Custom demised: St Crispin Day celebrations

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“If ever I Saint Crispin’s day forget
may my feet be never free from wet,
But ev’ry dirty street and lane pass through
Without one bit of sole to either shoe.”

St Crispin’s Day, famed as the date of the Battle of Agincourt, was once hailed as a holiday for shoe makers. Since medieval times, October 25th was celebrated in areas associated with cobblers and cordwainters, such that it was Shoemaker’s holiday, and cobblers closed shops. In Newark an annual feast was undertaken. In 1835 it is reported:

 “On Monday last, the disciples of Crispin held their annual feast in honour of their titular saint at the Wheatsheaf in Kirkgate and at the Duke of Cumberland in Middlegate. Plentiful repasts were provided at each place. The evening spent in a joyful manner and from the ordinary and peaceful conduct which was manifested by the jolly fellows, they were secured the highest approbation of the people of Newark”

In Hexham, Northumberland, a contributor to Notes and Queries (1st S. vol vi. p. 243) states that:

“shoemakers of the town meet and dine by previous arrangements at some tavern ; a King Crispin, queen, prince, and princess, elected from members of their fraternity of families, being present. They after­wards form in grand procession (the ladies and their atten­dants accepted), and parade the streets with banners, music, &c, the royal party and suite gaily dressed in character. In the evening they reassemble for dancing and other festivities. To his majesty and consort, and their royal highnesses the prince and princess (the latter usually a pretty girl), due regal homage is paid during that day.”

Nearby at Newcastle, Mackenzie (1827) in his History of Newcastle noted that they to celebrated the day by at first holding a coronation of their patron saint in the court at the Freemen’s Hospital, Westgate, and then processed through the town.

In Sussex it was a widespread custom, although by the late 1800s it appear hoave survived only in Cuckfield, Hurstpierpoint, Warninglid and Slaugham. Here it appears to have survived until 1900 where it was recalled that the swinging burning heath brooms and tar barrel rolling was undertaken down a steep hill in the village. It appears to have been another ‘excuse’ for begging, with boys went round Cuckfield and Hurstpierpoint with blacked-up faces and asked for pennies.

At Horsham a local author Henry Burstow notes in his Reminiscences (1911):

“The townspeople generally were interested in the day because it was made the occasion for holding up to ridicule or execration anyone who had misconducted himself or herself, or had become particularly notorious during the year. An effigy of the offending person-frequently there were two together-was on St. Crispin Day hung on a signpost of one or other of the public houses, usually in the district where he or she resided, until the fifth of November when it was taken down and burnt. For several weeks before the day, people would be asking ‘Who is to be the Crispin?’   

The author notes referring to around 1830:

“The first ‘Crispin’ I ever saw was hanging outside the Black Jug in North Street…..I never heard who it represented or what the man had done to get himself disliked. Another year the effigies of a man and his wife named Fawn, who loved ikn gthe Bishopric, were hanged up on the signpost of the Green Dragon. Together they had cruelly ill-used a boy, son of the man and stepson of the woman, they had also whipped him with sting-nettles. They were hung, each with a bunch of sting-nettles in the hand.”       

Apparently when the effigies were removed on the 5th, local people assembled at the Fawn’s house, assaulted the man in question and smashed a hand cart through his window! The perpetrators were fined £2, but as Burstow (1911) notes their fine was quickly paid by public subscription. Sometimes, one of the shoemakers own was the victim. This was Skiver Tulley, who’s crime is unrecorded, but by the sound of the nick-name it was probably due to lack of work. In this case, the effigy was brought into the pub every night by the bootmakers and was included into the drinking party!

A load of old cobblers? Why Saint Crispin?

The origin of his associations is a little obscure. A 3rd century Roman,  he converted to Christianity and was disinherited by his wealthy family and as such he turned to shoemaking and was martyred by Maximian for preaching the Gospel. Legend records that a vigil was kept by his fellow shoemakers and fter his body was pulled from the gibbet, his bones were made into shoe making tools!

The demise of the custom

It is unclear when the custom died out but it was probably a victim of the loss of customs which arose as a result of the decimation of villages after World War I. It is interestingly that this was another event with the lighting of bonfires, a tradition probably borrowed from Samhain-Hallowe’en and then given to Guy Fawkes Night, especially the making of effigies which clearly evolved into Guys and in particular the making of an effigy which displeased the community being undertaken at Lewes. So in a sense St. Crispin’s day may be remembered in this amalgamation. It is worth noting that perhaps the importance of St Crispin and his day has not been entirely forgotten. Northampton, famous for its shoe makers has held a funfair since the 1990s on the day and I have read of a bonfire and fireworks being enacted in the county on this day so perhaps a revival is afoot.

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