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Writing the Unwritten: Morris Dance and the Study of Medieval Theatre

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 July 2009


During the course of her summer's progress in 1575, Elizabeth I spent nineteen days at Kenilworth, the Earl of Leicester's Castle in Warwickshire, where she was presented with various entertainments—including plays, fireworks, bear-baitings, water-pageants, acrobatic performances, and dancing—at a cost of over a thousand pounds a day, as part of what has been called “unquestionably sixteenth-century England's grandest and most extravagant party.” Robert Langham, a minor court functionary who wrote an eyewitness account of the party, describes a “lyvely morisdauns” that was featured in this festive show of fealty to the queen. According to Langham, the morris performed for Elizabeth was danced “acording too the auncient manner” and featured “six daunserz, Mawdmarion, and the fool.” The dance was part of a bride-ale procession made up of “lusty lads and bolld bachelarz of the parish” arranged two by two in “marciall order,” who preceded sixteen horsemen and the bridegroom; after the horsemen came the morris dance, followed by three “prety puzels” carrying spicecakes and leading the bride (“ill smellyng” and “ugly fooul ill favord”), who was accompanied by “too auncient parishionerz, honest toounsmen” and a dozen bridesmaids. The procession marched to the castle in the great court in which a quintain had been set up for feats of arms; when these games were concluded, a performance of the traditional Hock Tuesday play from nearby Coventry was enacted. Though these festivities were staged outside her window, apparently the queen did not see much of them because, Langham tells us, “her highnes behollding in the chamber delectabl dauncing indeed: and heerwith the great throng and unruliness of the peopl, waz cauz that this solemnitee of Brydeale and dauncing had not the full muster waz hoped for” (11. 722–26). Elizabeth asked that the Hocktide play be performed again for her on the following Tuesday; Langham does not mention whether or not the morris dance was also repeated for the queen's pleasure.

Copyright © American Society for Theatre Research 1997

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3. See Heaney, Michael, “From Kingston to Kenilworth: Early Plebeian Morris,” Folklore 100 (1989), 102, for a similar reading of the Kenilworth morris danceCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4. This was not the first morris dance Elizabeth had watched. Henry Machyn describes a May game by the London parish of Saint John Zachary at Midsummer, 24 June 1559, which included a giant, guns, morris dancers, and pageants of the Nine Worthies, Saint George and the dragon, and Robin Hood. The May game was later played for Elizabeth at Greenwich. See The Diary of Henry Machyn, ed. Nichols, John G., Camden Society 42 (London: J. B. Nichols, 1848), 201Google Scholar.

5. Peter H. Greenfield's discussion of Christmas entertainments performed in aristocratic households as mechanisms for cementing relations between locals and lords is also relevant to the social dynamics of the festivities at Kenilworth; see his “Festive Drama at Christmas in Aristocratic Households,” Festive Drama, ed. Twycross, Meg (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996), 3453Google Scholar.

6. Two other pamphlets describing the Kenilworth festivities were also published: The Pastime of the Progresse, now lost, and George Gascoigne's The Princely Pleasures at the Courte at Kenelwoorth. Gascoigne's pamphlet was apparently written for a “gentle” audience and dismisses the popular entertainments, including the “countrie shewe” and “the merry marriage” as “so plaine as needeth no further explication;” see Cunliffe, J. W., ed., The Complete Works of George Gascoigne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910), 2:106Google Scholar.

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32. See the charts of social/geographic distribution in Forrest and Heaney, “Charting,” 179–185.

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60. Heaney, “Kingston,” 98. When Mary Tudor came to power in 1553, she ordered the restoration of altars, images, and festive performances as a real and symbolic reinstitution of the old faith abolished under the protestant reforms of the 1540s and early 1550s. The response from Saint Lawrence's in Reading describes how morris costumes had been lost or sold; see Kerry, History, 227.

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