Between 1309 and 1814, the surface of the Thames froze over a number of times in the London area – though only once during Henry VIII’s long reign. While temperatures were colder in those days, the main reason for this was the structure of Old London Bridge. With 20 piers and 10 arches, it encouraged chunks of ice to get caught, which slowed the flow of the river and made it more likely to freeze over (when New London Bridge opened in 1831, it had only five arches – and the Thames has not frozen over since). Still, it was a rare enough occurrence that it made for a big deal.
When it happened in 1536, it led to the Tudor equivalent of the show must go on. Tradition called for a ceremonial procession of boats from London to Greenwich for the holidays – a procession that could not take place. Instead, as Alison Weir describes it, “Henry, Jane and Mary, warmly wrapped in furs, rode on horseback from Westminster to the City… priests in copes with crosiers stood at every street corner waiting to bless the royal party and, in spite of the bitter cold, the people turned out in large numbers to watch the procession, cheering loudly.”
They rode directly to St. Paul’s to hear mass – the formal opening of the Christmas season – then “spurred their horses across the frozen river” to ride to Greenwich where they would stay for the rest of the holidays. The entire country rejoiced as they hadn’t in years – even Robert Aske was a guest at court, a visible reminder of how the whole country was united behind its King and Queen (admittedly, the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion would flare up again shortly afterwards, but the holiday display calmed the masses as it was meant to do).
The people would have continued to celebrate on the frozen river for well after that – documents from 1309 tell about organized entertainments “where a hare was hunted with dogs (and) a fire was built on the ice” and engravings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries depict people erecting tents and selling food and drink and even souvenirs (!).
Any excuse for a party….
Wikipedia – River Thames Frost Fairs
Alison Weir – The Six Wives of Henry VIII
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