“Very disorderly, danced the Morris Dance”: Morris, Garlands, Sedition and Riot

on Tuesday, 21 May 2019. Posted in Archives, Traditions and Folklore, Wiltshire People

Devizes Jubilee Morris

Here at the History Centre, we’re no stranger to Morris Dancers. We’ve had dancers on the staff, while each May Bank Holiday Chippenham hosts its popular Folk Festival. It’s great fun watching the street theatrics, but there was once a darker side to Morris Dancing that led to the following stories being recorded by the Wiltshire Magistrates (and now appear in Records of Wiltshire).

What happened at Woodborough in May 1652 caused official concern, but how was it that Morris Dancing threatened the pillars of the state?

Capers against the Commonwealth
On the evening of Sunday, May 16th 1652, Edward Smyth and Edward Hawking left their homes in Woodborough and went to All Cannings, where they met and conspired with about a dozen people. That same Sunday, Robert Golfe went from Woodborough into Marlborough “to get a drummer”, while Thomas Beasant went to Ram Alley in Easton and “there invited and procured a fiddler”.

The following day, their plans were revealed when a crowd gathered from the surrounding countryside; according to the records, “three hundred persons, or thereabouts … gathered together in a Riotous, Routous, Warlike and very disorderly manner’.” If anyone thought about stopping them, they were armed “with muskets, pistols, bills, swords drawn and other unlawful weapons”.

The musicians led the crowd from Woodborough to Pewsey where they “very disorderly, danced the Morris Dance”, and committed other misdemeanours, including “drinking and tippling in the inn and Alehouse”. While the prevalence of weapons may, happily, be less, it’s reassuring to see that the drinking still continues in and around Morris circles to this day (and sometimes, people still disapprove).

Public nuisance, party, or Sedition?
In 1652, England was a republic, following the execution of Charles I. The Commonwealth kept a close eye on signs of dissent, looking for evidence of Royalist insurgency: traditional sports and pastimes were suspect. Ales, Morris and other customs had been the target of religious reformers since before the Civil War. The opposition from these authorities meant that Morris and other customs now symbolised the old order prior to the Civil War, when license and liberty were, supposedly, more freely allowed; as such, Morris dancing and the open drinking of ale was as much an open challenge to the authorities as the bearing of arms. Although the weapons offered a challenge to the authorities, the Morris spoke of tradition, culture, custom and a perceived stability before the upheavals of the 1640s. The new rulers of England were right to view the emotional power of such demonstrations with suspicion.

Blackpowder Morris from Lewes in Sussex

While the Morris at Pewsey may not be as famous as folksinger Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted by McCarthy in Cold War America, or Victor Jara, the Chilean musician executed during the 1973 coup, the Wiltshire boys used their folk art and their rootedness in the traditions of their place to show dissent toward the Authorities. Were the ringleaders seeking to incite rebellion, or just standing up for traditional fun? No doubt motives were mixed and shifting, including a mass of local and national grievances, as well as people being there for the fun, the beer and the free entertainment. What also seems remarkably modern was the casting of The Commonwealth as  an alien, faceless Authority that stopped fun and meddled in the lives of “ordinary folk” (“Bonkers Conkers” anyone?).

However, as our next story shows, the dancers in Pewsey were evoking an idealised past in an “imagined village” …1

The Newnton Garland Riot
Smyth and Hawking may have used pre-Civil War England as some sort of ideal, but the Cotswolds before the Civil War was hardly a rural idyll.

June 20th 1641 was Trinity Sunday and, as was custom, “a garland” was processed in the village of Long Newnton. Such Garlands could be elaborate affairs of willow hoops, greenery and ribbons and were a source of some local pride. The Long Newnton event commemorated a Royal grant from Saxon times and culminated in a parish feast.

The Garland at Alton Priors Church, probably similar to the Long Newnton version.

Everyone was having fun until the afternoon, when a crowd of about 80 people came from Malmesbury and tried to seize the Garland. One of the identified raiders was “John Browne, sometime a chimney sweep, with a hobby horse, and bells on his legs…” and this suggests at least a connection to the Morris, through costume and the Morris Beast.

Browne and his companions blocked the way for the Garland, saying they would “Win it and wear it, come three score of you, but you are but boys to we!”. The official report drily observes “thereupon there was a great fight” and it appears the Newnton men came of worst. Whether any further action was taken is not recorded, but this all sounds a bit more like Midsomer Murders than Merrie England. While we don’t know the cause of this particular incident, it fits a wider pattern of disorder and inter-communal violence in early Modern England, where it was sometimes said “’tis no festival unless there be some fightings”2. John Aubrey recorded that, around 1660, “one was killed, striving to take away the Garland”, so the violence seems to have been a recurrent happening.

Malmesbury Morris today, NOT to be confused with The 1641 Malmesbury Boys.

The modern Malmesbury Morris, and not a Garland thief amongst them! For identification purposes, the modern Malmesbury Morris don’t steal your garlands (or take on roofing jobs).

Morris On!
We hope you enjoy the Folk Festival, if you are in Chippenham over the holiday weekend. Remember, it’s all good fun, but the Morris has a long, complicated history and what you see in the streets (and pubs) is the latest manifestation of a tradition that is constantly reinventing itself. If you see a Garland, or the Malmesbury Boys and their hobby horse, run away!

Finally, you can find out more about these cases in the quarter sessions records at the History Centre: Trinity session 1652 for the Morris and Trinting session 1641 for the Garland riot, and in Cunnington's Records of Wiltshire.

Martin Brown
Assistant County Archaeologist (and dancer)

Georgina Boyes book The Imagined Village (2010) presents the idea that “The Folk” of folk music, dance and song were a construct of the academic folk revivals of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The past that The Folk inhabited is the imagined village of the title, but, imaginary or not, it is one which always was, and remains contested by conflicting ideologies.

2 Underdown, D (1987) Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics, and Culture in England, 1603-60, Oxford



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