There is little historical information about the origins of Morris Dancing. Some like to believe that it has evolved from Druidic springtime rites. Others think that crusaders brought it to England after the Moorish conquests. It is also likened to a form of Italian court dance called the Moresca, which dates from the 12th century. Also remember that a Morris Dancer often has more important thoughts to concern him than history – What dance is coming next and who is buying the next beer.
There is written record of dance called Morris documented in England as far back as the 15th century. The earliest reference found is in 1458, a will mentions a “silver cup sculpted with Morris Dance”. Other wills describe similar cups; some the possession of the royal family. So at this early point Morris Dance had already spawned a knickknack industry.
During the 16th century the accounts for several churches listed the purchase of Morris bells and costumes.
At the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the “ancient” tradition of Morris dance was performed. Shakespeare’s play Henry V would have us believe that Whitsun Morris Dances were sufficiently common that the French royalty knew of them. Morris, performed by a team of men and a team of women, was the central theme of one scene in a play (The Two Noble Kinsmen by Fletcher) which was viewed by Elizabeth I at her house on Drury Lane.
In the 17th century Puritans denounced dancing and other festivities. It is supposed that the years of Puritan rule after the Civil War contributed to the demise of Morris in many communities. After Charles I was executed, the first edition of the English Dancing Master appeared. This was so popular with the new ruling class in London that another edition was needed within a year. Returning from exile, Charles II was greeted by many Morris Dancers on his route to London.
“A springtime festival, the Lamb Ale, in Kirtlington” was published in 1679. This described the festival, part of which was a Morris Dance by men and another by women. This celebration seems to typify Cotswold Morris for the next 200 years. Most celebrations were tied to 1st May or to Whitsunday. Each village had its own local peculiarities, processions and characters. Some villages shared a common element such as the Whit-hunt in the Wychwood forest.
Many Cotswold villages had their own distinctive style of music, steps and figures. However by the last half of the 19th century many of these local and regional celebrations ceased. The reasons for this is a matter of debate, as the written history of the end of Cotswold Morris is not much better than the history of its origin.
In some villages an original team member or descendant revived the tradition after a few years. In Headington, near Oxford on Boxing Day of 1899, the Headington Morris Men decided to dance. It is unusual for Cotswold Morris to be danced at this time of year. The dancers performed directly in front of the house where Cecil Sharp was spending the holiday. This was a major cause of the revival of Morris Dancing.
Sharp had noted that other European countries seemed to have a richer folk tradition than England. The discovery of Morris Dancing and the associated traditions led to searching for other villages where Morris either had been or still was practised. Where the Morris persisted, recording details was a task of watching the performance. The collectors also found survivors of the defunct teams. Some of these dancers and musicians were over 80 years old or in wheelchairs. Some helped by whistling or fiddling the music, and others danced or demonstrated by hopping their fingers.
Though the 19th century most teams were composed of men. Mary Neal brought the dancers and dances to her Esperance club for women. This accelerated the revival of the Morris. Neal and Sharp both published books on the Morris. These books, the following research, and the original notes of the collectors serve as the source material for present day Morris.
Though there are historical precedents for dancing on May Day, and for individual teams dancing at dawn, the first recorded incident of Morris dancing at dawn on May Day is from 1923. It was in that year that the Oxford Morris Men decided to join the May Day Dawn festivities at Magdalen College.