500 Years ago - Morris Dancing in Kingston upon Thames

With the help of Kingston Local History Room & Archives (thanks to Jill Lamb and Emma Rummins) we have been able to establish with a high degree of confidence that Morris Dancing was funded by the Parish Church of Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, UK, during the Summer of 1507.  The old Parish of Kingston upon Thames included Richmond upon Thames (and therefore also Twickenham) before 1890.

This is the earliest written record of the Morris Dance in Kingston, our local area. The earliest record in the British Isles of morris Dancing is from 1448 in the accounts of the Goldsmiths Guild in London discussed here.

Please let us know if you have found an earlier written reference in your local area.

We have had access to the original manuscript of the Churchwardens' Accounts for Kingston Parish Church that covers the latter part of the reign of King Henry VII and the greater part of the reign of King Henry VIII, up to the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries when the Accounts cease. We would also like to acknowledge the help obtained from transcripts of the original manuscripts that were typed out in May 1931 by Miss D.L. Powell who was a local archivist and historian.

It is also interesting to note that 100 years ago in July 1907 Cecil Sharp published Part 1 of The Morris Book, following his re-discovery of the Morris Dance alive and well at Headington Quarry near Oxford. See here where Cecil Sharp makes reference to the Kingston Parish Churchwardens' Accounts in his Historical overview (scroll down the page or use "Find" / Alt F). He had seen references to the Kingston Manuscript in Lysons "Environs of London" dated 1792 (Vol 1, page 226) the text of which may be found here . Scroll down the page to find the details of key items in the Churchwardens' Accounts which are linked to a number of footnotes providing background and further explanations.

Michael Heaney's article, Kingston to Kenilworth: Early Plebeian Morris, in Folklore vol 100 No 1 (1989) makes reference to research by W E Finny and provides further clarifications (see here ) and David Mills also considers the events in Kingston in "Drama and Folk Ritual" in Medieval Drama, page 135 (1983) (see here ).

The Churchwardens' Accounts show that there was a very useful flow of income to the Kingston Parish Church from donations made by members of the public who attended a series of "Events" held in Kingston and also in the surrounding villages (Sunbury and Walton) and latterly as far as Croydon. The events were sponsored by the church. The detailed expenditure recorded by the Churchwardens provides a good insight into the nature of the extravaganza that the public enjoyed watching.

The historical dating of the Churchwardens' Accounts is by reference to the year of the reign of the King at the time (the King Year). The earliest reference to the Morris Dance occurs in the accounts for the period from Easter in the 22nd Year of King Henry VII to Saint Luke's Day in the 23rd Year of King Henry VII (i.e. from 4th April 1507 to 18th October 1507).

The matching of King Years to historical dates may be found
here. Scroll down the page to the list of monarchs.

Page 51, click for a larger image

The manuscript account heading and the transcription is:

"Thes be ye Resseytes be Harry Nycoll and Robard bene cherchewardens ye xxii yere of Kyn Harry ye viith fro estere un to sent leukes day then next folouinge wheche shaull be then in ye xxiii yere of ouer soffern".

With a translation as: "These are the Receipts by Harry Nicoll and Robard (Felere) being churchwardens in the 22nd (corrected) year of King Henry VII from Easter to Saint Luke's Day following, which shall then be in the 23rd year of our Sovereign". The manuscript page number and "King Years" are highlighted on the photograph in yellow marker.

The Churchwardens' Accounts receipts continue on the following page 52 and then the expenditure or "descharges" for the period ("halff yere above wreten") are shown on pages 53 and 54 of the manuscript. Key items on both pages have been highlighted on the photographs in yellow marker and are transcribed as follows:
 Page 53, click for a larger image
item to ye mensterel (minstrel) a pon May Day (1st May 1507)
item for garterynge of iiii dosen bellys (gartering of four dozen bells)
an entry dated ye xv day of Jeune (15th June 1507)
item for payntyng (decorating) of ye mores garmentes

 Page 54, click for a larger image

item for iiii plytes and a quartar of laun (fine linen) for ye mores garmentes
item for iiii hattes (four hats)
item for ye makyng of ye mores garmentes and for ye daunsars (dancers)
item for bellys (bells) for ye daunsars
item to Robard Felere for chan (cash / change) for ye daunsars (there were apparently four dancers probably receiving 1shilling and 1penny each)
item to ye taberare (tabor player / drummer)
item for a leutare (lute player)

It is clear from the Kingston Churchwardens' Accounts that the annual events became more elaborate and in the year 1537-1538 there is an extensive expenditure on costumes and payment made "for viii pairs of leather garters to set bells upon" (eight pairs of leather garters for bells). We like to think that the Morris Dance "side" had grown in number and that perhaps the Churchwardens had been prepared to invest something for the future, in the light of the new "political reality" that they were having to deal with.

In 1529 King Henry VIII took possession of nearby Hampton Court Palace from Cardinal Wolsey (it became the King's favourite country residence) and in 1534 Henry VIII became the Supreme Head of the Church of England (the Act of Supremacy), while at Kingston the accounts of the 29th year of Henry VIII (1537-8), the wardrobe of the morris-dancers, then in the custody of the church-wardens, is thus enumerated:

'A fryers cote of russet, and a kyrtele weltyd with red cloth, a Mowrens (Moor's) cote of buckram, and four morres daunsars cotes of white fustian spangelid, and too gryne saten cotes, and disarddes cote of cotton, and six payre of garters with belles.'

During the period from 1534 to 1540 church property across the country was confiscated by the Crown.  The Kingston Parish Churchwardens' Accounts cease after 1538-39, noted in the manuscript as the 30th Year of King Henry VIII. The basis of the production of local community entertainment in Kingston (and no doubt the whole country) had been fundamentally and irrevocably altered.
Robin Aitken,
Posted in January 2007.