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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. Yes, morris dancing was well known in England before the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot and even the Wars of the Roses. 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 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 except during the war years of 1939-45.

The Travelling Morrice

   In 1924, members of the Cambridge Morris Men (as the Travelling Morrice) toured some of the villages where Sharp had collected morris dances. They danced in these villages and met many old dancers, who taught them more dances, tunes and steps. In subsequent years more tours were made through the area, resulting in additional morris dance material being collected.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, morris and sword clubs were being formed throughout England. In 1934 six of these sides came together to form the Morris Ring, the oldest morris organisation in England. The founding sides came from Cambridge, East Surrey, Greensleeves, Letchworth, Oxford University and Thaxted. In November 1947 Princess Elizabeth (now the Queen) and Prince Philip honeymooned in the USA, and in 1951 they had a State visit to Canada. They were photographed square dancing. This, along with the Festival of Britain celebrations and the Queens Coronation, led indirectly to a further interest in folk and morris dancing, and more sides were formed. The popularity of morris has continued with new sides still being formed today.    

Morris Sides and Styles

The majority of contemporary morris sides have been formed in the last 80 years or so. Each club will have a Squire who is responsible for the performance and the sides leadership, a Foreman or Captain who teaches the dances, and a Bagman who acts as its secretary. Clubs are autonomous so they can make their own decisions as to when, where and what to dance.

Sides generally practice during the winter months, and perform during the summer. All sides will welcome new members. If you wish to get involved, you can ask one of the dancers, contact one of the Morris Ring Sides near you using our Find a Side page or send an email to the charliecorcoran [at] (Bagman)

Morris dancing means different things to different people. Used it in its widest sense, it includes dances using sticks, handkerchiefs, or swords, and encompasses other styles of ceremonial dance, together with mumming and calendar customs. Within the specific genre, there are a large number of different types of dance and in essence they can be divided into six main styles.  


Read about the fascinating story of the Morris Dancers Ground by Abram Morris Dancers.


The most widespread style seen today was collected from the South Midlands (sometimes called Cotswold morris), an area including Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire, but extending beyond these areas. These dances are usually performed in sets of six or eight dancers, and are distinguished by the dancers waving handkerchiefs, clashing sticks or, occasionally, handclapping. Additionally there are solo or paired dances or Jigs. The use of handkerchiefs dates from Shakespearean times, and the first recorded use of sticks dates from the mid-sixteenth century.

Each side has a different costume. It will usually include a white shirt, white trousers or black breeches, and bell-pads (ruggles) worn on the shin. A baldric (or baldricks) may be worn across the chest, or perhaps there will be rosettes on the shirt; a waistcoat or tabard may be worn. Most sides will have a badge or emblem signifying their place of origin - ask one of the dancers to explain!  

Molly Dances

 Molly Dances developed in East Anglia: these dances were performed in January, as part of the Plough Monday celebrations. It was the custom for local farmhands to take a plough around the local villages and, if payment (including beer and food) was not forthcoming, they would cut a furrow across the householders front lawn. The figures of the dances are based upon the local country dances, and are performed in vigorous style.

The costumes worn by Molly dancers are very individualistic, but largely based upon working outdoor clothes and hobnailed boots. Dancers would have their faces blackened or otherwise disguised as in the photograph below. Disguising the face in this way was well-known in English social history: men wishing to pursue proscribed activities would black their faces to avoid recognition: such activities could include both smuggling and morris dancing!  The Morris Organisations now actively discourage this practice - many other less offensive colours are available these days!



Welsh Border Morris

THE Welsh Border counties of Hereford, Worcestershire, and Shropshire developed their own style of dance, simpler in form than those of the South Midlands. It is distinguished by more vigorous stepping, robust stick clashing and loud shouting and is danced in sets of four, six, eight or more dancers.silurian

Often the costume will include a Rag Coat, (a coat which has tatters, small pieces of cloth, sewn on it), or sometimes a formal tail coat. Like Molly dancers, they will disguise their faces; some modern sides will go further and wear masks.

Originally, the music would have been provided by a concertina or a melodeon accompanied by a tambourine. Today it is likely to be a Morris Big Band, a collection of melodeons, concertinas, fiddles, brass and percussion instruments.

Unlike many morris sides, Silurian Morrismen are: Entertaining; Bored by other morris sides; 100% male; Objectionable.

On their own admission - though others would agree! Check them out!

N.W. Clog Morris

The morris from Cheshire and Lancashire originates from the industrial towns. The costumes worn tend to be striking and the footwear will normally be clogs with irons nailed to soles and heels. The dance involves much stepping, and the rhythm is accentuated by the clogs. These dances are best performed with military precision.

This type of dance may take the form of a procession, in which the dancers perform a few figures before continuing along the street and repeating the sequence; sometimes it is danced on the spot. In the early industrial period, the dances were performed annually by large numbers of young men in the Rushcart ceremonies which took place in Wakes Weeks. For these dances the team will be a multiple of four, and the dancers will often carry sticks or slings (a semi-flexible handkerchief or rope) in each hand. The Conductor controls the dance from outside the set, and will notify the dancers and musicians of important changes by blowing a whistle.

Winster, Tideswell and Taddington in Derbyshire have dances containing figures similar to North West morris, whilst including characteristics of dances from the South Midlands such as handkerchiefs and shoes.

Another picture from the massed Morris at Trafalgar Square, November 2003.
The occasion was unique; the first time that the three Morris Organisations in the the UK had got together to dance; a celebration, yes, but connected with the recent (2003) PEL, Public Entertainment Licence legislation.


The Longsword dance is found in Yorkshire. This type of dance can also be called a hilt-and-point, and is performed by six or eight dancers linked together in a circle by swords. Each sword is about a metre in length and generally made of steel with no point or cutting edge, and with a wooden handle at one end. This can be clearly seen in the photograph below.

Longsword dancing is well documented in Europe where it is thought the swords had military connotations in mediaeval times. The dancers perform a number of figures in which they pass over or under the swords; some dances include additional figures performed in pairs. The climax of the dance is the formation of a star or lock - an interweaving of the swords which is then displayed. A sword-lock is used as the emblem of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.      

The historic sight of Handsworth sword dancing can still be seen to this day on Boxing Day morning in Sheffield in front of St Mary's Church.    


Durham and Northumberland have their own versions of the sword dance, the Rapper dance. In these dances, the sword is a flat strip of flexible or spring steel about 60cm long, with a rotating handle at one end and a fixed handle at the other. A sword can be bent into a complete circle and some figures require this degree of flexibility!

The dance is for five, and they will often be augmented by the additional characters of Tommy and Betty. The costume worn by the dancers needs to allow for the speed and agility to perform the dance well - hard soled shoes, hoggers (open-ended breeches which were originally worn by miners) and a white shirt are the norm.

Like all forms of morris dancing, rapper has unique qualities - it is the fastest of all the dances described, it requires the least space (it is often performed inside pubs!) and it is the most gymnastically demanding as some dances require back somersaults!  


The Morris Calendar

 At the beginning of the last century when Sharp and other collectors sought out former morris dancers like Thomas Wright, they noted down the dances and tunes. In some cases only one or two men in an area knew any dances, but in others a side still continued to dance. For example at Bampton in the Bush, Oxfordshire, the morris has been performed without a break for more than four hundred years. The cover photograph is of the Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers.

Traditionally morris dancing took place during set periods in the calendar: in the South Midlands, this was during early summer around Whitsuntide. Performances of North West morris took place during the Annual Rushbearing (in summer), and for longsword and rapper sword dances, the traditional time was during the Christmas and New Year period. Of course, it was possible for sides to perform outside these times: especially if encouragement, in the form of payment (or beer!), was forthcoming. When Cecil Sharp first saw the Headington Quarry Morris Dancers perform, on Boxing Day 1899, they apologised for dancing out of season but the winter was hard and they were working men trying to earn some extra money!


Mumming describes an astonishing range of traditional drama. Mumming is the term generally used but each region had its own local term (and plays) including Souling, Tipteers, Plough Jacks and Pace-eggers. Different areas had distinctly different types of play, performed at set times, usually between the end of October and Easter.

These plays do not require a stage in the strict sense, but are best described as being performed as a 'Roundinaspace' - inside the pub, outside on the road or wherever! Most plays were collected before 1914, and the performance and delivery at this time was taken very seriously. However, the collected texts are now often only used as a guide, the actors being at liberty to change words and use contrivances.

Mummers will generally wear a disguise; some traditional Mummers wore elaborate streamers made from wallpaper, rags or newspapers which covered them from head to toe, while others wore a costume to reflect their character.  

To find some Mummers near to you, see the electronic Index to English Folk Drama and the Master Mummers site by Peter Millington from the Traditional Drama Research Group. c/o National Centre for English Cultural Tradition, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, S10 2TN, UK   

Mumming: the Play

Morris dancers may perform a locally collected play during the Christmas season, especially if they are dancing on Boxing or New Years Day. They are likely to perform a Hero-Combat play, with Father Christmas introducing himself as:

In comes I, Old Father Christmas,
Am I welcome or Am I Not!
I hope Old Father Christmas will never be forgot.

He will then introduce further characters which may include St George, a Turkish Knight and a Valiant Soldier. There will be a fight. One will die. A highly qualified Doctor will appear who will resuscitate the dead with some amazing concoctions (as below) such as the Golden Gloucester Drops, or perhaps the Quick Risers! Mummer Plays are great fun; try to seek out and watch a local performance.  


Other Calendar Customs

 England has numerous traditional and curious customs. The Britannia Coco-nut Dancers from Bacup (Lancashire), the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers (Staffordshire) and the Minehead (Somerset) and Padstow (Cornwall) Obby Osses are unique and are only correct when performing in their own locality.

The various Jack-in-the-Green celebrations in Rochester (Kent), Hastings (East Sussex), and Greenwich (London), now exist because local morris sides revived them in recent years. When a custom is revived it can develop in a new and interesting form, diverging from previous occurrence.

It will be worthwhile travelling to see many of Englands traditional customs. The origins of many are long forgotten, but they all add to the rich tapestry of our cultural heritage.



With the Morris


   Morris dancing cannot happen without suitable music. Historically, the instrument used for accompanying the dances from the South Midlands was the pipe and tabor the whittle and dub. The tune is played on a three-holed pipe/whistle, the drum or tabor, hung from the same arm, is beaten with a stick held in the other hand.

By 1840, the fiddle had superseded the pipe and tabor as the main instrument. The fiddle has a greater pitch-range and can be played in more keys than the pipe and tabor, but many dancers found it difficult to dance to without a separate rhythmic accompaniment.

By the 1880s, the melodeon and anglo-concertina were becoming widely used. These instruments, although limited by only being able to play in two or three musical keys, were ideal for providing the music - good bellow control gives a staccato attack that suits the dance. The piano-accordion, developed in the early twentieth century, also proved popular as an accompanying instrument. Many other instruments can be used, such as the penny whistle, mouth-organ and even the banjo! Whatever instruments are used, they will have two things in common, portability and audibility!

Listen to four Morris tunes from Joan Sharpe The apparent simplicity of the three hole pipe and tabor belies a very complex musical instrument ....



The tunes used for morris dancing have come from a variety of sources. Some date from the late mediaeval period, while others were popular tunes from the 18th and 19th centuries. Each village would generally have its own individual variants of the tunes that were used.

The music used for the North West Clog morris is more regular and military in form. Often-used tunes include well-known marches such as The British Grenadiers, The White Cockade, Lilliburlero and A Hundred Pipers. In the 1800s, the music would have been provided by a Fife and Drum band; later, with the availability of brass instruments, a brass band would have accompanied the dancers. Today, there is likely to be a mixture of brass and melodeons.

The tunes used for rapper dances are usually jigs (tunes in 6/8 time), played fast: a tempo of 160 beats per minute or more, played by a single musician, is usual. This allows a fast and exciting dance to develop, and spectacular movements to be performed.

Some composers have taken the traditional tunes and made arrangements from them. Percy Graingers adaptations of Country Gardens and Shepherds Hey would be good examples.  


Fools & Beasts

Fools and Beasts have their own website!

The Fool is an integral part of any side performing dances from the South Midlands. The Fool provides a link between the dancers and the audience: he will entertain and provoke. However, historically he would have been the best dancer in the side and would on occasions be asked to demonstrate his skill by performing a solo jig. There is no specific costume for a Fool; each dresses as he wishes. Often the Fool will carry a short stick with a pigs-bladder attached by a piece of string. This performs a very important function should any man not be putting enough effort into his dancing, or if they do something wrong, it is the Fools job to encourage them to do better. What better way than to whack the offenders head or bottom with a bladder!

Alongside the Fool, there may be a mythical and mysterious Beast! Traditionally, this would have been a Hobbyhorse, but now it is just as likely to be a Dragon or a Unicorn. Be assured all morris Beasts are friendly and just love doing what Beasts do best: tormenting and teasing the audience, especially children. Additionally, they like sunbathing, riding bicycles, drinking beer, and eating - eating money of course, coins of the realm.


The Bibliography and the Credits appear in the printed booklet, however some other sections have been added to help the Web version, namely: buying a copy of the printed booklet; some notes on the web version of the booklet; an identification of the dancers who feature in our cover picture; and some comments about the Trafalgar Square celebration in 2003.  


This description can only touch the surface of morris dancing - it's a vast subject. The following books offer more information than can be offered within here. They may even be available in your local library!

  1. Bradtke, Elaine
    Truculent Rustics: Molly Dancing in East Anglia before 1940
    FLS Books, 1999.
  2. Cass, Eddie-Roud, Steve
    English Mummers Play: Room, Room, Ladies and Gentlemen
    English Folk Dance and Song Society 2002.
  3. Chandler, Keith
    Ribbons, Bells, and Squeaking Fiddles: the Social History of Morris dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900
    Hisarlik Press Enfield Lock, Middlesex, 1993.
  4. Corrsin, Stephen D
    Sword Dancing in Europe: a History
    Hisarlik Press Enfield Lock, Middlesex, 1997.
  5. Forrest, John
    The History of Morris Dancing, 1458-1750
    James Clarke, Cambridge, 1999.
  6. Wallace, George
    Fit to jump over the moon: The Rapper Sword Dance of Northumberland and Durham
    Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, Gateshead, 1986.
  7. Michael Heaney: Morris Dancing Bibliography - comprehensive on-line bibliography
  8. Michael Heaney: The Ancient English Morris Dance - a massive masterpiece, tracing Morris from 1448 to the present
  9. Peter Millington: Master Mummers - comprehensive on-line reference for all Mummers (Folk Plays).    


Text by Sean Goddard; the Morris Tradition booklet layout & presentation by Eddie Dunmore.

Acknowledgements, with thanks, to all members of the morris community.

Booklet originally adapted for the Web by John Maher.
Photographs from Hilary Blanford; Duncan Broomhead; Eddie Dunmore; John Frearson; Sean Goddard; Roger Jackson; Jon Wimhurst; Monkseaton Morris Men; The Morris Ring Photographic Archive (Keeper Barry Care MBE).

© The Morris Ring, 2004 and the above Photograph authors; however you are welcome print a copy from this web version, and if you are travelling to Dutch, French, German or Spanish speaking lands then why not take some copies of the booklet translations.    


Who's Who In The Cover Picture

In 100 years from now someone, maybe a great great grand daughter or son of one of the Bampton dancers(!), will look at our cover picture and ask 'who is that dancer?' So here is a key to the dancers and musicians that we think were present that Whit Monday in 1998, when the picture was taken.



Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers are dancing Shepherd's Hey (Two by Two) in front of The Deanery, Bampton, on Whit Monday, May 25th 1998

1: Josh Smith   2: Charlie Adams   3: Anthony Collett   4: Brien O'Rourke   5: Roy Franklyn   6: Darren Lloyd   7: Frank Purslow (Musician)   8: Barry Care   9: Paul Smith (Musician)   10: Lawrence Adams (Squire)   11: Luke Fowler   12: Steve Coad 13: Mike Shrimpton  14: Nick Locke   15: Geoffrey Coad  16: Simon Care (Musician)   {Simon is behind his father, Barry, you can just see his shoe!}

'Photo by Eddie Dunmore. Thanks to Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers and Hilary Blanford for identifications.