The history of Shrove Tuesday

As the nation digs out its frying pans, Julian Humphrys looks at some of the traditions associated with Shrove Tuesday

Pancake day celebrations

This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Why’s it called ‘Shrove’?

It comes from the word ‘shrive’, which means to give absolution after hearing confession. So Shrove Tuesday is the day when people went to confession to prepare themselves for Lent, which begins on the following day, Ash Wednesday.

Why eat pancakes?

It was the last chance for a spot of indulgence before 40 days of fasting, and also an opportunity to use up food that couldn’t be eaten during Lent. This included eggs, fat and milk, which were made into pancakes and eaten on that day. The earliest known English recipe dates from the 15th century, although pancakes had been eaten in other countries for centuries before that. In the French-speaking world, the day is known as ‘Mardi Gras’ or ‘Fat Tuesday’.

How long have we been having pancake races?

A pancake race has been held in Olney in Buckinghamshire since 1445. It supposedly originated when a local woman heard the church bell while she was making pancakes and ran there, frying pan in hand. Another tradition is Westminster School’s annual Pancake Grease where students compete to grab the biggest portion of a pancake tossed over a 5 metre bar. In parts of Britain children went ‘shroving’ – singing songs or reciting poetry in exchange for gifts of food.

Are there any other Shrove Tuesday traditions?

Two popular Shrove Tuesday activities that are mercifully no longer in vogue were cock-fighting and ‘cock-throwing’. The latter involved tethering a cockerel to a stake and pelting it to death with cudgels. Samuel Pepys describes watching it on Shrove Tuesday 1661 after eating pancakes (which he calls “fritters”), while William Hogarth illustrated it in his First Stage of Cruelty.

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Wasn’t football played on Shrove Tuesday?

After a fashion. The 12th-century writer William FitzStephen described a “Shrovetide” ballgame near London, and many communities held traditional Shrove Tuesday games when huge crowds would battle to carry a ball from one end of a village or town to the other. Some places still do it, notably Ashbourne in Derbyshire, where the ‘goals’ are three miles apart. The game is played over two days, involves hundreds of players – and rules are minimal.