How to celebrate St Clement’s Day

Will you be celebrating St Clements Day on 23rd November? Your ancestors did!

It is believed that Clement was an early Pope imprisoned by the Roman Emperor Trajan who packed him off to the Crimea to work in a mine.   Undaunted, he miraculously made a spring appear to help his fellow workers. These men founded a Christian Community in the  area and 75 churches were built.    The authorities were none too pleased and decided to follow Clement and arrest him. During their pursuit his feet became blistered so he put wool in his sandals to relieve himself of the pain.  Apparently because of the “perspiration, motion and pressure on the feet, the wool assumed a uniformly compact substance”  Clement had invented….felt!   Despite, or maybe because of his blisters the authorities arrested Clement, tied him to an anchor and threw him off a ship into the Black Sea.

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St Clement became the saint of felt-makers and hatters but, because of his martyrdom he also became the patron saint of sailors.    

In 1513 a guild of Mariners petitioned Henry VIII  to establish a new Guild to help regulate shipping on the River Thames. This was called “The Master Wardens and Assistants of the Guild Fraternity or Brotherhood of the Most Glorious and Undivided Trinity of St Clement.” Today it goes by a snappier title – ‘Trinity House’ whose symbol is still is the anchor of St Clement.  St Clement Danes Church in London is named after him, as is the Parish Church of the ancient Cinque Port of Hastings.

St Clement is also the patron saint of metalworkers and particularly blacksmiths. They traditionally commemorated their saint on his feast day 23rd November – know as ‘Saint Clem’s Day‘ 

In order to remember him, the blacksmiths would traditionally ‘fire’ their anvils.  This was a noisy and dangerous occupation! Gunpowder was poured into one of the holes in the anvil and plugged with a fuse.  The explosion was loud and could result in the anvil jumping off the ground.  In 1802 a smith in Southampton was severely injured when his makeshift cannon exploded. In 1858 it was reported that the “Knights of the Sledge and the Hammer” on the Ise of Wight fired anvils to honour St Clement at various locations starting at 5am until late evening.

The gloomy lives of medieval people were enlightened by the saints days. St Clem’s Day was a day when apprentices would go from door to door begging for money to make merry with. They would sing..

St Clement’s Day comes once a year

Give us some apples or give us some beer!

Children would call on villagers singing

Clementing Clementlng once a year

Apples and Pears are very good cheer!

One for Peter and one for Paul

And One for Him who made us all!

At Walsall in Staffordshire, children would gather under the Town Hall and the Mayor would throw apples down to them from a balcony.

Of course another place where this happened was at St Clement Dane Church in London. “Oranges and Lemons say the bells of St Clements!”  This tradition goes on to this day and a few years ago I witnessed oranges being handed out to children who attended a service there on St Clements Day.  I remember playing “Oranges and Lemons” in the playground at school in Willingdon. We would have a circular conga-line through two children making an arch of their hands.  We would sing the rhyme but at the last verse … “Here comes and candle to light you to bed – here comes a chopper to chop off your head!” the arms would come down and who ever was caught was ‘out!’

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Thomas Nash (1891-1968) – Manchester Art Gallery

At Burwash, East Sussex, blacksmiths would gather in the local pub and a figure made of straw with a wig, beard and pipe representing St Clement was hoisted up above the door to show everyone that they were feasting.   In 1856, the local blacksmiths and tradesmen of Tonbridge met at the Chequers Inn and were entertained by a brass band.

The St Clements Day traditions lasted well into the 20th Century.  This splendid photo shows a Seaford blacksmith firing his anvil at Place Lane, Seaford in 1922.

1922-place-lane-blacksmith

In the USA firing anvils has become a rather odd sport, especially in the southern states.  I guess however that our American cousins don’t know the origins of this strange practice – it all started with a saint with sweaty feet!

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