The Moresk in England, 1450-1540

The term ‘Moresk’

The Latin ‘maurus’ and Spanish ‘moro’ refer to the dark-skinned people of Islamic faith against whom successive Spanish kings made war throughout the Middle Ages. These ‘Moors’ or ‘blackamoors’, as they were known in English, were adopted as a heraldic emblem of unbelief and sin, and their defeat and expulsion from Spain were celebrated right across Europe by a variety of dances and ceremonies, many of which survive into modern times. Some of the spirit of these dances was recorded and incorporated into genteel dancing manuals in the sixteenth century under the term ‘moresca’ or ‘moresque’; in England the word ‘moresk’ came to be normally rendered as ‘moorish’ or ‘morris’. That ‘moresk’ and ‘morris’ are the same is effectively guaranteed by the words of a foreign visitor to the court of Henry VIII, who refers in Latin to ‘ludi maurei quos morescas vocant’ – ‘Moorish games which they call moresks’.

Early Moresk: what was it like?

Among the possessions of Henry VIII was a gold salt (a free-standing table decoration) referred to in 1532 and 1547 as the Mores (or Morres) Daunce Salt; it was described as having ‘standing about the v morres dauncers and a tabrell’, and ‘the Ladie holding the salt’. This piece does not survive, but comparison with another of the King’s salts, which does, suggests it was very likely six-sided, with a figurine engaged on each side and a free-standing figurine on top. Other references to morris dances in the period 1500-1540 suggest that one might generally expect to see at least six male dancers (one playing pipe and tabor) and a Lady. In one account of a moresk staged at court in 1514 there is mention of two Ladies, in the roles of Beauty and Venus; that dance might have been like the pageants (tableaux) which involved a sham fight by Moors or Wild Men to capture the Ladies, who would repel them by methods such as pelting them with rose petals. On one hand, this elegant conceit reflects the environment of chivalry and courtly love which characterised the tournaments which were still important under Henry VIII, and in which knights posed as contenders for the favour of a presiding lady; on the other hand, it may derive from medieval symbolism in which the Virgin Mary, wearing a six-sided crown as Queen of Heaven, is surrounded by misshapen evil sinners who cannot prevail against her.

We do not know if such Marian symbolism was represented in dance in England, but it may well lie behind the dances of western and central Europe which are shown in works of art from Germany and Flanders: one of these is the engraving of a dance performance by the Realist artist Israel van Meckenham, in which six male dancers – one playing pipe and tabor and one dressed as a fool – circle a fashionably-dressed female figure. The dancers are shown with grotesque expressions and angular movements of their wrists and elbows, similar both to other Realist depictions of related scenes (such as the Court of Love) and also to grotesque carvings on the exterior of late Medieval churches. Although dances such as that in the engraving are not identified in the original as moresks, they correspond in many ways to the English references. The dancers in the Realist pictures are not costumed or disguised, so they are thought to be ordinary people performing a dance rather than actors in a courtly pageant or drama.

The English court under Henry VII and Henry VIII was much influenced by Continental art and music, especially from Flanders; plate such as the Mores Daunce Salt was very probably either made in Flanders or made in London using Flemish designs. Such a design may in fact survive in another engraving by van Meckenham, which shows six dancers, contorted, struggling in the toils of a rose tree on which stands a lady; at her feet are a dog, a fool and a taborer . This scene is certainly not identified as a moresk, but rather as some kind of allegory; however, it is very likely a design for metalwork, and as such could well resemble the silver cups mentioned in two English wills of 1458 (‘ciphos sculptos cum moreys daunce’ and ‘iij peces of silver … one with a Moresk yeron’). The Moresk, then, in England could be recognised by comparison with such representations; how it came to be danced in England, and by whom, is less clear.

Moresk in processions of the Watch

The earliest certain reference to an actual morris dance in England is from 1477, when the Drapers’ Guild staged one as part of their contribution to the Lord Mayor’s procession on St Peter’s Night (28 June); unfortunately, since the reference is only an account item, we can say nothing of what the dance was like. By implication, the dancers would have been armed and conducted some kind of combat display. Morris dancing in street processions continued in both London and other towns through the sixteenth century and beyond, and became part of the widespread summer revels.

Moresk at the court of King Henry VIII

The ‘mourice’ or ‘mores’ dance appears in royal accounts for 1494, 1501-3, 1507-8, 1511 and 1514. In most of these years it is mentioned among the revels which took place at Christmastide, especially on Twelfth Night (Epiphany). In 1502 and 1507-14 the morris dance was part of an entertainment which also included disguising (dressing-up) and a pageant (tableau): in 1507 it was referred to as ‘a disguysing for a moryce daunce’. After 1514 there are no more references to the morris dance in the royal accounts, though Moors (not to mention Turks, Russians, Prussians, Germans and wild men) turn up as characters in royal shows right through the 16th century.

It is possible that the Moresk was introduced to England (perhaps even before 1494, for the royal records are far from complete) as a costumed entertainment at court in the Christmas season. What is not clear is whether it was then adopted by ordinary folk for performance at festivals and revels, or whether it developed independently as a popular dance.

Moresk at English town and village revels

Dancing for show, by men or women, was by c. 1500 a well-established feature of English life as part of the revels which took place in the spring and summer and which normally raised funds for the church: no description of these dances survives. Social dancing, both in a circle and processional, also took place, and we have only a general idea of what this dancing was like. There were, in addition, games, which might involve many people parading, competing, fighting or dancing; the games could also be in the form of a play or drama with spoken parts as well as combat. In England the Robin Hood Game became widely established from its first mention (at Exeter) in 1426, especially at Whitsuntide; the early texts of Robin Hood plays or ballads emphasize Robin’s devotion to the Virgin Mary, something one might compare with the Marian element which can be inferred for the Moresk. From about 1507 on, at Kingston-on-Thames and elsewhere, documents show that the morris dance became part of the Robin Hood game, and characters associated with Robin Hood, such as Maid Marian or the Friar, came to be mentioned in connexion with the morris dance. Although there are no specific references to Moresk in English towns or villages before 1507, it is possible that some Robin Hood games or Summer Lords’ and Ladies’ revels had already begun to incorporate this kind of vigorous dance performance. By 1526, when some rioters at Sandwich (Kent) are said to have danced a morrice about the town with swords and bucklers, the term had clearly become a commonplace, and the dance must have been well known

Moresk in country houses

In 1521-2, the Christmas revels of Princess Mary at Ditton Park included ‘xiij quayers of paper in dyverse colours’, interludes (plays), disguisings – and a morris dance for which ‘Clateryng Stavez and Marys pikes’ were bought, and ‘ix morres Cotes’ and ten dozen bells (22 of which were lost) were hired. This is reminiscent of the ‘moruske’ performed at Lanherne (Cornwall) in 1466/7, where, too, a lot of paper was needed to make costumes and favours (‘liveries’); also at Ditton Park, as in parish revels of the 1520s on, morris gear was available for hire from nearby, implying that morris dancing was by this time relatively widespread. Against this background one can set the dances and music preserved by a John Banys (Baines) in his manuscript pocket-book, written between 1480 and 1520, and preserved among the Gresley of Drakelow family papers in the Derbyshire Record Office.

The Banys (Gresley) manuscript lists 92 dances by name: some names are French, but others are of English families (e.g. Talbott) or flowers (e.g. Bugell). There are descriptions of twenty-six dances: these give the floor-tracks of the dancers, who are often specified as three men, but no clear details of steps. The movements include ‘leaping’ and ‘turning’, indicating that these dances are vigorous dances for display, rather than any kind of social dance. There are also thirteen tunes, given as single-note airs in a tenor clef: they are diatonic tunes, well-suited to play on a tabor pipe, and they include long, repeated notes like the capering passages in a traditional Morris dance tune. Seven of the tunes correspond to dance descriptions of the same name. Although there is no indication that Banys’ dances were moresks, they do not match other dances of the period known from Italy, Spain, France or Flanders, and, in view of what we can infer about the development of the Moresk in England around 1500, it is reasonable to restore them along ‘morris’ lines, and to re-enact them in costume appropriate to Epiphany revels at a country house such as Drakelow in Derbyshire.