Are you going to Scarborough fair? inquired pop singers Simon and Garfunkel in a 200 year old plus song which was used as a theme song for the Anne Bancroft film ‘The Graduate’.
The actual origin of the song is not known, except that it was written as a traditional air by Frank Kitson. The words of the 1968 version have changed slightly, but basically they are the same.
If nothing else, the grammar of today’s number is somewhat better than the original. ‘Are you going to Scarborough Fair?’ does, even in modern idiom of pop songs, sound much more like the Queen’s English than ’Is any of you going to Scarborough Fair?’
The actual Fair originated from a charter granted by King Henry III on 22 January 1253. The charter, which gave Scarborough many privileges, stated: 'The Burgesses and their heirs forever may have a yearly fayre in the Borough, to continue from the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary until the Feast of St Michael next following.'
The ceremony of heralding in the fair was very impressive, with town’s officers riding on decorated horses, headed by a band through the narrow streets, reading the proclamation of the fair, and welcoming strangers to the town, who were urged to sell goods ‘of true worth’. Everyone was invited to ‘sport and play’ and to ‘do all things’ – with the proviso that ‘nowt amiss’ should happen!
According to old records, the fair proclamation began ‘Lord, Gentlemen and Loons. You’re welcome to our toons until St Michael’s Day, but tolls and customs pay from Latter Lammas Day…’
The 45-day Scarborough Fayre – held annually from 15 August to 29 September – was soon internationally famous. Merchants came to it from all areas of England and Europe, also from Norway, Denmark, the Baltic and the Ottoman Empire.
Large crowds of buyers, sellers and pleasure seeking spectators attended the fayre. Prices were determined by ‘Supply and demand’, with goods often being exchanged through the barter system.
Each stallholder had to pay 2d to the Burgesses. From early in the Middle Ages, they had the right to levy half a peck on every quarter of corn or grain brought into the town for sale.
On the opening day of Scarborough Fayre (15 August), the town’s householders had to pay their annual Gablage Tax. Dating from 1181, that tax was the ‘first rates’ levied at Scarborough.
In the 13th/14th Centuries it was four pence on every house with its gable facing the street, and six pence on every house with its front facing the street.
However, Scarborough Fair was by no means a big friendly affair. In 1256 the town quarrelled with Filey, Sherburn and Brompton, who each had their own fairs. The Burgesses pleaded to the King’s Court for their abolition on the grounds that they were a nuisance, taking trade away from Scarborough. The Burgesses were successful and the markets were discontinued.
That was to be the forerunner of a more serious battle – against Seamer, where even today the fair is still observed on each St Swithin’s Day.
Seamer’s charter was granted by Richard II to Henry de Percy, Earl of Northumberland, in 1383, but Scarborough began a law suit the following year in the Court of Queen’s Bench for the suppression of the fair, because of the injury done by it to the Scarborough Market.
In the meantime, Scarborough’s prosperity slumped. The number of bakers reduced from eight to four, all four drapers closed their shops, four butchers, ten weavers and 11 tailors, all closed down and only half of the forty public houses remained in business.
Records show that ‘grass now grew in the streets of Scarborough. Shipping and house alike had fallen into decay’.
It cost Scarborough some £2,000 to achieve victory in 1602, but their jubilations were shortlived when James I decided to grant another charter to Seamer. Again the Seamer market was suppressed, but when it was revived again in the 18th century, it was Seamer who came out victors, and the Scarborough Fair ended in 1788.
This year for 2016, a Scarborough Fair Festival will be held on the 27th-29th May. For more details visit: