Early History of Morris Dance

Movement, Music, Colour!

If you've ever watched a show of morris dancing, it will have contained all of these elements - and a lot more too. You have witnessed the result of more than 500 years of the evolution of a dance. The Morris Ring hopes that this short description will provide a starting point for those who have an interest in morris dancing and Englands traditions. Among the most frequently asked questions of any morris dancer are:

  • Why is it called morris dancing?
  • Where does it come from?
  • How old is it?
  • and someone always asks 'Which ones Maurice?

It is probable the term morris developed from the French word morisque (meaning a dance, the dance), which became morisch in Flemish, and then the English moryssh, moris and finally morris. Flanders in the fifteenth century was an innovative cultural centre, and strongly influenced European culture in general. The earliest confirmation of a performance of morris dancing in England dates from London on 19 May 1448, when Moryssh daunsers were paid 7s (35p) for their services.

By Elizabethan times it was already considered to be an ancient dance, and references appear to it in a number of early plays. Many called for a dance or jig to be performed by the leading actor. One of the most popular actors of the time was Will Kemp and, for a wager during Lent in 1599/1600 (when the roads would be exceedingly bad!), he danced from London to Norwich The Nine Daies Wonder (although he started on the first Monday in Lent, and arrived at Easter). Large numbers of spectators turned out to cheer him on and check his progress.

Throughout its history in England, morris dancing has been through many manifestations. Five hundred years ago it was a dance for one or two; today it is for four or more. Accounts of morris dancing can be found throughout England, making it a nationwide phenomenon.

The History of Morris Dancing, 1458-1750(link is external) is John Forrest's scholarly description of the early morris, providing images of our early dances, but we also like to say that our origins are 'lost in the mists of time'.

Decline and Revival

THE loss of patronage from the gentry, changing attitudes, migration, and the growth of other leisure pursuits, contributed to the decline of morris dancing during the nineteenth century. However, it was kept alive in some villages by those who had it in their blood. Towards the end of that century, the entrepreneur D'Arcy Ferris, of Bidford on Avon, Warwickshire, recruited and paid a team of morris dancers to perform at 'Olde English Revels' and pageants in local towns. To further suggest a view of 'Merrie Englande', he called them the Shakespearean Bidford Morris Dancers. In 1887 Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee and morris dancers were again in demand. In March 1899, Percy Manning asked some dancers from Headington Quarry to perform at a lecture on old customs he presented at the Corn Exchange, Oxford.

1899 and After

Cecil Sharp spent Christmas 1899 with his mother-in-law at Sandgate Cottage, Headington near Oxford. On Boxing Day, the local morris dancers from Headington Quarry danced outside the cottage upon the snow-covered drive. Sharp at this time was a London music teacher, who found the tunes interesting, and noted them from their leader and musician William Kimber. Sharp later became a great folk music collector collecting more than one hundred and seventy morris and sword dances. In 1911 he formed and became Director of The English Folk Dance Society; this amalgamated with the Folk Song Society in 1932 to become The English Folk Dance and Song Society.

In 1905 the suffragettes Mary Neal and Emmeline Pethick, were running a club for girls working in the West End dress trade. The Esprance Working Girls Club allowed the girls an escape from the hard daily life, and included activities such as singing, games and sports. They had already learnt folk songs, and Mary Neal asked Cecil Sharp if there were any English folk dances that they could learn. Sharp arranged for William Kimber and dancers from Headington to come to London to teach the girls some of the dances, and in April 1906 they gave their first public display at the small Queens Hall.

The Twentieth Century

Sharp published the Morris Book Part One in 1907, followed by Part Two in 1909. In 1910, Mary Neal published the first Espérance Morris Book, containing folk dances, songs and morris dances. As folk dances and songs became popular, their use in schools was encouraged by the Board of Education. Much of the teaching of morris dancing from this time until the 1930s took place in country dance clubs; everything was taught directly from Sharp's books, and there were even morris dancing examinations! Morris dancing was first encouraged, for both children and adults, at Thaxted (Essex) by the local priest, Conrad Noel, and his wife Miriam in 1908. Since then morris dancing has taken place there every year. The Morris Ring, founded in 1934, has held meetings in the village each year since then.

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