Journals 12.2 – Paul Hentzner in England, 1598 (Part 2)

This is the final part of my article about Hentzer’s journal. For the first part, please see the entry posted on 22nd February 2016.

Bartholemew Fair 1808

An illustration of Bartholemew Fair from 1808.

Hentzer was able to enjoy the spectacle of the Bartholemew Fair, a tradition dating back to 1133, although one of his friends did not enjoy it so much…

It is worthy of observation, that every year upon St. Bartholomew’s Day, when the Fair is held, it is usual for the Mayor, my Lord attended by the twelve principal Aldermen, to walk into a neighbouring field, dressed in his scarlet gown, and about his neck a golden chain, to which is hung a Golden Fleece, and besides, that particular ornament, which distinguishes the most noble Order of the Garter. During the year of his magistracy, he is obliged to live so magnificently that foreigner or native, without any expense, is free, if he can find a chair empty, to dine at his table, where there is always the greatest plenty. When the Mayor goes out of the precincts of the City, a sceptre, a sword, and a cap are borne before him, and he is followed by the principal Aldermen in scarlet gowns, with gold chains; himself and they on horseback. Upon their arrival at a place appointed for that purpose, where a tent is pitched, the mob begin to wrestle before them, two at a time; the conquerors receive rewards from the Mayor. After this is over, a parcel of live rabbits are turned loose among the crowd, which boys chase with great noise. While we were at this show, one of our company, Tobias Salander, Doctor of Physic, had his pocket picked of his purse, with nine crowns which without doubt was so cleverly taken from him by an Englishman who always kept very close to him, that the Doctor did not in the least perceive it.

The fair had been established by Royal Charter to fund the Priory of St Bartholemew. A happy coincidence led to this marriage of public entertainment and religious financial benefit: Henry I had a minstrel named Rahere who took holy orders later in life, and Henry authorised the charter to fund his ambition to found a priory in the name of St Bartholemew. It continued for more than 700 years, finally ending in 1855 when it was suppressed by the City of London Corporation because it was thought to have become too raucous.

Although the fair was chartered to last three days, it was extended over the years, eventually becoming a two-week festival during the 17th Century. The fair brought all classes of society together and was enjoyed on different levels by the rich and the poor, as it was an opportunity to make some money by trading goods. In particular it was the most important occasion in England for selling fabrics, even drawing international interest. But it was not all about making money: there was a wide variety of entertainment. Apart from the wrestling and rabbit chasing described by Hentzer, there were traditional circus acts such as acrobats, wild animals and, sadly, freak shows. Later in the 17th Century, the fair became an opportunity for wife-selling. If your mouth just dropped open you can feel free to close it now. Believe it or not, it was quite common for a man to sell his wife at the fair, parading her around in a halter (yes, those things that are used for livestock) before auctioning her off. This was illegal, but the authorities tended to turn a blind eye. Although we are going off on a tangent here, it is worth reflecting how modern moral values have only been established for an astonishingly short period of time, as there was no real concerted effort to stamp out wife-selling until the mid 19th Century, and the practice even remained a rare problem at the start of the 20th Century, with one woman claiming in court that she had been sold for £1. The year was 1913.

As well as describing the events of his stay in England, Hentzer had some general comments to make about the character of the English.

The English are grave like the Germans, lovers of show; followed wherever they go by whole troops of servants, who wear their masters’ arms in silver fastened to their left arms, and are not undeservedly ridiculed for wearing tails hanging down their backs…

They are more polite in eating than the French, consuming less bread but more meat, which they roast in perfection; they put a great deal of sugar in their drink; their beds are covered with tapestry, even those of farmers.

After a very pleasant stay in England, it was time for Hentzer to make the crossing back to Calais from Dover, but first he had to run the gauntlet of customs:

Before we set sail from hence, each of us was obliged to give his name, the reason of his visit to England, and the place to which he was going. This having been done, and permission to depart obtained, our valises and trunks were opened by those who are appointed for this object, and most diligently examined for the sake of discovering English money, for no one is allowed to carry out of England more than ten English pounds. Whatever surplus there may be, it is taken away and paid into the royal Exchequer.

One final quote from this journal will be presented as one of Windows into History’s occasional series of Creepy History articles in a few days.  You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 16th Century, Books, Britain, Crime, England, History, Journals, London, Travel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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