Scarborough Fair: A Traditional Yorkshire Ballad – Part I

This article was originally published in the Yorkshire Journal (Issue no. 2, 2014) by Gillian Morris. She has kindly contributed her work to be republished here.


By the 13th century Scarborough was a busy market town. In 1253, during the reign of Henry III, (1216-72) it was granted a charter to hold an annual fair. The charter 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 fair started on August 15th and lasted for 45 days. This was an unusually long period for such an event to be held, and, during the course of the event the borough was converted into an open market, attracting large crowds.


Above: This illustration depicts a crowded Medieval fair in a market square. There are many stalls selling fruit, vegetables, fish, poultry and meat. A juggler is entertaining the crowd and a monk is preaching to a small gathering near the market cross (via the Yorkshire Journal, Issue No. 2, 2014)

During the Medieval period, fairs more closely resembled markets. They were generally held only once a year and attracted traders and entertainers from all over the country.


Above: Another Medieval fair scene showing travelling merchants with tents and market stalls. A variety of goods are being sold, a juggler is performing and some people are drinking in a tent. Nearby a tailor is negotiating with a noble lady (via the Yorkshire Journal, Issue No. 2, 2014)

The opening of the fair was celebrated with an elaborate ceremony. Town officers rode on decorated horses, and were joined by musicians as they travelled 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’ (nothing remiss) should happen!

Scarborough Fair became internationally famous, and merchants came from across England and even Europe – some visitors came from as far afield as Flanders, Norway and Denmark. Each stallholder had to pay 2d to the Burgesses, and, on the opening day of ‘Scarborough Fayre’ (15 August), the town’s householders had to pay their annual Gablage Tax. This tax dated from 1181 and was one of the ‘first rates’ levied in Scarborough.

In the 13th and 14th centuries each house with a gable facing the street had to pay four pence and every house with its front facing the street paid six pence.

The fair enjoyed its fair share of controversies. In 1256 the Burgesses of Scarborough complained that the markets of Filey, Sherburn and Brompton were a ‘nuisance of their borough’. The Burgesses pleaded to the King’s Court for them to be abolished – on the grounds that they were taking trade away from Scarborough.

On this occasion the Burgesses were successful and the other markets were discontinued.

This was to be the forerunner of a more serious dispute, against Seamer, where even today the fair is still observed on St Swithin’s Day. Seamer’s charter was granted by Richard II to Henry de Percy, Earl of Northumberland, in 1383. In the following year Scarborough began a law suit at the Court of the Queen’s Bench, demanding that Seamer’s fair be suppressed, due to the detrimental effect it supposedly had upon the success of Scarborough’s event.

Indeed, during this time, Scarborough’s prosperity more generally had begun to suffer. The number of bakers declined, some drapers closed their shops, and a number of butchers, weavers and tailors closed down. Even public houses suffered, with only about half remaining in business!

The trial against Seamer cost Scarborough dearly, some £2,000 to achieve victory in 1602, but their triumph was short-lived, when James I decided to grant another charter to the rival town. Again the Seamer market was suppressed, but its success could not be prevented indefinitely – when the event was once more revived in the 18th century, its popularity far surpassed that of Scarborough Fair, which ended in 1788.


Above: An illustration of Scarborough Castle and the town in the 1300s (via the Yorkshire Journal, Issue No. 2, 2014)

Although the traditional Scarborough Fair no longer exists a number of celebrations take place every September to mark the original event, and the well known ballad about it, remains popular to this day. More on that in Part II


For a full list of acknowledgements, and to see the article in its original format, please visit the Yorkshire Journal (Issue no. 2, 2014). All copyright retained by the author.

Many thanks to Gillian for sharing this article with Stories From Scarborough! Watch out for Part II, coming soon…