This article is about the Stourbridge Fair at the Leper Chapel. It was held here on the outskirts of Cambridge, and was at one time the biggest in England and some say, in Europe.
Here is the Mayor of Cambridge, Councillor George Pippas, together with two proctors of the University of Cambridge. One of the proctors is marking the opening of the now-defunct Stourbridge Fair. He is doing so by reading out the Stourbridge Cry. It is an admonition as to correct behaviour and the consequences of not following it.
And here at the two provosts, who are masters of Colleges at Cambridge University.
The Leper Chapel
Follow the River Cam a little way to the north-east of Cambridge, and you will come to Stourbridge Common.
Across the common, there is a small stone building. In former times it was a hospital. It was a hospital for lepers and other diseases that were thought to be contracted through sin. The hospital was purposely situated by the road so that passers by could take heed of the wages of sin. And they could also appreciate those who gave the funds and their time to keep the hospital going.
Today, the road past the chapel is higher than the land on which the chapel is built. That’s because of the road bridge that was built to go over the railway line that runs to the west of the chapel. So today the chapel is down in a dip and easy to miss unless one is looking for it.
Here on the map you can see the location of the Leper Chapel by the road and near the railway line and Stourbridge Common.
King John’s Charter of 1211
In 1211, King John granted a charter for an annual fair held by the Leper Hospital at Steresbrigge. The name came from a bridge over the river Stere (Stour), a tributory of the River Cam.
The fair ran between 24 August and 29 September. By the late 1200s when the leper colony closed, the town of Cambridge took over the fair.
The fair was originally a place where local people came to sell produce from their fields and smallholdings. In the nature of people, however, the locals started to rent out their stalls. They rented them to traders from London and other parts of the country. The even rented them to traders from towns in mainland Europe. Cambridge was navigable down to the sea, and so goods came up the River Cam and the fair grew. By the late 1300s it was one of the largest in Europe.
With greater trade came greater dishonesty. It came to a head when the University complained to the King. The complaint was that inferior goods were being sold. Not only that, but there was unseemly entertainment.
By the 1390s, the University gained control of the conduct of the fair. But as the years went by and the fair grew, the town of Cambridge wanted to tax the profits from the fair. The tussle over control was settled by Elizabeth I in 1589. She confirmed the right of the town to tax the fair. But she granted the University the right to oversee the quality of goods and the standard of entertainment.
And against that background, here is what has become known as The Stourbridge Cry. It was read out at the start of the fair by officers of the University who stated the rules of conduct for the fair. It makes good reading.
The Stourbridge Cry
We charge and strictly command in the name of the King of England our Sovereign Lord and in the name of my Lord Chancellor of the University of Cambridge that all manner of scholars, scholars’ servants and all other persons in this fair and the precincts of the same keep the King’s peace and make no fray, cry, freaking or any other noise by the which insurrections, conventicles, or gathering of people may be made in this fair to the trouble, vexing and disquieting of the King’s liege people or letting of the officers of the University to exercise their offices under the pain of imprisonment and further punishment as the offence shall require.
Also we charge and command that all manner of Scholars and Scholars’ servants wear no weapon to make any fray upon any of the King’s people neither in coming nor in going from this fair under the pain of banishment.
Also we require and command that all manner of strangers that come to this fair, that they leave their weapon at their inns that the King’s peace may be the better kept and for the occasion ensuing of the same, under the pain of forfeiting of their weapons, and for their punishment as the offence shall require. And that every innkeeper give that warning to his guests at their first coming: to leave their weapons in their inns under the pain of punishment.
Also we charge and command that all common women and misbehaving people avoid and withdraw themselves out of this fair and the precincts of the same immediately after this cry, that the King’s subjects may be the more quiet, and good rule may be the better maintained, under the pain of imprisonment.
Also we charge and command in the King’s name of England, and in the name of my Lord Chancellor of the University, that all manner of bakers that bake to sell that they bake two loaves for one penny and a farthing for another of good paste, good boulted and lawful size after as grain goeth in the market. And every baker that baketh to sell have a mark upon his bread whereby it may be known who did bake it under the pain of forfeiture of his bread.
Also that all bakers shall obtain and keep such sizes of bread as shall be given them by the officers of the university under the pain of forfeiture of their bread if it hap any baker to be found faulty in any article pertaining to unlawful bread according to the King’s laws, that then such bakers after three admonitions shall be imprisoned and punished according the laws of our Sovereign Lord the King.
Also that no brewers sell into this fair nor anywhere within the precincts of the university, a barrel of good ale above two shillings, nor a barrel of hostel ale above twelve pence, no long ale, no red ale, no ropey ale, but good and wholesome ale for man’s body under the pain of forfeiture, and that every brewer, have a mark upon his barrel whereby it may be known whose it is under the pain of imprisonment and fine at the discretion of the officers of the university.
Also that every barrel of good ale hold and contain fourteen gallons, thirteen gallons of clear ale and one gallon for the rest and the hogget seven gallons that is to say six gallons and one pottle of clear ale and the residue of rest under the pain of forfeiture and for the punishment after the discretion of the officers of the university.
Also we command that the beer brewers shall sell a kilderkin of double beer in this fair for two shillings and a kilderkin of single beer for twelve pence.
Also that no tipper nor gannaker sell in the said fair, nor within the precincts of the university, a gallon of good ale above four pence nor a gallon of hostel ale above two pence, And the beer brewers a gallon above four pence and a gallon of single beer above two pence under the pain of twelve pence for every time.
Also where great detriments, hurts and deceits hath been to the King’s subjects in times past by reason of false and unlawful measures brought by potters and other persons to be sold and bought in this fair and the precincts of the same in avoiding therefore the said hurts and untrue measures, we strictly charge and command that every potter and all other persons that bring such pots to be sold in this fair or precincts of the same that they and all other from henceforth sell and buy true goods and lawful measures as gallons, pottles, quarts, and half pints under the pain of imprisonment, and there to remain till they have made fine at the will of the said officers.
Also if any brewer or beer-brewer be found faulty in any of the premises after that they have been in times amerced, then the said brewer shall be committed to prison, there to remain till he have fined at the pleasure of the officers of the university.
Also that every tippler and gannaker that selleth ale in this fair that ye have the measure well and lawfully sealed and assized according to the standard of the university, and that every gannaker and beer-brewer that hath beer to sell have a sign at the booth whereby they may the better be known under the peril of imprisonment.
Also that any vintner that hath wine to sell in this fair as white wine, red wine, claret wine, gascon, malmsey, or any other wine, that they sell no dearer than they do in London except an halfpenny in a gallon toward the carriage, and that every vintner have their pots and their measures sized and ensealed after the standard of the university under tbe pain of forfeiture and their bodies to prison.
Also that all persons that bringeth ling-fish, stockfish or any other salt-fish to sell in this fair or within the precincts of the same that they sell no rot fish, no byrnt fish, no resty fish, but good lawful and wholesome for man’s body under the pain of forfeiture of their fish and their bodies to prison.
Also that all manner of persons which hath salmon, herring or eels to sell in this fair that the vessels called butt, barrel, half barrel, and firkins, they sell none of them afore they be seen and searched and that the butt hold and contain eighty-three gallons, well and truly packed upon pain for every butt, barrel, half barrel so lacking their said measure six shillings and eight pence. And that the great salmon be well and truly packed by itself without any meddling of any grills or broken bellied salmon with the same & that all small fish called grills be packed by themself only without any meddling upon pain of forfeiture and lofting of six shillings and eight pence for every butt, barrel and half barrel so found faulty contrary to the statute of the parliament in the which statute these points and other more be more plainly expressed.
Also that any pikemonger that bringeth fresh fish to sell in the fair, as pike, tench, roach, perch, eel or any other fresh fish that the fish be quick and liveish and of size and bigness according to the statute thereof made under the pain of forfeiture and their bodies to prison.
Also that every butcher that bringeth flesh to sell in this fair that he bringeth no rotten flesh, no murrain, no sussners, but lawful and wholesome for man’s body and that every butcher bringeth the hide and the tallow of all such flesh as he shall kill to sell in this fair. And that every butcher bringeth with him the liver and the lungs of all such beasts under the pain of forfeiture.
Also that every baker that baketh horsebread to sell, that he selleth three loaves for a penny after good and lawful size and after such size as shall be given them, by the university, and that it be made of good peas & beans and other lawful stuff, upon the pain aforesaid.
Also that all brown bakers, as well as innkeepers as other, observe and keep such size of horsebread as shall be given them by the said officers, under the pains and punishments as of other bakers is rehearsed.
Also that all persons that selleth by measure as by ell or by yard woollen cloth or linen cloth, silk, worsteads sized and ensealed that they have their ells and their yards sized and ensealed after the standard of the university under the pain of forfeiture and their bodies to prison.
Also that all persons that selleth by measure as by bushel, half bushel, peck or half peck as coal, salt, mustard seed or any other thing that their bushels, half bushels and pecks be sized and sealed after the standard of the university under the pain of imprisonment and more punishment as the offence shall require.
Also that all persons that selleth by weight have good and lawful weights sized and ensealed and to agree with the standard weights of the university under the pain of imprisonment and for their fine as it shall please the officers of the university.
Also that no man shall regrate none of the foresaid things as ling fish, salt fish, stock fish, herring, salmon, pike, tench, wax, flax, osmund, rosin, yarn, pitch, tar, cloth, nor none other thing of grocery ware or any other merchandise in this fair under the pain of forfeiture and their bodies to prison and to make fine as it shall please the officers of the university. And he regreteth that buyeth any of the said things afore rehearsed or any other manner of merchandise of any man in this fair and selleth again the same thing in the said fair enhancing the price of the said thing more that it was before.
Also if there be any person that will sue by personal action either for debt, victuals, injury and trespass or think themselves wronged in any of the premises or otherwise, let him come and complain to my Lord Chancellor’s Commissary and other officers of the university which shall hold and keep courts daily and hourly in this fair during the same to the intent that he shall be heard with lawful favour, right and conscience and after the liberties of the same.
Also that every butcher that bringeth flesh to sell in this market that they bring no rotten flesh, et supra.
Also that every butcher that bringeth to sell in this market that they sell none of the tallow of all such beasts as they shall bring to sell in this market, but to such rasement and tallow-candellers as are dwellers within the said university and precincts of the same, and they to make the said tallow in good and lawful candle so that the said university and town of Cambridge be nowise disappointed but the better served and that they sell not a pound of candle above a penny, and that the said butcher sell not a stone of tallow above eight pence.
Also that every innkeeper that keepeth inn that he have his bottles of hay well and lawfully made and sized and that every bottle weigh seven pound and that they sell not less than three horse loaves good and lawful for a penny under the pain of punishment after the discretion of the officers of the university.
Also that every carrier that bringeth wood to sell in this market that they bring good wood, and if it be faggot let the faggot thereof be well filled and sized and that every faggot be full seven foot long and every faggot to have two bounds and thirty-one faggots in a load well filled after the said length under the pain of forfeiture.
Also that every collier that bringeth charcoal to sell that every sack called a quarter sack holds eight bushels, saving that they be allowed for the culm and breaking by the way after the discretion of the officers of the university under pain of forfeiture.
Also that every person that bringeth grain to sell in the market that they open not afore ten of the clock nor to stand after one of the clock under the pain of forfeiture.
I found the meaning of some of the words in the Stourbridge Cry:
Pottle – a measure for liquids equal to a half gallon
Amerced – from amercement – a financial penalty in English law, common during the Middle Ages, imposed either by the court or by peers.
In 1933, Stourbridge Fair was held for the last time. And now all that is left is the ceremony officiated by the University and the Lord Mayor annually to perpetuate the memory of the fair.
In the event it was a small affair in terms of stalls, just four of them – one for jewellery, one for a local honey from Quy Fen Apiaries, one for a coconut shy, and one for Cambridge Past Present and Future, a charity and civic society whose aim is:
…to help anage green spaces and historic buildings in and around Cambridge for public enjoyment; to run education programmes promoting nature and local history; and to champion high quality planning and the sustainable development of Cambridge and its surrounds.
Why were there not more stalls? The Lord Mayor was there and proctors of Cambridge University were there. So why so few stalls? I found myself imagining the mood at the fair in the Middle Ages and wishing that there were more stalls today.
The fact is that I have mixed feelings about the revival of old customs that perpetuate class distinctions. Not that I found the two proctors anything other than courteous and kind. And I have met the mayor before and he is a lovely man. It is just that this little ceremony, quaint though it seemed, serves in the end to delineate the classes and to keep them apart.
Take a look at the people standing behind the Mayor and the proctors. They are ‘in costume’ so it is not for real, or is it?