is not only comedy but it also used 100% historically accurate. You should order it now. What are you waiting for?

Huge thanks to Lewis for a fabulous, entertaining review!

The Peasants’ Revolting CRIMES by Terry Deary is available from Pen & Sword and Amazon.

About the author:

Terry Deary is the esteemed author of the immensely popular Horrible Histories series. This is his first title for Pen and Sword Books, to be followed next year by The Peasants’ Revolting Lives.

My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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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 

Book Corner: The Devil’s Slave by Tracy Borman

Frances Gorges has already survived the accusation of witchcraft.

But if her torturers at the court of King James knew of her love for Tom Wintour, one of the executed members of the gunpowder plot, it would mean certain death.

Pregnant with Tom’s child, hiding under the reluctant protection of her spiteful and ambitious brother, Frances lives in fear – until she is offered the chance to make a respectable – if loveless – marriage and return to court.

She will not be expected to sleep with her husband. The only price she must pay for safety is to give up the cause for which her lover died.

But old loyalties are hard to deny, and soon Frances is drawn back into the snake-pit scheming of the factions trying to take the throne.

Everywhere she turns, it seems that someone has the power to force her deeper into danger until, all too late, Frances hears the warnings of her own heart.

Compelling, sensual, suspenseful, The Devil’s Slave is a standalone sequel to The King’s Witch and further evidence that one of our finest historians is also a brilliant novelist.

Another stunning instalment of the Frances Gorges story from Tracy Borman. The young woman who barely escaped the fallout of the Gunpowder Plot with her life is once again drawn into the intrigues of the fledgling Stuart court. Skilled with herbs and a secret Catholic make her twice the target for the staunchly protestant witch-hunter King James and his minister, Robert Cecil. Frances’s return to court with her husband and son sees her trying to negotiate her way through the various Catholic plots that surround the crown and court.

Tracy Borman weaves a tale that is fraught with tension, with danger lurking around every corner, or behind every rose bush. At times, it seems that everyone is a chameleon – and no one is as they seem. And, just like the heroine, the reader is drawn into the plots and intrigues of the court. This engaging, entertaining story will keep the reader enthralled until the very last page.

The history and story are effortlessly woven together.

She looked down at her hands as she struggled to maintain her composure. Dorothy reached forward and took them in her own. ‘I understand your fears, Frances,’ she said softly. ‘These are dangerous times for those of us who share the true faith. I know that you wish to protect your son, as I do mine. But you cannot condemn him – and yourself – to life of falsehood, of heresy. To do so would be to damn him in the next life, as well as this one. You cannot think that is what Tom would have wished for his son.’

‘Tom would have wished him to stay alive!’ Frances cried, the tears now streaming down her cheeks. ‘What would you have me do? Parade him as the son of a condemned traitor? Forfeit his safety, his happiness, his life? And all for what? A cause that died with Tom and the rest?’

Dorothy fell silent, but her grip on Frances’s hands tightened. ‘It did not die, Fraces,’ she said. ‘It is stronger now than ever. The death of Tom and his companions has intensified people’s hatred of this heretic king and drawn thousands more to our cause. I don not speak out of blind faith,’ she continued, as if reading Frances’s thoughts. ‘We have learned from the lessons of the past. Cecil’s spies are now outnumbered by those of our cause. How do you suppose I was able to find out about my nephew? The time is almost ripe to act. We have powerful supporters at court, and the King of Spain stands in readiness with a huge army.’

Frances’s mind was reeling…

Tracy Borman’s vast knowledge of the Stuart court and the various royal palaces in which The Devil’s Slave is set, serve to add a level of authenticity into the story that is rarely seen in a novel, whilst the subtlety in delivering the facts avoids giving the reader a lecture in Stuart history. The blend of fact and fiction is indistinguishable, leaving the reader with many avenues of research to pursue later, if they are so inclined.

The locations of lavish palaces, manor houses and the Tower of London are recreated in great detail. Tracy Borman uses her extensive knowledge to rebuild the Stuart world for the modern reader. The prose is a pleasure to read and devour, while the plot delves deep into the dark corners of Stuart history.

However, her greatest creations in the book are the characters, whether real or imagined. The personalities of Sir Walter Raleigh and Arbella Stuart, alongside the various members of the royal family, are wonderfully deep, complex individuals who serve to add spice and colour to an already fabulous story. The heroine, Frances Gorges, is a woman with whom many can feel empathy. Drawn into the various intrigues much against her inclination, but with a desire to protect her family, she is forced to navigate her way through the various dangers, always with the knowledge of what faces her should she fail.

The Devil’s Slave, as with The King’s Witch, is a story that is not to be missed. For the reader, it provides a truly enjoyable sojourn in the realm of early Stuart England and must appeal to all with an interest in history, intrigue and adventure. I cannot recommend it highly enough!

The Devil’s Slave by Tracy Borman is available from Amazon.

About the Author:

Tracy Borman is joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust. She studied and taught history at the University of Hull and was awarded a PhD in 1997. 

Tracy is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books, including Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, First Queen of England, Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen and Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction. Tracy is also a regular broadcaster and public speaker, giving talks on her books across the UK and abroad. She lives in Surrey with her daughter.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from Amazon UK, and in the US from Amazon US. It is available now in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Linda Root’s ‘In the Shadow of the Gallows’

indexMy latest book review, of Linda Root’s wonderful novel, In the Shadow of the Gallows – set in early Stuart England – has gone live over at The Review today!

The great benefit of being book reviewer is that, every now and then, you get to read a wonderful gem of a story that may otherwise have slipped by you. In the Shadow of the Gallows is a first class political thriller which takes the reader on a wild ride through Scotland and England – the intrigues of the Gunpowder Plot. You need to keep your wits about you to successfully navigate the intricate twists and turns of the unfolding plot. But this book is well and truly worth the sleepless nights you will have wondering how the protagonists will get out of their latest jam – and whether they will win in the end.

Our Scottish heroes have to navigate their way through plot, counter-plot and conspiracy in order to survive and get themselves safely home…..

To read the full review of this fantastic novel – and to enter the prize draw and be in with a chance of winning one of two e-books in the giveaway, simply visit The Review and leave a comment. Good luck!

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly