Early Images of the Morris Dance

Presented below is a part of a History Bible containing the New Testament with The Destruction of Jerusalem, preceded by the Book of Psalms. The text was copied by Gerard Wesselszoon in 1443, from Deventer, a professional scribe, who must have been living in Utrecht at the time. Below this is a copy of an engraving on copper by Israel Von Mecheln, of Meckenen, named after his native German village on the confines of Flanders. It was probably executed in about 1460-70, and may have been intended for goldsmith’s work, possibly a cup or tankard. It depicts in a fancy representation of foliage, several figures belonging to a Flemish May game Morris. Below this is the carved oak panel from Lancaster castle, measuring about fourteen inches long. It was removed from the castle at some stage, when certain rooms were dismantled. The castle was refurbished by Queen Elizabeth in about 1580. The panel is thought to be sixteenth century. It is now on display in the Local History Gallery of the City Museum, Market Square, Lancaster. Below this is the so-called Tollet’s Window (measuring thirty eight inches by fifteen inches) which belonged to George Tollet, Esq. at Betley Hall in Staffordshire. He brought the window to the public’s attention with Mr. Tollet’s Opinion Concerning the Morris Dancers Upon His Window. The origins of this multi-coloured enamelled window are uncertain, but George Tollet originally thought it should be dated to 1621, the date above a door in Betley Hall; he then suggested the youthful days of Henry VIII (1491-1547). Francis Douce pronounced it to belong to the reign of Edward IV (1461-70; 1471-83), as he compared it to the Mecheln engraving.  Both Tollet and Douce have based their dates on the style of dress, which may not be a reliable indication. The window contains one of the earliest illustrations of the May games and the Morris dance in this country. It was moved to Minsterley in Shropshire, but is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

History Bible, Utrecht, Koninklijke Bibliotheek – National library of the Netherlands.

1. The Fool was the domestic buffoon of his time. In Tollet he has bells tied to his arms and ankles, and he carries a bauble. According to George Tollet, he wears a ‘coxcomb hood with ass’s ears’; this has a bell hanging in front. Behind he has a bell hanging from his garment. In the Lancaster panel the pose is similar to Tollet but in reverse, and like Tollet, he carries a bauble, wears a similar hood with a bell in front, and behind has a bell hanging from his garment. In Von Mecheln the pose is different, but like Tollet and the Lancaster panel, he carries a bauble. He wears a hood with ass’s ears which has a row of bells for the crest. Over his arm hangs a cloth or napkin and he wears behind what appears to be a purse or wallet, a feature which is generally exhibited by the fool in old German prints. In the Utrecht history bible he carries a bauble or bladder, and has a similar hood to Tollet and the Lancaster panel. 2. The Dancer in Tollet has bells tied to his legs, streamers emanating from his shoulders, and a feather in his hat. George Tollet notes that he was thought to be a Flemish or Spanish Morisco dancer, but in his opinion ‘he personates a nobleman’. In the Lancaster panel the pose is similar to Tollet, but in reverse. Like Tollet he has bells tied to his legs, but there are no streamers and no visible feather in his hat. Gilchrist calls him a Morris man in a short coat (which might be of white fustian, spangled). In Von Mecheln the pose is similar to the Lancaster panel; however he has bells on his wrists and ankles and like Tollet, has streamers emanating from his shoulders, with a feather in his hat. In the Utrecht history bible he has bells tied to his legs, streamers emanating from his shoulders, and a feather in his hat. 3. The Dancer in Tollet he has bells tied to his legs and streamers emanating from his shoulders; there is no feather in his hat. George Tollet notes that he was thought to be Flemish or Spanish. In the Lancaster panel the pose is similar to Tollet, but in reverse; there are no visible bells, streamers, or feather in his hat. Gilchrist calls him a Morris man in a short coat (which might be of white fustian, spangled). In Von Mecheln the pose is similar to the Lancaster panel; he has bells on his wrists and ankles, and like Tollet, he has streamers emanating from his shoulders with no feather in his hat. In the Utrecht history bible he has bells tied to his legs and a streamer emanating from his waist; there is no feather in his hat.  4. The Dancer in Tollet has bells tied to his ankles. George Tollet has suggested that ‘by the superior neatness of his dress, may be a franklin or a gentleman of fortune’.  In the Lancaster panel the pose is similar to Tollet, but in reverse, however there are no bells. Gilchrist calls him a Morris man in a short coat (which might be of white fustian, spangled). There is no comparable figure in Von Mecheln or the Utrecht history bible. 5. The May-pole only appears in Tollet. According to George Tollet: ‘the May-pole, is painted yellow and black in spiral lines. Spelman’s ‘Glossary’ mentions the custom of erecting a tall May-pole, painted with various colours.  Shakspeare, in the play of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, act iii, scene 2, speaks of a painted May-pole. Upon our pole are displayed St. George’s red cross, or the banner of England, and a white pennon or streamer emblazoned with a red cross, terminating like the blade of a sword, but the delineation thereof is much faded. It is plain, however, from an inspection of the window, that the upright line of the cross, which is disunited in the engraving, should be continuous’. 6. The Piper sometimes known as Tom Piper, is referred to by Spenser, in his third eclogue: ‘Tom Piper makes as little melodie’ suggesting his music was not usually of the best kind.  In Tollet the figure leans to our left; he has a sword, a feather in his hat, a pipe, tabor, and tabor stick, and at his waist he wears what appears to be the lower part or flap of a stomacher. In the Lancaster panel the figure is in reverse, but in an upright position; like Tollet, he has a feather in his hat, a pipe, tabor and tabor stick, but he wears a cape and there is no sword or stomacher. In Von Mecheln the pose is similar to Tollet, but in reverse, the figure leans to our right. The resemblance between the figures of this character in Mecheln and Tollet is remarkable; both have the sword, the feather in the hat, the pipe, the tabor and tabor stick, and what appears to be the lower part or flap of a stomacher. In the Utrecht history bible he has a pipe, tabor, and tabor stick, with no feather in his hat. 7. The Dancer in Tollet has bells tied to his legs, and according to George Tollet: ‘seems to be a clown, peasant, or yeoman, by his brown visage, notted hair, and robust limbs’. There is no comparable figure in the Lancaster panel. In Von Mecheln the pose is somewhat similar to Tollet but in reverse; there are no bells. There is no comparable figure in the Utrecht history bible. 8. The Hobby Horse only appears in Tollet, the earliest known illustration. The figure attached to the horse has a sword in his mouth, and according to George Tollet ‘What is stuck in the horse’s mouth I apprehend to be a ladle, ornamented with a ribbon. Its use was to receive the spectator’s pecuniary donations’. The Hobby Horse consisted of the resemblance of the head and tail of a horse with a light covered wooden frame for the body, which was attached to the person who pranced about, imitating the motions of a horse. Thought to be a later addition to the Morris, it was supressed by the Puritans (see previous page). An allusion to the omission of the hobby horse is found in Hamlet: ‘For O, for O, the hobby horse is forgot’ (act 3 scene 2). A short time before the revolution in France, the May games and Morris dance were celebrated in many parts of that country, accompanied by a fool and a hobby horse, the latter was termed ‘un chevalet’; the Spaniards had the same figure under the name of ‘tarasca’. 9. The Dancer in Tollet has bells tied to his wrists and legs and has long curly hair with a flower on his forehead. According to George Tollet he ‘has been taken to be Marian’s Gentleman-usher.  Mr. Steevens considers him as Marian’s paramour’. There is no comparable figure in the Lancaster panel. In Von Mecheln the pose is in reverse, there are no bells, but like Tollet, he has long curly hair and a flower on his forehead. There is no comparable figure in the Utrecht history bible. 10. The Dancer in Tollet has bells tied to his ankles, and he wears on his head what appears to be a coronet, perhaps to signify the king of May. According to Dobson and Taylor this figure is an apparent Robin Hood. According to George Tollet he ‘may be designed for the Bavian fool, or the fool with the slabbering bib’. He also calls him ‘the lesser fool’. In the Lancaster panel the pose is similar to Tollet in reverse, but there are no bells. According to Gilchrist this figure is ‘A nude girl dancer or a curly-headed boy personating a girl, with the aid of artificial feminine characteristics’. In Von Mecheln the pose is similar to the Lancaster panel, there are no bells and the figure appears to be wearing a type of hood. There is no comparable figure in the Utrecht history bible. 11. The Queen of May in Tollet is holding a flower, has a golden crown, and wears a front-laced kirtle. In the Lancaster panel, according to Gilchrist, the figure is ‘The Maid-Marion, a grotesque figure of a man dressed as a woman and holding a ladle for contributions’. In Von Mecheln the May queen appears to be holding a piece of fruit and wears a steeple head dress. Like Tollet, she wears a front-laced kirtle. Both the steeple head dress and the front-laced kirtle were worn in the fifteenth century. In the Utrecht history bible she appears to be holding a ring, and wears a type of head-dress similar to a turban, with a piece that flows over her shoulder. Her complexion appears to be dark, perhaps to signify a Moor. 12. The friar only appears in Tollet. According to George Tollet ‘a friar in the full clerical tonsure, with the chaplet of white and red beads in his right hand; and, expressive of his professed humility, his eyes are cast upon the ground. His corded girdle, and his russet habit, denote him to be of the Franciscan order, or one of the grey friars, as they were commonly called from the colour of their apparel, which was a russet, or a brown russet, as Holinshed, 1586, vol. iii, p 789, observes’. I have no image of the Dragon, first mentioned as part of the Morris dance in Stubbes’s Anatomie of abuses (1583, see previous page), and introduced in a Morris, in Sampson’s play of the Vowbreaker, 0r fayre maid of Clifton (1633), where a fellow says, ‘I’ll be a fiery dragon’.

It is likely that Tollet’s Window has been derived from Von Mecheln’s engraving, and the Lancaster panel derived from both Von Mecheln and Tollet. There can be little doubt that the window was created in this country (it has the words ‘A Mery May’) possibly by a foreign craftsman who had access to Mecheln’s engraving. Barnard Flower or one of the other Flemish glaziers and glass-painters in Southwark (who were patronized by the court of Henry VIII) has been suggested. Flower was actually King’s glazier from 1505 to 1517. There is a copy of the window at Kingston-upon-Thames and at Betley Court, as well as a version in embroidery, machine appliqué, and etched glass.  

A brief history of the painting below and the following drawing is related by Douce: ‘Lord Orford in his catalogue of English engravers, under the article of Peter Stent, has described two paintings at Lord Fitzwilliam’s on Richmond green which came out of the old neighbouring palace. They were executed by Vinckenboom, about the end of the reign of James I., and exhibit views of the above palace; in one of these pictures a morris dance is introduced, consisting of seven figures, viz. a fool, a hobby-horse, a piper a Maid Marian, and three other dancers, the rest of the figures being spectators. Of these the first four and one of the dancers are reduced in the annexed plate from a tracing made by the late Captain Grose. The fool has an inflated bladder or eel-skin with a ladle at the end of it, and with this he is collecting money. The piper is pretty much in his original state; but the hobby- horse wants the legerdemain apparatus, and Maid Marian is not remarkable for the elegance of her person’. 

 The Thames at Richmond, with the Old Royal Palace, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. 

This page contains information found in Illustrations of Shakspeare, Francis Douce, 1807; Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Anne G. Gilchrist, Vol. 1, No. 2, Dec., 1933; Mr. Tollet’s Opinion Concerning the Morris Dancers Upon His Window, Henry IV Part 1, Johnson’s and Steevens 2nd edition (1778) of the works of Shakespeare; Observations on Early Images of ‘Morris Dancers’, Mike Heaney, Mar., 2004; The Characters in the Betley Window and its Copies, St Albans Morris Men, John Price, 2006; Robin Hood, J. C. Holt, 1982; Rymes of Robyn Hood, R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, 1976; History Bible, Utrecht, Koninklijke Bibliotheek – National library of the Netherlands.