June & July – Street Parties in London on the Vigils of Feast Days

Image from the Agas Map of London
Civitas Londinum is a bird’s-eye view of London first printed from woodblocks in about 1561
Civitas Londinum is a bird’s-eye view of London first printed from woodblocks in about 1561

John Stow, author of the ‘Survey of London‘ first published in 1598, tells us that there were bonfires and street parties in the City throughout June and July on the Vigils of Festivals. The Vigil is the evening before a festival. A custom that might owe a little to the Celtic choice of dusk as the beginning of the new day.

Front cover of the Survey of London by John Stow
Front cover of the Survey of London by John Stow

Stow does not give a list of the vigils thus celebrated and only mentions those of St John the Baptist and of St Paul and St Peter, (which fall later in June, when I will post about them). But I would guess it would include prominent Saints in the Catholic Calendar, and also Saints with London Churches or Chapels named after them. These might include: St Botolph, St Alban, St James, St Thomas, St Margaret, St Wilgerfortis, St. Mary Magdalen, St Bridget, St James, as well as Saints John, Peter, and Paul. I’m guessing that City wide celebration would be reserved for the most important Saints, and with local celebrations for the Saint on the local Church. I am assuming these celebrations were ended or much reduced after the Reformation.

Here is his introduction to the Vigil celebrations.

In the months of June and July, on the vigils of festival days, and on the same festival days in the evenings after the sun setting, there were usually made bonfires in the streets, every man bestowing wood or labour towards them; the wealthier sort also, before their doors near to the said bonfires, would set out tables on the vigils, furnished with sweet bread and good drink, and on the festival days with meats and drinks plentifully, whereunto they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit and be merry with them in great familiarity, praising God for his benefits bestowed on them. These were called bonfires as well of good amity amongst neighbours that being before at controversy, were there, by the labour of others, reconciled, and made of bitter enemies loving friends; and also for the virtue that a great fire hath to purge the infection of the air.

He goes on to describe a large scale City wide celebration, which is probably a description of the Midsummer festivities, which I will present on the 21st June.

John Stow is one of the most important sources for Tudor and Medieval London. He was a Londoner, buried in St Andrews Undershaft (see map above), who wrote up all he could glean about London. I use him all the time – for example, on my Wolf Hall Tudor London Walk, which I am doing tomorrow. Stow’s Survey of London can be accessed online, in full, here: or via the wonderful online Agas Map, from which the map above came from.


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2 Replies to “June & July – Street Parties in London on the Vigils of Feast Days”

  1. Kevin of Glendaloch, Patron Saint of Dublin is celebrated on June 3rd.
    498- 618 according to the legend!
    There’s a saying: ‘The weather on St Kevin will last all month’…

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