Morris History

A (not very) Concise History of the Morris Dance.


This account will be very brief, intended to help people with little or no knowledge. I don’t intend  to repeat the histories provided on sites such as Rattlejag Morris , The Morris Ring website or Wikipedia , which are both informative and interesting.  I would, however, caution you to treat any history of the Morris dance, especially  this one, with a large pinch of salt.

  1. Known History.
  2. Problems with History.
  3. Why dance?
  4. Whence come the Black faces?
  5. Morris Traditions in East Yorkshire.
  6. Morris Humour.
  7. The Future.

William Kempe

1/ Known History

Mentions of Morris go back to the middle ages and it was already an old and established dance form  in 1600 when William Kempe  performed his nine day wonder, dancing  from London to Norwich. The earliest written records are mainly through church accounts for entertainment provided by the parish after Mass on feasts and holy days. The misericords of Beverley Minster feature carvings of every day life, including Morris Dancers made shortly before the reformation. Luckily, they escaped the devastation of the “English Taliban” of the time.

Following the reformation, the rise of the Puritans saw frequent attempts to suppress Morris dancing, along with various other public entertainments. A conflict in Lancashire between the Puritans and the more liberal gentry resulted in a declaration by James 1st that permission was given for dancing, archery, leaping and vaulting, and for “having of May games, Whitsun ales and morris dances, and the setting up of May-poles and other sports therewith used, so as the same may be had in due and convenient time without impediment or neglect of divine service, and that women shall have leave to carry rushes to church for the decorating of it.”
In 1618 James ordered all English clergy to read the declaration from the pulpit but then backed down in the face of Puritan opposition. In 1633 Charles 1st republished his father’s declaration, again insisting it be read from the pulpit.
Locally, this lead in 1636 to the suspension of the Rev Ezekiel Rodgers, the Puritan Vicar of Rowley,  for “refusing to read from that accursed book, that allowed sports on God’s Holy Sabbath”. The story of how Rodgers gathered his flock and sailed for Massachusetts and their adventures when they arrived there are well documented.

Tension with Puritanism continued and we know that anything which brought pleasure tended to be banned in the aftermath of the Civil War. Things rapidly got going again after the Restoration and the general assumption is that Morris continued relatively unhindered.

Morris seems to have had mixed functions and fortunes. In some places it was an essential part of village pageants, often combined with a mummers play. In other places it was a “stand alone” activity nurtured by the local gentry as a piece of rustic tradition keeping the local youths occupied and out of mischief. Often it was organised as a fund raising activity by unemployed labourers. The list of functions and fortunes is probably as endless as the number of villages in England.

It is believed (because nothing is certain in Morris history) that a decline may have begun in Victorian times. This may have been because industrialisation left fewer opportunities for leisure but offered the workforce more regular employment and a reduction in seasonal hiring. New forms of entertainment, opportunities for travel and other diversions were entering the scene. The respectability and  formality to which the Victorians aspired, coupled with a new disdain for frivolity, also worked against it. Nevertheless, there is nothing to support Cecil Sharp’s claim that it had become extinct.

Sharp did great work collecting and recording English Dance and its associated music and no doubt had a role in revitalising Morris and bringing it to the wider public. “The Morris Book” by Sharp and McIllwaine remains a folk classic. All pioneers have their critics and it is easy to be glib when we have so much information available to us today at the push of a button. One criticism of Sharp was that he was a typical new romantic, looking for a lost rustic Eden and forever seeing what he felt should be there.

Despite the critics, Sharp deserves his place in Morris history as do the many people who worked tirelessly with him. I haven’t space to mention them all but one worthy of mention was Mary Neal who was a pioneer of the Esperance Clubs, formed to bring hope to girls in the poorer parts of London. Morris dancing fitted the need for a pleasant and wholesome physical activity to keep her girls out of harms way.

The renewed interest in Morris also saw many communities revive their ancient local dances which had fallen into disuse.

The cycle of decay and renewal continued after the Second World War with cinema, TV and Rock and Roll on the rise and yet greater travel opportunities. For a while, it seemed that if it wasn’t new and American no one was interested. Ironically, the American interest in their own folk heritage crossed the Atlantic and caused people here to look again at their traditional culture. Interest in Morris rose again in the sixties on the back of the folk revival. It has remained popular due to a large band of enthusiasts, many of whom are still dancing in their 70’s. The oldest dancer at the 2017 Hull Day of Dance was an 83 year old from Scarborough!

The Abbot's Bromley Horned Dancers.

The Abbot’s Bromley Horned Dancers.

Some say the dances originally came up through the Morriscos of Spain, others that it comes from a group of dances performed in the Balkans under the term “little mill”. Stick dances are also known in the Basque country and other parts of the Iberian Peninsula.

It is probable that the origin of some dances, such as the Abbotts Bromley Horned Dance, (troupe shown here) are native to England and pre-date the use of the term “Morris”. It is unlikely that any dance is pure and unaffected by the other social forces within society. The truth is that the Morris known to Kempe and the Morris we know today is the result of fusion and evolution which has gone on throughout history and that there is no real answer as to where it came from.

My humble and entirely personal opinion is that those looking for a “big bang” point at which Morris burst forth, fully formed and uniquely distinguishable, are doomed to labour in vain.

Grimsby Morris Men dance to the drum and tabor, see Kempe's accompanist.

Grimsby Morris Men dance to the drum and tabor, see Kempe’s accompanist.

The fusion and evolution aspect can be noted in the adoption by many traditional troupes of Irish and Scottish tunes or 19th century  polkas. Recently French and Iberian  tunes have also crept in. Many old photographs show Morris dancers accompanied by a single fiddle or concertina, and I can personally testify that this was still the usual case in the 1960’s. Today some groups seem to have more musicians than dancers. Typical of these are the Witchmen who are accompanied by a tribe of primeval looking drummers.

2. Problems with History

One problem with history is the lack of written sources and other primary evidence, mainly because the doings of the common people were of little interest  to diarists and chroniclers. We hate knowledge gaps and have a tendency to fill them with possibilities and probabilities masquerading as facts. I am told that there is no written mention of Irish people dancing prior to the 10th century and I certainly know that there is no record of the Ancient Romans watching television, yet I am happy to believe  that the Irish were dancing in 100AD but I sincerely doubt that the  Romans watched television. With so few written sources it is also tempting to generalise and assume that recorded events were common throughout the land and not peculiar to the place where they were noted.

A major problem with compiling the history of Morris is that there is no clear definition of ”Morris Dancing”. Generally speaking, it is a form of display dance by a formation team, though there are examples of solos and duets. It is not social dancing, where people dance with partners of the opposite sex.  Some say the term should be restricted to the Cotswold variety or certainly no further than Border Morris, others include all group display dances, which throw it as wide as Longsword and Rapper dancing or even Appalachian Tap. The origins and purpose of all these styles may vary considerably.  The term Morris Dancing  has also been applied to a modern  cheerleading  style discipline. You can catch some of these diverse styles on Youtube

Abbots Bromley, probably the oldest dance performed today and unique within the tradition

Britannia Coconutters, The Lancashire coconut dances are unusual in both the style and the blacking of the faces. More details below.

Cotswold: This is perhaps the best known and most parodied style. Usually marked by complex stepping and the use of sticks and wavers.

North West Clog Morris: Associated with the mill towns of Lancashire, Cheshire and West Yorkshire. Again, a more complex form of stepping and often marked by bells on the clogs rather than bell pads.

Border Morris :  A more aggressive form of Morris originating from the Welsh Borders mainly using sticks. Usually fairly simple stepping but rapid body movement.   .

Formation clog dancing: Clog dancing was once common in Northern England with distinctive East and West styles. Famous clog dancers include Charlie Chaplin and Morecambe and Wise

Rapper Dancing: An energetic  short sword style associated mainly with Northumberland and Durham. Not for the faint hearted

Yorkshire Longsword dancing: Examples come from all three Ridings and some believe it may go back to the time of the Vikings but this is not provable.

Molly Dancing: A style associated with East Anglia and the Fens, often marked with  grotesque cross dressing by the dancers. No sticks or wavers were normally used but some dances feature a broom or brooms.

Garland Dancing: Associated mainly with the North West tradition but there are examples from other parts of Europe.

3/ Why dance?

It could be argued that all dancing serves a purpose. Some of these purposes are:

1/ Courtship: convincing the opposite gender that you are a healthy specimen, worthy of choice as a partner.
Some would say that social dance is also a way in which stricter societies could facilitate dalliance between the sexes in a controlled and formal situation.

2/ Psyching yourself up to a task, as in a war dance.

3/ Keeping yourself warm or easing yourself after confinement. The sailors hornpipe had a real purpose for the crew of a warship anchored off the Norr, just as it did for the fictional crew of the ”Grampus” in their freezing New Bedford inn.

Exercise, fun, spectacle, pageantry, entertainment. Its all in there!

Exercise, fun, spectacle, pageantry, entertainment. Its all in there!

4/ Exercise. Dancing is good and pleasant exercise and many older Morris dancers have taken it up as a form of exercise after retirement.

5/ Entertainment: Many dances were done to entertain crowds in markets and outside pubs, often performed by seasonally idle farm labourers or laid off miners in the hope of being given ale or money. The East Yorkshire “Ploughlads” or “Poorlads” dances were definitely fundraisers.

6/ Spectacle. Related to entertaining, dance definitely adds to pageantry and spectacle.

7/Religious expression.  Religious dance has been a part of many ancient cultures and religions.   Liturgical dance in Christianity is a very new development. Apart from the odd Shaker or Dervish, dance has never really been a part of either Christian or Islamic culture although dancing has often featured in the secular activities surrounding religious celebrations.

8/ Dancing is good, harmless fun.

Morris dancing could fit into many of these purposes. It certainly ticks boxes 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8.

4/ Whence come the black faces?

In some areas of Morris Dancing, by all means not all,  there is a tradition of blacking the performers faces. Today, political correctness has caused many to abandon the practise or to adopt  coloured face paint designs. There are a number of suggestions why face blacking arose. Some of the more modern, “politically correct” adaptations are shown below.

Britannia Coconut Dancers

Britannia Coconut Dancers

Those who favour the idea of North African origins suggest that it may have been to simply imitate the skin colour of the Saracen foe. Others have suggested it may have been added in the 19th Century as an embellishment when blacked up “Negro minstrels” were in fashion. The Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup, Lancashire claim that their tradition was transplanted from Cornwall when redundant tin miners sought employment in the coal mines of Lancashire. Their black faces and strange attire were based on the Barbary pirates who plagued the Cornish Coast in the 17th Century. The “coconuts” are the wooden discs which the miners used to protect their hands and knees when crawling through the workings.

Yet another suggestion is that some of the dances were performed by miners who would have had blackened faces from the mine dust which was difficult to totally remove.

The suggestion of disguise is quite strong and Morris dancing was often mentioned in the same breath as guising. Masked dancers and masked balls have been a part of many of the world’s cultures. The soot blackened face was often described as the poor man’s mask. The use of masks or  make up adds an air of enigma and mystery to the proceedings. It can also add an air of menace when inviting someone to treat you to a drink. One suggestion is that when the revels got out of hand, or if the dancers were thought to be illegally begging, it would make it more difficult to identify the culprits to the magistrates.

All these explanations have their plausibility problems but the truth may be in there somewhere and it is probable that there are several alternative but correct explanations.


5/ Morris Traditions in East Yorkshire.

You are never far from an “expert” in this life and I have heard it said that East Yorkshire was never an area with a Morris tradition other than an occasional and rare longsword team. This is far from the truth.

The misericords of Beverley Minster, carved immediately  before the Dissolution, survived the great state vandalism of the Tudor times in which so much of our artistic heritage was destroyed. Among the scenes of everyday life depicted thereon is a group of Morris Dancers.

One problem is that the major research of the Edwardian age was done in the South simply because that was where, in the pre motor age, the most vigorous early collectors and revivalists lived.

Paul D. Davenport, in his book “Under the Rose: Yorkshire’s Seasonal Dances” (Published directly by Hallamshire Traditions ) comments on the ingenious way that the great Cecil Sharp carried out his long range research in the pre internet age but also the problems with the resultant picture due to the nature of the questions asked. The closed nature of the questions would have excluded much information which might otherwise have been volunteered. The term Morris Men was unusual in East Yorkshire but there was a myriad of local terms for them, often being referred to as Stotts (not all Stotts were Morris dancers!), Ploughlads or Poorlads.

Most of the traditions centred around Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany and traditionally the day on which revelling was put aside and the working year began. Celebrating the Monday meant you dodged work for yet another day. It was also a time of enforced and unwelcome idleness and uncertain income for all sorts of agricultural workers and fishermen when a bit of extra collected cash came in very handy.

St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) comes up regularly in the Morris calendar, probably as it gave opportunity to solicit cash and comforts from the gentry gathering for the hunt. There were also references to other occasions and to dances being performed by men who had not been hired at the Autumn and Spring hiring fairs.

One constant theme is of a King and or Queen, often in the plural. There is a suggestion that at one point in the past the Plough Monday revels included the dancing within a mummers’ play. Oddly enough, the plays seemed to survive alone in Lincolnshire while the dances survived alone in Yorkshire.

Many of the written sources from which Paul Davenport constructs his picture are from court records and newspaper reporting of antisocial behaviour and criminality by Morris teams, possibly one factor in the demise of local Morris activity in the Edwardian era when respectability was a thing to be sought. Davenport gives a good example of friction between the youths of Beverley and a visiting Morris team from Cottingham which resulted in injury from a dancer’s sword and the incarceration of members of the Cottingham team. It does appear that many teams and their dances were revived after the First World War, though few survived the second world war. One notable survivor into the present day is the Flamborough Longsword Dance which is still performed on St Stephen’s Day.

I don’t have space to cover much of what is known but one notable area was Aldborough and the area to the South. Here there is no mention of swords but the dancers sometimes carried flags or Nik Naks, animal bones that were clacked together in time with the music. Another unusual feature was that the musicians also often danced, unsurprising to anyone who has felt the breath of the Arctic Tundra floating in off the North Sea! While we know a lot about the Alborough dances no one ever filmed or photographed them so we have a number of modern interpretations by teams such as Rackaback and The Flag and Bone Gang.

6/ Morris Humour

There are many spoof histories of Morris on You Tube such as the one at:


7/ The Future?

"Terri Horvath Morris" dance in the heat of the Costa Blanca, Spain

“Terri Horvath Morris” dance in the heat of the Costa Blanca, Spain

Despite the fear in the 1960’s that Morris would die out, it seems to be spreading. Many people are taking it up as a form of recreational exercise. Most of the dances were originally associated with specific geographical areas but today you will find traditional dances being performed by people far remote from the original source. Camden Clog, noted for their Northern styles, are based in London.  Morris troupes can be found in many parts of the world including the USA, Australasia, Utrecht in Holland and Spain’s Costa Blanca.

One major problem has been getting the popular media to include British folk traditions in their repertoire. When Chin’s President Xi visited Britain recently he presented the Queen with two CD’s of his wife singing traditional Chinese songs. When the Morris Federation held their AGM in Hull in 2017, Hull’s year as the UK City of Culture, and 300 dancers and musicians performed throughout the day in the city centre, it was left out of the official publicity leaflets and completely ignored by both the Hull Daily Mail and BBC television! This is not an isolated thing but did provoke a rhyming protest from a local poet.

The younger generation are often a little lacking but once tried are often hooked for life. I came across this gem on Youtube quite by chance. The joy and energy of the children is obvious and it is so much healthier than a session on the Playstation. I understand it was made about 2007 but the venue is as yet unknown to us. We believe the team are the NYFTE. If we in Morris Minors can inspire such joy, energy and enthusiasm then we will be well satisfied.

Poster for the 2015 Hull Day of Dance.

Poster for the 2015 Hull Day of Dance.

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