St Crispin's Day: shoemakers' holiday

Judith Millidge's Photo

Patriotic Britons and lovers of Shakespeare remember the 25th October with the stirring words from Henry V on the eve of the 1415 Battle of Agincourt.

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Cordwainers, however, recall the saints St Crispin and his brother St Crispinian, shoemakers and early Christian martyrs.

Sources differ as to their roots: they may have been Roman missionaries of the 3rd century CE, who fled to the French city of Soissons, where they made shoes by day and preached to the Gauls by night. They gave their earnings (and shoes) to the poor but were arrested by the Roman authorities and thrown into the River Aisne with millstones around their necks. Miraculously, they survived, but were immediately plunged into a vat of boiling pitch, again emerging unscathed. They were finally beheaded.

Another much later local legend dating from the 16th century says that they were early English princes who fled Canterbury to escape persecution by the Emperor Diocletian. They only fled as far as Faversham, where their preaching again brought fatal attention from the Roman authorities.

They were martyred in 286 CE.

They have been depicted many times over in religious art and are seen here in this miniature from a late 15th century manuscript in the National Library of the Netherlands entitled St Crispin and St Crispinian of Soissons holding a last, a shoe and books.

As the patron saints of leatherworkers, shoemakers and tanners, the saints hold a special place in the shoemaking town of Northampton, where periodically the borough council runs St Crispin’s Fair and in recent years, a service of thanksgiving has taken place in All Saints Church on 25 October. The local rugby team, Northampton Saints, was founded by a curate in 1880, and the club name is another nod to the town’s patron saints.

In medieval times, shoemakers claimed St Crispin’s Day as a day of rest and merrymaking and were undeterred by bad weather, which was apparently a sign of favour from the saints, as rain would encourage people to buy new boots and shoes.

Wherever you are and whatever the weather, enjoy St Crispin’s day!