The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance group is the oldest traditionalist dance group in Britain dating back hundreds of years with antecedents stretching even further back to pre- history, if you believe some folklorists. The dance takes place annually in Abbots Bromley, an attractive 13th- century village in Staffordshire, on Wakes Monday ( the Monday following the first Sunday after 4th September). This year it is on 11th September.
Six men ( known as the Deermen) carry heavy sets of antlers and are accompanied by Maid Marian ( a man dressed up), the Hobby Horse, the Jester or Fool, a boy carrying a bow and arrow and another young boy with a triangle who beats time to the music. Nowadays there can be two musicians playing the accordion, although in the past a violin was used, with earlier music coming from the pipe and tabor. Maid Marian who predates the legends of Robin Hood collects money from passers- by. The Fool dances with a pig’s bladder and stops to amuse the crowds and answers questions. The Hobby Horse careers about opening and closing its mouth while the bowman appears to shoot into it to ward away the evil spirits.
The dance is a living, breathing thing that goes back hundreds of years and, according to Terry Bailey — who plays the Jester — historians still can’t find the true date when it began. Various views about its origin exist. The dance was performed at the three- day Barthelmy Fair in 1226 to celebrate St. Bartholomew’s Day ( 24th August) and was later moved to the beginning of September when corrections were made to the Julian Calendar in 1752. No recorded references exist to the Horn Dance prior to Robert Plot’s Natural History of Staffordshire, written in 1686. According to Robert Plot, it was also re- enacted sometimes on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Connections have been made that go back even further in time. In the Trois- Frères Caves, in Arieg, France, an image exists that dates back 14,000 years. Known as the “Sorcerer”, this is thought to be a dancing man wearing antlers on his head and suggests an even more ancient origin.
Terry explains how some people interpret their enactment as a fertility dance. For them, “It’s like the rutting season when you see the horns going back and forward and the circling part of the dance, where the female teases the male.” Others in the village regard it as a celebration of getting the harvest in. Some people have postulated it as an assertion of local forestry rights. For Terry and his troupe, there is no exact definition of when it started, and what it represents. He lets others draw their own conclusions; his sole concern is to see this tradition carried on.
Everyone would assume the antlers used in the Abbots Bromley Dance were deer, but they are in fact reindeer so the mystery deepens. Reindeer were extinct before Saxon times. It seems the likely source of these antlers came from Scandinavia. The area around Staffordshire was settled by both the Saxons and Danes. The neighbouring River Trent would have ensured a feasible route between Viking settlements and Denmark and Norway via the Humber Estuary. When the second brown ( antler) was damaged, just over 20 years ago, it was sent to Derby University where it was carbon- dated to the year 1065 plus or minus 80 years, which raises yet another conundrum for those seeking a comprehensive explanation.
The day begins at 7.30am when the antlers are collected from St. Nicholas’ Church. They’re kept in the Hurst Chapel under the supervision
of the local vicar. The horns are fixed to wooden stags’ heads dating from the 16th century and clearly seem to represent the hunted rather than the hunters. One item that is not removed from the church is the former Hobby Horse. It’s too old and fragile and has been replaced by a more durable and lighter version.
After a short service, the horns are first “danced” in front of the church. The dance consists of two parts, but as Terry tells me there can be variations. It begins with the horn- bearers forming a silent circle. The music begins with the leader breaking the circle and snaking his way between the second and third dancers. The rest follow him, then they form two lines with three dancers in each line facing each other. The antlers are raised with the white horns opposing the brown horns. The two lines advance and retire and cross sides as they appear to lock horns ( but never do).
The dancers used to wear their own clothes which they decorated with a few ribbons and bits of coloured cloth. The more modern costumes came into existence just before Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 and were designed by the daughters of John Manley Lowe Jnr. who was the vicar at the time. Various costumes followed over the years.
The present costumes for the horn carriers consist of contrasting shirts and waistcoats for those carrying the antlers. The white horn carriers wear
a rust- coloured oak leaf- patterned shirt with plain sleeves and a light green waistcoat. Those carrying the brown horns in contrast wear a light green oak- patterned shirt with plain sleeves and a rust- coloured waistcoat. All wear tan hats, breeches with oak leaf patterns and long green socks. The Jester and other members are dressed in costumes to suit their character.
The Deermen proceed through the village and further away to the outlying farms and then, around noon, to Blithfield Hall. This was home quite recently to the Bagot family who resided there since 1360. Here the troupe dance on the front lawn before they set out to some surrounding farms. Later they return to the village moving slowly between four village pubs, the High Street and finish the dancing activities at the Market Place, with its ancient Butter Cross, before returning to the church around 8pm. Some people have calculated the distance covered as 10 miles, but Terry feels it’s closer to 15. “Some do more than others,” he points out, “and there are normally three or four that can stand in when necessary.” This is just as well as the dance is physically demanding, with the antlers ranging from 29 to 39 inches across and weighing between 16 ¼ lbs and 25 ¼ lbs in total.
Two prominent families, the Fowell and Bentley families have ensured the survival of the dance since at least 1800, with the two families inter- marrying in 1858. For these families it was not only a historical tradition, but also a proud family tradition to uphold. Son followed father and grandfather. In 1915, four of the seven Fowell brothers, Alfred, Arthur, David and John were given dispensation from the Lincolnshire Regiment to participate in the dance before their departure to the Western Front. They performed the dance in their uniforms and then departed for France. Within a month Arthur and David were dead. Using replica uniforms, this event was commemorated in 2015.
Up to 1979, only three dancers were not members of the Fowell family. This was when Terry Bailey
joined by accident. He was attending a fete in Stone, a Staffordshire village, with a friend of his who happened to be one of the Deermen, when they discovered the Jester hadn’t turned up. Terry was suddenly co- opted in and has been participating ever since, for the last 38 years.
Smaller families, more daughters than sons in the Fowell family has led to to a wider recruitment from the local community. Terry’s two sons have become part of it. “Then there’s Jeff Bradbury whose lad and grandson is in it,” Terry tells me. Access has widened and nowadays girls can join, provided they’re related to the Fowell family. “Our main concern is to ensure the dance keeps going and there are enough young people coming in to take the place of the older ones.” This doesn’t seem to be a problem, as there’s a growing waiting list of those wanting to join.
Terry is always staggered by the response to the event, which has grown over the year from a few hundred visitors to upwards of 2,000. Last year there were visitors from the USA, Canada and Australia. One couple Terry spoke to, had even factored the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance into their six- week schedule before they left Australia. “I’m always amazed by the number of people who come to see us now.” Amongst them are a growing number of enthusiasts who want to observe old traditions and who have made it part of their booking list.
For Terry, belonging still means being a part of the oldest traditional dance group in the country. “I’m not as fit as I used to be,” he tells me. “I don’t dance as much as the others. It’s more about ensuring these days that the visitors are entertained and letting people know what’s happening.” The group does get invited out to dance at other venues, but they try not to do too many as they want to preserve tradition and avoid the obvious taint of commercialisation.
Main page: The Deermen collecting the horns from the church. GEORGINA HINE Left: Dancers in 1900.
Right: A striking black- andwhite picture of the dancers in the Market Place. Far right: The troupe at Blithfield Hall.
Above: Jester and musician.
Intricate moves are all part of the dance.
The dancers at Blithfield Reservoir.