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Guest Article - St. Bartolemew's Fair by Toni Mount


Today I'm delighted to be part of historian and author Toni Mount's book tour for the latest installment of her fantastic Sebastian Foxley Medieval Murder Mystery series, The Colour of Lies, which is the 7th book in the series. Over to Toni:

Seb Foxley by Dmitry Yakhovsky


St Bartholomew’s Fair

In my latest Seb Foxley medieval murder mystery, The Colour of Lies, set in London in the 1470s, the adventure plays out against the background of St Bartholomew’s Fair and the trouble begins with the theft of three exceptionally valuable items from a merchant’s stall: unicorn horns.

The great trade-fair took place just outside the walls of the city of London every summer. King Henry I had granted a charter for the fair to Rahere, who had once been his court jester, in order to raise money for the Priory of St Bartholomew that Rahere founded for the benefit of his soul. The fair began in 1133 and was last held in 1855, by which time it had become such a rowdy and drunken event, the authorities closed it down for good. Each year, the fair opened on the eve of the feast of St Bartholomew, the 24 August, within the priory precincts at West Smithfield, beyond Aldersgate, north of the city. After the priory was dissolved by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, the fair continued to be held on land owned by the parish of St Bartholomew the Great.

Originally, it was a three-day cloth fair but gradually extended until, at its longest, it lasted for two weeks during the seventeenth century. It was so popular that even in 1348, when it is recorded that the Black Death broke out at St Bartholomew’s Fair and lasted until the next fair the following year, there is no record that the event was called off or even curtailed. By the fifteenth century, all kinds of goods, such as pewter, leather and more exotic wares, were being sold, as well as woollen cloth, linen and luxury textiles, with merchants from all around England and across Europe coming to trade.

Apart from business, folk also came to enjoy themselves and be entertained by all kinds of sideshows: jugglers, acrobats and fire-eaters as well as wild animal shows, freak shows and performances by both mountebanks (literally those who mounted a bench – a term applied to itinerant actors) and puppeteers. It was traditional for the Lord Mayor of London to open the fair on St Bartholomew’s Eve with the odd custom of pausing on the way to accept a cup of wine at Newgate Gaol before continuing to Smithfield. He went in procession, accompanied by members of the Merchant Taylors Guild with their standard cloth-yard ruler, made of silver, to check that all traders were using the correct measure in selling their cloth. The west gate of the fair was to the north of St Bartholomew’s Church (there is still an entrance from Smithfield to the road still called Cloth Fair today but both gate and gateway have been removed). At this gate, the proclamation was read, declaring the fair open. At night, the gate was closed to protect the goods against theft.

Over the centuries, not surprisingly perhaps, conflict arose between the priory and the city authorities. By the 1400s, the fair had become such a large event, it extended well beyond St Bartholomew’s precincts, as far south as St Sepulchre Church, north to the gate of St John’s Priory and west to Holborn Cross and the city had no intention of permitting the prior to collect tolls and fees for stalls set up outside his jurisdiction. The tolls collected were pickage – a fee paid for the privilege of breaking the ground to erect a tent or booth – and stallage – a tax paid for setting up a market stall. In 1453, agreement was made:

That on occasions when Bartholomew Fair is held, pickage and stallage levied in Westsmythfeld outside the precinct of the priory... should thenceforth belong to the mayor and commonalty without objection being raised by the prior, and that the same tolls taken within the close and precinct of the priory should be the property of the prior and convent... without challenge by the civic authorities. It was further agreed that the mayor and commonalty, and their successors, should exercise the scrutiny of weights and measures, and of goods exposed for sale at the fair outside the precinct of the priory, as well as within the said precinct, the prior and his successors being at liberty to join the mayor in his yearly visit for the purpose within the precinct...

However, with the fair no longer confined within the priory walls, the closing of the gate at night would have given no protection to the majority of stalls outside and it was up to the stall-holders to protect their property, either sleeping on site or employing someone to keep watch. Crime was always a problem at any fair – hence the setting for Seb Foxley’s initial investigation in The Colour of Lies. The proclamation read out before the fair commenced each year stated:

All manner of persons are straitly charged and commanded to keep the peace, and to do nothing in the disturbance of the said fair as they will answer to the contrary, at their perils; and that there be no manner of arrest or arrests, but by such officers as are appointed. And if any persons be aggrieved let them repair to the court of Pie-Powder, where they may have speedy relief according to justice and equity.

Special ‘Courts of Pie-powder’ were set up at every fair and market and were said to be the lowest and at the same time most expeditious courts of justice known to the law of England, and so called from the dusty feet [pieds poudres] of the suitors. A complainant had to bring his case to the court immediately and it had to be heard, deliberated upon, determined and acted on within the day or, at St Bartholomew’s, before the fair ended, when participants would be gone. Pie-powder courts were intended to deal with commercial crimes, such as selling faulty or shoddy goods or giving short measure or not having the appropriate licence to trade, overseen by the common sergeant and an under-sheriff. But the fact that justice was done so swiftly meant other crimes were also brought before the court, rather than held over to be dealt with by the law courts. Thieves, drunkards, brawlers, beggars and con-artists were all subject to its punishments. Most often this required the payment of fines and/or humiliation in the stocks or pillory where passers-by could throw dung or mouldy cabbages at the miscreant. There was even a special set of stocks for female offenders, called the ‘thews’.

In The Colour of Lies, the reader can enjoy the bustling activity and atmosphere of the medieval fair as Seb’s wife, Emily, and her fellow silk-women set up their stall, Seb has dealings with a Bohemian glass-seller and delights in a puppet show put on by a friendly Dutchman. There are all manner of rare things for sale and acrobats, fire-eaters and dancers to entertain but, as readers have come to expect from the Seb Foxley medieval murder mysteries, there is always a serpent – or two – in paradise.


As part of the launch of The Colour of Lies, Toni's publisher, MadeGlobal Publishing are offering a prize for one lucky winner, seven mugs - one for each of my murder mystery books.

To participate all you need to do is go to MadeGlobal's website (for that click HERE), enter your name and email to be added to the prize draw. The winner will be notified on or around 1 June. The giveaway is open worldwide!

More about Toni:

The Colour of Lies, is the seventh Sebastian Foxley medieval murder mystery. Toni's first book was published in 2014 but in the 5 years since she has had five more non-fiction, plus eight medieval murder-mysteries published and recently signed contracts for four more fiction and non-fiction books taking me well into 2021. She regularly writes for both the RIII Society Ricardian Bulletin (Toni is a member of their Research Committee too) and Tudor Life magazine for the Tudor Society, runs he own weekly history class locally, volunteers at Gravesend Library, leading the Creative Writing group and has written a collection of online courses at

​Toni Mount can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.


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