“What is the history of Morris I hear you ask?” A difficult question to answer, and if you ask six different Morris men you will probably get six different answers. There have been many books and papers written by authors far more knowledgeable than me on this subject, and a good place to get expert opinion is the website of The Morris Ring (more of The Ring later). I make no attempt at a definitive answer, just a flavour to whet the appetite of the inquisitive.
When Did It Start?
What we do know is that the earliest known reference to Morris in England is a tapestry in Suffolk date 1448, in the reign of Henry VI. A picture from around 1620 now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University shows Morris Dancers beside The Thames at Richmond. In the picture can be seen the same characters as you will find today – dancers sporting bell pads and knee britches, a musician playing a pipe and tabor, a hobby horse, and a lone figure extracting donations of cash from an appreciative audience!
Elizabethan and Beyond
Moving on to Elizabethan times the thought was that Morris had been imported from Spain with a connection to Morisco, a minority group of Arabs based in Grenada. A corruption of Morisco may have led to the term Moorish or Morris dancing. To bring us more up to date, a chance encounter by Cecil Sharp on Boxing Day 1899 of the Headington Quarry Morris Men led to a life devoted to collecting and documenting English folk song and dance. Without Sharp’s work there is every possibility that the Morris would have disappeared.
In 1934 the Morris Ring was formed. This is a male only Morris association that has grown over the years to hundreds of Morris sides and thousands of individual dancers all over The British Isles and anywhere worldwide British ex-pats have settled.
There is also an organisation called The Morris Federation. Their views differ from The Ring in that they cater for mixed or women only sides. Indeed, there is a thought that without the input of women after The Great War (1914-18) that once again the Morris could have disappeared through lack of participants. The work of suffragette Mary Neal played a major role in this continuation of the Morris.