Wednesday, 24 August 2011

St Bartholomew's Day

24 August is St Bartholomew's Day.

It is the anniversary of the Battle of Sandwich, otherwise the Battle of St Bartholomew's Day, fought in the English Channel between the French and the English in 1217.

The English were led by Hubert de Burgh, who had sixteen or eighteen large ships and twenty smaller ones under his command.

The French fleet was probably twice the size of the English, but since it was carrying reinforcements and supplies for the invading force already in England, the ships were overloaded and not easily manoeuvred.

The French fleet was commanded by Eustace the Monk, a notorious pirate and mercenary who also dabbled in magic. Eustace made his fleet invisible to the English, so that it could slip past them and enter the Thames Estuary and proceed to London.

However, Stephen Crabbe, a Winchelsea man, was also a student of magic. Despite Eustace's enchantment, he could see the French ships. He leapt aboard Eustace’s ship and struck off his head, whereupon the French fleet became visible again.

A storm raised by the intervention of St Bartholomew scattered the French fleet and left the English unharmed.

More plausibly, it is suggested that when the two fleets came to close quarters the English threw barrels of powdered lime onto the decks of the French, blinding them. Then Eustace’s ship was captured and Stephen Crabbe did indeed behead him on the deck. About twenty French ships were captured, the remainder retreating to Calais.

The Chapel and Hospital of St Bartholomew were founded in Sandwich to commemorate the victory.

Bartholomew Fair was held at Smithfield, on the edge of the City of London, from 1133.

As well as cloth merchants and traders in other commodities from all over England and further afield, the Fair attracted ballad sellers, tumblers, gamblers, conjurers, quacks, cheapjacks, doxies, cozeners, coney catchers, cutpurses, pickpockets, rogues and vagabonds. Many travelled long distances to be at the Fair, providing a headache for local authorities.

The Fair was used as the setting of a play by Ben Jonson in 1614.

By the nineteenth century, fairs as centres of large scale trade were becoming obsolete as other methods of distribution developed. The respectable merchants no longer came and Bartholomew Fair became increasingly vulgar and riotous. The last Fair was held in 1854; it was abolished by the City authorities in 1855.

The proceeds of tolls from the Fair went to the Priory and Hospital of St Bartholomew, founded in 1123. The Priory was dissolved in 1539. The Hospital was refounded, endowed, and its administration given to the City of London, in 1547.

The churches of St Bartholomew the Great and St Bartholomew the Less survive from the medieval period, but otherwise the earliest surviving buildings of Barts Hospital date from the eighteenth century.

Barts has now amalgamated with other London hospitals, but continues to operate from its Smithfield site.

In fiction, it is best known for the fact that John Watson met Sherlock Holmes in a laboratory there.

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