The Frozen Thames and The Little Ice Age

1683 River Thames Frost Fair

As I write this, the UK is suffering disruption caused by snow, ice and temperatures plummeting to a low of -19.6ºc, which is rather cold for the UK. These days, we have central heating, thermal undies, 4x4s, kettles, microwaves, microwavable slippers and even battery powered body warmers ( I want one!) but don’t you feel sorry for the Tudors when England was gripped by “The Little Ice Age”?

Winters were so cold in Tudor and Elizabethan times that the River Thames in London froze over! During the winter of 1536, it is said that Henry VIII travelled from Central London to Greenwich Palace by sleigh actually on the ice on the Thames and in 1564 Elizabeth I ventured onto the frozen river to practise archery! In the winter of 1607/1608, during the reign of Elizabeth’s successor, there was the very first frost fair on the Thames and these fairs took place throughout The Little Ice Age, with the last one taking place in 1814. The English writer, diarist and gardener, John Evelyn, described the famous 1683/1684 River Thames frost fair during the reign of King Charles II, a winter when the Thames was frozen from mid November to early February:-

“Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.”

And one eye witness described the river ice as being so thick “that a great street from the Temple to Southwark was built with shops, and all manner of things sold. Hackney coaches plied there as in the streets. There were also bull-baiting, and a great many shows and tricks to be seen.”

Amazing, but also dangerous as the ice could thaw quickly as temperatures increased so people would have to move off it pretty quickly or risk being drowned or dying of hypothermia.

You can read more about The Little Ice Age and the Frost Fairs at the following links:-

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14 thoughts on “The Frozen Thames and The Little Ice Age”
  1. Usually the weather in my home province is snowy and cold (like Britain is right now), we are fortunate to have amenities to be prepared for such cold. I would not want to be living in any cold climates where I had to rely on fireplaces, furs, and sleighs. I prefer central heating, 4x4s, and flannel.
    However as I write this the weather outside my window is sunny and cool, but not a flake of snow on the ground.

  2. Claire, the movie Orlando has a very good depiction of an Elizabethan frost fair.

    Jeane Westin

    The Queen’s Lady Spy, Penguin/NAL, TBA 2912
    His Last Letter, Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester, Penguin/NAL Aug.2010
    The Virgin’s Daughters, In the court of Elizabeth I, Penguin/NAL Aug 2009

  3. I am beginning to know how the poor old tudors felt in the winter!! its cold here, currently -2 degrees c, but its due to get to -9 tonight. I am quite lucky where i live as it is not as bad as in other parts of the country. I cant imagine how cold people would have got back then! it makes me cold just thinking about it. And i cant believe they they went out to these fairs on the frozen Thames river, just imagine what would have happened and the panic of the ice had broken underneath them all. It must have been pretty thick to withstand all that.

  4. Wow! Sounds really cold where you are! Interesting that they had these Frost Fairs. Never knew that!

    On a side note, out here in good old California 54 degree F or 12.2 celsius! It is raining outside right now (not too bad though). We need it too! Maybe we wont have a fire season next year with all of this rain that we have been getting!

  5. Sorry KimJ but more rain means more plant growth which means more stuff to burn when it gets hot! It’s hard to imagine an ice fair. I can’t imagine walking on frozen ice! They must have had something to put on their shoes to keep from falling.

  6. I didn’t know about the frost fairs and all the growth of shops on the river! I did know it was the Little Ice Age and think how drafty those castles must have been, even Elizabeth’s ‘warm box’, Richmond. No wonder they had all those layers of clothing! It’s cold here for the South and they are calling for snow on Christmas Eve. But I grew up in the mountains of West Virginia and it was snowy and cold from October to April. I admit to liking a certain amount of snow and cold!

  7. I’m glad I’m not a pioneer in Canada.Summers can be as hot as 35+C/120 ish F. E+With the humidity can be over 40 C.

    IN the winter -40C/F + windchill. At -40 skin can freeze in minutes. I’ve had my eyelashes freeze because the sudden cold made my eyes water…A very strange feeling.

    1. I’m glad I’m not one of the early settlers of Australia!! Summers were I live get well over 45C (115F odd). We’re at the start of summer now. It is going to be 36C on Christmas Day. 🙂 Perfect Christmas weather if you ask me!

  8. Michigan winters are not too bad, it does get very cold though…snow is pretty but dangerous to drive in. Chances are slim, but I would have no problem with a “Green Christmas”!!!!!

  9. I always loved a white snowy Christmas while growing up in upstate NY, but the older i got the less fun it was (slush and shoveling). So now i’m sitting here in LA listing to the rain and hoping i won’t be shoveling mud out of the yard.
    I wonder if they put salt on their walkways back in those days, or maybe hobnails in the bottom of their boots?

  10. It’s not bad here. Snow and just a bit below freezing. The coldest I can remember was so cold I could feel the ear posts in my earrings because they were so cold. Now THAT’S a weird sensation!

  11. A frozen river Thames sounds pretty cool… we should bring the Frost Fair back! Right now, though, I’m getting sick of all the cold… and fog… and ice. 🙁

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