The history of Burnley Fair ... or Wakes Weeks?

Burnley Fair
Burnley Fair

A number of readers have contacted me recently about references, in the local Press to “Burnley Wakes”. They have reminded me that, in Burnley, we do not have “Wakes”, we have “Burnley Fair” and tell me local journalists should use that phrase rather than “Burnley Wakes”.

I am all for admonishing local journalists when they get things wrong (it happens to us historians all the time) but I do not regard the use of the phrase “Burnley Wakes”, rather than “Burnley Fair”, as a hanging offence, at least not yet!

Journalists’ use of the work “Wakes” in the context of an annual holiday can often be traced to the place of their birth. If they come from one of the towns around Manchester, or the city itself, it is likely they will be familiar with the term. To find that we, in Burnley, use another term, for essentially the same thing, will come as something of a surprise so we can forgive them for what is merely a minor indiscretion.

When I get the opportunity, I remind colleagues Burnley Fair can be traced to the late 13th Century. On June 6th, 1294, at Westminster, King Edward I granted to Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, and his heirs, a Charter whose provisions included that there should be “a weekly market on Tuesday at their Manor of Burnley in the county of Lancaster”, and a yearly fair “on three days, that is, on the eve, the day and the morrow of the apostles Peter and Paul”.

Henry de Lacy held extensive estates throughout the country, including the Honor of Clitheroe, Lancashire. Burnley was a township within the Manor of Ightenhill which, itself, was a part of the Honor. The Charter granted similar market and fair rights to eight other places: Pontefract, Bradford, Campsell and Almondbury in Yorkshire; Charlton Canvill in Somerset; Uxbridge in Middlesex and Middleton Stoney in Oxfordshire.

Apart from showing the extent of the Earl’s estate, the Charter is important as revenue from the regulation of the markets and fairs, which it established, would have been an important source of income for the Earl.

In addition, the Charter itself was a means by which the king could show his thanks for services offered by the earl to the Crown.

Notice the fair established in Burnley was to take place on “the eve, the day and the morrow of the apostles Peter and Paul”. This is a reference to the saints’ day shared by St Peter and St Paul, June 29th. So Burnley Fair, in the Middle Ages, would have taken place, each year, from June 28th to 30th at the time when the feast of St Peter was celebrated.

More recently, the Fair has been held in the first half of July, the dates determined by the former Cotton Industry Board and coinciding with Burnley’s school holidays. This latter no longer applies because, several years ago, Lancashire County Council, since 1974 Burnley’s Education Authority, moved the local school holidays to the end of July.

It is likely Burnley had organised markets before 1294 and the Charter merely regularised an existing pattern. There was clearly, at this time, a patronal festival associated with St Peter and held at the local church. This festival may, or may not, have been of cult status. If it was, and we have no means of knowing this, we should not be surprised. Many such festivals survive in Continental Europe, especially in country’s which have remained Catholic. Similarly, an important element in many of the festivals that have survived is the celebratory side represented by a fair.

The word “Wake” comes into our story because the days of a patronal festival were known as “Wakes”. A “wake” among the Irish is a vigil over a corpse before burial, often accompanied by drinking and festivity. In England a “wake” is a parish festival held annually in commemoration of the patron saint of the local church but, in much of the North West, though not in Burnley, the word is used in association with the local annual holiday. Do not think the English behaved any better than did the Irish at their “wakes”!

Incidentally, the word itself is probably derived from the Old English “wacu”, a watch, and this fits in with what we know about Wakes where there was an element of watching, being aware of the importance of the event, as well as celebration. In our country the Wake had its serious side as the local patron saint would be asked to intervene with the Almighty to ensure the harvest was good and the community would benefit from other forms of Godly benevolence.

As I have indicated, I do not regarded the use of the term “Burnley Wakes” as particularly offensive but it is right, in Burnley, that we use the term “Burnley Fair”. It has over 700 years of history and tradition behind it and it is one of the things that make Burnley distinctive. The term “Burnley Fair” should not be lost and it won’t be if we all use it!