The evolution of the Medieval Fair

   Posted by: Dorothea Preis   in Medieval Miscellany

We are very grateful to Dr Mark St Leon to be able to bring you his fascinating talk, which he gave at our branch general meeting on 14 June.  Members and Friends of the NSW branch will also be able to read his talk in the 2014 issue of The Chronicles of the White Rose, due at the December general meeting.  

The evolution of the Medieval Fair


I would like to thank the Richard III Society for inviting me to talk to you this afternoon. The title of my talk is “The evolution of the Medieval Fair”.

I do not confess to be anything more than a dilettante on Medieval history and society. My true area of knowledge and expertise is the history of the circus in Australia, in which earlier generations of my family played a key role for well over a hundred years, since before the gold rush period of the 1850s. My, I daresay, definitive history of the circus in Australia was published by Melbourne Books in 2011.

Nevertheless, the circus of the modern age – which was first conceived in London about the time Captain James Cook was charting the east coast of Australia in 1769 – has roots in the wandering entertainers who roamed the provinces and performed on the fairgrounds of Medieval Europe for well over a thousand years after the fall of Rome. Those wandering entertainers in turn can be traced to the people who amused the crowds with displays of acrobatics, ropewalking and animal training in between the gladiatorial events and chariot races of ancient Rome.

Early fairs

The Medieval era embraced the general period of European history from the 5th until the 15th century. However, fairs existed well before the Medieval era and were not confined to Europe. Fairs were originally organised to facilitate trade between distant societies and civilisations. The entertainments found in the early fairs were ancillary to their main commercial purpose.

Huge fairs were held in China, India and at Mecca. Fairs were held in Africa at places such as Timbuktu, where Arabs from north of the Sahara brought goods for the rich medieval kingdoms of West Africa.

The most popular fairs were those on the great trade routes, especially where goods had to be unloaded from boats on to carts and camels.

During the Hellenistic period, subsequent to the reign of Alexander the Great, new trade routes and a spreading common language facilitated the fraternisation of a wide variety of cultural traditions drawn from the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa and India.

England’s most famous trading fair was at Stourbridge, outside Cambridge. It lasted three weeks. Fairs at Newcastle-on-Tyne probably date back to Roman times. Some British fairs were held on remote hillsides near ancient trackways which were trading routes as long ago as the Stone Age.

Wherever trade routes developed, so did the roads upon which itinerant entertainers travelled. Bands of itinerant entertainers, including actors, acrobats, comedians, ropewalkers and animal trainers freely roamed the known world, pleasing their new audiences with performances derived from a variety of exotic traditions.[1]

The urge to triumph over commonly accepted human limitations, far from being exclusive to any one civilisation, lies within the nature of the human animal. Furthermore, the people who were skilled and independent enough to perform these stunts attracted no more than temporary appreciation, since amazement eventually gave way to familiarity and then contempt. Perpetually in search of new audiences to amaze, these people carried their skills and traditions freely across political and cultural borders and were by nature nomadic.[2]

Circus arts

In the Nile Valley, acrobats and balancers are depicted on wall paintings that date to 2500 BC. The tradition of Chinese acrobatics may be traced as far back as the Han dynasty, some 2000 years ago. By the time the great city states of Greece emerged from their dark ages, in the 8th century BC, the circus arts were a well-established feature of Greek culture. The art of rope walking was held in the highest regard by the Greeks, who considered it too special for inclusion in the Olympics and other public games, thus confining its virtues to the art of performance.[3]

The circle, the essence of the modern circus experience, has been described as a primordial symbol. Children establish a circle of space around them as soon as they are able to move. In groups, infant and adults form circles with others. The earliest forms of entertainment areas were in the form of circles, thus grouping together as large an audience as possible to view of the performers. The circle would eventually find expression in the circus of Imperial Rome, a fixed circular arena open to the skies surrounded by seats within which games of a spectacular and exciting nature, often brutal and bloodthirsty, were presented.[4]

Chariot races, athletic contests, wrestling and boxing matches and violent confrontations with wild beasts were presented in large, elliptically shaped stadia, the typical Roman circus. The Circus Maximus, one of the largest stadia ever built, could seat upwards of 200,000 spectators. Trick riders entertained audiences by riding astride two galloping horses, leaping from one horse to another and hanging from their mounts at full gallop to pick up objects from the ground. Over time the performances became more brutal and bloodier. Starved wild animals were pitted against each other; gladiators fought to the death. A new type of arena was designed to give the Romans a closer, more intimate, view of the bloodthirsty action. Thus was built the circular or semi-circular amphitheatre, which was closer to the modern concept of a circus arena and allowed spectators to view an entire spectacle without interruption. The largest of the amphitheatres was the Colosseum, which seated about fifty thousand, the imposing remains of which can be seen today.

Despite much written to the contrary, the modern circus is only tenuously linked to the circus of Ancient Rome.[5] However, the milder entertainments that accompanied the bloodthirsty spectacles of Roman circuses and amphitheatres appear to have borne some resemblance to the modern circus performance. These included the exhibitions of acrobats, wild animal trainers and equestrians.[6]

Early Christianity

When the first Christians rejected Roman form of leisure they set the scene for their own persecution.[7] Regarded as a danger to the state and a blasphemy against its ancient gods, Rome’s Christians were fed to half-starved lions, burned alive, shot down by flights of arrows or hacked to death with axes and swords.[8]

But Christianity was gradually accepted and elevated to the status of Rome’s religion. As a result, barbarity was no longer tolerated.

It has even been suggested that modern historians, under the sanitising influence of Christian tradition, tend to emphasise the blood-letting aspects of pre-Christian Roman entertainment while overlooking the apparent skills of less-objectionable performers such as acrobats, wild animal trainers and equestrians.[9]

After the Goths finally occupied Rome in the 4th Century AD, Europe slid into the Dark Ages. The Circus Maximus, the Colosseum and almost a hundred other places of entertainment like them fell into disuse and most ultimately served as quarries for the builders of succeeding generations. In some Spanish cities they were reconstructed and turned into rings for bullfighting.[10]

After many centuries, what remained of the Roman amphitheatres in England were appropriated as gaming houses for the purpose of bull and bear baiting.[11]

If we define the circus as an organised sequence of performances within a ring of spectators, there was nothing that could properly be called a circus between the demise of the Roman “circus” and the foundation of Astley’s Amphitheatre in London some 14 centuries later. The nearest thing to a circus ring for many centuries was the rough circle formed by a group of curious onlookers when an itinerant tumbler or juggler showed his prowess on the village green.[12]

In the thousand years after the fall of Rome, the Roman Catholic Church established over one hundred feast days. Although intended to replace labour with reflection, they became scenes of expression to excessive drinking and socially denigrating behaviours. Catholicism tolerated these leisure activities, superstition and even immoral behaviour as long as they reinforced the established order of life.[13]


Yet Ancient Rome did bequeath something that can be linked to the circus of modern times: the mimes, the non-speaking entertainments delivered by small troupes of histriones, men and women who performed wherever they could find an audience.

One troupe in the 3rd Century AD was comprised of 60 members including ropewalkers, trapezians, jugglers, contortionists, sword swallowers, fire eaters, stilt walkers, animal trainers, flautists and clowns. These itinerant players embraced a variety of cultural traditions that allowed them to view Roman laws and customs with a scepticism that formal, established theatre could not afford to betray. Free of much of the conformity imposed by Roman society, histriones were not expected to restrict the role of women. Unlike the more formal theatrical profession which was a bastion of male chauvinism from the time of the Greeks until the English Elizabethan age, histriones were representative of both sexes. The histriones survived the demise of the Roman Empire while other entertainers who more strongly expressed the sentiments of the Roman establishment, such as charioteers and gladiators, did not.[14] A thousand years later, wandering bands of minstrels that closely resembled the histriones of Roman times travelled and entertained medieval Europe.[15]

By the Middle Ages, essentially the same kind of people were still travelling Europe and performing other roles as well. They were by then known as minstrels. The medieval minstrel might be a singer, musician, acrobat, juggler, conjurer, puppeteer or animal trainer. Small bands of minstrels entertained the nobility in castles and palaces, and were welcomed at religious feast days and at fairs and carnivals or wherever a crowd could gather.[16]

Trade routes

The medieval age saw the development of new trade routes that helped to mix and enrich of cultural traditions. It was a period rich in opportunities for the addition of new material to the repertoires of small bands of mountebanks, minstrels, troubadours and “jongleurs” (the Norman word for an illusionist of incredible powers but eventually the source word for “juggler”).

Bankers and mountebanks were two parasites which accompanied every large medieval trading fair. Both words derive from the French word banc (bench), the raised platform upon which the money changers and entertainment promoters stood to deliver their respective pitches to the people.[17]

Often lead by a trouvere who was an accomplished singer of songs and reciter of poems, the minstrels were essentially the same people who had performed mimes in the Roman era.[18]

In France during the 5th Century, the church attacked the mountebanks’ companies as the embodiment of evil. In 549, the Chalon Council forbade them to come near the church’s property, effectively banning the profane art of rope walking which was until then practised exclusively at the markets or fairs conducted within proximity to the church. Such measures set the ropewalker apart from society, making him a stranger or “Turk”.[19]

Fairs and markets

The history of fairs is closely associated with the history of markets. The main difference between the two are that markets had a weekly regulation, fairs an annual one and that markets satisfied the day-to-day needs of small householders while the annual fairs were for larger scale trading.

Most fairs originated as the result of pilgrims assembling at abbeys and cathedrals on the feast days of their enshrined saints. Religious houses tended to be in the country or small villages which were unable to cope with the numbers of pilgrims. Tented communities sprang up and travelling merchants set up stalls; thus sacred and secular interests co-incided.

In the Middle Ages many fairs developed as temporary markets and were especially important for long-distance and international trade, as wholesale traders travelled, sometimes for many days, to fairs where they could be sure to meet those they needed to buy from or sell to. They were usually tied to a special Christian religious occasion (particularly the anniversary dedication of a church). Tradesmen would bring and sell their wares, even in the churchyards. Such fairs might then continue annually, usually on the feast day of the patron saint to whom the church was dedicated. This custom was kept up until the reign of Henry VI (1422-61, 1470-71), by which time there were a great many fairs kept on these patronal festivals, for example at Westminster on St Peter’s day, at Smithfield on St Bartholomew’s (the famous Bartholomew Fair) and at Durham on St Cuthbert’s day.

Many charters confirmed already existing fairs, changed their dates and granted their very considerable incomes to corporations or Church interests, these incomes deriving from the right to raise tolls or for “stallage and pickage”, that is to say stalls or poles placed in the ground.


The Romans may have initiated many of the fairs held in Britain up until modern times. The Saxons and then the Normans broadened these activities. Although often instituted in the interests of the church, the fairs also evolved as vital centres of trade. Although fairs are known to have existed in Anglo-Saxon times, their charters were not granted until after the Norman Conquest.

In 1120, Rahere, received from Henry I a charter to establish a fair in London which became known as Bartholomew Fair and which became the most important cloth fair in England.[20] Rahere also founded St Bartholomew’s Hospital which still exists in Smithfield.

Although a monk, Rahere had at one time been a jester in Henry I’s court. The fair may have existed earlier, and the rights to hold it certainly brought a great deal of money into Rahere’s priory. There is a tradition that Rahere used to go out into the fair each year to show his skill as a pious juggler and to collect money to give to the poor or, another source puts it, fleece the pilgrims during the three days’ festival of his patron at Smithfield.

Rahere, this holy man who began life as a jester to the king, died in great sanctity in 1143, “leaving a flock of 13 monks who did very well on the oblations of rich Londoners”.

The gathering of pilgrims soon gained a commercial aspect by the establishment of a cloth fair, where other oblations of the pilgrims went to the enrichment of the city merchants, whose good broadcloth protected the pilgrims bodies while the monks continued to look after their souls. By the time of Queen Elizabeth, the cloth merchants of London having found markets elsewhere, the original three days fair had expanded into a 14 days carnival which had no pretence of any object but pleasure.[21]

Many charters dates from King John’s reign in the early 13th century. To this day, travelling showmen in England start their season on 14 February. This is the day King’s Lynn Mart is opened each year by the mayor of the town. The Mart is made up of the same roundabouts, dodg’em cars, coconut shoes and hoop-las as other fairs all over the country, and the same showmen will later move to other fairs. Kings Lynn Fair is very old. The town of Lynn in Norfolk, once an important port, was given a charter by King John in AD 1204. The king said in the charter that Lynn could hold its fair once a year – and it has done so ever since. In King John’s time, the fair was not intended as amusement. It was most definitely a trading fair.

Itinerant performers were in the habit of tramping from town to town, village to village, for at least two centuries before the Norman Conquest of England. The minstrels and gleemen flocked to the jousting tournaments, fairs and other festivities held in the towns and villages which grew up under the protection of the baronial castles. The gleemen, a term that embraced women and girls, included dancers, posturers, jugglers, tumblers, and exhibitors of performing bears, quadrupeds and monkeys.[22]

After 1066 the familiar Anglo-Saxon “gleeman” gradually amalgamated with the minstrels introduced from mainland Europe. During the period between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, these strolling players and musicians played at the banquets of the nobility and in the castles, palaces and manor houses around which the feudal system was organised. The jester became a respected and even enviable occupation because it was patronised by the upper echelons of society. The bards and the loftier jongleurs, those whose skills was preeminently that of music and song, attached themselves to the courts and houses of the nobility.[23]

As the devastation of the Dark Ages was swept away, towns grew, and these travellers performed more profitably for the public in town squares and on village greens, sometimes paid for their efforts by the mayor and at other times passing around the hat. Merchants sponsored or even brought with them rope walkers to perform high above the fairs as publicity for the exotic imported goods – emeralds and pearls, fine linen, coral and agate – that they had for sale. The performers’ names were ‘foreignised’ to make them appear as exotic as the goods they advertised and anticipating by several centuries a practice of the modern circus.[24]

As long as players posed no political or moral threat, they were tolerated and even employed by church and state. At a time when illiteracy was rife and the printed word was still to appear, when a man’s average life span was about 40 years of age and when life was difficult in the extreme, itinerant entertainers managed to amaze the people, to make them laugh and raise their spirits.[25] It was apparent that there was no limit to the novelties that the common people were prepared to accept.[26]

While the medieval itinerant petty showman seems to have been a lonely creature, travelling the road with a pack, packhorse and a performing animal from which he earned a living, he now became one of a band of wagoners who travelled with their tents and trappings from fair ground to fair ground. The rear of these wagons could sometimes be dropped down to make a stage for the jugglers, conjurers, ballad singer or buffoon to perform upon.[27] Travelling troupes attached themselves to another institution of the medieval age, the fair, a large annual market that was held on the day of a saint’s feast. The fair, its traders and customers, provided a captive audience for peripatetic entertainers and their hangers-on. Here the strolling players and musicians, jugglers and conjurers, equilibrists and acrobats mixed with the entertainments considered too distasteful for society’s upper echelons: freaks and exotic animals, quacks and abortionists, astrologers and pimps. At the fairs, the low ropewalkers used their own jacks to lift their ropes, anchored at each end, some 12 feet into the air. Around their enclosure, they raised a curtain and then charged the people admission. They also attached themselves to bear tamers, contortionists, quacks and con men.[28] Increasingly excluded from the parlours of the nobility and gentry, the itinerant showmen increasingly relied for paying audiences upon the fairs which, in any case, were more profitable.[29]

Although the kings, town guilds and merchants who organised the fair took it very seriously, the local people also wanted to be amused. Travelling showmen in the Middle Ages did not have roundabouts or sideshows. They were much more like the circus performers of today, or the jugglers, acrobats and conjurors who appear in variety shows. Some of the acts have scarcely changed over a thousand years.

There were no circuses, no theatres, no cinema and no television in the Middle Ages. The performers were wayfarers. They went from fair to fair, or performed in town streets and tavern courtyards. If they came to a castle, they would ask permission to perform before the lord and his people.

At the fairs, strolling players and musicians, jugglers and conjurers, equilibrists, rope dancers and acrobats mixed with the entertainments disdained by society’s upper echelons: freaks and exotic animals, quacks and abortionists, astrologers and pimps. As rival troupes jostled to capture the attention of audiences, some showmen began to withdraw from the immediate vicinity of the market-place fair and erect booths, small portable theatres, on the outskirts of the village or town. Patrons were charged for admission instead of volunteering contributions at their whim. At the same time, the showmen gradually perfected the art of self-promotion or ‘barking’ to prey upon the instinctive curiosity of the people. Other showmen toured all kinds of wild and exotic animals around the countryside for exhibition: elephants, camels, lions, monkeys and apes among them. While some animals were simply exhibited to curious sightseers, others were trained to perform tricks.

Since they gave their performances in open places, they could not charge admission. They sent around a hat after the show. Though they worked hard for their money, some people thought this was like begging.

Because of the great numbers of people attracted by fairs they were often the scenes of riots and disturbances, so the privilege of holding a fair was granted by royal charter. At first they were allowed only in towns and places of strength, or where there was a bishop, sheriff or governor who could keep order.

Order was forced at the fairs by officials entrusted with this task and by the Courts of Pie Powder the name of which was derived from the French pieds poudreux, signifying that those who were dealt with in them had dirty feet from travelling. One such court was still operating at Hemel Hempstead in 1898.

As rival showmen and the diverse troupes they represented tried to capture the attention of audiences, violence became commonplace. The upshot of this was that showmen tended to withdraw from the immediate vicinity of the market place and to erect portable booths or small theatres on the outskirts of the village or town. The attractions they presented were then less overtly in competition with each other while the initiation of an admission fee replaced the voluntary contributions made at exit that depended upon the whim of the audience. On the other hand, the booth showmen were forced to cultivate the power of enticement if they were to effectively prey upon the curiosity instinctive in people. As a result, the showmen gradually perfected the arts of exaggeration and hyperbole[30] by “barking” in the same manner as the circus and other itinerant showmen of a later century.[31]


There have always been attempts to stop fairs taking place. A 15th century bishop of Salisbury hated ‘the dances or vile and indecorous games which tempt the unseemliness’.

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century permanently altered the theological, political, social and geographical identity of Western culture. Its major proponent in England was Henry VIII. In terms of the new Protestant work ethic, leisure was to conform to the will of God. Religious and civil authorities attempted to define and control the symbolic and ritual behaviours of the populace.[32] England was gradually transformed from a ‘festal’ society into one of Sabbatarian discipline, daily piety, bible reading, prayer and sermon attendance.

The minstrels favoured by the nobility were pampered and spoiled into degeneration, gradually losing their good name and status. In the climate of the English Reformation, the minstrels and jugglers fell out of favour. Once pampered at court, they degenerated into the ‘insolent, lawless and dissolute’ while their numbers were swelled by ‘incompetent toadies and palace hunters’. In 1546, Henry VIII brought all professional entertainers under control by creating the office of the Master of the Revels, to whom each had to pay an annual licence. Under Henry VIII also, the office and title of joculator regis (king’s juggler) came to an end.

Under Elizabeth, ‘ecclesiastical persons’ were not to visit taverns, play games of dice or cards but were to read the Holy Scripture or engage in honest study or exercise. By the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, the previously esteemed professions of juggler and minstrel had fallen so low in official favour as to be ranked with ‘ruffians, blasphemers, thieves and vagabonds’ and with ‘heretics, Jews, Pagans and sorcerers’. The wandering entertainers were relegated to the fairs, places originally established for the purpose of fostering trade and commerce where they could find a ready audience by ‘barking’ for patronage.[33]

Besides this, there was a broad line drawn in those days and even down to the reign of George III as to the amusements that should be permitted the upper classes and denied the masses.

In the succeeding reign of James I, the operation of the Vagrancy Act was powerfully aided by the growth of Puritanism which regarded all amusements as worldly vanities and indulgence in them as coquetting with sin.[34]

The Puritans made a determined effort to restrict the fairs to their legitimate business of buying and selling.

By the 17th Century Bartholomew Fair had begun to present satirical theatre and almost immediately came in for the heavy criticism and censorship that were the eventual causes of its demise. Attempts were regularly made to suppress stage plays and puppet shows thereafter until Bartholomew Fair’s final closure in 1855.[35]

Civil War

During the Civil War (1642-49) and the ensuing Commonwealth period (1649-60), the Puritans restricted all forms of leisure, animal entertainments and the arts. The great London fairs of Stourbridge, Southwark and Bartholomew resumed their original, legitimate business of buying, selling and hiring. The wandering entertainers – actors, dancers, freaks, puppeteers, animal trainers, vaulters, tumblers, posturers, stiltwalkers and rope-dancers – were banished to the back streets, provinces and small village fairs.[36]

In 1647 the Long Parliament abolished the office of the Master of the Revels and the entertainers of the people were forbidden to exercise their vocation. Theatres were closed, Maypoles removed and the fairs reduced of all their customary amusements.[37] The strolling acrobats now gave clandestine performances in taverns and back alleys. If apprehended they were liable to be punished, although in the country, at the small village fairs, sympathetic magistrates tended to overlook the law breakers.[38]

A 17th century ordinance of the Grand Jury of Middlesex designated fairs a public nuisance and harmful to the people and lead to the empowerment of local authorities to make their own regulations with regard to the visitations of amusements. [39]


With the return of the “Merry Monarch”, Charles II, from exile in France, a variety of new entertainments were introduced into England. While licences were required of “mountebanks, rope dancers, prize players, ballad singers and such as make show of motions and strange sights”, the performers who had been forced out of London into hiding in the provinces emerged to join forces with the talented performers who were now welcomed from the Continent.[40]

At the great fairs of Stourbridge, Southwark and Bartholomew. By the eighteenth century, the great fairs were crowded combinations of sideshows, bazaars, waxworks and games of chance. The most popular performers were the rope walkers. They not only balanced, but also gracefully danced upon their ropes. In 1708, the first menagerie was presented at Bartholomew Fair.

Fairground entertainers nevertheless remained tarnished by the social stigma attached to them during the years of the Reformation and Puritanism. At law, as late as 1935, England’s travelling entertainers were classified as ‘rogues and vagabonds’.[41]

The great fairs of Southwark, May Fair, Bartholomew and the like became once again the wildly popular gatherings that they had been before the Puritans had whitewashed them. Within them, the wandering acrobats and animal trainers again congregated, building up their individual booths, “barking”, giving their performances, pulling down their booths and wandering on.[42]

By the 17th century, the fair was no longer a trading fair but a good excuse for people to enjoy themselves. There were early roundabouts at Bartholomew Fair, big wheels, stalls selling greasy pork, ginger-bread men, shellfish and hot chestnuts. There were bearded ladies, ‘mermaids’, rope dancers, theatrical booths and puppet shows. Then as now, the crowds attracted rogues and ruffians. Cutpurses and pickpockets were always there to work the crowds that gathered, as well as card-sharpers and other cheats.

18th century

The fairs during their greatest age were key drivers of the international economy and after their great age were a primary means of distributing goods from London to the provinces. For much of the 18th century, many fairs continued to function in quite traditional ways. They were important to the agricultural economy of the region; they provided an occasion for a range of business transactions including, in the case of Chester at least, large-scale wholesale trade; and they had significant retail functions.

On to the entire corpus of fairs and the performers who worked them had rubbed off a patina of roguery, even immorality. Yet the common people were entitled to their pleasures , coarse though they might be. The fairs as an institution provided the outdoor amusement during the summer months that the theatres could not. In any case, the vaulters, tight rope dancers and other were not all the vagabonds that they were in the eyes of the law.

In 1708 the first menagerie was presented at Bartholomew Fair and attracted considerable attention. In 1748 no less than three menageries were presented around the London fairs, the best of which seems to have been Perry’s Grand Collection of Living Wild Beasts.[43]

The most popular performers at these fairs were the rope dancers who not only cleverly balanced but gracefully danced upon their ropes. Popular families of rope dancers at Continental fairs included the Ravels of France, of whom there are records dating from 1603, the Chiarinis of Italy, the Wallendas of Germany and the Knies of Switzerland.[44]

The patterns of entertainment and entertainers presented in the desperate and often brawling world of the fairground repeat the characteristics of earlier eras. The performers represented a diversity of cultures. Women were prominent whether as performers or as managers of performing troupes. The wide variety of skills that the performers embraced often led, as in the case of the rope dancers, to the fusion of the merely physical aspects of performance with ideas of artistic expression.[45]

Suppression of the fairs

As towns and cities grew bigger, there was less need for fairs, because shopkeepers were able to supply most of the things which housewives and craftsmen needed. The annual town fair was no longer essential. It became an amusement for the people, and encouraged labourers and apprentices to leave their work and enjoy themselves. When this happened, employers tried to have the fairs stopped, and many disappeared entirely.

Public authorities increasingly saw fairs as a nuisance, rather than an asset. Entertainment which had been important at fairs, increasingly came to dominate many of them. Where this did not happen – for example at Chester or Derby – the fairs declined rapidly in the 19th century. By the 19th century, they had begun their ‘terminal decline’. Fairs had always been associated with notoriety. In 1709, the May fair held in the parish of Westminster was said to be, ‘One of the most pestilential nuisances of impiety and vice’.

There are detailed records of only very few of the numerous fairs that once flourished in London. A great many ancient fairs were supressed in the 19th century, although a survey of 1927 could still list an astonishing total of 1,500 annual fairs in England and Wales. Many of these in the London area.

Bartholomew Fair was the preeminent fair of London but in 1691 and again in 1708 the authorities attempted to confine this fair to three days instead of 14, complaining that the booths in Smithfield were of “extraordinary largeness, not occupied by dealers in goods, merchandise etc proper for a fair, but used chiefly for stage plays, music…”

Patent theatres

To prevent the presentation of subversive material during the eighteenth century, the licensing of theatres in England and France was restricted to a few ‘patent’ theatres. In exchange for their acquiescence, these ‘legitimate’ theatres were protected from competition. The patent theatres held a monopoly on legitimate drama until the Theatre Regulations Act of 1843.

The entertainers outside the ‘patent’ theatres could not use dialogue and were forced to be inventive. Performers thrived at country fairs beyond the restrictive regulations of the big cities. In France a tradition of silent mime developed specifically because unlicensed performers were forbidden to speak dialogue from a stage. In England, new forms of entertainment such as the pantomime, with its songs and silent clowning, evolved as alternatives to the highly regulated theatres. These developments proved to be of considerable significance to the development of the circus arts and set the scene for the establishment of the circus in a modern form.[46]

During the 14-day duration of each year’s Bartholomew’s Fair in the first half of the 18th century, the playhouses of central London closed as the leading ladies and men gravitated to the fairground to appear in theatre booths before audiences of the common people. These arrangements were costly to the licensees of the patent theatres of the metropolis revenue who lost revenue as a result. But actors were increasingly subjected to the rowdyism of fairground pleasure seekers, the underworld characters that haunted the fairs and the discomfort of the cheap fairground fit-ups.

Rivalry between the patent theatre licensees and the fairground theatre led to petitions to parliament.[47] A new series of strenuous efforts for the suppression of the London fairs was commenced. The legislation enacted compromised by reducing the duration of Bartholomew Fair from fourteen to three days. While gambling tables and gin stalls were permitted, puppet shows and theatre booths were banned altogether. Giants and dwarfs and learned pigs and performing ponies now had the fair almost to themselves, although their showmen probably took less money than they did when the theatrical booths and puppet shows attracted large numbers of people.[48]

The fairs went into decline and the performers who had earned their livings from them now sought new outlets for the presentation of their physical skills. The theatrical booths had returned to Bartholomew Fair by 1757, but the leading actors from London’s principal theatres were not tempted to leave the green rooms of the patent theatres for the rowdiness and discomfort of the fairground. In 1760 Southwark Fair was abolished and the only reason Bartholomew Fair lingered on was the revenue it brought Lord Kensington.[49]

Early modern circus

Between the demise of the Roman ‘circus’ and the foundation of the first ‘circus’ of the modern age, Astley’s Amphitheatre in London some 1,300 years later, the nearest thing to a circus ring was the rough circle formed by the curious onlookers who gathered around an itinerant tumbler or juggler on a village green. In the time of Charles I, London‘s Hyde Park contained a roughly circular ring with a diameter of some two to three hundred paces. Known locally as ‘the ring‘ or ‘the circus’, it was a fashionable location for recreational riders. To this rather than the Roman circus, Speaight attributed the origin of the term ‘circus’, as applied to Astley’s and subsequently to this form of entertainment generally. The names of major London thoroughfares that can be seen today, such as Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Circus, were similarly derived.[50]

Astley’s Amphitheatre had its genesis in 1768 in a field at Lambeth on the south side of the Thames where Philip Astley, a former cavalryman, gave open-air displays of trick riding. By 1779, Astley’s displays were enclosed, roofed over and given within a permanent building.[51] In stark contrast to the Roman circus, Astley’s program rested on benign displays of acrobatics, animal training, rope walking and clowning. Nevertheless, in giving employment to itinerant entertainers from the fairgrounds, Astley’s Amphitheatre assumed their marginalised social standing.[52] In 19th century England, circus performers were not only placed towards the lower end of the English social hierarchy but also at the lower end of the social hierarchy within the world of entertainers.[53]

Although Astley did not invent the circus in a modern form—indeed, he never called his entertainment a ‘circus’—he was instrumental in presenting equestrian and other exhibitions of physical skill in an enclosed arena, a new form of popular entertainment that developed within a few years into the institution we now call ‘circus’. In employing entertainers from the fairgrounds, Astley’s unintentionally inherited their marginalised social standing within the English class hierarchy.

With the proceeds from their venture at Ha’penny Hatch, Astley and his wife acquired land a short distance away, at Lambeth near the south end of Westminster Bridge. Their new season there in May 1769 started in an open-air ring, 18.3 metres (60 feet) in diameter. The following year, the year that Captain James Cook charted the eastern coast of New Holland, Astley erected a covered grandstand from which patrons could view the spectacle regardless of the weather. Performances were only given during the daytime and only in summer.
Before each afternoon’s program, Astley led his entertainers in a procession from Piccadilly to Lambeth, followed by a chariot carrying a clown who distributed handbills to onlookers. Astley sat upon his white charger in his dragoon’s uniform and, with sword outstretched, pointed patrons to the entrance. At the end of each show, he went around with a hat to take collections from the audience.

In 1779, Astley covered his equestrian ring with a roof, enabling him to exhibit throughout the year as the Amphitheatre Riding-House. By 1780, with varied programs including his original comedy equestrian sketch, Billy Button’s Ride to Brentford, Astley had firmly established the model for an entirely new form of entertainment.

The largely unsophisticated audiences of the day demanded action rather than dialogue, as an escape from the drabness of everyday life. In any case, the Licensing Act excluded Astley’s from presenting performances with dialogue, a privilege confined to London’s patent theatres. The annual licences granted to Astley’s Amphitheatre and its main rival, the Royal Circus were granted ‘for public dancing and music’ and ‘other public entertainments of the like kind’. By broadly interpreting the wording of these licences, these venues presented not only displays of equestrianism, but sub-dramatic entertainments such as pantomimes and ballets d’action, using placards as a substitute for dialogue. Professional actors, singers and dancers were engaged for each production. Members of an amphitheatre’s equestrian company assumed subsidiary roles in these entertainments and the distinction between equestrian and dramatic roles began to break down.

By the beginning of the 1800s, equestrian and dramatic companies blended with one another to produce an even more ambitious form of entertainment, the hippodrama. First seen on the stage at Astley’s in 1807, the hippodrama was equestrianised melodrama that featured the spectacle of riders and their mounts engaging in combat and galloping across a long stage that overlooked a circus ring. The hippodramas were often based on plots of a military nature and designed with an eye to the role of the horse. They were neither theatre nor circus, but a clever hybrid of the two. Circus equestrianism of the kind that Astley originated was relegated to the Scenes-in-the-Circle, entertainments presented in the ring before or after the main hippodramatic display.

Destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times, Astley’s Amphitheatre remained the international focal point of circus until its final demolition in 1893. In 1824, ten years after Astley’s death in Paris, Andrew Ducrow, Astley’s former apprentice, took over its management. For almost half a century after Astley’s beginnings, circus equestrianism advanced little beyond posing upon horseback, acts of trick riding known as voltige, and the burlesque scenes for which the people clamoured, such as The Peasant’s Frolic and Billy Button’s Ride to Brentford. Now, Andrew Ducrow began to raise the spectacle of circus equestrianism to an art form and would prove to be one of the most influential figures in the history of the circus.


The concept of the modern circus was still a new genre of entertainment when The First Fleet lifted anchor at Portsmouth in May 1787. Indeed, we may speculate that many of the Fleet’s human cargo had witnessed, or were at least aware of, the delights of Astley’s. But organised popular entertainments were not among the priorities of a penal settlement. Sydney and Hobart Town were not served by regular theatre performances until the 1830s and then only with difficulty. The ropewalkers, gymnasts and equestrians who made occasional appearances as early as 1833 proved transient. The elements necessary to launch a colonial circus industry – bureaucratic largesse, entrepreneurs, performers, audiences and prosperity – gradually fell into place.

Of the few settlements along Australia’s coastline, Launceston held the least promise as the foundation place of Australian circus. In 1847, this minor seaport held a population of only some 10,000, most of whom served the town’s penal purpose.[54] Nevertheless, that year, the town saw the first comprehensive and successful demonstration of colonial circus activity and thereby the launch of a colonial circus industry.

Responsible for this initiative was a Devonshire-born equestrian, horse dealer and publican named Robert Avis Radford [1814-65]. His Astley’s ‘on a limited scale’ was a building of simple construction – presumably timber, iron and canvas – located in the yard of his Horse & Jockey Inn in York Street.[55] It opened on the evening of Monday, 27 December 1847.[56] With a little company of performers, some of whom were former convicts, Radford presented feats of horsemanship, dancing, vaulting, gymnastics, acrobatics, clowning and equestrian burlesque. The features of Astley’s Amphitheatre and the equestrian art of Andrew Ducrow were thus transposed, on a smaller and probably rougher scale, to this most distant point on the globe.

Following Radford’s example, colonial circus exhibitions were soon given in amphitheatres of modest descriptions in Port Phillip, Maitland, Singleton, Sydney and Adelaide in the years leading up to the first gold rushes. From these early establishments were derived the first travelling circus troupes that travelled the eastern colonies to deliver equestrian, acrobatic, tumbling, clowning and tightrope performances to audiences in city, town and bush

In colonial and early 20th century Australia, the travelling show was the practical solution to a fundamental economic problem: how to provide a small and widely distributed population with access to popular entertainment. From the early 1850s, travelling entertainers delivered to Australians an increasingly extraordinary diversity of culture – popular, high and low – such as, opera, minstrel, photographic, magic, bellringing, gospel singing, boxing, menagerie and carnival, to name a few. However, the earliest demonstrable example of an Australian travelling show, and the most enduring, was the circus. The colonial popularity of horses and horsemanship, wrote Twopeny in 1883, produced ‘perhaps the most critical and appreciative circus audiences in the world’.[57]

From the 1880s, colonial governments encouraged the development of annual country shows to spread farming knowledge and to bond rural communities.[58] Circuses increasingly organised their itineraries to visit towns on the emerging ‘show’ circuits only to find that lesser forms of entertainment usually followed in their wake. Local show committees, dominated by the new landed gentry, revived English class attitudes, when they excluded ‘show touts’ and gambling tables.[59]

In 1880, my great-great-grandfather, Matthew St Leon, headed colonial Australia’s largest and most popular circus. That July, “St Leon’s Mammoth Circus”, as it was called, turned up at Casino on the north coast of New South Wales. But even colonial Australia’s largest and most popular circus could not escape the patina of roguery and vagabondism. Some newly-arrived and erudite English journalists transferred and heaped the Old World’s condescending attitudes on colonial itinerant showpeople:

During the past week or more the town has been gradually filling with racehorses, their trainers and jockeys and the inevitable accompaniment of betting men and gamblers; and following in their wake, come a list of Bohemians of various sorts – some with cheap jewellery (doing a little better too) some with unrivalled panoramas and wonderful sights, others with unparalleled freaks of nature and a Punch & Judy Show, enlivened by acts on an incomparable hurdy-gurdy; while others again try to tempt a few coins from us with some high class music, and to wind up all, comes a grand circus – always a treat to the youngster, however execrable the performance. It really seems a hard matter now to obtain patronage for all the entertainment placed before us and I don’t wonder at it, seeing the existing depression; but in any case many of the so-called shows are really very contemptible exhibitions, and only intended to support loafers.[60]



1 Hoh & Rough, 1990, pp 29-33
2 Hoh & Rough, 1990, p23-29
3 Demoriane, 1989, pp. 85, 94
4 Thorne, 1971, pxx
5 Hoh and Rough, 1990, p.33; P. Bouissac, Circus and culture: A semiotic approach, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1976, pp.11-12.
6 Hoh and Rough, 1990, pp.35-6
7 L.J.deLisle, ‘Keys to the kingdom or devil’s playground? The impact of institutionalised religion on the perception and use of leisure’, Annals of Leisure Research, Vol. 6, No.2, 2003, p.89.
8 C. Hibbert, Rome: The biography of a city, The Folio Society, London, 1997, pp.66-67; M. Grant, Nero, The Folio Society, 1998, pp.123-27.
9 Bouissac, 1976, p. 11
10 Croft-Cooke & Cotes, 1976, p. 26, 27
11 Frost, 1881, p.2
12 Croft-Cooke & Cotes, 1976, pp. 7, 27
13 deLisle, p.90.
14 Hoh & Rough, 1990, pp. 36-38
15 Speaight, 1980, pp. 12-13
16 Hoh and Rough, pp.36-38; Speaight, pp.11-12; R. Croft-Cooke and P. Cotes, Circus: A world history, Elek, London, 1976, pp.27-28.
17 Hoh & Rough, 1990, p. 38
18 Speaight, 1980, p. 12
19 Demoriane, 1989, p. 101, 118
20 Starsmore, 1975, p. 13
21 Boulton, pp. 44-45.
22 Amusements at the Fairs in the Middle Ages, 1875a
23 Manning-Sanders, 1952, pp. 18-20
24 Demoriane, 1989, p. 31, 131
25 Hoh & Rough, 1990, pp. 38-9
26 Wykes, 1977, p. 49
27 Croft-Cooke & Cotes, 1976, pp. 27-8
28 Demoriane, 1989, p. 131
29 Demoriane, 1989, p. 101
30 Wykes, 1977, p. 37, 51-3
31 Manning-Sanders, 1952, p. 27
32 deLisle, pp.90-91; S. Parker, The sociology of leisure, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1977, p.30.
33 Manning-Sanders, pp.20, 26-27; J. Strutt, The sports and pastimes of the people of England, Methuen & Co, London, 1903, pp.172-73; deLisle, p.93; Golby and Purdue, p.35.
34 Amusements at the Fairs in the Middle Ages, 1875a
35 Starsmore, 1975, p. 13
36 H. Demoriane, The tight rope walker, Secker and Warburg, London, 1989, p.99, 100; Anon., ‘Old London fairs’, New York Clipper, 14 August, 1875; J. and A. Durant, Pictorial history of the American circus, A. S. Barnes and Co., New York, 1967, p.15; Speaight, pp.16-20; Anon., ‘Old London fairs’, New York Clipper, 7 August, 1875; deLisle, p.94.
37 Amusements at the Fairs in the Middle Ages, 1875b
38 Manning-Sanders, 1952, p. 20, 26-7
39 Wykes, 1977, p. 57
40 Demoriane, 1989, p. 100
41 Y. Carmeli, ‘The invention of circus and bourgeois hegemony: A glance at British circus books’, Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1995, pp.213ff.
42 Manning-Sanders, 1952, p. 28
43 Old London Fairs, 1875a
44 Croft-Cooke & Cotes, 1976, p. 33
45 Speaight, 1990, pp. 16-20
46 Hoh & Rough, 1990, p. 42
47 Saxon, 1978, p.19
48 Old London Fairs, 1875b
49 Hippisley Coxe, 1980, p. 30
50 Croft-Cooke and Cotes, pp.7, 27; Speaight, p.34.
51 Speaight, p.31ff.
52 R Manning-Sanders, The English circus, London: Werner Laurie, 1952, p.20.
53 Saxon, Arthur H., The life and art of Andrew Ducrow and the romantic age of English circus, Archon Books, Hamden, Connecticut, 1978, p.34.
54 Van Diemen’s Land, Census of the Year 1848.
55 Cornwall Chronicle, 1 December 1847.
56 Cornwall Chronicle, 25 December 1847.
57 Richard E. N. Twopeny, Town Life in Australia (Sydney: Penguin Books, 1973), 219-20.
58 Broome with Jackomos, p.21
59 Broome with Jackomos, p.23.
60 Clarence River Express, 7 August 1880


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