Morris Before The Restoration of Charles II in 1660

The picture shows Morris Dancers beside the Thames at Richmond from a picture now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. Dated around 1620, a hundred years after Martin Luther nailed his protest to a church door in Wittenburg. The 1600s were turbulent times for England and for the Morris.

Earliest References

We can only summarise the earliest references.  For the glorious detail see "Annals of Early Morris", by Michael Heaney and John Forrest, 1991; 'The History of Morris Dancing, 1858 - 1750', by John Forrest or explore  our Not So Short Bibliography.

  • The earliest reference to morris dance concerns a discovery by Mike Heaney and John Forrest, An Antedating for the ‘Morris Dance’ Notes and Queries 2002 49: 190-193, {you will need to pay for this}.
    This discovery was summarised in "The Morris Dancer" 2002, 3(10), 314. "Setting Morris Dancing back Ten Years", which from a tapestry, sets the earliest reference to morris in England as 31 October 1448, in the twenty-seventh year of the reign of Henry VI. Thus, inventories for Caistor Castle, Norfolk have references to a tapestry depicting a morris dance:
    • (31st Oct) 1448: the morysk Daunce
    • 1459: the morysch daunce
    • 1462: the Morys daunse
  • Previous to this discovery, the earliest reference (even appearing in the title of Forrest's book(!) was to Alice Wetenhale, a widow from Bury St Edmunds, in her will of 1458: "I leave to my daughter Catherine … 3 silver cups. sculpted with a moreys daunce, with one lid for them
  • The earliest existing images of Morris dancers and their associated characters, are to be found in the Betley Window and its various copies.  In an article in "The Morris Dancer"  Mike Heaney compared the figures depicted in the window with those in an illustration by Israhel van Meckenem dated about 1490 and in a wooden panel, also showing morris dancers, in Lancaster Castle. Both the window and the panel are based upon the illustration. (The link is to an improved version of his article later published by Musical Traditions.)
  • There is one other claim to be an early reference, Strutt, in his “Games and Pastimes” suggests that the picture of the XIV century Fools Dance is related to the morris dance. Strutt's reference is to the Bodlean Library, No 964. See: Strutt's Sports and Pastimes Book III, Chapter V



Elizabethan Morris

In the mid-seventeenth century, the notion that the morris dance was introduced into this country from Spain took hold, with a connection to the Spanish Morisco - hence the name “Morris” or moorish dance. The notion has persisted into the 21st century as a possible origin for the morris. However, read what John Forrest (p6-9) says about this idea. In the reign of Henry VIII, morris dancing certainly attained great popularity. There seems to have been at that time two principle performers, Robin Hood and Maid Marian; then there was a friar, a piper, a fool, and the rank and file of the dancers. In the parish accounts of Kingston-on-Thames for the year 1537 the Morris Dancers' wardrobe, then in the charge of the churchwardens, consisted of "A fryers cote of russet and a kyrtele weltyd with red cloth, a Mowren's (Moor's) cote of buckram, and four morres dauncars cotes of white fustian spangelid and two gryne saten cotes, and a disardde's (fool's) cote of cotton, and six payre of garters with belles." . The original payments for these items can be traced back to as early as 1507, as detailed by Robin Aitken of Spring Grove Morris Men  > 500 Years ago - Morris Dancing in Kingston upon Thames.

A little further up the Thames in Reading, the churchwardens recorded payments to the morris dancers in 1513 "ale to the Morris Dancers on the dedication day 3 pence'', the Robin Hood play being performed from at least 1508. See My Foolish History page 9

In Elizabethan times the Morris Dance, and indeed every other kind of picturesque country festivity, may be said to have reached the zenith of popularity, soon, alas! to be followed by the chilling austerity of the Puritans, of whom it was so truly said that they "like nothing; no state, no sex; music, dancing, etc., unlawful even in kings; no kind of recreation, no entertainment, -no, not so much as hawking; all are damned."

These teach that Dauncing is a Jezabell
And Barley-breake the ready way to Hell,
The Morrice, Idolls; Whitson-ales can bee
But profane Reliques of a Jubilee;
These in a Zeale, t'expresse how much they doe,
The Organs hate, have silenc'd Bagg-pipes too,
And harmlesse Maypoles, all are rail'd upon,
As if they were the towers of Babilon

Cotswold Games - Annalia Dubrensia 1636. Discussion between Collen and Thenot