The fair of long ago
Denham’s annual fair has a very long history. Most of it is undocumented but we do know something of when it all began
We know that in 1227 King Henry III gave permission to Henry de Capella to hold a weekly market and an annual fair in Denham.
But who was Henry de Capella, what has he to do with Denham and why did he need royal permission to hold a market and fair ?
The last of these questions is relatively easy to answer. Fairs go back at least to Roman times, more than 2000 years ago. For the Romans they were holidays held at significant times of the year following bursts of hard work, for example in planting crops or gathering the harvest. They were also no doubt times of celebration and of giving thanks to the Roman deities. This link to religious observance continued into the Christian era as fairs came to be regularly held on around the feast days of the saints.
By the time of Henry III’s grant to Henry de Capella, the Middle Ages, in addition to the religious celebrations and thanksgivings, fairs were also tied to markets. The annual fair was an opportunity for large gatherings to which merchants would travel over some distance, even internationally, ply their wholesale trade and no doubt compete for custom for the coming year.
Naturally they attracted large numbers and there were frequent riots and disturbances. Combining the authority of the Catholic church with the need for public order, it was decided that markets and fairs must be licensed by royal charter. That’s how Henry de Capella came to apply for and be given permission for the market and fair in 1227.
The Capella family had been leasing farm land from the freeholder, the Abbot of Westminster Denham since at least 1158, less than a hundred year after William the Conqueror arrived on. England’s shores at Hastings. The family name de Capella, or otherwise de Chapelle, clearly suggests Norman French nobility.
Henry was the son and heir of Martin de Capella who, together with another family member Robert, appears to have been the tenant of over 800 acres in Denham. It was also around this time that Denham was divided into two “manors”, Denham itself, the property leased by the Capella family and Denham Durdent, a manor which it seems may have been gifted rather than leased by the Abbott of Westminster to his friend or favourite, Angodus Durdent. Martin’s loss of some of his lands to the Durdent family appears to have been the cause of some tension at the time.
But was the charter of 1227 the occasion for the first fair ?
Researching the life and times of Henry de Capella suggests that in fact the first Denham fair was not in 1227. It was an interesting year. The throne of England was far from secure. The country’s leading families had no great loyalty to the Crown such as to cause them to accept all that the King asked for. For a wide variety of reasons King Henry III’s father, King John, had lost the support of a number of England’s Barons particularly those furthest from the capital in London. In 1215 they forced him to agree to the Magna Carta as a peace treaty intended to bring an end to a simmering revolt.
It didn’t work. Magna Carta was soon ditched. John was probably only buying time when he signed it. He didn't have much time. John died in 2016 to be succeeded by his nine year old son, Henry.
The revolt of the barons was then forcibly suppressed but that didn’t end the tensions.
On 21st January 1227 King Henry III, now 19, declared himself to be of the age of majority and cancelled all the royal charters not made in his name and under his own seal. This included Magna Carta itself. It wasn’t intended to be a confrontation. Rather his purpose was to review all the charters and reinstate those acceptable to him and take ownership of them as his own, showing that England had a decisive ruler in charge.
In April 1227 King Henry reinstated Magna Carta, and who do we find amongst the witnesses to the new royal charter ? Why none other than Henry de Capella. This was not the only new charter that de Capella signed as a witness. It seems he was then very much part of the King’s government. We must assume that amongst the charters reaffirmed in 1227 was that granting Henry de Capella the right to hold markets and a fair on his lands in Denham, but the fair had probably been held annually for some time before 1227.
As yet no clear records have been found to tell us when the fair really did begin if not in 1227. Nonetheless a few educated guesses can be made. The charter granted by Henry III to Henry de Capella specified the three days on which the fair was to be held - “the vigil, the day and the morrow of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary”. At the time fairs were commonly linked to church festivals. Communities functioned around the church calendar. As the Reverend Lathbury wrote in 1904 “The patron saint of the parish and the saint of dedication of the church were in early days very important and jealously guarded considerations.” Obviously St. Mary’s church is dedicated to the Virgin and it is known that there was a church in Denham before 1123. Lathbury offers strong evidence that the church may well have been first dedicated before 1100, perhaps even before the Normans arrived in 1066. If we do assume that King Henry III’s charter was in fact a renewal rather than the original, the first fair may in fact have coincided with the dedication of the church.
A Denham name worth reviving
The name Durdent in Denham’s history, like that of Bowyer, Hill, Fayrestede and Walter the Abbott is still recalled in Denham’s present or at least its recent past. The Capellas however were not successful in having their legacy preserved. Henry died in 1248 and his son Bartholomew survived him by only 10 years. The manor then passed to one of Henry III’s stewards, the Savoyard Ebulo de Montibus. It also seems that even before Bartholomew died the family’s estates in Lincolnshire had come to occupy more of the Capellas’ time than their lands in Denham. The Capella name has disappeared from Denham’s history, but perhaps one amongst us might consider its revival by naming their property Capella House - though not of course abandoning any other name which figures in Denham’s legacy.
The Nativity of Mary was instituted in the Church calendar to take place in September around the time when St. Mary’s still holds its patronal festival. At some point in the seven or eight hundred years that followed the first fair, that was changed so that the fair became a spring rather than an autumn festival. Writing in 1904 Lathbury records that the 19th century fair took place on one day, 13th May. It was held not on Village Road as it is now, but on Cheapside Lane, or rather just “Cheapside” as it was in earlier times. Cheapside derives from the Anglo-Saxon “ceapan” meaning to buy and sell with “Cheapside” meaning the parish market place.
In 1873, the fair was stopped. We know the word “vestry” as describing a room annexed or close to the church but this room actually gets its name from the meeting of the parish ratepayers which took place there. The “vestry” was a committee rather than a room or space. On 7th February 1873 a meeting of the vestry was called by the then Rector Charles Antill Hall to be held at the house of Mr. Mason at “a quarter to eleven in the forenoon”. The agenda said that the vestry should take into consideration the desirability of abolishing the annual fair. The vestry duly gathered at the home of Mr. Mason, probably Mr. William Mason, agricultural labourer of Cheapside, to consider a momentous decision.
Quite why they decided to abolish the fair is unclear. The resolution that was passed said that it would be for the “convenience and advantage of the public” with no further explanation. Perhaps the fair had become fertile hunting ground for thieves and pickpockets and other anti-social activities disrupting village life. It is perhaps also significant that the February 1871 vestry meeting took place only 9 months after the “Denham Massacre” of seven members of the Marshall family in Cheapside Lane and the vestry was discussing a celebratory event that, had it not been abolished, would have taken place almost to the day of the first anniversary of the murders. It’s far from surprising that the village elders, still in shock, would have thought it inappropriate to be celebrating in May 1871.
There was a cost to abolishing the fair - 5 pounds 19 shillings and 6 pence. £5.97 of course doesn’t seem much, but that’s £700 in today’s money.
Denham was to be without a fair for 55 years until in 1925 Lady Victoria Braithwaite rallied the community to organise an “Old English Fair to end all fairs” to raise money for the repair of the church roof. We have the death watch beetle to thank for the festivities we enjoy today and look forward to its return in 2021.
And a postscript - is it correctly a “fair” or a “Fayre” ?
The answer ? Either. When describing the event descriptively in prose, it’s just the modern spelling “fair”. That’s the correct spelling to define what it is. The word “fayre” is just an archaic spelling which is used to give the event a title like, for example, the title of a film, or a song, or a play. It’s a title which attaches the fascination of history and tradition to the event. The “Denham Fayre” can be used as the title of the “fair” which takes place on the day of the late spring bank holiday.
Long may it last.
For more about the Fair after 1925 go to the May 2020 story.
The History of Denham Bucks by the Reverend R.H. Lathbury 1904 (out of print)
Morning Shows the Day - The Making of a Priest by Stanley Hoffman, 1995 Minerva Press, Copyright Stanley Hoffman