Spotlight On …

St. Crispin’s Day!

Written by Victoria Green

At around midday each day this week, the street fair in Northampton town centre has come to life. Pop music thumping throughout the Market Square, lights flashing, rides whizzing and twirling. Looking out over the sunny square from our museum’s exhibition space, the town centre feels wonderfully vibrant! The St. Crispin’s Day street fair is an annual event, run by Northampton Borough Council. It’s all the spectacle of a carnival, quietly representing something quite different. I can’t help but wonder just how many of the people down below actually know that the fair is part of the St. Crispin’s Day celebrations. And indeed, who St. Crispin was.

In short, Saints Crispin and Crispinian are the patron saints of cobblers, glove-makers, lace-makers, lace workers, leather workers, saddle-makers, saddlers, shoe-makers, tanners and weavers.

On the 25th of October each year, we celebrate St. Crispin’s Day. This is the feast day of the Christian saints, Crispin and Crispinian, twins who were martyred in 286 AD. While this feast day is near forgotten in the Western Church, and relegated to a commemoration in the Church of England, it is still a great festival for the people of Northamptonshire. As patron saints of cobblers, Crispin and Crispinian are patron saints of Northampton also.

 © National Leather Collection 2018

There are a number of different stories around the ‘twins’, the most popular being that they were born to a noble Roman family in the 3rd Century AD. The twins fled persecution for their faith and ended up at Soissons. Here, they preached Christianity to the Gauls whilst making shoes by night. They were so successful at their trade that Rictus Varus, governor of Belgic Gaul, became jealous and had the twins tortured and thrown into the river with millstones around their necks. While this didn’t kill the twins, the beheading that followed in 285/6 AD (during the co-emperorship of Diocletian and Maximian) certainly did.

The saints are often associated with the Battle of Agincourt, which was fought on their feast day in 1415. This has been immortalised by Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech from his play, Henry V:

St. Crispin and Crispinian

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

This year, Northampton County Council organised a celebration on the feast day of St. Crispin; a service at All Saints Church followed by an event at the gothic Guildhall. The National Leather Collection was asked to provide an exhibition as the backdrop to this event, a display of leather treasures and items related to St. Crispin’s various patronages.

Some of our favourite items on display at the Guildhall tonight include a pistol-shaped drinking vessel, an Italian strongbox, and a Louis XIV style red-heeled shoe.

 © National Leather Collection 2018
 © National Leather Collection 2018
 © National Leather Collection 2018

This bottle, in the form of a ‘dagg’ pistol, is made from boiled leather or cuir boulli. It’s curious shape actually makes a lot of sense when considered in the context of its time. A bottle disguised as a gun was no doubt a welcome companion on the highways of 18th Century England, which were often a very dangerous place to be. Dick Turpin and other bandits would have perhaps been deterred from robbing a traveller if he appeared to be armed!

Throughout history, we have always stored our most treasured possessions in decorative boxes or cases. Today’s this trend has evolved into wallets and phone cases, but the premise (and often the materials!) remain the same. This 15th Century Italian strongbox is made of pine and covered in shaved hide. If you look closely, it is inscribed with the phrase ‘AVE REGINA CAELORUM AVE REGINA ANGELORUM’. What is most interesting about the strongbox is the coin slot, cut in at a later date, adapting it into an alms box.

This French shoe is one of a pair, the other of which resides in Offenbach at the Deutsche Leder Museum. It dates to around 1640, and features a square toe, scalloped edge and a red heel. Louis XIV famously wore high heels to elevate himself. At just 5”4, these shoes would add almost 10cm to his height! In the 1670s, Louis XIV issued an edict that only members of the court were allowed to wear red heels. Naturally, imitations were available but, for the most part, you only had to glance down at someone’s shoes to know whether or not they were in favour with the king. So viral was this trend that Charles II of England wore red-heeled shoes during his coronation, despite already being over 6ft tall.

So today Northampton celebrates St. Crispin’s Day and, if only for a short time, proudly remembers its shoe and leather manufacturing legacy. If you are local and would like to join in the celebrations, All Saints Church are hosting a choral evensong at 17:30. All are welcome; for more information please click here.