The Early Dance Lecture 2011

“… our dancers will appear”

Popular culture and early records of English traditional dance

by Georgina Boyes


Until recently, discussion of the history of “hilt and point” or “chain” sword dances recorded in northern England has been characterised by energetic leaps of theory which interpreted documented examples to fit the needs of their hypotheses rather than extensive consideration of the sources themselves.  Highly selective reference to British and continental analogues and near-total absence of consideration of the context of performance or performers regularly produced claims for origins in Nordic and Germanic rituals – though little concrete evidence of the rituals themselves.  Taking account of newer historical research in both traditional dance and popular culture, this paper will offer a more detailed consideration of the background and dynamics shaping historical performance and offer a new focus for future analysis of their distribution.



“Spectators, silence keep, our dancers will appear

We’re six as clever lads as ever danced here

We’re six dancers young, never danced much before

We’ll do the best we can, the best can do no more

So be of courage bold and young men each and old

Let nothing here you daunt when on you I do call

The first that I call on he is a spark from France

He’s the first man on the list but the second in the dance”

“Calling-on song”, Gainford, Co Durham “Sword-dance play”*

Coll. Alice Edleston, Gainford Vicarage, and sent to Alice Gomme in July 1893

Faced with an exciting, vital dance with swords, performed outdoors in mid-winter by northern English men, the eighteenth and nineteenth century antiquarians who first documented their appearance, immediately decided what they were doing was Greek – or possibly Roman.  Whilst their descriptions of contemporary performances featured teams of men wearing shirts covered with ribbons and rosettes, the Classically educated eyes of local gentlemen and clergy saw Korybantic followers of the goddess Cybele who engaged in ecstatic dances in her honour, the Curetes of Crete, lightly-clad demi-gods who guarded the infant Zeus and danced when he cried or the “Saltatio armata of the Roman militia on their festival of Armilustrum”.  Slightly later authorities, more aware of the geographical distribution of performances in Yorkshire and North East England, opted for an origin provided by a brief note on the custom of dancing among swords and spears practised by naked German youths reported in Cornelius Tacitus’ (c.55-117) Germania – equally Classical, but with a deliciously rougher tribal edge.  And of course, there were always the Vikings – fur-trimmed warriors with horns on their hats and muscles honed by rowing.  In his history of northern peoples published in 1555 and available in English from 1658, the Swedish ecclesiastic, Olaus Magnus (1490-1558), had written that among the northern Goths and Swedes “For eight successive days before Shrovetide, young men disport themselves in a rhythmic dancing measure, moving with swords held aloft”, going on to describe how they “grasped hilt and point between them” and “change their order and bring themselves into position for forming a hexagonal figure” and then a “square”.  Since all customs must be ancient and common to all primitive people, this was seen as providing clear evidence that the Vikings – like the Germanic tribes – had sword dances which they had then introduced or reinforced in Britain when they invaded the North.1  After all, who would give an argument to people with names like Erik Blood-Axe and a penchant for sacking monasteries when they suggested that a rhythmic dancing measure which produced interesting three-dimensional geometric figures was precisely the way to disport yourself with colleagues over the holidays.  Still later responses to the phenomenon of the English sword dance involved unexplained links between rites including royal incest in ancient Mesopotamia and performances “enacting fertilization in front of houses” as a form  of sympathetic magic in the early twentieth-century Balkans – the authors concluding “It seems entirely reasonable not only to regard our British plays as the remnants of a magical fertility ceremony, but also to think that they once resembled the Balkan performances even more closely than they do now.”2  For well over two hundred years, it seemed that the only possible discussion about sword dancing must centre on its origin in an ancient civilisation, without the need to address in detail how misbehaving Mesopotamian royals or mythic Greeks now “appeared” in the form of Yorkshire miners, fishermen and farmworkers.

Faced with these – and a range of even more exotic ruminations on origin – from the later-1960’s, it seemed entirely reasonable to a group of young performers interested in traditional song, dance and customs to abandon this type of theorising.  Instead, they turned to the dancers themselves and the context of their performance.  They spent time talking to – and recording – people who had actually been involved in dancing and to establishing a factually-based history for the customs.  Who performed sword dances now and in the past?  How and from whom were dances were learnt and why?  What did dancers and audience think about their performance?  Where were they performed and how all this had changed over time?  Answers to these questions, it seemed to us (yes, I was one of these young iconoclasts), far more necessary and useful than unprovable postulations.3  The result of this shift in focus was an extensive growth of data about the form and location of dances and the dancers who performed them.  Historical sources, which had – with growing frequency – been quarried for those features which supported the researcher’s favoured hypothesis, were now greatly expanded and presented without trappings of “ancient, timeless” ritual mysticism.4  Increasing the number and depth of resources has been of enormous benefit to an understanding of the genre, so that now, Steven Corrsin, the author of Sword Dancing in Europe has suggested, “writing about sword dancing is in something of a ‘golden age’”.  Alongside these developments, there has been an equally welcome growth in practitioners and the number of  enthusiasts drawn to performance have seen new teams formed across Continental Europe, North America and Britain.5

But – flourishing though it is – existing scholarship has not found an answer to every question that might be posed about sword dance and its history.  Fortunately, many tantalising gaps still remain to prompt further research and discussion – and it is to some of these that this paper offers an initial response.  In Continental Europe, inconclusive references to Shrovetide “boatmen” [sciplieden] “performing …. with swords” [spelende … met zwerden] are first found in the archives of the Flemish city of Bruges at Shrovetide in 1389 and then appear with more certainty in other parts of Flanders, the Low Countries, Central Europe, Scandinavia, Spain and Portugal from the fifteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries.  As Corrsin has pointed out, compared with these Britain provides a rather sporadic set of early sources:

Very little material has been found recording sword dancing in the British Isles before the second half of the eighteenth century.  A few documents concern dances in Scottish cities between 1590 and 1633, an Elizabethan play cites the “sword dance,” and the diaries of two members of a single Lancashire gentry family mention dances in 1638 and 1712, but these are the only published references to sword dancing in Britain from the sixteenth to the early eighteenth century.6

The extensive documentation of other forms of custom involving dance in England7 – such as morris from the mid-fifteenth century and maypole around a century before – combined with this absence of records of sword dances strongly indicates that sword-dance did not exist here before the early modern period.8   Whilst greatest attention has very properly been focused on the form and history of the dance in the decades of its popularity in the late eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the earliest records – outliers of these developments – are also of interest, if rather problematic.

The first English reference is from The Malcontent, an early play by the lawyer, turned satirist and eventual vicar of Christchurch in Hampshire, John Marston (1576-1643).  A contemporary of Shakespeare and occasional collaborator with Ben Jonson (when they weren’t involved in bouts of verbal and physical combat), Marston’s contribution to our record consists of lines spoken by the character Malevole (a deposed Duke of Genoa in disguise) to Prepasso, a Gentleman Usher (an upper servant, rather like a butler) –

Sir Tristram Trimtram, come aloft Jack-an-apes with a whim wham: here’s a Knight of the land of Catito shall play at trap with any page in Europe, do the Sword-dance with any morris-dancer in Christendom, ride at the ring till the fin of his eyes look as blue as the welkin, and run the wild goose chase even with Pompey the Huge.9

Given a history of interpretations “based on vague and often fantastic hypotheses”, with justifiable caution that Corrsin suggests “it is difficult to accept this as an indisputable reference to actual dancing” . 10   The speech provides no evidence of linked swords– and could just as convincingly be a reference to mattachins, the dance of mock combat with swords or sticks which also appears in contemporary literature.  But although it does not define a specific type of Sword-dance – still less locate it as a custom in England or Scotland – the whole speech does set performance with swords in a context of leisure pastimes associated with young men rather than professional entertainers like Mattachine.11   Marston was of Italian descent through his maternal grandfather and was a noted Italophile – the balance of probability therefore suggests that he would have used the [onomatopoeic] mattachins, with its connection to Commedia dell’ Arte, if that was what he intended.   So although Malevole sees these activities as having negligible value (as a malcontent, he’s permanently dissatisfied) and the speech is something of a throw-away insult, the coupling of sword and morris dancing indicates that Marston had acquired some understanding of their forms.   By the early seventeenth century too, sword dances had long been in widespread and very public performance across much of northern and central Europe – older members of the court of King James the First had even seen a performance described as “a fine sword dance” by “some young men” wearing “hattis of flouris” and “bellis” in the “forecourt of the royal palace” in Edinburgh in 1590.12 So whilst Malevole’s speech is certainly not “an indisputable reference” to a sword dance as it came to be recorded in late eighteenth and nineteenth century England, it is at least arguable that both the playwright and even more likely members of his audiences (The Malcontent was Marston’s most popular, widely performed play) would have made a connection with “actual dancing”.

Two reports from members of the same family – William Blundell (1620-98) and his grandson, Nicholas (1669-1737) – potentially provide the first evidence of the performance of sword dances in England.  In 1638, William Blundell included the following verses among his multitudinous and varied files of “Notes, Anecdotes and Observations”:

A prologue to a sword dance, spoken at Lathom upon Ash Wednesday, 1638:

The common proverb teacheth us to say,

‘Tis hazardous with sharp-edged tools to play.

Yet we t’increase your honour’s pleasures shall,

Adding more triumph to this carnival,

Forget the Muses’ Hill, those nymphs, those dames,

And practise with our swords th’Olympic games.

Be but auspicious to our play, while we

This night shall Mars prefer to Mercury.13

Lathom Hall was one of the Lancashire homes of William Stanley (c 1561-1642), sixth Earl of Derby – though from around 1627, when his wife died, he mainly lived in retirement in Chester.14  Blundell did not live at Lathom either, but was heir to an estate at Crosby, a few miles to the south west.  Although he documented almost every aspect of his life, there is no additional information associated with the entry about the Prologue and therefore no direct evidence of who the performers of the speech and sword dance might have been.15   Indeed, had Blundell not included an introductory comment about the function of the Prologue, it would have been impossible to determine whether some form of dance rather than an exhibition bout of play with swords was being presented as an entertainment.  Whatever he did see, however, it obviously caught Blundell’s attention enough for him to record the text.  What is more certain, however, is that the Shrovetide date and reference to carnival provide a more solid base for associating this speech with dance and even linked sword performances.  In the Low Countries, central and northern Europe, linked sword dances were frequently (though not uniquely) performed as part of pre-Lenten “carnival” celebrations.

Two generations later, entries in Nicholas Blundell’s Great Diurnal for July 1712 are even more specific, providing clear information on the performers, costume, location, musicians and teacher of the sword dance in an engagingly direct style.  What’s more, it sounds as if they had a really good time:

[3 July] I made a Sword Dance against my Marl-pit is flower’d.

[7 July] I was very busy most of the after-noone shaping Tinsall &c: for the Garland for my New Marl-pit and after Supper the Women helped to Paste some things for it.  I began to teach the 8 Sword Dancers their Dance which they are to Dance at the Flowering of my Marl-pit, Dr Cawood played to them.

[8 July] I was very busy in the after Noone making Kaps &c: for my Marlers & Dansers, severall of Great Crosby Lasses helped me.  The young Women of this Town, Moorhouses, and Great Crosby dressed the Garlands in my Barne for Flowering of my Marl pit.  I tought my 8 Sword Dancers their Dance, they had Musick and Danced it in my Barn.

[9 July] I was extreamly busy all Morning making some Things to adorn my Marlers Heads.  My Marl-pit was flowered very much to the Satisfaction of the Spectators, all the 14 Marlers had a particular Dress upon their Heads and Carried each of them a Musket or Gun.  The six  Garlands &c: were Carried by Young Women in Prosestion, the 8 Sword Dancers &c: went along with them to the Marl-pit where they Dansed, the Musick was Gerald Holsold & his Son and Richard Tatlock, at Night they Danced in the Barne, Thomas Lathard of Leverpoole brought me to the Marl-pit a Dogg Coller against my Bull Bate as is to be in the Pit.

[18 July] Mr. Ald[red]: began to make some kaps for some of my Sword Dancers against the Finishing day.

[23 July] I had my Finishing day for my Marling and abundance of my Neighbours & Tenants eat & drunk with me in the after noone, severall of them had made presents to my Wife of Sugar, Chickens, Butter &c.  All my Marlers, Spreaders, Water-Baylis and Carters din’d here, we fetched home the May powl from the Pit & had Sword Dansing & a Merry Night in the Hall & in the Barne, Richard Tatlock played to them.16

Nicholas’ account provides a more rounded description of the events surrounding the performance of his celebratory sword dance than is available in many later, “scholarly” sources.   The processes of teaching and making costumes and the responses of the wider community are rarely touched on in studies of traditional customs; here they are foregrounded with obvious pride.   Longsword dances such as Askham Richard and Flamborough in Yorkshire are performed by eight dancers and “kaps” form part of typical dress, 17 but without information on the nature or figures of the dance it is impossible to be conclusive.  However, this insight into the organisation and reception of a complex performance involving different forms of dancing – sword and maypole, with possibly social dancing as part of the “Merry Night” is rare and illuminating.  It is also worth noting that aside from the sword dancers, from the young women’s procession with garlands to the inclusion of bull baiting, there is nothing that sets these events apart from Wakes and other popular festivities in Lancashire – the county even provides historical references to participants in ceremonial occasions being armed to counterfeit soldiers.18  Nicholas Blundell’s flowering of his marl pit may be an outlier in terms of sword dancing but would not be seen as especially unusual as a community event in its local context.

And it is this specifically local context and its wider implications that I would now like to discuss in more detail.  As generally presented, the Blundell reports are oddities.  If they do, in fact, relate to performances of linked sword dances, they are well outside the regions of Yorkshire and north eastern England where customs involving longsword and rapper were later discovered in significant numbers.  They appear to be isolated in time too – no note of performances between William’s observation as a visitor to Lathom Hall in 1638 and Nicholas’ agricultural party in 1712 has yet emerged from Lancashire or even the western side of the Pennines.  “It is,” Corrsin says with concern, “hard to see a connection between the Blundell reports and other English or Scottish ones.”19

There is however, a significant connection between these parts of Lancashire and the areas of Yorkshire where longsword dances have since been recorded.  It is also one which supported regular exchanges between these regions of England, the Low Countries and northern France from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.   Most obviously, it also provides the probable link between the two Blundell accounts.

The Blundell family and many of their neighbours were Catholics – Lancashire held the largest concentration of Catholics in England at this time.  Recusants – they did not attend Anglican services – their spiritual needs were met by Jesuits, most of them born in England but educated and with experience of working in all the Catholic nations of Continental Europe.  Barred from admission to university because of their religion, some English Catholics, like William’s father, sons and grandson, Nicholas, were educated by Jesuits in Flanders, mainly at the English College of St Omer founded in 1592.  Others, like William himself,  were educated by Jesuits in England.  It seems likely that William attended their school at Scarisbrick Hall and would still have been a pupil there on Ash Wednesday, the 7th February 1638.   Sources suggest he was taught by Robert Grosvenor (operating under the alias “Henry Howard”) who had himself been educated at St Omer.20  Scarisbrick Hall and Lathom Hall are approximately five miles apart, a relatively easy journey – especially when pupils and teachers have the promise of Shrovetide entertainment at its end.  To an audience whose better off members could well have experienced the excitement of carnivals in Flanders – young women and girls were also educated in Flanders, often at convents in Cambrai or Dunkirk and Flanders regularly provided a haven in times of anti-Catholic repression – a sword dance on Ash Wednesday at Lathom Hall would have been welcome and possibly familiar in itself.

Despite the restrictions placed on travel by recusants, Catholic gentry from Lancashire, Yorkshire and elsewhere made and received regular visits from the Continent and had widespread family links.  In July 1638, a few months after William recorded the Prologue at Lathom, Henry Gage (1597-1645) who was born in Sussex, led an English regiment which successfully defended St Omer against a French invading army.   Gage had been educated at the English College in Rome, served with the Spanish army in Flanders (he published a translation of a Latin account of the siege of Breda as a result), returned to England and married Mary Daniel from Daresbury in Cheshire, and after further service in Flanders,  eventually became Governor of the Royalist capital of Oxford during the Civil War – dying in an engagement just outside the city in 1645.  Yorkshire Catholics present a similar pattern of mobility.  In the first half of the seventeenth century, John Gascoigne from Barwick in Elmet near Leeds served as a priest in Yorkshire for sixteen years, becoming President of the English Benedictine Congregation but ended his days as Abbot of Lamspringe in Saxony.  His brother Michael became a Benedictine monk at Douai in Flanders, served in Lancashire, was Procurator of the Province for many years and died at Witton, Northumberland in 1657.  Francis, a third brother, trained at Douai, served in Yorkshire, took refuge in Flanders during the Civil War, returning to Yorkshire in 1653.21   Of the ten children William Blundell and his “little round wife”, Ann the daughter of Sir Thomas Haggerston of Northumberland, saw grow to adulthood, five daughters became nuns at convents in Flanders; two married and went to live in Ireland and Durham respectively; their eldest and youngest sons became Jesuits with a second son marrying Mary Eyre, daughter of the prominent Derbyshire recusant family from Hassop.  And although he was not educated abroad and despite a Civil War leg wound which left him disabled, William Blundell was an adventurous traveller, visiting Wales, the Isle of Man, Scotland, Ireland, York, London (at least seven times), Flanders, Holland (he went to Breda and accompanied the future Charles the Second on his voyage to accept the throne) and France – he was agent for the Convent of the Poor Clares at Rouen.22

On the other side of the country, in the area around Whitby, powerful Catholic landowners provided an access for incoming missionaries and a culture supportive of performance.   In the late sixteenth century, Whitby was held to be “a receptackle to the symenary preists comeing from beyond seaes and landing frequently at that port”23 with Government informers reporting that the North Yorkshire moors was a “Bushoppricke of Papists, and Growman [Grosmont] Abbey the Headhowse, wherein the Busshop lyeth.”24  As well as giving access and shelter to “fugitive” priests, equally subversive individuals also lived and worked here.  Richard Cholmley (1580-1631), lord of the manor of Whitby, who had acted whilst at Cambridge (he appeared in the part of a young woman in a comedy at Trinity College reportedly drawing great applause) was patron of a company of players – also recusants – who toured throughout North Yorkshire.  Led by Robert and Christopher Simpson, from the hamlet of Westonby in Egton, their Christmas 1609 tour took them through Pickering, Helmsley, Thirsk, Ripon, Nidderdale, Richmond and Northallerton.  To packed audiences in private houses, they brought a combination of jigs based on local scandals they had written themselves, morality plays (including interpolated “Popishe” propaganda for sympathetic audiences), and drama from further afield.  As well as “The Three Shirleys” which had been acted at The Curtain in London by Queen Anne’s Men and was printed in 1607, their repertoire also included the first known performance outside London of “King Lere”, printed in 1608, and “Perocles, prince of Tire” which had only been available in print for a few months.  Although “densely wooded” and “remote”, the North Yorkshire moors were obviously closely in touch with the latest cultural developments and enjoyed a rich variety of entertainment.25

So rather than fostering an inward, isolated, siege mentality, the experience of these recusants supported a wider national and European worldview.  It is indicative of an attitude of openness to ideas and practices from the Continent that even periods of repression could be put to use.  Nicholas Blundell, who had sponsored the round of community festivities for the flowering of his marlpit in 1712, was forced to take refuge in Flanders during the Jacobite rising of 1715.  Ever practical, he used visits to the Capuchins’ gardens at Bourbourg and Brussels, the Mayor’s gardens at Bruges and Ghent, the water gardens at Chaudfontaine spa, the church in Heverlee near Leuven and the gardens of the Poor Clares’ Convent in Dunkirk to provide ideas for his own grounds in Crosby on his return.26

This context of education and contact with the Continent therefore raises the tantalising question  – who might have danced at Lathom Hall?  Blundell provides no information.  If they were Lord Strange’s players, why not say so?  If they were another group, was there a reason for their anonymity in the written record?  In contrast to their Puritan contemporaries, as we have already seen, the Catholic milieu was supportive of drama and musical performances – and their use as a vehicle for learning.  Plays were central to the Jesuit curriculum, the Ratio studiorum established in 1599, which was the basis of teaching and practice in all Jesuit schools.  Performances were specifically encouraged, being integral to training in the important art of rhetoric for public disputation and promoting skills in memorising lines, posture, gesture and other aspects of effective speaking.  Initially, their school plays were in Latin and heavily didactic, drawing on religious and moral doctrines.  But by 1619, the inventory of their library at St Omer listed a copy of The Play of Pericles, and Jesuit playwrights themselves reinterpreted material from pagan mythology, ancient history and contemporary events, incorporating dance, music and spectacular stage effects in their dramas.

William Blundell’s own approach to the education of his family encouraged the use of drama, music and dance as part of learning.  A play he wrote in 1663 as “An exercise for the children to Embolden them in speaking”, sees two of his little daughters pretending to be a horse and driver, “Bridget being driven before Clare Frances ‘tyed (lyke a horse) with a string in her mouth’”.  After some discussion with their sister Mary, who in the opening part of the play has promised her father that henceforth she will be very well behaved, all three join in disparaging comments about him, then dancing round a bass viol singing an “olde wives diddle” as it is played.   In a second, less action-packed playlet, Clare Frances tries to teach her young sisters how to behave as ladies.  Their response is more rhymes and determined conversation about their fondness for “Fryd pudding”.27  “The play was presumably written for each of the named characters to act their role,” concludes Baker in his detailed study of Blundell’s writings, “thereby encouraging both reading and oratorical development.”28 So as he later wrote – and appeared in – plays for his children and others,  and was taught according to the Ratio studiorum, did William himself also act as a schoolboy?  Given their widespread travels, was the sword dance at Lathom Hall copied from performances in Continental Europe seen by local residents or visitors  to the Hall?  Or was the Ash Wednesday performance provided by a group of boys from the school at Scarisbrick Hall, including William, then an 18 year old pupil?

No well-evidenced answer can be given to most of these questions, but a reasoned case can be made for a schoolboy performance.  Research on theatrical practice in Jesuits schools in northern France/southern Netherlands, the Flandro-Belgica province established in 1612, demonstrates a significant pattern of involvement in a range of productions – records exist for almost two thousand performances in the region:

From the foundation of the schools, pupils performed plays.  The school year, which ended in September, was always concluded with a colourful theatrical performance.  The pupils also performed a play around Lent,…29

As all Jesuit schools followed the same Ratio studiorum, Scarisbrick Hall pupils would be therefore have prepared a performance – Ash Wednesday is the end of Shrovetide and the first day of Lent.  Even more specifically, the English College of St Omer was “universally recognized” for the “elaborate training in vocal and instrumental music” it provided for its students.  Égide Schondonch, Flemish Rector of the College from 1600 to 1617, equipped his school of less than two hundred pupils with four halls for music practice and concerts, offering a wide variety of instruments for their use as well as vocal training and “with the Rector’s permission” daily lessons with specialist voice and instrument teachers.  School bands, in the form of consorts and broken consorts, played to greet the many high status visitors who came to the College and elaborate plays with music, singing and dance were set pieces of the curriculum.  School accounts are vibrant with records of these events and – as Schondonch had the forethought to write this speciality into College regulations – music, dance and singing continued to be part of school life through to the College’s dispersal to Stonyhurst in Lancashire in 1762.30   Even anti-Catholic dogmatists, keen to provide “a True Revelation of the State of the English Colledges, Seminaries and Cloysters in all forraine parts”, gave grudging recognition to the musical skill of St Omer’s students, if not the use to which it was put:

many of the Students, especially those of the better sort, have skill in Musicke, and therefore must play the Fidlers, and sing a merry song to make the  holy Fathers merry, and to digeste their meate. These and the like be their ordinarie recreations after supper, which they call their Postpast.31

In more friendly quarters, the effects of this rich artistic experience was seen to have benefited others:

The quality of the musical training at St. Omers [sic] during these years is recognized in a passage in the records of the English College of Liége, whither a dozen boys finishing at St. Omers migrated about this time (1624), the chronicler remarking the improvement in church music, vocal and instrumental, consequent upon their coming.32

The timing of the Ash Wednesday dance, its performance at Lathom Hall – so close to a Jesuit school with links to the College at St Omer where the scheme of education had been specially adapted to develop artistic talent – and William Blundell’s continuing cultivation of his own children’s performing abilities, argue for a possible dance by boys or young men from Scarisbrick.  There are also examples of direct Jesuit involvement in the secular festivities which provide many of the records of sword dance from the Low Countries and other parts of Europe:

Apart from the usual school drama, the Jesuit fathers also put on parades, processions and a whole range of occasional celebrations.  In many cases a city magistracy or another secular authority requested the fathers to add lustre to particular festive occasions.  After all, the Jesuits showed themselves to be not only good organisers with an ear for the euphonious and an eye for the tasteful, but also exceptionally reliable masters of ceremonies.  Finally, a number of programmes or other sources (civic accounts, letters or college histories) bear witness to theatrical performances by members of sodalities or fraternities and catechetical groups under Jesuit direction.  These pieces may well have been performed in the vernacular.33

In his overview of sword dance performances in the Low Countries, Corrsin notes the appearance of general terms for boys and young men – “ghesellen” or  “jonghen and also comments on the rise in reports of dances during the 1560’s.34  It will be interesting to see if the detailed research on Jesuit drama now being undertaken by Goran Proot and others in Belgium provides a clearer indication of whether these are in fact references to pupils from Jesuit schools or groups directed by Jesuit organisers.

Examined in context – which is the new direction, enthusiastic young Folklorists took all those years ago – the Blundell reports are neither so disconnected in themselves nor so unlikely as they might at first appear.   William Blundell noted the Lathom Prologue just before the outbreak of a period of civil warfare that devastated the country – conservative estimates suggest this led to the deaths of 3.7 percent of the English population, around 190,000 people.  It also left William himself, at the age of only 22, with a severe leg wound that disabled him for life.  As a fervent supporter of the King, he went into internal  exile three times – fleeing to the Isle of Man twice and later to Wales – and it was here that he lost of many of his pre-war papers.35   Two songs – written by a lyricist with close local knowledge, a neighbour or even William himself – describing events involving dancing are included in his later notes.  They are as full of rare detail about named dancers, musicians, instruments and surrounding festivities as Nicholas’ record of the flowering of his marlpit and can perhaps be dated to social life in 1641.  Among the individual verses discussing the abilities of dancers from villages round about is the following glimpse of the area’s outstanding talents:

The lads of Latham [Lathom] did dance

Their Lord Strange hornpipe, which once

Was held to have been the best

And far to exceed all the rest

But now they do hold it too sober

And therefore will needs give it over

They call on their piper then jovially

‘Play us brave Roger o’ Coverley’

Ringing with the excitement of dance competitions, sweethearts eating, drinking, dancing and not getting back to work until morning, the verses are also annotated along the side with the rather wistful prayer,  “Ne reminiscares, Domine, delicta juventutis mea” – “Remember not, O Lord, the sins of my youth.”36  It seems William enjoyed village dances and recognised a good portrayal of their qualities.  Whatever his role at Lathom on Ash Wednesday 1638, his ability to dance and more importantly, other records he made of his life, were casualties of the wars.

And what about Nicholas Blundell, who combined the work of farming and gardening, with costume-making and teaching sword dancers?  His Great Diurnal covers the period 1702-1728 and runs to three published volumes – some of his letters are also available in print,37 but though they contain numerous references to visits to “flowerings” and garlands, no one has yet found another reference to sword dances.  If the performance for the flowering of his marlpit is his only venture into teaching the dance in England – he was 43 and apparently rather stout when he tutored his sword dancers – is this problematic?  Like his father and uncles, he had the advantage of direct participation in the artistic specialisms provided at the English College in St Omer, where dance was encouraged.  Nicholas says he “made a sword dance”, implying that he created the choreography.  So where did his ideas come from? Even in Lancashire, country gentlemen do not usually wake one summer morning and decide to make up a dance with swords because the impulse has suddenly occurred to them.  Isn’t it more likely that Nicholas– or one of his family – had learned a sword dance as part of a  College production and drew on memories to provide the basis of his version?  Or that he had seen and absorbed the figures as a spectator at performances by Flemish dancers?   Whatever may have been his source, the occasions of sword dances in Flanders were not usually “customary”.  They were, like his marlpit flowering, celebratory.   In ways which are entirely distinct from existing traditions of English sword dance performance, in Continental Europe it was civic processions, visits by dignitaries, and significant local events which were marked by the appearance of the sword dancers.  Nicholas’ choice of the genre for a party at the climax of his own successful agricultural venture means it is not “isolated” but in fact adds another small support to the possibility of a link with contexts of performance in mainland Europe.

And as for the Jesuits, would they really tolerate the appearance of sword dancers in their productions?   Plays based on Biblical or Classical texts, with musical interludes and decorous ballets might have been permissible for the purposes of instructing youth, but surely a dance with hilt and point sword figures would not have been permitted or encouraged?  Evidence from Manuel de Larramendi (1690-1766), a Jesuit priest and professor of theology, demonstrates that religious could and did hold the sword dance in the highest esteem.  Larramendi produced an account of dances in the Basque territories which included a lengthy description of the espatadanza (sword dances) in the province of Guipúzcoa.  Written in 1754, it concludes with comments on the appropriateness of sword dance for “solemn” religious occasions such as processions accompanying the consecrated host on the feast of Corpus Christi and its Octave, the feast of St John and “other patron saints of those towns or dedication of their churches”.   “It is not,” he writes, “considered irreverent that the faith and devotion of the men accompanying the presence of the Lord brings them from the streets to enter into the churches with the procession and dance before His Majesty made manifest….“  Sword dances, he proposed are sufficiently reverent to be performed in the presence of the host – in religious terms, before the embodied Christ – concluding that while other dances should be “prohibited for being provocative and immodest and thus indecent and alien to the sanctity of the house of God, or because they may disturb and upset the divine services, there is none of this in the espatadanza.”38


Indeed, at least one source takes even this high level of approval still further.   As we have seen, the description of the sword dance as performed “by the Northern Goths and Swedes”, written by Olaus Magnus, has been among the most influential texts available since its first publication in 1555.    Magnus travelled widely in the regions where sword dances were performed – he was born in Sweden, lived in Rome, worked as a cleric diplomat in the Low Countries and was for some years also Canon of St Lambert at Liége in Flanders.  He ended his days in Rome as the (exiled) Archbishop of Uppsala, having been granted a papal pension.  He was a highly regarded Catholic churchman.  His history has been translated into most European languages and has been available in English for over 350 years.  English researchers and commentators on sword dance, from John Brand’s, Popular Antiquities in 177739  to Cecil Sharp’s pioneering 1911-13 collections,40  have quoted it to illustrate whichever theory of origin they favoured at the time.  Magnus’ description, however, is not always quoted in full – he made further comment, as shown in the translation used by Violet Alford in Sword Dance and Drama and re-printed in Corrsin’s invaluable European overview:

Those who have not seen this with their own eyes can hardly imagine what a beautiful and delightful sight it is when a numerous and armed company at the short commands of one man quickly and with agility get into formation for this act.  The clergy are allowed to join in as it is performed in a courteous and respectful manner.41

How did our sword dancers appear in England?  There are still no conclusive answers.  But at least through researches in a dynamic range of academic fields about the context of their performance, we now know much more about the kind of questions we might ask.  What is clear from this examination of their context is that these records of early sword dances in England should not be viewed through the prism of that favourite genre of English writers on Folklore, the “calendar custom.”  Spurred by the possibility of gaining welcome amounts of marginal income, food, drink, status and enjoyment, participants in the generality of English calendar customs made effective use of gaps in the work of the agricultural year to take to the streets or large houses with morris dances, a host of different traditional plays, horses, tups, carols, garlands and wassail boxes.  By the later eighteenth century such informal performances included sword dances which were associated with the period running broadly from Christmas to Plough Monday in early January – when all kinds of resources and work were in short supply but there was an expectation of festivity.  To their performers, these calendar customs were useful and enjoyable activities.  To English writers on Folklore however, they were survivals of prehistoric religious beliefs; rituals to prompt the revival of growth and fertility by sympathetic magic involving the enactment of death and resurrection or vigorous dance; the knot of swords held up during a sword dance “obviously” representing the resurgent sun.  Folklore fixed the sword dance as a midwinter fertility ritual.  As a result, the Blundell reports and incidentally, the sword dances recorded for King James the Sixth in Edinburgh and Charles the First in Perth became anomalies.  In the cultural context of performances in Continental Europe, however, sword dances regularly played a part in marking significant events like royal visits, they were frequently sponsored by authority figures or groups who could back their celebratory productions with cash and thorough organisation, like Nicholas Blundell, the Glovers Guild in Perth, the Earls of Derby who owned Lathom Hall or the Jesuit teachers whose pupils visited them.  When the early records of sword dance in England and Scotland are looked at in this context, our dancers appear unremarkable – and explicable.

*English sword dances are of two main types: “rapper”, which is danced with flexible “swords” with a handle at either end; and a form known variously as “longsword”, “hilt and point” or “linked”, danced with “swords” made of rigid strips of metal or laths of wood with a handle at one end.  Participants hold the handle of their own “sword” in one hand and the point of their neighbour’s sword in the other, maintaining hold while dancing through a variety of figures and manipulating them to create a solid “knot” which can be displayed.  Some sword dances are also found in association with songs and texts which introduce the dancers and / or involve a play with combat, death, revival and occasionally also a courtship.   This paper deals with longsword.



1.  For a reasoned dissection of confidence to be placed in such proposals, see Stephen D. Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe: A History (London: Hisarlik Press for The Folklore Society, 1997).

2.  E. C. Cawte, Alex Helm and N. Peacock, English Ritual Drama: A Geographic Index (London: The Folk-Lore Society, 1967), p. 24.  Sword dances can form part of a larger performance including dramatic texts and songs – these “sword plays” are therefore often included in publications dealing with traditional plays/mummers’ plays/ritual drama/traditional drama.  English Ritual Drama includes references to linked sword dances which “have lost part, or all, of the dramatic element”.

3. See for examples J. D. A. Widdowson, P. S & M. G. Smith, Traditional Drama: A Research Guide.  SLF Research Guide No. 1 (Sheffield: Survey of Language & Folklore, University of Sheffield, 1972) and Georgina Boyes “The Social Bases of Tradition: An Alternative to Origin Theory,” in A. E. Green and J. D. A. Widdowson, ed., Language, Culture and Tradition.  CECTAL Conference Papers Series No. 2 (Leeds & Sheffield: University of Leeds; University of Sheffield, 1981).

4.  See for examples,  Ivor Allsop, Longsword Dances from Traditional and Manuscript Sources (Brattleboro, VT: Northern Harmony Publishing Co, 1996); Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe and Peter Millington’s compendious and ever-growing Master Mummers’ Website,

5. Stephen D. Corrsin, “Preface,” Sword Dancing in Britain: An Annotated Bibliography Based on the Holdings of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library of EFDSS 2nd ed. rev. (London: Vaughan Williams Memorial Library Leaflet, ND[1993]), p. 1 also available at

6.  Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe, p. 85.

7. See for examples, the outstanding documentation of morris teams and their distribution in Keith Chandler, “Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles”: The Social History of Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900 and the same author’s, Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900: A Chronological Gazetteer both published (Enfield Lock, Middx: Hisarlik Press, 1993).

8.  See Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe, pp. 13-66 for discussion and analysis of records from Flanders and the Low Countries, Central Europe and Scandinavia from 1389.

9.  John Marston, The Malcontent, ed. George K. Hunter.  (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), pp. 31-32.

10. Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe, pp. 4 and 91-2.

11.  For quotation on mattachins from Philip Sydney, The Coventess of Pembrokes Arcadia (London: William Ponsonbie, 1590), f.74v and a useful discussion of the defining features of mattachins, see M. Katritzky, The Art of Commedia: A Study of the Commedia  dell Arte 1560-1620 with Special Reference to the Visual Records  (Amsterdam and New York: Editions Europe BV, 2006), pp. 220-22.

12.  Anna Jean Mill, Mediaeval Plays in Scotland (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1927), pp. 200-1.

13.  Reproduced in William Blundell, Crosby Records: A Cavalier’s Notebook, Being Notes, Anecdotes, & Observations of William Blundell of Crosby, Lancashire, Esquire, ed. T. Ellison Gibson (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1880), p. 117.

14.  William Stanley was the sponsor of a company of players and was, George summarises, “a peer who loved the drama perhaps more than any other in England.  He may be characterized as politically unambitious; he wrote comedies for common players in 1599 and after 1617 devoted himself to horse-racing and music.  He began to give up his office of lord lieutenant of Lancashire and Cheshire in 1626, sharing it with his son [James Stanley (1606/7-1651)], who gradually in this and other respects took over the duties of the head of the family.  His players are frequently found visiting Lancashire houses in this collection” David George, ed., Records of Early English Drama: Lancashire (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), xxxvii.  James Stanley appeared in Ben Jonson’s Court masque Triumph through Callipolis in January 1631 and may also have taken the part of Dr Almanac in the Twelfth Night masque at the family’s other Lancashire seat, Knowsley House, in 1640/41.  Ibid., pp. 252 and 255.  He too sponsored a company of players – see below.

15.  It is unlikely that Lord Derby’s own players were at Lathom Hall in 1638 – they performed and toured in Lancashire only until 1619 or 20, see for example payments in the Household Accounts of Thomas Walmesley listed in Ibid.,, p. 189.  Potentially, however, the performers could have been the troupe listed as “Lord Strange’s Players” (James Stanley’s title before he succeeded to his father’s Earldom) who are listed as appearing at Dunkenhalgh Hall in Lancashire on three occasions between 1634 and 1636, giving civic performances at Congleton in Cheshire in January 1634/5 and Kendal in Westmorland in 1636 and with a very poorly paid appearance (two shillings / 10p) at Workington Hall in Cumberland in 1636, see Ibid., pp. xlii, xxxvii, 210, 361 and 379.   Surviving records give no indication of the membership of the company or a single description of the nature of their performances.

The  dance with a contest between the plump followers of Christmas and the “leane ghost like apparisions of fasting dayes” in the Twelfth Night masque given by the Stanley’s family and retainers at Knowsley in 1644 is specifically described as “a Matichine” with “postures and struggling and wrestlinge”, but no swords or sticks.  Ibid., p. 257.

16. Blundell’s Diary: Comprising Selection from the Diary of Nicholas Blundell, Esq. 1702-1728,  ed. Rev. T. Ellison Gibson (Liverpool: Gilbert G. Warmsley, 1895), pp. 103-105.  Marl is a rock containing clay minerals and calcite which was mixed with components such as silt to fertilise lime-deficient soils or condition sandy soils.

17.  See Allsop, Longsword Dances, pp. 25 and 69 for Askham Richard and Flamborough teams.  The book as a whole is an invaluable and fascinating source on costumes, dance figures, music and other detail.

18.  See particularly Samuel Bamford’s description of girls trimming hats for morris dancers and the chapter on “The Wakes” in Alfred Burton, Rushbearing (Manchester: Brook & Chrystal, 1891), p. 44 and pp. 147-165 and the many accounts in J. Haslett, Morris Dancers & Rose Queens: An Anthology of Reported Carnivals and Galas in West Lancashire to 1900 (Leyland, Lancs: Fairhaven Press, 2005).  For mock warriors see celebrations marking sojourn of Henry, Thirteenth Earl of Derby in Liverpool, 22 and 23 April 1577 in George, Records of Early English Drama: Lancashire, p. xxviii and rushbearing described in Hornby in 1633, see Elizabeth Baldwin, David George and David Mills, Records of Early English Drama: Lancashire including Isle of Man ADDENDA (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), p. 19.

19.  Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe, p. 93.

20.  For discussion of William Blundell’s education, see Geoff Baker, Reading and Politics in Early Modern England: The Mental World of a Seventeenth-Century Catholic Gentleman (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2010), pp. 12 and 28-29.

21.  See the extensive information on Yorkshire recusant families and their contacts with the Continent detailed in Arthur Bantoft’s many articles for The Barwicker available on the Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society site at

22.  Baker, Reading and Politics in Early Modern England,  pp. 10-11.

23. Jack Binns, Sir Hugh Cholmley of Whitby 1600-1657: Ancestry, Life & Legacy (Pickering, Yorks: Blackthorn Press, 2008), p. 9.

24.  Ibid., 10.

25. See G. W. Boddy’s detailed and informative, “Players of interludes in North Yorkshire in the early seventeenth century,” North Yorkshire County Record Office Journal, 3 (April 1976), 95-129.

26.  John Edmondson and Jennifer Lewis, “A Lancashire Recusant’s Garden, Recorded by Nicholas Blundell of Crosby Hall from 1702 to 1727,” Garden History 32:1 (Spring 2004), 20.

27.  See Baker, Reading and Politics in Early Modern England, pp. 47-8 and fn. p. 69.  It would also be interesting to see the “Prologue” heralding “the end to conflict” which Blundell wrote “at the intreaty of some Country Neighbour who were to Act the play about the yeare 1647”, which Baker briefly describes, p. 44.

28.  Ibid., p. 48.  For a short discussion of the Jesuits’ use of drama for training in rhetoric and oratory in English, see also Michael J. Lueger, “Baroque and Classical in Jesuit Theatre,” The Journal of Religion and Theatre, 9:1 (Fall 2010), 1-11 and the very detailed and informative Goran Proot, “Musique, danse et Ballet dans le theatre scolaire des jésuites de la Provincia Flandro-Belgica (1575-1773), Revue de la Socièté liégeoise de musicologie, 27 (2008), 121-167 which also outlines the controversies associated with performance in the Province.  I am extremely grateful to Goran Proot of the Universiteit Antwerpen and Bernard Deprez of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven for their generous and timely assistance with this and other resources on Jesuit involvement in performances.

English priests, like William Blundell’s teacher, “Henry Howard” [Robert Grosvenor] travelled and lived under assumed names and a generation earlier had re-entered England after their training with new identities – the former Oxford academic Edmund Campion giving his name as “Hastings” and his occupation as “Irish merchant” when he arrived in Dover in 1580, his fellow-priest, Thomas Parsons, presenting himself as “Doleman”, a sea captain.  The ability to give a convincing performance in an unlikely role had been essential to survival.  See Richard Wilson, Secret Shakespeare: Studies in theatre, religion and resistance (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 54 for these details, though the issue of “disguise” among Catholics is dealt with extensively throughout the book.


29.  Goran Proot and Johan Verberckmoes, “Japonica in the Jesuit Drama of the Southern Netherlands,” Bulletin of Portuguese Japanese Studies, 5 (2003), 27.

30.  See William H. McCabe, “Music and Dance on a 17th-Century College Stage,” The Musical Quarterly, 24:3 (July 1938), 313-322 for a fascinating account of this admirable initiative.  I am extremely grateful to Rebecca Hughes, Assistant Librarian at Vaughan Williams Memorial Library for her help and kindness in accessing this article.

31.  Ibid., pp. 316-7 quoting Lewis Owen, The Running Register: Recording a True Revelation of the State of the English Colledges, Seminaries and Cloysters in all forraine parts. Together with a briefe and compendious discourse of the Lives, Practices, Coozenage, Impostures, and Deceits of all our English Monks, Friers, Jesuits, and Seminarie Priests in Generall (London: 1626), p. 9.

32.  Ibid., p. 316 quoting Henry Foley,  Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus (7 vols; London: Burns & Oates 1877-1883), VII:2,  p. 1177.

33.  Proot and Verberckmoes, ““Japonica in the Jesuit Drama of the Southern Netherlands,” p. 28.

34.  See for example Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe, p. 23.

35.  See Baker, Reading and politics in early modern England, pp. 9 and 31.

36.  For further details and full text of the songs, see Crosby Records, pp. 233-236.   See also Christopher Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 157 for a discussion of the poem’s rare depiction of contemporary rural musicians.

37.  See The great diurnal of Nicholas Blundell, ed Frank Tyrer and J. J. Bagley (3 vols; Record Society of Lancashire & Cheshire, 1968-1972) and Blundell’s diary and letter book, 1702-1728, ed. Margaret Blundell (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press), 1952.

38.  Manuel de Larramendi, Corografía de la muy noble y moy leal provincial de Guipúzcoa (Buenos Aires:1950), pp. 240-44 quoted in Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe, pp. 126-7

39.  John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities: Including the whole of Mr Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares (Newcastle upon Tyne: T. Saint for J. Johnson, 1777), pp. 175- 77.

40.  Cecil Sharp, The Sword Dances of Northern England (3 vols; London: Novello & Co. Limited, 1911-1913), see particularly Sword Dances, Part 1, pp. 18-19.

41.  Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe, p. 62 quoting Violet Alford, Sword Dance and Drama (London: Merlin Press, 1962), p. 115.