The Morris Dance

This form of English rustic dance was usually performed with tabors, staves, handkerchiefes, or swords, by men adorned with bells, sometimes with coloured ribbons streaming from their arms and shoulders. It is thought to be of Moorish origin, which refers to people from northern Africa that had occupied the Iberian Peninsula, comprising most of what is now Spain and Portugal. The word ‘morris’ applied to the dance, is thought to be derived from ‘Morisco’ which in the Spanish language signifies a Moor, as if the dance had been taken from the Moors; the dance still continues in Spain under the name fandango. There is the suggestion that it may have been introduced into England when John of Gaunt returned from Spain in the reign of Edward III, however the Spanish Morisco or Moor dance was usually performed with castanets or rattles at the end of the fingers, and usually by a single person. It was also danced at puppet-shows by a person dressed as a Moor, with a blackened face; this does not generally agree with the Morris dance.  Other theories suggest that the Morris dance derived from the ancient ‘fool’s dance’ which originally appears to have formed a part of the pegeant belonging to the festival of fools, a religious mummery usually held at Christmas time, and consisting of various ceremonials and mockeries. The drawing below, written and illuminated in the reign of Edward III, and completed in 1344, is preserved in a MS. in the Bodleian Library (No. 964), and appears to depict the fool’s dancers (being assisted by the music of the regals and the bagpipes) with bells attached to their headwear, an item that adorned the Morris dancers.


Some have sought the origin of the Morris in the Pyrrhica saltatio, a military dance which seems to have been invented by the Greeks, and later adopted by the Salii or priests of Mars. This dance appears to have corrupted into the dance of fools or Matachins, which was well known in France and Italy. The performers in this dance were dressed in short jackets with gilt-paper helmets, long streamers tied to their shoulders, and bells to their legs. They carried in their hands a sword and buckler, with which they made a clashing noise, and performed various quick evolutions (see Tabourot Orchesographie, 1589, 4to, p.97). A version of this sword dance appears to have been introduced into England, where it was performed with feats of tumbling and dancing by women, at fairs and in the minor theatres. A writer, speaking of the Pyrrhica saltatio informes us that ‘The common people in many parts of England still practise what they call a Morisco dance, in a wild manner, and as it were in armour, at proper intervals striking upon each others staves.’ (see Wise’s Enquiries concerning the first inhabitants, language, ect. of Europe, p. 51). This may differ from the common Morris, and could be a mixture of the Pyrrhic and Moorish dances. 

There is the possibility that France or even the Flemings played a part in the origins of the Morris. Jean Tabourot, canon and official of the cathedral of Lengres in France, relates that in his youthful days it was the custom in upper societies for a boy to come into the hall, when supper was finished, with his face blackened, his forehead bound with white or yellow taffeta, and bells tied to his legs. He would then proceed to dance the Morisco, the whole length of the hall, backwards and forwards, to the great amusement of the company (see his Orchesographie et traicte en forme de dialogue par lequel toutes personnes peuvent facilement apprendre et practiquer l’ honneste exercice des dances, 1589, 4to, under the anagrammatized name of Thoinot Arbeau). The French Morris can be traced to a much earlier period. Among other instances of the excesses of Messire Gilles de Raiz, in 1440, morris dancers are specified; (Lobineau, Hist. de Bretagne, ii, 1069; in the accounts of Olivier le Roux, treasurer to Arthur III, duke of Bretagne). Coquillart, a French poet, writing about 1470, says that the Swiss danced the Morisco to the beat of the drum (OEuvres, p. 127).

 The English Morris dance can be traced to the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509) as can be seen in the church-wardens account book (see previous page). The earliest known reference may well be in inventories of goods. Two wills of 1458 refer to ornamental vessels with depictions of morris dancers, and a tapestry listed as being in Caistor Castle in 1448 also had depictions of morris dancers, however none of these goods survive (Michael Heaney, Folk Music Journal 8.4, 2004, 513-15). The dance was sometimes performed by itself, but was frequently joined to processions and pageants, especially those appropriated for the May Games and other festivals and ceremonies such as Holy Thursday, the Whitsun-ales, the bride-ales, or weddings, and a sort of play or pageant called the lord of misrule. Sherriffs too had their Morris dance (see Stowe’s Survay of London, 1618, 4to, p. 161). Maid Marian or the queen of May, the friar, the fool, the piper or Tom piper, the hobby horse, and the dragon, were arguably the most well-known figures to have appeared in the dance. According to Dobson and Taylor ‘As soon as the forest outlaw began to appear in the May festivities it was probably inevitable that he should participate not only in his own formalized dances but in the already well-established morris dances. It was here that he encountered and later assimilated into his own legend the jolly friar and Maid Marian, almost invariably among the performers in the early sixteenth-century morris dance’ (Rymes of Robyn Hood, p. 41). This seems to be a mistake as I cannot find any record that mentions Robin Hood as being part of the Morris dance. Early images can be seen in the Utrecht history bible, Israel Von Mecheln’s engraving, Tollet’s window, and the Lancaster castle panel. 

The May festivities concerning Robin Hood seem to have been chiefly designed for the encouragement of archery, and it is not certain that either he or his companions were prominent in the May dance, and entirely distinct merriment. The May-lady was originally a character of some importance, but in the time of Queen Elizabeth the part was often played by a boy dressed as a female, who was queen of the May. The degraded state of Maid Marian can be found in Fletcher’s Monsieur Thomas; Dorothea desire her brother to conduct himself with more gentleness towards his mistress, unless he would chuse to marry ‘Malkyn the May lady’ apparently a country clown who personated Maid Marian. In 1557 there was a May game in Fenchurch street, with a ‘Lord and Lady of the May’, and a Morris dance (see Strype’s Eccl. memorials, iii, 376). Both of these characters are introduced in a Morris in Fletcher’s play of The two noble kinsmen, Act iii.; and, in the Kight of the burning pestle. A puritanical writer in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, gives a vivid discription of the pageant concerning the lord of misrule, which contains an attendant Morris; richly attired men chosen by the lord of misrule to be his attendants, who with ‘their hobby-horses, their dragons and other antiques, togither with their baudie pipers and thundering drummers, to strike up the Devils Daunce’. This ‘heathen company’ then marched into the church followed by the ‘foolish people’ who ‘mount upon formes and pewes, to see these goodly pageants solemnized in this sort’. After this, the throng goes into the church yard ‘where they have commonly their sommer haules, their bowers, arbours, and banquetting houses set up, wherin they feast, banquet, and daunce all that day, and all that night too’ (see Stubbes’s Anatomie of abuses, 1583, p. 107). Another puritanical writer in the reign of Queen Elizabeth   refers to the ‘abuses’ committed in the May games. His first abuse refers to men dressed as women whome he calls ‘may marrions’. His second abuse refers to ‘morice’ dancers that have danced naked, and his third abuse refers to maidens becoming pregnant after running into the woods (with men) to ‘fet bowes’, presumaby for the May games (see Fetherston’s Dialogue agaynst light, lewde, and lascivious dauncing, 1582, 12mo, sign, D.7). 

The Morris dances were not confined to a particular number, in Israel’s print there are nine, in Tollett’s window, there are eleven. There is a pamphlet entitled Old meg of Herefordshire for a Mayd Marian and Hereford town for a morris dance, or 12 morris dancers in Herefordshire of 1200 years old, 1609, 4to. This tract is mentioned by Sir William Temple, in his Essay on health and long life, from the communication of Lord Leicester. Howel, in his Parly of beasts, 1660, has recorded that ‘of late years ther were call’d out within three miles compasse ten men that were a thousand years between them, one supplying what the other wanted of a hundred years apiece, and they danc’d the morris divers hours together in the market place with a taborer before them 103 years old, and a maid Mariam 105’ p. 122. This seems to allude to the same event. In the painting by Vickenboom, at Richmond, there are seven figures. In Blount’s Glossographia, 1656, the Morisco is defined as ‘a dance wherin there were usually five men and a boy dressed in a girles habit, whom they call Maid Marrian’.  At a later date the Morris was introduced onto the stage. Stephen Gosson, writing about 1579 in a tract entitled Playes Confuted, speaks of ‘dauncing of gigges, galiardes, and morisces, with hobby horses’ as stage performances. In 1599? the Shakespearean actor William Kempe Morris danced from London to Norwich, an event chronicled in his Nine Daies Wonder (1600). During the reign of Queen Elizabeth the May Games were suppressed by the Puritans; Maid Marian was assimilated to the whore of Babylon, friar Tuck was deemed a remnant of Popery, and the hobby horse an impious and Pagan superstition. King James’s book of sports restored the lady and the hobby horse, but during the commonwealth they were again attacked by a new set of fanatics, and were degraded together with the whole of the May festivities and the Whitsun-ales ect. in many parts of England.

In his continuation to Ben Jonson’s Sad Shepherd (1782, 8v0, p.255) F. G. Waldron informs us that he saw in the summor of 1783, at Richmond in Surry, a troop of Morris dancers from Abingdon, accompanied by a fool in a motley jacket. He carried a staff with a blown bladder at the end, with which he either buffeted the crowd or played tricks. The dancers and the fool were Berkshire husbandmen taking an annual circuit to collect money. Joseph Ritson in his Robin Hood,  noted that Morris dancers are seen annually in Norfolk, and made their constant appearance in Lancashire. He also preserved a newspaper article recording Morris dancers of Pendleton, who paid their annual visit to Salford, in 1792.  Some years later, another troop was seen at Usk in Monmouthshire, attended by a boy Maid Marian, a hobby horse, and a fool; a ceremony that had apparently continued for the past three hundred years. The Morris continues to this day in English village entertainments, and has evolved into several different regonal styles; some performers still have blackened faces. The tradition has spread to such countries as the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Hong Kong.  

This page contains information found in Illustrations of Shakspeare, Francis Douce, 1807; The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, Joseph Strutt, William Hone, 1838; The Pictorial History of England, George L. Craik and Charles Mac Farlane, 1839; The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Francis James Child, Vol III, 1965; Mr. Tollet’s Opinion Concerning the Morris Dancers Upon His Window, Henry IV Part 1, Johnson’s and Steevens 2nd edition of the works of Shakespeare, 1778.