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A Pocket History of Morris Dancing

An illustration of the 'nine days wonder ' of William Kempe who morris danced from London to Norwich in 1600 .....



If you ask a morris dancer on the street about the history of morris the reply is likely to be just about anything and certain to be elaborated at great length if a drink or two is offered !

One suggestion is that the dancing came from Spain and was brought back by John of Gaunt, second son of Edward III around 1387, when his army returned from the Spanish wars. The ( Arab ) Moors of Spain no doubt were very exotic to medieval eyes, so ' Moorish dancing' was the new craze !

However , the name probably originated in the European courts of the fifteenth century.  Around then, a form of dance typically called by names like "moresca" was common as court entertainment. Moresco means 'moorish' in English .

By 1492 Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille had succeeded in driving the Moors out of Spain and unifying the country. In celebration of this a pageant known as a Moresca was devised and performed. The original ´Moresca´ is a sword dance. The sticks in border morris could be an echo of the swords in the 'Moresca'.

The similarity to what became known as the English "morris" is undoubted. Early court records state that the "moresque" was performed at court in Isabella’s honour, including the dance  the "moresque" or "morisce" or " moreys daunce “

The dancers wore colourful, fairly elaborate costumes with pendant sleeves and attached bells. Very little is known about the dances per se, though there seem to have been two types: a solo dance, and a dance in a circle around a "maiden" (who could have been a man in women's clothing) for whose favours the dancers compete.

The first record of a ‘Morusk’ dance is at Lanherne Cornwall in 1468. At Betley in Staffordshire in an old house there is a painted glass window dating from 1470. It shows a Morris side with their musician, a fool, hobby horse, and two Robin Hood characters, Maid Marian and Friar Tuck. In the middle is a Maypole.

In 1458, a will written in Bury St Edmunds stated, “I leave to my daughter, Catherine … 3 silver cups, sculpted with a Morris Dance , with one lid for them “. For many years and until very recently this was the earliest written evidence of morris dancing in England.  We now have evidence from 20 years earlier but nobody knows for sure where , when or  why it all began.

Thoughts that to dance the Morris is the perpetuation of Paganism should have died out centuries ago as the church itself embraced the Morris dance and invited it into its nave, as in the 'Saddleworth Rush Cart' and certainly the promotion of 'Church Ales' as fund raising exercises, an event very much associated with Morris dancing.  By the 1500s Morris was being performed for Easter, Whitsuntide, and saint's days. In fact Morris dancing became so much an accepted institution that medieval churchwarden's accounts show that accessories were provided by parish funds.


St Lawrence Church, Reading, accounts show "Moreys Dawncers" perfomed on Dedication Day 1513 and were given 3d for ale.  In 1509 "six peyre of shone for Mors daunsers". In 1530 12d was paid for "a grosse of bells for the Morece dawnsers" . At St Thomas Church, Sarum , in1557, they decorated "the endes of the banners with bells" the Church procession jingled forth like the Morris.

Morris was performed on the North American continent in 1583. According to the account of Edward Haies, captain of the Golden Hinde, his crew performed morris dances in what is now Canada for ”the solace of our people, and allurement of the Savages.'' The manifests of other ships exploring America also indicate that morris paraphernalia were on board.

Morris dancing features in Shakespeare’s plays - in both Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry VI. It was probably banned by Cromwell during the Commonwealth, but enjoyed a revival with the Restoration of the monarchy.

Sadly by the end of the 19th century it only survived in a few isolated communities as the industrial revolution disrupted medieval social patterns and ways of life and leisure.

Today morris dancing is once again flourishing with about 800 dance sides all over the country, but there are also around 150 morris sides in the United States. British expatriates form a large part of the morris tradition in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. There are isolated groups in other countries, for example those in Utrecht, Netherlands, the Arctic Morris Group of Helsinki and Stockholm, as well as in Cyprus and Alsace, France.

The success of Author Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels has seen the entirely invented ‘ Dark Morris tradition being brought to life in some form by real morris sides such as the Lancre Morris of Durham , or the pagan twist of the Witchmen of Northamptonshire.

Types Of Morris....

Cotswold morris is the quintessentially English dance that conjures pictures of bells jingling and hankies waving on the village green. This dance tradition comes from the villages of the south midlands shires.


Border morris came from the English counties that share the border with Wales. With only a few references to traditional dances, many sides have developed their own very distinctive style. Watch out for tatter jackets, faces blackened or painted for disguise, sticks and lots of noise.


North West morris originated in Lancashire and north Cheshire , with close links to the cotton mills and rushbearing  ceremonies. These dances typically feature processions, clogs, rant stepping, flowery hats, beads , garlands, pom poms, slings and decorated bobbins.


Molly dancing is peculiar to East Anglia with country dance figures , traditionally danced by plough boys, often disguised with blackened faces and garish costumes,  on or around Plough Monday , and now all year .


Sword dances come from the North of England with the Yorkshire longsword dances and the short sword or rapper dances from the mining communities of the Northumberland and Durham coalfields.



Many sides have one or more fools. A fool will usually be extravagantly dressed, and communicate directly with the audience in speech or mime. The fool will often dance around and even through a dance without appearing really to be a part of it, but it takes a talented dancer to pull off such fooling while actually adding to and not distracting from the main dance set. Those who are unkind in the audience often refer to the entire group as a "pack of fools".

Many sides also have a beast: a dancer in a costume made to look like a real or mythical animal. Beasts mainly interact with the audience, particularly children. In some groups this dancer is called the hobby.


Our sort of Morris - Border Morris

There are many descriptions of morris dancing in Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, a great number of them dating back hundreds of years. These early descriptions are very interesting, but unfortunately not a great deal of use for the derivation of dance notations. They divide broadly into two categories. Some are descriptions of the performance of morris dances as entertainment at fairs or in the big houses of the area. These tell us a great deal about the context of the performances and how the audience received them. Occasionally the material includes descriptions of the music and the costume of the dancers. Without fail, the authors ignore the actual form and structure of the dance.

The remainder of the early material consists of records of morris dancers appearing before magistrates on charges of violent behaviour, drunkenness, unpaid bills or any combination of the three. Nothing new then !

Normally these records do not include descriptions of the dancing, which preceded the incident in question. It was not until the revival of interest in folk customs and traditions that anyone really recorded the form and structure of any type of folk dance, let alone the morris dances from the Welsh borders.

Shortly before the end of the nineteenth century, collectors began to work in the border area and Ella Leather, Maud Karpeles and Cecil Sharp, amongst others, recorded dances and tunes from the area before the First World War.


However, the collectors of the period generally ignored the morris dances of the Welsh borders:  (Cecil Sharp considered them a degenerate form of the morris, hardly worth recording – huh ! )

From the nineteen-thirties onwards, researchers started to make some real effort to record the dancing from the area. By then, however, the traditional teams, which had already started to decline well before the First World War, had almost completely died out. Collectors interested in the dances themselves were mostly forced to rely on second-hand information from people who had seen the dance, rather than from those who had actually performed them. This situation was probably made worse because morris dancing was a tradition associated with begging for drink or food and people were reluctant to admit that they, or their friends or family, had been involved in it.


Many teams blackened their faces, though a number of teams did not. 'Blacking up' may have been as some form of disguise because the performers were begging. If so, this must have been a custom that saved face on the part of dancers and audience alike. In a relatively small and enclosed community, blackening faces rarely prevents recognition. 

A number of teams wore costumes with numerous rags or ribbons attached to either the shirt or a jacket, but again this was by no means universal. There are also descriptions of teams wearing smocks, plain shirts and carnival costumes. The rule seems to have been that the teams wore whatever was readily available and made a show for the audience. Most of the teams wore bells, attached either to the shoes or to the costume.

(Thanx to multiple Google sources  - you can explore, and speculate , yourself !)

An 1808 illustration showing 2 dancers , a musician , a fool and a beast .

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