1,000 Years of Fun at The Fair

Emperors, Kings, and other rulers had the prerogative of granting the right to hold markets and fairs. Markets were regular affairs held on a specific day of the week every week; fairs were intended to be much larger and would be held over several days or even weeks once a year. Both were intended to strengthen local business and provide additional tax income.

English kings granted no less than 2,200 market and fair charters during the 13th century. The fairs were held as street markets with traveling merchants added to local sellers. In the 19th century, the market concept started losing in importance and the fun business moved into the foreground. Fairs still being held today are mostly for entertainment and have little to do with commerce.


One of the oldest and largest fun fairs still held on the British Isles is the one in Hull. It was first granted in 1278 to run from March 9 to 23. It became hugely important under King Edward I who extended it to last for six weeks in May and June in 1293. It might be the largest, too, though it vies for the honor with the fair in Nottingham which started in 1284. King Edward I also granted a fair charter to Kirkcaldy while he had control of it. That makes it the oldest fair in Scotland. It also lays claim to be the longest street market in Europe.


The oldest chartered fair still running is the Lee Gap Horse Fair near Wakefield in West Yorkshire. The existing charter was granted by usurper King Stephen in 1136, but it is thought to have originally been granted by King Henry I. It started out as a wool fair but converted into a horse fair during the 15th century. The fair is held yearly in the parish of Woodkirk or the township of West Ardsley. When King Henry VIII lined his own pockets with church goods, the fair was part of a package sold to Dr Thomas Lee, the commissioner in charge of valuating Nostell Priory which held the fair. that's when it acquired the Lee in its name.


The largest and oldest fun fair in Europe is the Freimarkt (Free Fair) in Bremen in Germany. It was first held in 1035 and is held every year in October. The fair was granted by Emperor Conrad II to Archbishop Adalbrand (other spellings include Adelbrand, Becelin, and Bencelin) of Hamburg and Bremen. The fair was free of any restrictions imposed on commerce by the guilds; this made it a free market. The fair privilege had to be renewed by each new Emperor until 1793 when Emperor Francis II made it permanent and handed it to the city's merchants. It attracts four million visitors every year.


The largest and oldest in Central Europe is held in Basel in Switzerland. Basel had hosted the Catholic concilium (known as the Council of Basel) at the behest Pope Martin V. The Pope died shortly afterwards and his successor Pope Eugene tried to disband the council to reconvene it on Italian soil, but was overruled. The council kept going until 1447 when Emperor Frederick III  ordered the city to expel it. In recompense, he granted the city the right to hold two annual fairs in 1471. The spring fair soon petered out, but the autumn fair is still going strong for two weeks in October and November every year with one million visitors.


Further reading
Museum City: Basel
The Yearly Onion Market in Bern
A List of Popes in Book Form