Lenton Priory was once a large complex that encompassed much of the modern area around Abbey Bridge, Priory Street and Old Church Street. Click here for an incredibly in-depth overview of the site from British History Online. In 1164, the Priory was granted permission to hold an 11 day fair in honour of St Martin. Martinmas — the feast day of St Martin — is on November 11th, and so it was around this date that the fair took place.
The significance of fairs in those days was huge. It was forbidden to trade in other areas of Nottingham during the period of the fair, and so merchants would have craved a pitch. Carts pulled by beasts of burden or the traders themselves would have brought their stalls and wares to the occasion that attracted buyers and sellers from all over Europe. Imagine the modern fervour of excitement over ‘Black Friday’ (the day regarded as being the start of the Christmas shopping season) centred on one fair at the centre of England, and you’re probably getting close to how the event was regarded. Nowadays, fairs are often quite humble and the main attraction tends to be bouncy castles, cake bakes and face painting. In medieval times, though, the stature and hype of a fair would be more akin to today’s Glastonbury Festival. As well as trading, another feature of the Martinmas Fair was recruitment. Farm labourers would temporarily be between jobs in November, and could be hired at the fair for their next contract.
In 2014, a Martinmas Fair was held at the site of Lenton Priory, and another will be taking place in 2015. There were reconstructions of medieval combat, a visit from the modern Sheriff of Nottingham, tours and exhibitions focussing on the history of the site and surrounding areas, and of course refreshments. I was lucky enough to be involved, and made a short slideshow you can see on YouTube (see below) of photographs of the day.
2015 will see another Dunkirk and Lenton Martinmas Fair, this time on 31st October. Click here to visit the website where you can see some more information and even get involved in this historic project.