|Horn Dancers of Abbots Bromley photographed in the early 20th Century.|
I am told that September 5 is the earliest date that the annual Abbots Bromley Horn Dance can be held—on Wakes Monday, the Monday following the first Sunday after September 4. That will be this coming Monday, September 8 this year which, auspiciously, will also be a Full Moon. Wakes Week is a week-long holiday period once celebrated widely over portions of England that originally marked the decision to consecrate as Christian Churches rather than destroy pagan temples . In time it became fairly secularized and in the 19th and early 20th Centuries became week-long holidays from work in industrial areas of the Northeast and Midlands. Government regulation and standardization of the holiday calendar has largely erased the tradition.
But not in the village of Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire in the east Midlands. There an odd local ritual dance, whose origins likely pre-date Christianity, continues on Wakes Monday. It is thought by many to be the oldest continually celebrated ritual tied to a specific location in England. Well, almost continuous—those kill-joy Puritans stomped it out during the years of the Commonwealth, or perhaps they only succeeded in driving it underground.
The exact origins, the meanings, and the symbolism are shrouded in mystery and some controversy. As it has been documented since the 17th Century the Horn Dance consists of 12 dancers. Six carry reindeer horns accompanied by a musician—probably originally a lutist, then a fiddler, and now an accordionist,— a man dressed as Maid Marian, a man on a Hobby-horse, the Fool, a lad with a bow and arrow, and another youngster—now sometimes even a girl—with a triangle.
After the horns are blessed at 8 am in the local church, St. Nicholas, the dancers begin to frolic in line around the triangular shaped village green by the Butter Cross—which was first known to be in place in 1339 and the current Butter Cross erected after the Restoration. The dancers followed by a crowd then leave the village and make their way to the home of the local aristocrat, Blithfield Hall, currently owned by Lady Bagot. After celebrations, libations, and a meal the dancers return to the village in the afternoon and make rounds of local homes and pubs before retiring to the Church at 10 pm for a concluding service.
Cultural anthropologists believe that the core elements of the Dance are rooted in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon tradition. The Christian blessings and prayers before and after the actual dance would have been added as a veneer after Pope Gregory I dispatched missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons in 601with his instructions to adapt local temples and culture to Christian worship. Exactly when the area around what is now Abbots Bromley came under Christian sway is unknown.
It is believed that the dance originated in the pagan period and was connected with the ruling Earls of Mercia, based some 15 miles away at Tamworth, who owned extensive hunting lands in Needwood Forest and Cannock Chase surrounding Abbots Bromley. It would have fallen to the Royal Forester to organize magic rituals to ensure a plentiful hunt each year. The tradition survived into Christian times and gradually became identified with affirming the villagers’ own hunting rights. The allegiance of the Forester would simply have transferred to Burton Abby when it was given feudal sway.
The official history of the village dates to 942, when the Manor of Bromleage was given to Wulfsige the Black. Then the 1002 will of Wulfric Spot, Earl of Mercia, gave the village to the Abbey of Burton upon Trent. In the Doomsday Book of 1086 the village was recorded as Brunlege, a part of the land of St Mary of Burton. In 1227 the village received a Royal Charter to hold a weekly fair at the Butter Cross on the green. Those fairs continued into the mid-20th Century when the flight of industry plunged the village into hard times. But on Wakes Monday in conjunction with the Horn Dance a fair is still held on the green where other entertainments and amusements including Morris Dancing also occurs.
In 1545 Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries and awarded the lands of Bromley Abbatis to Sir William Paget, Clerk of the Signet and Privy Councilor. The village was known as Paget’s Bromley for several centuries distinguishing it from the part of the parish in the hands of the Bagot family, still known as Bagot’s Bromley. Eventually the influence of the Paget family declined, and the name reverted to Abbots Bromley.
Since at least the resumption of the Dance during the Restoration, the position of Forester of Bentylee was hereditary among the Bentley family, passing to the Fowell family in 1914 through marriage. The Fowells continue to conduct the Dance it to this day and the dancers are drawn from their kin.
The first written record of the Wakes Monday ritual did not appear until Robert Plot’s Natural History of Staffordshire, written in 1686 tracing the use of hobby horse to as early as 1532. Curiously, no mention was made of the reindeer antlers, so critical to the performance as it is now known, was made until much later. But that may have been because the horns were so widely understood to be part of the ceremony that they need not be commented upon.
Those reindeer horns are at the heart of the mystery and controversy over the Dance. Carbon dating on the ones in use, which have been documented in continuous use at least back to the 18th Century, identify them as originating just before the Norman Conquest of 1066. The trouble is that reindeer were thought to be extinct in England before that with possible remnant populations far to the north in isolated areas of Scotland. How, then, did they come into use in the local horn dance instead of the common local red deer? Some believe that they must have been imported from Scandinavia at a later date specifically for use in the ceremony, perhaps because of the much greater size of reindeer antlers over those of red deer. Yet if the heart of the magic is invoking a plentiful hunt, this seems unlikely. Some of the same folklorists think that the absence of mention of the horns in the earliest texts means that they were added later, well after other elements like the hobby horse. But why then would antlers already hundreds of years old have been imported instead of the ones freshly dropped by reindeer every year?
The antiquity of the antlers leads others to believe that there may simply still have been some small pockets of reindeer in England—and perhaps even a newly discovered population nearby. The use of the reindeer horns may then have specifically been used to invoke a growth in the population of this remnant. If so, it didn’t work. But hope springs eternal.
Whatever the case, all of the elements of the Horn Dance as now performed were well documented to be in place by the early 19th Century when industrial development in the Midlands was disrupting many ancient rural traditions.
|Contemporary dancers on parade.|
The collapse of much of that same industry in the late 20th Century brought the village to hard times with high unemployment. They lost their weekly fair and their court. But in the last two decades the village has become a bedroom community for expanding urban centers nearby. Because it was by-passed by the railroads much of its rustic character was preserved making it, in the estimation of one popular magazine, the “best place in the Midlands to live.”
That has sent rents skyrocketing driving out many longtime residents. That includes all of the members of the Fowell family who now return to their ancestral village from near-by cheaper areas to conduct the sacred duty of their annual ritual.
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