Morris Dance has been part of English life for at least six hundred years and may be much older. While the style is peculiar to the English mainland, there remain some similarities to Catalan and to Basque dancers. As to the origin of the dances, this is a matter of continuing dispute and argument. They were once thought by some, largely influenced by Fraser and other nineteenth century folklorists and anthropologists, to be part of the world-wide family of ritual ceremonial dances, sharing the common features of disguise, colour, vigour, predominantly male performers, and a dance form based on circles and processions. However the form of the dance has evolved through time, and whilst there are still processional morris dances, there are no circle dances nor any historical evidence for circles. Recent historical studies place the earliest Morris records in the time of Henry VII (1500), and firmly in with the Court masques and entertainment. From the Court it seems to have spread into popular entertainment, first in large houses, then to village celebrations, where it became associated with Church Ales and other seasonal festivities. In the 1500s Morris was also a European phenomenon with versions in other European Court entertainments. Before the fifteenth century? Who knows?
A handful of present day Cotswold Morris Sides can trace their history back before 1800 - Bampton, Headington, Abingdon, Chipping Campden. However none of the Welsh Border Morris sides of Herefordshire, Worcestershire or Shropshire lasted beyond the Second World War. East Anglian Molly dancers suffered the same demise in the 1930s. The NW Morris processions that used to follow the rush carts to church largely died when the processions stopped, but there were still some processions up until the 1900s. Longsword such as Handsworth and Grenoside from South Yorkshire can trace their ancestry back at least a hundred years, but by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century longsword and rapper dance were slowly going into decline.
The majority of Morris clubs dancing today are 'revival' clubs, formed after the early collectors had done their work. They meet regularly for practice and to give public shows, unlike the old sides that would often meet and dance for a short period each year. A side will have a Squire or Captain, a Bagman or Secretary, and often a Foreman responsible for teaching the dances. Each side will have its own costume derived from traditional forms, with perhaps a symbol or badge having some civic or territorial association. Many sides have a Fool and/or an Animal to amuse the audience. In the old sides the Fool was sometimes the Squire, as it was said that he had to be the best dancer.
A few Morris sides were formed before World War I, after this a few more formed and there was a revival in the 1930s, with “The Morris Ring” starting in 1934. This situation continued, but at a slow pace until World War II came along. After this another small revival, then during the ' folk ' revival of the the 1960's and 1970's, there was a very large surge in interest in dancing. Until this time there were about 80 clubs (largely in the Morris Ring). At the Millenium there were 800 Morris sides in the UK and over 1000 worldwide! Morris dancing now attracts wide interest ... and comment!
The Travelling Morrice was started to dance in an annual tour around the Cotswold villages, in order to attract comment from older traditional dancers living in those villages, and to take the dances back to their source. Travelling Morrice tours are still going strong, though with a different emphasis, and there is also an American Travelling Morrice. The picture shows the 9th Tour of the Travelling Morrice in June 1931 (from the archives of the Cambridge Morris Men)
Our history is interesting (at least to us!), but it is far more important that Morris Dancing has developed into a vibrant and lively community of dancers, that new young clubs are forming, and that young men and women are attracted to “the Morris”. There are now two other Morris organisations for dancers in the UK, the Morris Federation, formed originally as the Women's Morris Federation in 1974, and the Open Morris formed a few years later. In Australia there is the Australian Morris Ring, the American and New Zealand Morris have no collective organisations.
Morris Dancers were one of the earliest groups to take an active interest in the World Wide Web, at present there are over 800 clubs with web sites in the UK and North America, for the latter continent a Morris side without a Web presence is a rarity! Try Googling for "Morris Dancing", you will get over two million hits!
Much of the text above is by Mike Garland, Past Squire of the Morris Ring. John Maher added some extra information.