The Frost Fairs: the frozen River Thames in London

By , January 10, 2010 3:43 am

The Frozen Thames in London – an Introduction

A woodcut showing the medieval London Bridge and Frost Fair on the Thames, 1683

A woodcut showing the medieval London Bridge and Frost Fair on the Thames, 1683

Between 1400 AD and 1814, the last time it happened, the River Thames in London froze over 26 times. And when it froze solidly, Londoners made the most of it, and the “Frost Fairs” developed.

The tidal, somewhat salty Thames is a deep, fast-flowing river today, but before the Old London Bridge was demolished in 1831, the river’s waters were pooled slightly behind the medieval arches, which probably helped the ice take hold.

It was also the time known as the “Little Ice Age”, when winters were colder and more severe than they have been since 1800 or so.

The huge, medieval bridge, with houses and shops above the numerous archways, is shown in the background of the woodcut to the right of this text, depicted during the Frost Fair of 1683.

The text accompanying the woodcut says:
An Exact and lively Mapp or Representation of Boothes and all the variety of Showes and Humours on the ICE of the River of THAMES by LONDON  During that memorable Frost in the 35th yeare of the Reigne of his sacred Maj King Charles the 2nd

The embankments had not yet been built, either, and so the River Thames was wider, shallower, and probably a little slower.

The Frozen Thames in the 16th century

The Thames froze over several times in Tudor England. Henry VIII is known to have travelled from Whitehall, next to Westminster, to Greenwich by sleigh, along the River Thames, in 1536. Greenwich was one of Henry’s favourite palaces; he married there more than once, and his daughter Elizabeth I was born there later in 1536.

In 1564, Elizabeth I practised her archery on the frozen Thames, and boys and men played football on the ice.It was said of this winter:

On the 21st of December, began a frost, which continued so extremely that on new year’s eve people went over and along the Thames on the ice from London Bridge to Westminster. Some played at the foot-ball as boldly there as if it had been on the dry land; diverse of the court shot daily at pricks set up on the Thames; and the people, both men and women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in any street of the city of London.

On the 31st day of January, at night, it began to thaw, and on the fifth day was no ice to be seen between London Bridge and Lambeth, which sudden thaw caused great floods and high waters, that bare down bridges and houses, and drowned many people.

The development of Frost Fairs into full-blown parties

The first frost fair, in terms of full-scale activity and commercial stalls and sports took place in 1608.  It was a cheerful and spontaneous affair.

A woodcut showing the Thames Frost Fair  in 1683/1684

A woodcut showing the Thames Frost Fair in 1683/1684

The “Long Freeze” or “Great Freeze” of 1683/4 was one of the coldest-known English, and European, winters. The Thames froze solidly, and the ice was up to a foot deep. The frost began 6 weeks before Christmas, and lasted into February.

Streets of stalls and booths stretched from bank to bank; all London’s normal entertainments made their way on to the river.

A whole ox was roasted at Hungerford Steps, bear-baiting and and puppet-shows were held on the ice. Skating and “chair-pushing” events were also set up.

A pamphlet published about the Long Frost included this passage:

A whole street of booths, contiguous to each other, was built from the Temple Stairs to the barge-house in Southwark, which were inhabited by traders of all sorts, which usually frequent fairs and markets, as those who deal in earthenwares, brass, copper, tin, and iron, toys and trifles; and besides these, printers, bakers, cooks, butchers, barbers, coffee-men, and others, who were so frequented by the innumerable concourse of all degrees and qualities, that, by their own confession, they never met elsewhere the same advantages, every one being willing to say they did lay out such and such money on the river of Thames.

John Evelyn, a diarist, said that:

Frost Fair Mug 1683/4

Frost Fair Mug 1683/4

Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water

The mug shown in the picture to the right of this text is tiny, less than 2.5 inches high. Engraved on the base are the words, “Bought on ye Thames ice Janu: ye 17 1683/4″.

It is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington.

It is astonishing that something so small and delicate lasted to be put in a museum!

The Great Frost of 1709, probably Europe’s coldest winter for 500 years, saw another large-scale frost fair.

Not only rivers, but huge chunks of the North Sea, froze during the terrible cold of the winter, and in France, an estimated 500,000 people died of starvation and malnutrition later in the year. There is a fascinating article from the New Scientist about this winter, called 1709: The year Europe froze.

A London paper said:

The Thames seems now a solid rock of ice; and booths for sale of brandy, wine, ale, and other exhilarating liquors, have been for some time fixed thereon; but now it is in a manner like a town; thousands of people cross it, and with wonder view the mountainous heaps of water that now lie congealed into ice.

On Thursday a great cook’s-shop was erected, and gentlemen went as frequently to dine there as at any ordinary. Over against Westminster, Whitehall, and Whitefriars, printing presses are kept on the ice.

The last River Thames Frost Fair

The Frost Fair on the River Thames in London, 1814, by Luke Clenell

The Frost Fair on the River Thames in London, 1814, by Luke Clenell

The last proper freezing of the River Thames in London took place in 1814.

The frost set in at the start of January, and by the end of the month, the River was frozen solid – an elephant was led across the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge to demonstrate the safety of the ice.

Hoardes of traders and entertainers rushed to set up shop, and the fair was in full-swing. It was shorter than many, as the solid ice lasted only a week.

Writing 20 years later, Charles Mackay said of the 1814 fair:

Each day brought a fresh accession of pedlars to sell their wares, and the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost.

The watermen profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of twopence or threepence before he was admitted to the fair; and something also was expected for permission to return. Some of them were said to have taken as much as six pounds in a day.

Many persons remained on the ice till late at night, and the effect by moonlight was singularly novel and beautiful. The bosom of the Thames seemed to rival the frozen climes of the north.

Since 1814

Ice on the River Thames in 1895

Ice on the River Thames in 1895

There has, of course, been ice on the River Thames since 1814 – what has not happened since then is the absolute freezing of the water, thick enough to allow lots of activity to take place on the ice.

The photograph to the right of this text shows ice in 1895, with the newly-constructed Tower Bridge in the background.

It looks pretty uneven, and not much fun to walk on!

Cressing Temple: Visiting Knights Templar property in England Today

By , January 5, 2010 3:37 am

Introduction to the Knights Templar

Plan from excavations in the late 1990s at Cressing Temple

Plan from excavations in the late 1990s at Cressing Temple

The Knights Templar, the fabled, fantastically rich, and powerful organisation that rose spectacularly in the Middle Ages, fell as dramatically.

The “Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon” order,  known  more commonly as “The Knights Templar”, was founded in Jerusalem in 1119 AD to protect pilgrims bound for the Holy Land, and dissolved by the French King and the Pope in 1312.

In just under two centuries, the Templars became  powerful, important, and famous as an order of fighting monks. They were far from the only military knights who were also subject to a monastic rule, but they became (and remain to this day) the best known.

Everyone loved them, from the Pope, Kings and Princes to the peasants and labourers, and their success and visibility was unparalleled.

Their fall 200 years later was equally dramatic, and the Papacy was forced by the French King (who was, in effect, in control of the Pope) into eliminating them.

Many of the Templars were burned alive, particularly in France. In other countries, such as England, most were allowed to go quietly on their way, many joining other orders of monks.

The cellar at Cressing Temple, from the Templars' time, uncovered during excavation works

The cellar at Cressing Temple, from the Templars' time, uncovered during excavation works

Visiting Knights Templar sites in England today

Many of the biggest and best-known Templar properties can be indentified and visited, but the extent of the remains of Templar buildings varies significantly.
There are a number which have substantial and significant sites still, and others where only the name survives today.
This is the first in a series of posts about visiting Knights Templar property in England, and starts with the Essex site of Cressing Temple.

Cressing Temple – significant remains and buildings survive

Cressing Temple is in Essex, England. It’s a scheduled ancient monument, owned by Essex County Council, and open to the public.   A lot is left, and it’s a great place to visit to get a sense of the Knights Templar organisation and property.

It was the largest and most significant of the properties the Knights Templar owned in Essex, and was in the charge of a “Preceptor”.

This was the title of the Knight who had charge of an area and a number of monks under him; he was answerable only to the Grand Master of the Order.

Cressing Temple was given to the Templars in 1137 by Matilda, wife of King Stephen, not the rival claimant to the throne, the Empress Matilda.

The astonishing buildings at Cressing Temple, standing today

Plan showing the timber structure of the Wheat Barn at Cressing Temple.

Plan showing the timber structure of the Wheat Barn at Cressing Temple.

Two great barns were built by the Templars at Cressing. The first is now called the Barley Barn, and is thought to have been built some time around 1210 A.D.

The Wheat Barn was built in about 1260 to 1270 A.D. It is built directly on top of a Bronze Age settlement.

The Barley Barn is an immense structure built from oak, and was made from an estimated 480 oak trees. Tree science, dendrochronology, has dated the felling of these trees from between 1205 and 1235.

The Barn was originally larger even than it is today, but it seems to have been repaired later and made smaller at that time. It now measures about 36 metres long by 13½ metres wide.

Although it’s been repaired over the years, the original structure of the Barn still holds it up today. The arcade posts and main ties are the ones built by theTemplars.

The Barley Barn at Cressing is the oldest timber framed barn still in existence in the world.

The Wheat Barn is larger, 40 metres long and 12½ metres wide. It was built from 472 different oak trees, and there are identical trusses with braces meeting at a scissor above the collars.



Records and research into Cressing Temple

The Templar-built well at Cressing Temple

The Templar-built well at Cressing Temple

More is known about Cressing Temple than many Templar foundations because inventories made by both the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller have survived.

There has also been extensive archaeological research, with Essex County Council excavating the site between 1987 and 1996.

The archaeological excavations have shown that when the Templars took over the land they cleared it, and set up drainage systems, and started to build.

Evidence has been found of post holes, timber slots, gravelled surfaces outside, and latrine pits. The foundations of an original timber chapel built in about 1145 was discovered. This was replaced by a stone chapel a few years later.

The Templars also dug a very deep well, about 45 feet deep. It was lined with Reigate stone. There is also evidence that they filled in some existing ditches, and dug new ones to drain the land more efficiently.

The Well House was only built at the end of Victorian times, but the well itself is undoubtedly a Templar structure.

There is evidence from Carbon 14 dating to show that trees were cut down partly in order to make room for the buildings, and partly in order to provide the timber to build them.

There is also what appears to be a clay quarry which may have been used for tiles for the floors of the barns and other buildings.

The Wheat Barn, at Cressing Temple

The Wheat Barn, at Cressing Temple

The quarry appears to have been used as a rubbish dump and filled up by the Templars in the years after it was opened.

Three large ponds were also dug and presumably stocked with fish. The Knights Templar, like other monastic orders, did not eat meat many days of the year and ate fish instead. It was common for large houses or organisations to have their own fish ponds.

A very complete inventory from 1313 mentions a church, two chambers (almost certainly used as bedrooms) a great hall, a pantry, a kitchen, a buttery, a larder, bakehouse, brewhouse, dairy, granary, smithy, a well, and two barns.

The Templar holding at Cressing Temple was originally about 14,000 acres. It was very fertile land, good for agriculture, and the produce could be easily moved by river.

The Templars employed over 160 tenant farmers on the Cressing Temple site, and also established a market.

In 1309, before the estate was handed to the Knights Hospitaller the Cressing Temple was recorded as having a mansion house, bakehouse, brewery, dairy, granary, smithy, gardens, a dovecote, chapel, cemetery, watermill and a windmill.

After the suppression of the Order, the Cressing Temple passed to the Knights Hospitaller in 1313.

Visiting Cressing Temple

The Barley Barn at Cressing Temple

The Barley Barn at Cressing Temple

Cressing Temple’s address is Witham Road, Cressing, Braintree, Essex, CM77  8PD.

It’s about 50 miles from central London, and 4 miles from the nearest railway station, Witham (trains take about 45 minutes from London Liverpool Street station).

From April to September Cressing Temple is open from 10am – 5pm Sunday to Friday, in March and October  from 10am -  4pm Sunday to Friday, and from November to February,  10am and 3pm Monday to Friday.

The site’s details, opening hours, and travel directions can be found here.

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