Dreaming of the ‘Frost Faire’ of 1565

A guest post by David H. Schroeder, originally published in the Port Townsend Leader, December 2, 2020, reflecting on another very odd year with some parallels to our times.

I find myself dreaming of other times and places. Can you blame me?

Only twenty times in recorded history, the River Thames froze over in the heart of old London, allowing citizens to walk boldly off the riverbanks and frolic on the Thames itself.

Frost Faire of 1814

The first such freeze was in 1408, long before Henry the VIII. The most recent was 1814, when Charles Dickens was a baby.

These freezes were so rare that many Londoners lived their entire lives without experiencing one. They might have heard stories. They might not have believed them.

But when it did happen, people seized the moment and headed out onto the river. Entrepreneurs erected food booths, pubs and puppet shows. Printers dragged their presses offshore and sold souvenir cards “Printed on the Ice!”

Entire streets were improvised, filling with horses and coaches. Tents sprawled from bank to bank.

There was feasting, dancing, gambling, horse racing and nine-pin bowling. One year, an elephant marched across the river. Kings and queens joined in.

It was an impromptu, temporary city — all with the mighty Thames flowing inches beneath their cold feet.

Oxen were roasted over roaring fires. What’s that? Fire on a frozen river? Yes, in many drawings of these “Frost Faires” thick smoke billows from makeshift huts. Other paintings show bonfires.

History does not tell us how well that worked. But it’s clear that –– on a few rare days — one could gaze across the River Thames and see a spontaneous city lit with fire on ice.

This delights my imagination. In my reverie, it feels like the gentle snow that falls at the end of a Christmas movie. A benediction from Mother Nature.

Frost Faire of 1608

I know that it wasn’t that simple.

The poor of London were especially miserable such winters. Many activities springing up on the ice were desperate attempts to earn money, given the harsh disruption of trades dependent on the river.

No doubt many tested the edges of a rapid thaw, felt the ice fail beneath their feet, and lost their lives. One year, a ship anchored to a public house was swept away in the loosening ice. It pulled the building down, dragging several people to icy death.

Yet for most, those days must have felt miraculous. The mighty Thames, lifeblood of the city, churning beside them their entire lives, was now eerily silent, submerged, and tamed.

Distant neighborhoods were connected, new worlds of space ready to explore. It must have felt liberating, especially in one of the most dense and claustrophobic cities in the world.

And especially in the winter of 1565, when the river froze closely following the horrific epidemics of 1563 and 1564. In those two years, a quarter of London’s population had perished from Bubonic Plague.

As the winter darkness descended late that year, all of London must have wondered what nature had in store.

Was the plague over? Would it come back even more virulent than before?

Surely no one was thinking that the Thames might freeze. That hadn’t happened in thirty years. Did anyone still alive remember it doing so?

And yet, the same relentless and implacable Nature, which had challenged them to endure two years of sickness and loss, would now surprise them in an entirely new way.

The river froze. Another “Frost Faire” burst forth. If, as they celebrated, the citizens of London hoped this were a heavenly sign, that the worst was over, that the plague had moved behind them…

…then they were right. It was over, the worst behind them. They had gotten through it. They had survived.

Now we enter our own winter season, poised on the edge of our own plague.

The waters here may not freeze over, but are we so different from the Londoners of those days?

We know a bit more than they did, but not much more. We control the world a bit more than they did, but not much more.

Nature rules. And now it is our turn to huddle and wait, as they did.

Perhaps our winter will also bring some unexpected moments of joy.

Some amazements. Some blessings. Something once in a lifetime, even legendary. Something that people have told us about, but that we did not quite believe.

If so, may we be wise enough to recognize them, and nimble enough to celebrate them, be they large or small.

To feast, to frolic, to gamble. To be both foolish and safe. To learn how to play nine-pin bowling.

Marching elephants across the Salish Sea? Probably not…

Yet perhaps, on one of these dark evenings, at least in our imaginations, we will be surprised to find ourselves dancing around raging bonfires on the ice.

The Courtyard is grateful to David H. Schroeder for permission to reprint this visit to another time, another place. Here’s how it appeared in the print edition of the Port Townsend Leader.

Credits for Frost Faire images:
Featured image: By Thomas Wyke – scan from FT magazine, 2007-09-30, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2867141
Frost Faire of 1814: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1259812
Frost Faire of 1608: Attributed to T. Dekker (author) – Houghton Library, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35943569

9 thoughts on “Dreaming of the ‘Frost Faire’ of 1565

Add yours

  1. Amazing and very thought provoking! I missed this in The Leader so thank you very much for sending us this connection so we could read it. Bully for you !! Cheers, Flip and Ida


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