Regency Festivals, Fairs, Circuses, etc.

Regency Festivals, Fairs, Circuses, etc.

*click for Festival information

Festival. Fair. Carnival. Fete. The words do have definitions and historical applications with slight variations, but we largely tend to lump them together and use interchangeably. In general, when thinking of a festival, fair, carnival, whatever, we imagine a celebration of, or for, a particular holiday or theme with frivolous, lively entertainment as the order of the day. Oh, and food too. LOTS of delicious food!

Where I live in Kentucky, near Louisville, the JASNA region is in furious prep for our annual Jane Austen Festival. This July will be the 9th year for the JA Festival, each year it growing in size and entertainments. Next month I will dedicate an entire blog to this year’s events and the necessary information to attend, but if interested in learning more now, click the image to the right or this link here: 2017 Jane Austen Festival

Thinking upon the topic brought to mind the Summer Festival I wrote into my second novel, Loving Mr. Darcy. I created the Summer Festival as a long-standing tradition at Pemberley to reward the hard-working tenants and servants of Pemberley, however, the festival had been on a decade plus hiatus after the death of Mr. Darcy’s mother. The new Mrs. Darcy (Elizabeth) decided to revive the tradition with a BANG! My job was to figure out what sorts of entertainments fit into the time period. As it turns out, the possibilities were endless.

Historically, England has a wealth of festivals and fairs to give examples. May Day, Christmas, Twelfth Night, Guy Fawkes Day, and Easter were huge celebratory occasions throughout the UK. So important were festivals that King James I issued the Declaration of Sports in 1618 to settle a dispute between Puritans (who frowned upon just about anything fun) and the gentry (the original complainants). The declaration listed the sports and recreations that were permitted on Sundays and other holy days, including archery, dancing, “leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmless recreation” as permissible sports, together with “May-games, Whitsun-ales and Morris-dances, and the setting up of May-poles”. Fairs, such as the Greenwich May Fair, Southwark Fair, and Bartholomew Fair featured acrobatic rope dancers, puppet shows, Morris dancers, musicians, clowns, vendors selling wares, theatricals, animal trick shows, ventriloquists, fire-eaters, “freak show” oddities in some instances, and dancing. Basically, a wide assortment of potentials.

Bartholomew Fair, from Microcosm of London by Ackermann (1808)
Southwark Fair (1733) by William Hogarth


For the Pemberley Summer Festival in Loving Mr. Darcy, along with the standard food, music, and dancing, the special events arranged by the Darcys were clowns, acrobats, and trick horse riders. Allow me to share a brief history of each so as to better understand how these acts would have worked for a festival event during the early 1800s.

1620 engraving of Will Sommers. The verse below announces his clothing was given to him by the king, whose initials are embroidered on the chest.

The concept of individuals performing humorous stunts to entertain is as old as time. The ancient Greeks had their pantomimes, the French later borrowing the idea in their mimes. Clown-types existed in ancient Rome (Sannio, Stupidus, Scurra, Moriones – the Latin root words give clues to the clown type), China, and Egypt (African Pygmies known as Dangas amused the pharaohs). European royal courts had jesters and the Medieval common-folk had mummers.

The word “clown” as a noun meaning a “professional fool, professional or habitual jester” is dated to circa 1600. Shakespeare was particularly fond of clowns and fools, the character elevated in his plays, and subsequently in literature, as never before. It was not too unusual for extremely talented jesters and comedic performers to gain fame. For instance, William Sommers, Jester to King Henry VIII won universal adoration. His picture hangs in Hampton Court Palace and he was dubbed “the poor man’s friend” because of his kindheartedness.

The Italians perfected the harlequin, known for his amazing feats of acrobatics, amongst dozens of characters in the famed Commedia del’arte al improviso (professional improvised comedy) which spread across Europe in the 1700s. Clown troupes of all types traveled the breadth of Europe for centuries, sometimes as part of an actors’ troupe or on their own.

“Joey” Grimaldi (1806)

In 1778, English clown Joseph Grimaldi added his own personality to the harlequin. He did away with the pantomime mask, instead wearing make-up. The classic wild hair, painted white face and red smile can be seen in the 1806 drawing to the left. This is, of course, the clown standard of today, and in honor of Grimaldi clowns are nicknamed “Joeys”.

The types of clowns and tricks they performed are countless. Always the objective was to bring laughter through outlandish outfits, pratfalls, silent pantomime, and zany acrobatics. The men and women who pursued this profession did so very seriously. They studied the art, perfected their routines, and performed with mastery every bit as precise as a stage actor.

Clowns became associated with the circus in the late 1700s and we can thank Englishman Philip Astley for that. Astley was an ex-cavalryman who was a virtuoso horseback rider. In 1768 Astley opened an equestrian school to train riders. He used the opportunity to conduct shows – for a fee, of course – displaying his “feats at horsemanship.” The trick-riding phenomenon took off as a wildfire. He called his shows a “circus” based on the round ring he created, specifically for the trick riders. He discovered that the horses ran best in a circular ring and that the audience had better visualization. After trial and error the perfect size of 42 feet became his standard and is still so today.

Andrew Ducrow (1793–1842) “Father of British circus equestrianism” at Astley’s

His shows grew and within two years he closed his riding school, devoting all his time to perfecting the circus. Attendees, while still enamored of the trick horses, were hungry for more. Astley, the consummate entertainer and businessman, added tightrope walkers, jugglers, tumblers, musicians, and clowns. The first Astley clown was Mr. Merryman, by which name he was always ceremoniously addressed in the ring. His costume was an ornamental doublet with frilled collar, striped hose and a wig topped off with three peacock feathers. Not a silent or foolish clown, Mr Merryman was unique in that he engaged in crosstalk with the riders and the Ringmaster. Or, as Astley himself wrote, “The Clown to interpret and articulate better”. This quote, by the way, appears to be the first record of a Circus Comic being referred to as a Clown.

Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre (1808)

Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre opened in London in 1773, the Parisian one in 1782, and before he was done another 18 would arise in cities throughout Europe. The modern-day circus was born!

Now, obviously Astley was not alone in the circus business for long. Nor was he the only man to perform tricks on horseback. Far from it! The drawing above is of Andrew Ducrow, a very successful trick rider, but certainly not the only one. As with clown troupes, men and women skilled on horseback formed their own equestrian groups. In many cases they joined traveling acts, which often included clowns, acrobats, animal tamers, and so on. It was one of these that I had in mind as performing at the Pemberley Summer Festival.

Female acrobat shooting an arrow with a bow in her feet; Gnathia style pelikai pottery; 4th century BC

To keep this blog from going on forever, when it comes to acrobats I’ll simply say that like clown-type performers, they too have an ancient history. The earliest acrobatic troupes are documented in China centuries ago, performing a wide variety of acrobatics. Chinese art provides a wealth of evidence, such as in the vase to the right from the 4th century BC.

The earliest acrobatic troupes incorporated objects from their daily life into their performances: tables, chairs, ladders, jars, plates and bowls, etc. Tightrope walking has long been a common part of acrobatics, as has acrobatic feats performed while suspended in the air from ropes, slings, and ribbons. The high-flying aerialists, however, would not appear until the mid-1800s, notably with the invention of the trapeze by French acrobat Jules Léotard (1838-1870). And, yes, that is where the one-piece gym wear “leotard” comes from. Thanks Jules!

As probably ascertained, the history of circus entertainment alone is vast. I didn’t touch upon the food, games, fireworks, and other amusements I wrote into my novel for the Pemberley Summer Festival… and even there I had to choose only a handful of the possible options! To read about the Pemberley Festival, below is a link to Amazon for purchasing Loving Mr. Darcy, which is ON SALE for $2.99 for the Kindle version!

For more information on all my novels, my blog, Regency Glossary, and more, click the image below.

For this blog, tell me about YOUR favorite circus experience!


7 Responses to Regency Festivals, Fairs, Circuses, etc.

  1. This was interesting. I attended one of the last performances of the Ringling Bros. circus about a year ago before they retired all the elephants with my granddaughter who was 3 years old then. It seems to be a dying arts here in the states. Thanks for all the information. Interesting…leotard.

  2. Thank you for an interesting post. I love the pictures. It never occurred to me they had fireworks. I suppose I didn’t think about it. I always find ‘feats’ a little scary. I don’t want to see anyone actually get hurt. Thank you for letting us know about the sale on your book, and good luck getting ready for your 2017 Jane Austen Festival.

    • Thanks Summer! Yes, fireworks have been around for a very long time, thanks again to the Chinese. I didn’t go into that here, obviously, but it is amazing how some things that one would think are “modern” or too technical to have been around for long, are actually really old!

      The Festival will be awesome! Wish you could come. 🙂

    • Never attended a circus? Wow! I love the circus, although it has been a very long time for me. Went to the Ringling Brothers several times with my kids. Guess I’ll have to wait for grandkids now. LOL!

  3. Interesting post. I have only been to the circus three times in my life and the only one I remember fondly is when I was in middle school and our school took us to Baltimore to the Ringling Circus for a field trip. I believe this was the first time I had ever seen wild animals in person and was awed.

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