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“Hey, now the fair’s a filling!
Oh, for a tune to startle
The birds o’ the booths here billing
Yearly with old Saint Barthle!”
Bartholomew Fayre, act II scene ii.
Bartholomew Fair, first chartered under Henry I in 1133, was held at West Smithfield just outside the city walls of northwest London at Aldersgate. Every year it began on August 24, the feast day of St Bartholomew the apostle, and lasted for three days.
From medieval times Smithfield had been a busy site for jousts and trials by combat – in later centuries even duels – and had a gallows for public executions. The fair was held in the precincts of St Bartholomew’s church and became England’s largest cloth exchange. Upon the suppression of the monasteries under Henry VIII the site passed into joint private ownership with the corporation of the city in 1539, and the new owners crammed it with buildings, reserving the right to rent them during the fair.
In the Tudor period the original purpose of trade in cloth dwindled as merchants expanded their business beyond the fair through improved transport. The horse trade kept going, but the enterprise of Bartholomew’s was slowly given over to pleasure, until in Elizabeth’s reign it had become a great Saturnalia that attracted many entertainers and shady characters. Continue reading