Morris dancing in England has its beginnings principally
during the reign of Henry VII. The dance known as Moorish or Moresque
dancing was known in the courts of Europe from the 12thC
and was associated with the Moorish rule over Spain and Portugal
from 711 to 1492 AD. There were many English links with Spain
particularly with Castile and Aragon and Moorish customs were witnessed
by generations of English soldiers.
Henry VII had been educated at the French court
and in 1494 he paid £2 for the 'playing of the Mourice Daunce' at
the English court. During the reign of Henry VIII the Morris
moved from the court to holiday celebrations like the Whitsun Games.
It spread throughout the country, notably down the Thames valley
from Kingston and Richmond to Marlow, Reading, Oxford, etc., reaching
its peak of public popularity between 1580 - 1630.
Performances mainly at Whitsun (a Christian festival
superimposed on earlier festivals such as the pagan 'Belthane' and
Roman 'Floralia') gave rise to the popular association with Spring,
fertility and primitive forces.
Development of Traditions
Many other influences became integrated with the
Morris dancing gradually modifying the performance from individual
to group and processional but beyond the 17thC popularity
declined and the activity became associated with drinking and fighting
and it lost respectable support.
By the 19thC the Morris
was confined to rural areas principally around the Cotswolds with
Forest as a central point. A chance encounter between the Headington
Quarry Morris Men and Cecil Sharp in 1899 drew the attention
of the educated classes to Morris dancing and thus prevented a unique
folk custom from becoming extinct.
Some village traditions like Bampton,
Chipping Campden, Eynsham, Headington
and Abingdon managed to survive with only a short break. Sharp worked
tirelessly to record the music and dances from over 20 villages
allowing reconstruction and revival to occur and today the Morris
is again a popular English holiday entertainment.