On the 23rd of November, the old Feast of St. Clement used to be celebrated, long associated with an ancient custom of going about that night to beg drink to make merry with.
Pope Clement I is the patron saint of metalworkers and blacksmiths and so these workers traditionally enjoyed a holiday on his annual feast day. Saint Clement was held to be a martyr as he was tied to an anchor and tossed into the sea.
Ancient legends surrounding Saint Clement suggest that he was the first man to refine iron from ore and to shoe a horse. Clementine customs may originate from earlier pagan rituals as there has allegedly been some confusion of Saint Clement with the early Saxon – Wayland the Smith – a fabled metalworker (a figure derived even further back from Thjasse-Volund, a Norse-Germanic elf-hero blacksmith). Wayland the Smith was also celebrated on November 23rd, which marks the beginning of winter.
St Clements Day feasts were of old eventful, to say the least.
“Old Clem’s Night” started with a bang and a shower of sparks during the ritual called “firing of the anvil”. A blacksmith packed gunpowder into a small hole in an anvil and then whacked it hard with a hammer to cause a small explosion. This was both ritual and practical – it also tested the anvil’s durability. Weak anvils would break under the pressure and therefore had to be melted down and recast. Blacksmiths or their apprentices would dress up in wigs, masks and cloaks to represent “Old Clem” and in some places a procession of blacksmiths would follow through the streets, singing and stopping at taverns along the way. Obviously the more taverns the blacksmiths stopped at – the louder and ruder the singing became. A notable element was the demanding of free beer or money for the “Clem feast”.
London Farriers are said to have celebrated St. Clement’s Day at the White Horse, Castle Street, London, as late as 1883, when one of the fraternity appeared in a new apron with gilt tags, and a special drink, concocted of gin, eggs, ginger and spices, was consumed to the honour of the Saint as the ‘first man who shod a horse’.
This arose from a confusion with St. Eloi (also known as Eligius and Lo), who had a definite association with the farriers’ Craft, whilst St. Clement’s connection was through his patronage of anchor forgers and so of smiths in general. St. Eloi, like St. Dunstan, was an expert metal worker himself, and in representing his effigy, whilst it was natural to indicate his craft by the horse’s leg and shod foot which he held, yet—as it was not always convenient to paint or carve the whole of the animal—the partial representation no doubt, gave rise to the legend that, when a horse brought to be shod, being possessed by the devil, kicked so furiously that no one could approach it, the Saint cut off the leg, then put on the shoe, and completed the incident by miraculously rejoining the limb to the horse. This of course was an easy explanation in days when the greater the marvel, the more it was felt to redound to the glory of the Almighty.’
St. Clement was also claimed – as their patron by hatters, on account of his supposed invention of felt; by tanners, as having been of that trade; and by sailors on account of the story of his being thrown into the sea attached to an anchor; but, outside the relations of crafts, there seem to have been many convivial associations with his festival.
William Hone, in his Daybook, printed the following account of a rowdy annual ceremony on the evening of St. Clement’s day, by the blacksmiths’ apprentices of the dockyard at Woolwich:
“One of the senior apprentices being chosen to serve as Old Clem (so called by them), is attired in a great coat, having his head covered with an oakum wig, face masked, and a long white beard flowing therefrom. Thus attired he seats himself in a large wooden chair, chiefly covered with a sort of stuff called bunting, with a crown and anchor made of wood, on the top and around it, four transparencies representing the ‘blacksmiths’ arms,’ ‘anchorsmiths at work,’ ‘Britannia with her anchor,’ and ‘Mount Etna.’ He has before him a wooden anvil, and in his hands a pair of tongs and wooden hammer, which, in general, he makes good use of whilst reciting his speech. A mate, also masked, attends him with a wooden sledge hammer; he is also surrounded by a number of other attendants, some of whom carry torches, banners, flags, &c.; others battle-axes, tomahawks, and other accoutrements of war. This procession, headed by a drum and fife, and six men, with Old Clem mounted on their shoulders, proceed round the town, stopping and refreshing at nearly every public-house, (which, by the by, are pretty numerous) not forgetting to call on the blacksmiths and officers of the dockyard. There the money-box is pretty freely handed after Old Clem and his mate nave recited their speeches, which commence by the mate calling for order, with
‘Gentlemen all, attention give,
And wish St. Clem, long, long, to live.’
Old Clem then recites the following speech: ‘I am the real St. Clement, the first founder of brass, iron, and steel, from the ore. I have been to Mount Etna, where the god Vulcan first built his forge, and forged the armour and thunderbolts for the god Jupiter. I have been through the deserts of Arabia ; through Asia, Africa, and America; through the city of Pongrove; through the town of Tipmingo, and all the northern parts of Scotland. I arrived in London on the 23rd of November, and came down to his majesty’s dockyard, at Woolwich, to see how all the gentlemen Vulcans came on there. I found them all hard at work, and wish to leave them well on the 24th. The mate then subjoins:
‘Come all you Vulcans stout and strong,
Unto St. Clem we do belong,
I know this house is well prepared
With plenty of money, and good strong beer,
And we must drink before we part,
All for to cheer each merry heart,
Come all you Vulcans strong and stout,
Unto St. Clem I pray turn out
For now St. Clem’s going round the town
His coach and six goes merrily round.
After having gone round the town and collected a pretty decent sum, they retire to some public-house, where they enjoy as good a supper as the money collected will allow.”]
There was another old begging song that referred to the combination (St Clements Day & St Catherine’s Day) with the “catterning” custom two days later on St Catherine’s Day (25th November):
Cattern and Clemen
Be here be here!
Some of your apples and some of your beer!
One for Peter, Two for Paul,
Three for Him who made us all,
Clemen’ was a good man,
Cattern’ was his mother,
Give us your best. And not your worst,
And God will give your soul good rest.
An attempt was made during the first flush of the protestant reformation in England to ban elements of the St Clements Day celebrations, together with other festivals seen as having pagan aspects and encouraging immorality, frivolity and idolatry:
In 1541 Henry VIII passed a law forbidding children to beg in this way within the London churches of Saints Clement / St Catherine and St Nicholas. This rule did not apply outside the church buildings where the custom cheerfully continued.
Brady, in his Clavis Calendaria, 1812, ii. 279, observes that OLD MARTINMAS continues to be noticed in our almanacs on the 23d of November, because it was one of the ancient quarterly periods of the year, at which even at this time a few rents become payable. A payment of corn at Martinmas occurs in the Domesday Survey, i. 280.
In 1837, the Woolwich blacksmiths’ apprentices, were still holding a St Clements Day procession round the town, carrying torches & letting off fireworks, followed by a mob.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.