All The Fun Of The Fair

Ely’s biennial fair is back in the city later this month, but did you know the origins of the fair goes back centuries?

Image: Ely Fair

In fact, Henry I (c.1069 – 1135) granted a fair to the abbot and convent for 7 days, beginning 3 days before the feast of St. Etheldreda (or St Awdrey as she was generally called), a celebratory day remembering the anniversary of her death on 23rd June AD 679. The fair was popular and sold cheap, trifling objects to pilgrims by way of souvenirs; the word ‘tawdry’, a corruption of St Awdrey, derives from this practice.

In 1312 a fair was granted to the prior for 15 days at the festival at St. Lambert and in 1318 a fair was granted to the bishop for 22 days, beginning on the Vigil of the Ascension.

Throughout the Middle Ages the fairs were marts of great activity, particularly that of St. Etheldreda which continued to thrive. So popular was the fair that booths were erected all round the precinct walls, at the gateways, in the streets, and on the wharves.

By the 15th century representatives of large commercial firms bargained in Ely over the sale of iron and timber. 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. So profitable were the fairs to the grantee that a jealous eye was kept for fear that any other fair should queer the pitch.

In 1542 two annual fairs at Kings Lynn were abolished, because the regrating of salt fish (buying in order to sell again in the same market) there was held to be detrimental to the fairs at Ely and elsewhere.

At the end of this century the fairs were still an important source of revenue to the bishop, who appointed a special bailiff of the fairs. In 1665 they were prohibited owing to the Great Plague. St. Lambert’s fair had disappeared by the later 18th century, and the dates of the other two had been changed. 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 auspices of the East Cambs District Council.