St Bartholomew's Day Bun Race, KentThe British love putting one over on the French: Waterloo and Trafalgar are perhaps the best known British victories; Hastings is equally well recalled, though the result was somewhat different. In the Cinque Port of Sandwich a tradition is maintained that seems to date from another defeat of the French, in a naval battle fought just off the coast there.
After the death of King John in 1216 his nine-year-old son Henry seemed likely to lose the country to Louis of France, but events conspired against the invader, and on August 24 1217 a fleet with soldiers and supplies on its way to reinforce him in London was defeated, the victory notable for the beheading of Eustace the Monk, a former pirate whose offer of 10,000 marks as ransom was spurned by the English, who cut his head off there and then on deck. The 16 English ships captured the French supply vessels (slaughtering most of the French sailors), and after the victors were rewarded a sum was left to provide for the foundation of an almshouse in Sandwich, the port from which Hubert de Burgh's English ships had sailed forth.
The Hospital of St Bartholomew still exists, with ancient cottages surrounding the chapel there, housing 16 men and women known as its brothers and sisters. To commemorate the victory and the foundation a special service is held there every year on St Bartholomew's day (August 24), after which children go outside and race around the chapel before being given currant buns as reward for their effort. Adults are granted a hard biscuit-like memento, its face stamped with the arms of Sandwich. In earlier times it is said that the rewards were bread, cheese and beer. Some sources believe that rather than commemorating the 1217 battle the ceremony is a reminder of offerings once given to pilgrims, this being near Canterbury , but the significance of the date surely weighs in favour of gloating rather than charity, as perhaps does the number of almshouse residents - 16, like the number of English warships at the battle 800 years ago.
More British Folk Customs?