A very brief history of the Morris Dance

This is by no means an authoritative history, only a potted version of studies made by others, summarized for this website. It is subject to challenge

The term Morris pre-dates the known dance. “Morrising about” was a term used to be fooling around [dancing wildly], especially in conjunction with the early passion plays.

Morris dancing has been “known” in England since the 13th Century, with one of the first references to the dance in Truro around 1200AD. There is no description of the dance, just a reference to the costs incurred for kit etc.   The next “sighting” of reference was made in Exeter. Then there was a jump in centuries really until it settled in the Cotswolds in the 16th Century, albeit, some of this time, being banned by the Anglican Church.

There is no reason to believe that the dance is pagan, indeed it was funded by the Kings as a court dance in the early to mid 16th century, the dancers were well paid, the ballet dancers of the day.  Later, after being rejected as popish by some of the Stewart Kings , it went underground for a period, but many references are found to prosecutions for dancing The Morris, which proved that it had not disappeared!  However some aspects of the dance were kept visible with the Lords of Misrule, being, under the King’s patronage, part of the festive season plays and jests. Eventually the dance re-emerged and was, indeed, supported in London Boroughs where the Dancers processed with the Beadles and others in order to show the upholding the authority of the Boroughs, there being, at that time, no Police force.

The dance was believed to originate in Turkey [St Georges was Turkish!] and found its way via North Africa through Spain with the Moors [Moorish Dancing/Morris Dancing?] The early references to known dancing would support this view of the arrival in to England via Northern Spain to the West Country and onwards to the Cotswolds.

The form changed in its travels. It found its way to England by both peasant and court routes.  The Court route came via France in form of the Moresque [Moorish style], used as a male preening dance to impress the Ladies.


[Above a woodcutting of Kemps Jig]

[Kemp’s Jig tells the story of one man’s Morris Dance from London to Norwich. A true story worthy of the Guinness Book of Records.
Will Kemp. a purveyor of “mad jests and merry jigs”, was a famous  Elizabethan actor and a shareholder with Shakespeare in the  Company of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

It is probable that many of the Bard’s comic roles were written with  Kemp in mind. Touchstone, Dogberry and Launcelot Gobbo were  brought to life for the first time in Kemp’s person.

Besides his fame as Shakespeare’s clown, he achieved renown for  his Morris Dancing. He performed the remarkable feat    of dancing  from London to Norwich, a distance of 125 miles, in nine days.
He later recorded this journey in his book “Kemps Nine Daies Wonder”]

In the Cotswolds, each village would have its dance/dances. The next village would see the dancing and copy and modify the dances to a series of stepping, and /or hand waving forms to make the dance “their own”; Hence the development of “Traditions”, which really means Village style. Most notably the major surviving traditions are Bampton [Oxfordshire], Abingdon [then in Berkshire], Chipping Campden, Fieldtown [Oxfordshire] now renamed Leefield for those looking for it on a map. Also Wheatley, Ducklington, Eynsham, Brackley [Northamptonshire], which is similar in style to Hinton in the Hedges, just down the road from Brackley, Headington, and many others in the Oxfordshire/ Northamptonshire/Gloucestershire areas surrounding the Cotswolds.

Morris dancing re-emerged in public perception with the viewing on Boxing Day 1899 of Headington Quarry Dancers, by Cecil Sharpe, who was cycling around England recording English Traditional dance and song in his notebooks. It took another 50+ years for it to explode, in the 1960”s, into a wealth for Dance Sides throughout the country, and indeed the World. All of the sides had reference to the older dancers and the published Lionel Bacon’s “A Handbook of Morris Dances”. This book recorded dances, tunes and their source. The book is very much in use today, with revisions.

The tunes were generally the ‘pop’ tunes of the time, as long as the meter was consistent with being able to dance. Indeed, in more recent times, tunes such as Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ and Jona Lewie’s 1980’s hit song ‘Stop the Cavalry’ have made successful Morris Tunes. Tarka use all of these tunes plus ‘Barwick Green’, the Theme tune to BBC Radio 4’s long running soap, ‘The Archers’, written originally as a Maypole dance tune.

This entire document refers to those dances termed “Cotswold Morris”. Indeed, there are now many other traditional dances encompassed by the term “Morris”, e.g. Welsh Border, North West Processional Clog Morris, Yorkshire Longsword dances, North Eastern Rapper dances, East Anglian Molly dances. You will find many of these styles of dances by searching the Internet.

In the 1960s/70s, most of the new dancers were in their late teens/ early twenties, and welcomed the chance to dance and perform to anyone who cared to watch. Many sides came and went; some have survived until the present day, and there are still new sides emerging, generally as offshoots of an existing side.

For further reading I would recommend the book used as a reference for this article:

“The History of Morris Dancing 1458-1750”. John Forrest:  ISBN 022767944 X [paperback]

And I would also like to thank Mike Heaney of the Bodleian Library and Oxford City Morris Men, from whom I acquired much information, over the years, and also Wikipedia and Chris Harris for “Kemp’s Jig” info.

Phil H, website compiler/Morris dancer