Frost Fairs - A Real Tudor Bankside Christmas!

23rd December 2021
Frost Fairs - A Real Tudor Bankside Christmas!

In the Tudor era, it would not be impossible to see King Henry VIII dashing through the snow in a sleigh.... On the frozen Thames! In fact he was recorded doing just that in 1536: like some boisterous, robust Father Christmas. During the time of Francis Drake, Henry's daughter Elizabeth would regularly take to the ice herself to (no less terrifyingly) "shoot at marks" and boys would practice their football on the frozen river.

By 1608, this magical frozen river had gained such a reputation for fun and recreation that the townsfolk held parties on the ice! The famous 'Frost Fairs' were a decidedly Southwark way to spend a Christmas night. In fact they happened almost exactly where The Golden Hinde is moored now... Because of our illustrious neighbour: London Bridge!

 The Frozen Thames 1677


Hold Back The River

Between 1309 and 1814, the Thames froze at least 23 times and on five occasions the ice was strong enough to hold a party on the river. But how did the mighty Thames freeze? A unique combination of factors, starting with the famous bridge itself...

Although on the same location, London Bridge itself has been rebuilt over the centuries, since the first bridge was built by the Romans as part of their post-conquest road-building programme, shortly after AD34. The bridge was then rebuilt several times after various spectacular destructions:

One bridge was burned down by Boudica and her army in AD 60.
One bridge was pulled down by boats on the orders of King Æthelred the Unready, to halt the advance of Danish invaders in 1014.
One bridge was destroyed by a tornado (yes really!) in 1091.

After all that wanton destruction, a sturdy bridge was constructed 1209, lasting nearly 600 years. This 'old' London Bridge had shops, houses, chapels and gatehouses built right onto the structure. The colossal construction (one of the wonders of the world at the time) was supported by 19 arches which slowed down the current of the river so that it could freeze when the temperature got cold enough.... And in the Tudor era - it did! The mini ice-age cometh!

The Big Chill

The 'Little Ice Age' was a period of global cooling that roughly occurred from the 16th to the 19th century. Various theories have been put forward as to why it happened (volcanic activity, axial tilt or even The Black Death dramatically reducing human population), but it was severe enough to freeze the Baltic Sea, send glaciers through hastily abandoned farms in the Swiss alps and even allow armies to invade countries by marching along frozen canals.

The river Thames was around a third wider than it is today, as it had not yet been embanked. The combination of sluggish current, shallower water and the imposition of Old London Bridge meant the Thames could freeze-over; with the ice reaching a thickness of 28 cm.

 Houghton STC 11403 Great Frost 1608


The Fun of The Fair

The Jacobean Frost Fairs were massive celebrations where shops, gambling pits, bowling ranges and even pubs were set up on the ice. With considerable disrespect to the laws of cause and effect, the entrepreneurs would light fires to keep warm… Think about that for a second.

As Christmas on the frozen river became more and more exuberant over the centuries, people started getting even braver with the attractions on the ice: Bull-baiting, fox-hunting, even horse and coach racing!

 574px Thomas Wyke Thames frost fair


Christmas.... On Ice!

In the appropriately flashy and decadent Regency Era things got really merry... The last ever Frost Fair in 1814 had gin, hot-chocolate and (in something of a grand finale for The London Frost Fair) an ELEPHANT was led across the ice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ice broke-up during this Fair, drowning some unfortunate revellers.

This was the last Frost Fair. The mighty Old London Bridge was demolished in 1831 and replaced, allowing the tide to flow more freely. The Thames was embanked in the 19th century, narrowing and deepening the tidal river. Most significantly the 'Little Ice Age' was beginning to heat up. The Thames has frozen intermittently since then: including January 1963 and most recently in February this year (2021 at the time of writing)! In this most recent example; sub-zero temperatures saw water turn to ice along a section of the Thames in Teddington. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution contemplated using a smaller lifeboat as an 'icebreaker' to get out onto the water.

And on that note - perhaps it's for the best we don't party on the ice like we once did. Modern day health and safety laws (plus a fuller grasp of the ‘central science’) would not favour the notion of a modern-day Christmas on the frozen Thames.

...But if it happens again, do admire it from a safe distance: perhaps from the upper decks of The Golden Hinde. What a spectacular sight it would be!


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