If nations could be patron saints, England would be the patron saint of weird-ass traditional festivals. Since it doesn’t work that way, it’s had to settle for holding them and glorying in its own oddity.
Allow me to welcome you to today’s strange traditional festival, the Corby Pole Fair.
What’s strange about it? It’s held once every twenty years.
Why’s that? Nobody knows.
Anytime you write about one of these festivals, you’re pretty much required to use the phrase “nobody knows.” More than once. If I use it more than 15 times here, I owe you a drink. Of course, you’ll have to catch me first.
But before we go on, let me try to unbraid what’s English from what’s British–something I do regularly and usually get wrong. I’m not sure whether the other nations that make up Britain–or the UK, which isn’t quite the same thing but never mind that for now–are as strange about their festivals as England is. The spotlight falls most often on English weird-assery, so let’s go with that. I’m happy to hear arguments and corrections from anyone even remotely knowledgeable about these things. Or if not knowledgeable, funny. That’ll do at least as well.
The Corby Pole Fair dates back (according to one article) “to the 13th century, when Queen Elizabeth I granted the town a charter in 1585.” Which is awkward, because Liz hadn’t been born in the 13th century, and neither had 1585.
Okay, it was a typo and we can all stop being so smug. It’s not like we haven’t written something at least as embarrassing.
Typo aside, though, an alternative explanation of the fair’s origins is easily available. One–or two, or three–almost always is. Or are. That same article tells us that some people say, “It’s after the monarch was rescued from a bog by villagers.”
Is the it in that quote the fair or the charter?
Hard to say.
Do we care? Yes, but only a little. Guesswork will do well enough, so let’s nod as if it all makes sense and move on.
A more coherent attempt at explaining the fair’s origins comes from the BBC–working, I’m sure, from the same press release but reading it more carefully. It says, “Some say it [that’s the fair] goes back to the 13th Century, some to 1585 when Queen Elizabeth I was rescued from a bog by Corby villagers and others to the 17th Century when Charles II granted the town a charter.”
Yes, I checked. Liz was alive in 1585. I can’t verify that she was in a bog or, for that matter, anywhere near Corby but we have at least taken a step in the right direction.
The fair could also date back to 1226, when Henry III granted Corby (or someone, anyway) the right to hold a fair.
Was Elizabeth I ever rescued from a bog, by Corby villagers or anyone else? Possibly, but I can’t verify it. I asked Lord Google and got referred to scholarly papers that opened with her wanting to build a stable, peaceful country, but nope, no bog.
Next I found something about Queen Elizabeth and a blog.
Did Queen Elizabeth keep a blog? Well, she did try, but the technology of the time didn’t support it and she gave it up to devote her efforts to more era-appropriate occupations.
Lord Google’s related questions included, “What is Elizabeth the First known for?” Related answers do not include being rescued from a bog.
So no, I can’t find any evidence that she was rescued from a bog. Equally, I can’t find any evidence that she wasn’t.
Fairs and Charters
Why did they need a charter to hold a fair? Because that’s how things worked. The National Archive says that “Early markets and fairs were generally held in one of two ways. . . . If they were held:
- “by virtue of a specific royal grant, you are likely to find a charter recording it;
- “by prescriptive right, that is, based on immemorial custom, you may not find any charter evidence.”
Charters could be issued to an individual or to something like a town or church. One fair, in Stourbridge, ran for three weeks. In addition to giving everyone a chance to let off steam, they also made money for whoever held the charter. And for whoever came to trade.
Does any of that still matter today? Oddly enough, yes. The Ilkeston Charter Fair has permission to run for four days, and for more or less 800 years that’s what it did. Then, in 2018, it decided to run for a fifth day and had to apply to the home secretary for permission. Which meant it had to figure out what the correct procedure was. It’s that unusual. And if it got the procedure wrong, it could lose the right to hold the fair at all.
And that’s where I bailed out and scuttled back to our Corby Pole Fair.
Corby resident Paul Balmer has looked for Liz’s charter but found only a later one, which dates from “1670 or 1682 depending on who you listen to.”
I’d love to explain that phrase to you, but that’s all I know.
You see why the phrase “nobody knows” comes up so often?
The fair includes what Balmer says is a Viking tradition of riding the stang.
“If you didn’t pay your toll [that’s your admission to the fair] you were carried on the ‘stang’ to the stocks and had to pay a penny to get out, but the villagers, because of the charter, were exempt from the toll.”
Why Viking tradition? Corby started out as a Viking settlement.
“Then there’s the greasy pole, which is most probably associated with the ox roast. The lord of the manor often gives an ox to villagers when they are celebrating a fair or a big occasion, the grease from the ox is put on a pole with a ham on the top and if you climb the greasy pole you get to keep it.”
This year, there’ll be a pole but no one gets to climb it. They couldn’t get insurance.
Then there’s that charter. Remember the charter? At 6 a.m. the bells ring a.m., calling everyone to come hear the charter read out loud at all the entrances to the village.
There’ll also be historical re-enactments, including some Viking-type stuff. You know, a little light looting and pillaging. Some jousting. Some road closures. What could be more historically accurate than road closures?
In the interest of historical accuracy, the decision to hold this year’s fair was made after surveying the community, holding focus groups and workshops, and meeting with groups and individuals and businesses, not to mention filling out and filing grant applications and advertising the whole mess–and then putting a discussion of it up on the website, presumably to prove the fair has community support.
“Decisions about the content of the fair were also influenced by what funding bodies would (and wouldn’t) be willing to pay for,” it says. I worked around nonprofits long enough to recognize a near-universal truth in that.
Town dignitaries get carried around in chairs. There’s a free breakfast for residents.
The fair also offers music. I haven’t seen any mention of morris dancers, so this may be the only safe festival in England for morris-haters.
When is it held? It was on June 3 this year, which means we’ve missed it and will have to wait until 2042. The date for that one hasn’t been set yet.
What? Do I look like a tourist site? You want to know about these things in advance, go someplace sensible.
There. I made it through without saying “nobody knows” more than twice. Or maybe that was three times. Either way, go buy your own drink.