Monday, 3 September 2012

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance of Staffordshire

Situated some half way between Uttoxeter and Rugeley, due west of Burton on Trent is an attractive village that by many is held to be the home of possibly the most important and most ancient folk tradition found in England.  Once a year, in early September this village plays host to the Horn Dance, a folk custom whose earliest records date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but whose origins are undoubtedly far older.

Historical background
It was once thought that the earliest confirmed record of the Horn Dance dated from the seventeenth century but this date has now been revised. The existence of the Horn Dance can now be dated to the first half of the sixteenth century (Hutton 1996), by which time it would have been an all ready well established custom, in existence long enough to get noticed.

However, this description of the event does not mention the horns but focuses on the Hobby Horse, this omission does not necessarily mean that they were not present but it is an anomaly. It has been suggested that the horns are a later addition (Hutton 1996) and that originally the other characters such as the Hobby Horse, had greater prominence in what was possibly a local mummers play.

It is however, the presence of the horns that make this dance and its’ performance unique. The actual dance features a locking of the horns in mimicry of the rut. This unique element suggests to me that the primary importance of the dance is and possibly all ways has been the horns.

It was once fashionable to claim that folk customs of this nature were a Pagan relic or survival and many now feel that this concept has been discredited. However, in dismissing this theory completely we may inadvertently overlook some actual survivals.

Here I depart from the accepted academic opinion held by Hutton and others, as it is the symbolism of the dance that speaks to me here. The use of horns, the rutting dance and our knowledge that the performance used to take place later in the year (Hutton 1996) suggests to me a link with the rut itself, the winter solstice and possibly hunting or Gods of the hunt.

The processional route through the village to historically the furthest reaches of the parish suggests a method of beating the bounds and a driving away of evil.

Further symbolic overtones are suggested by the presence of the Hobby Horse as a representative of Sleipnir (Oates 2007) the mount of the Saxon God Woden. Traditional associations with Woden (the Norse Odin) as a horned deity and leader of the wild hunt merely reinforces a suggested ritualistic origin.

It has been suggested that as a mummers play the dance had no religious or ritualistic function (Hutton 1996) and was primarily an entertainment. I however, find myself quite unconvinced by this argument, when I take into consideration the symbolism present in this rite. I postulate that the origins of the dance are most likely Saxon and that the dance is a genuine pre-Christian survival, although it goes almost without saying, that I cannot prove it.

As an aside it may be worth exploring that at this point, the reader may be of the impression that I am or have taken an anti-Hutton stance. This is perhaps an understandable but erroneous assumption. When reading the work of Professor Hutton I am generally in agreement with some ninety percent of his opinion but there is often a ten percent where I am not. This does not mean I am anti-Hutton, I have a great deal of respect for his work and opinion.

However, I do at times hold a degree of doubt and I reserve the right to hold opinions of my own. My interpretation of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and I might add, the Castleton Garland Ceremony, belong to that ten percent where my opinion is contrary to his.

The Horns as trivia

There are six pairs of horns mounted on poles with carved heads. They are all from reindeer and they have been dated as being an estimated nine hundred to one thousand years old (Buckland 1980). Ladell (1932) describes them as follows:

Horn #1 weighing 16 ½ pounds is 31 inches across and painted white.
Horn #2 weighing 19 pounds is 29 inches across and painted white.
Horn #3 weighing 16 ¼ pounds is 35 inches across and painted brown.
Horn #4 weighing 23 ¼ pounds is 33 inches across and is painted brown.
Horn #5 weighing 20 pounds is 38 inches across and painted brown.
Horn #6 weighing 25 ¼ pounds is 39 inches across and is painted white.

The horns are known to have been painted several times throughout their existence and under the present coats of paint are traces of red, blue and cream. Plot writing in 1686 states that the heraldic arms of the local gentry were once painted on the carved heads.

The current colours although cream (white) and brown, are still known by the old colours of red and blue by the dancers themselves. However, depending on how much of a leg pull they wish to give the unsuspecting tourist, will depend on which team, the brown or white, is called blue or red. Sometimes to the amusement of the teams, the same dancer will give a different answer to different enquirer.

The Horn Dance Today
Today the Horn Dance as an annual custom takes place on a Monday and only on a Monday. The formula for calculation is “the Monday following the first Sunday after the fourth of September.” If the fourth of September is a Monday, the dance is held a week later.

The teams consists of six dancers, three in each team, together with a Maid Marion, a Hobby Horse, a jester, a boy or girl with a bow, another boy or girl playing a triangle and a musician. The full compliment is thirteen but with younger members present being taught the dance and the extra musicians, there is often more in attendance.  The dancers are in attractive uniforms of Victorian origin while the remaining characters dress appropriate to their role.

Leaflets giving information regarding the itinerary of the dance together with a brief history of the village and the dance itself, are available from various local shops and the Post Office. This helpful leaflet is published by the Abbots Bromley Parish Council (2001) and quotes Shipman extensively.

It is an early start with a church service at approximately 7 am with all the Horn Dancers, many locals and an increasingly large number of Pagans, tourists and television cameras in attendance. It has been observed that the vicar and church staff are sometimes a little uneasy with the presence of so many Pagans (Howard 1995) however, as Pagans we should be glad of the church patronage as without it, this wonderful rite would not have survived to the present day.

The Horns are placed in front of the altar prior to the service commencing, to be blessed by the vicar before they leave the building. At approximately 7.45 am, the Horns are taken from the church and the first dance of the day takes place outside the porch.

The dancers then make their way to the village green dancing there sometime after 8 am and then proceed through the village, often deviating from the traditional route to visit elderly relatives, retired dancers and other local residents before reaching the top of Goose Lane, where they take a well earned break. This is often the stop where members of the public get a chance to join the dancers in an impromptu performance.

When the procession restarts the dancers and their many followers make their way back down Goose Lane in the direction of the reservoir, often crossing the bridge with the aid of a transit van although, in the old days they walked all day.

The dances and the procession recommence on the other side of the reservoir and by 11 am if running to time, they should be at Admaston Village, where more impromptu performances can take place.

By noon the dancers should be at Blithfield Hall (pronounced Bliffield), home of the local aristocracy, the Dowager Baroness Lady Nancy Bagot and her family. This family have given their name to a particular breed of goat and their coat of arms bears a goats head with goat supporters. The first “Bagot Goats” are said to have been presented to the family by Richard II and may have been brought to England during the Crusades (Bagot 1979).

Here, while the crowds stay on the outside of the dry moat, the dancers perform in front of the hall before being presented to Lady Bagot. There is then a break while a lunch is provided for the dancers by the Bagot family.

Post lunch the dancers begin to make their way back to the village, taking in Little Dunstal Farm and other outlying points to reach the Bagot arms by approximately 3.30 pm. The procession and dance performances continue through the village and past the Village Green to reach the Coach and Horses after 7 pm, here they turn and return for the third visit to the Village Green. The Horns are finally returned to the church of Saint Nicholas sometime after 8 pm.

The Village of Abbots Bromley today
The village itself is very attractive and although there has been expansion since the Sixties, the outlying modern housing estates do not detract from the older village centre.  Many of the older houses date from Georgian times with a few older buildings spread throughout the village.

The village has four public houses of note and all are buildings of some age, these are the Bagot Arms, the Goats Head, the Crown and the Coach and Horses. All four of these serve food and can boast of a polite and friendly service. My personal favourite is the Bagot Arms but don’t let that put you off the others. They are all equally good.

Many of the pubs have rooms to let and a weekend break in this area is worth taking. There are several B&B’s in the area and the Staffordshire Tourist Information can assist in finding the most suitable. It can be cheaper to stay outside the village and I once stayed at Lea Hall Farm just over the reservoir beyond Admaston, a place to stay that I do recommend.

The surrounding area is a fine if easy walking country and there are many other attractive villages, ruins, churches and castles within reach by foot or car. Tutbury Castle is quite near as is Cannock Chase.

Abbots Bromley Parish Council (2001) Abbots Bromley free map. ABPC.
Bagot N. (1979) Blithfield the Staffordshire home of Lady Bagot. English Life Publications Ltd. Derby.
Buckland T. (1980) Lore and language magazine. January 1980 Cited in Shipman E.R. (1996) A history of Abbots Bromley. Abbots Bromley Parish Council and Benhill Press Ltd.
Hutton  R. (1996) The stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford University Press.
Howard M. (1995) The sacred ring: the Pagan origins of British Folk festivals and customs. Capall Bann.
Ladell A.R. (1932) The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. Cited in Shipman E.R. (1996) A history of Abbots Bromley. Abbots Bromley Parish Council and Benhill Press Ltd.
Oates S (2007) Abbots Bromley the Wild Hunt and Saint Nick. In The Hedge Wytch. Issue 39 Lammas/August 2007 pp14-19.
Plot R. (1686) The natural history of Staffordshire. Cited in Hutton R. (1996) The stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford University Press.

This article was first published as The Chattering Magpie (Griffith D.B.) 2010 A Grand Day Out – The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance of Staffordshire. The Hedgewytch: issue 51 August/Lammas 2010 pp 3-7.

Text copyright D.B. Griffith 2010.
Photography copyright D.B. Griffith 2009.
Reproduction without permission of the author prohibited.
Details of The Hedgewytch magazine can be found in the links section of this BLOG.

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