A Lighthearted History of Morris Dancing

Frankly no body knows for sure how Morris dancing started, but there are three general strands of the theory....

The first theory is that around the turn of the century, Cecil Sharp decided that he wanted to study the song and dance of England. He found some examples, mostly forgotten, and invented the rest. So Morris dancing dates back about 150 years to the Victorian period.

Or the second theory says that in the Middle Ages the Moors were busy fighting a load of battles in Spain. These ranged back and forth and Richard the Lionheart took a package tour to the Holy Land to join the fray. Then the Moors gradually conquered great chunks of Spain, only to be forced back by the Christians. But the Moors left behind a number of junior Moors who grew up and became fairly Spanish and then set sail, pretending to invade England in the Armada. Actually they knew that the lousy weather would cause a few shipwrecks and so they would be able to hop ashore and start the Moorish dancing fashion - and it worked, except that we English couldn't spell very well.

The third idea is that when Henry VIII was the height of Tudor culture, he was greatly influenced by the French, at least in things courtly. He and his court had leisure to sing and dance (and eat and drink) and took dances from France. The Lords and Ladies liked to imitate this and so took the dances for their own use in their country houses. Gradually the fashion moved on, but by this time the local villagers had imitated the Lords and Ladies with country dancing.

In fact it is probably a combination of all three ideas and maybe several more! There is documentary evidence from the 15th century of Morris dancing in England and back to the 12th century of 'Morisca' dancing in the Spanish court. We also know that in 1494, Henry VII was entertained by "the mourice dance". Then, by around 1600 the term 'Morris' was used for such entertainment and it spread out from court through courtiers and lesser nobles to squires and hence to the peasants that you see in the square today!

© Dennis Wheeler

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