City of Ely: Fairs

Page 50

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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FAIRS (fn. 1)

Henry I granted a fair to the abbot and convent for 7 days, beginning 3 days before the feast of St. Etheldreda; (fn. 2) in 1312 a fair was granted to the prior for 15 days at the festival at St. Lambert; (fn. 3) in 1318 a fair was granted to the bishop for 22 days, beginning on the Vigil of the Ascension. (fn. 4) Throughout the Middle Ages the fairs were marts of great activity, particularly that of St. Etheldreda. Booths were erected all round the precinct walls, at the gateways, in the streets, and on the wharves. By the 15th century agents of great commercial firms bargained here over the sale of iron and timber. (fn. 5) Townspeople took part in the lively scene. St. Audrey's ribbons, held in veneration even in the 16th century as having touched the shrine of St. Etheldreda, were in wide demand. (fn. 6) So profitable were the fairs to the grantee that a jealous eye was kept lest any other fair should queer the pitch. (fn. 7) In 1542 two annual fairs at Lynn were abolished, because the regrating of salt fish there was held to be detrimental to the fairs at Ely and elsewhere. (fn. 8) At the end of this century (fn. 9) the fairs were still an important source of revenue to the bishop, who appointed the special bailiff of the fairs. In 1665 they were prohibited owing to the Great Plague. (fn. 10) St. Lambert's fair had disappeared by the later 18th century, and the dates of the other two had been changed. (fn. 11) They were rapidly declining in importance by this period and were held for only a few days annually. The two fairs are still held in May and October, now under the aegis of the Urban District Council. (fn. 12)


  • 1. For the history of the market see above, p. 47.
  • 2. B.M. Add. MS. 5809, f. 97.
  • 3. Cal. Chart. R., 1300-26, 185.
  • 4. Ibid., 403.
  • 5. D. and C. Mun., Sacrist R., 18 Ed. IV (1478-9); Stewart, Archit. Hist. Ely Cath. 191.
  • 6. A student of Clare Hall, Camb., seeking the favour of Thos. Cromwell, in 1533, sent him 'some hallowed Tawdreye laces' (L. and P. Hen. VIII, vi, 516). See also Oxf. Engl. Dict. s.v. tawdry lace.
  • 7. Matt. Paris, Chron. Majora (Rolls Ser.), v, 29.
  • 8. 33 Hen. VIII, c. 34.
  • 9. S.C. 6/Eliz./282 m. 1 (View of Acct.).
  • 10. Bentham, Ely, 131 n.
  • 11. Lysons, Magna Brit. (ed. 1810), ii (1), 189.
  • 12. Above, p. 47, n. 21.