Here at the History Centre, we’re no stranger to Morris Dancers. We’ve had dancers on the staff, while each May Bank Holiday Chippenham hosts its popular Folk Festival. It’s great fun watching the street theatrics, but there was once a darker side to Morris Dancing that led to the following stories being recorded by the Wiltshire Magistrates (and now appear in Records of Wiltshire).
What happened at Woodborough in May 1652 caused official concern, but how was it that Morris Dancing threatened the pillars of the state?
Capers against the Commonwealth On the evening of Sunday, May 16th 1652, Edward Smyth and Edward Hawking left their homes in Woodborough and went to All Cannings, where they met and conspired with about a dozen people. That same Sunday, Robert Golfe went from Woodborough into Marlborough “to get a drummer”, while Thomas Beasant went to Ram Alley in Easton and “there invited and procured a fiddler”.
The following day, their plans were revealed when a crowd gathered from the surrounding countryside; according to the records, “three hundred persons, or thereabouts … gathered together in a Riotous, Routous, Warlike and very disorderly manner’.” If anyone thought about stopping them, they were armed “with muskets, pistols, bills, swords drawn and other unlawful weapons”.
The musicians led the crowd from Woodborough to Pewsey where they “very disorderly, danced the Morris Dance”, and committed other misdemeanours, including “drinking and tippling in the inn and Alehouse”. While the prevalence of weapons may, happily, be less, it’s reassuring to see that the drinking still continues in and around Morris circles to this day (and sometimes, people still disapprove).
Public nuisance, party, or Sedition? In 1652, England was a republic, following the execution of Charles I. The Commonwealth kept a close eye on signs of dissent, looking for evidence of Royalist insurgency: traditional sports and pastimes were suspect. Ales, Morris and other customs had been the target of religious reformers since before the Civil War. The opposition from these authorities meant that Morris and other customs now symbolised the old order prior to the Civil War, when license and liberty were, supposedly, more freely allowed; as such, Morris dancing and the open drinking of ale was as much an open challenge to the authorities as the bearing of arms. Although the weapons offered a challenge to the authorities, the Morris spoke of tradition, culture, custom and a perceived stability before the upheavals of the 1640s. The new rulers of England were right to view the emotional power of such demonstrations with suspicion.
While the Morris at Pewsey may not be as famous as folksinger Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted by McCarthy in Cold War America, or Victor Jara, the Chilean musician executed during the 1973 coup, the Wiltshire boys used their folk art and their rootedness in the traditions of their place to show dissent toward the Authorities. Were the ringleaders seeking to incite rebellion, or just standing up for traditional fun? No doubt motives were mixed and shifting, including a mass of local and national grievances, as well as people being there for the fun, the beer and the free entertainment. What also seems remarkably modern was the casting of The Commonwealth as an alien, faceless Authority that stopped fun and meddled in the lives of “ordinary folk” (“Bonkers Conkers” anyone?).
However, as our next story shows, the dancers in Pewsey were evoking an idealised past in an “imagined village” …1
In times gone by, the Rev. W. Zapprell Allan of Broad Chalke claimed that there was no wise woman better than Old Dame Zargett with her knowledge of herbs and simples.
The most highly regarded of all the herbs were hellebore, rosemary, lavender, sage, comfrey, rue, wormwood, marjoram and vervain, with verbena, mint and chamomile following close on their heels. Kathleen Wiltshire, long-term resident of All Cannings, lists almost 60 in her book ‘Wiltshire Folklore’, available at WSHC, and I have listed just a few for you here.
Betony was the one herb not to be without. It is a woodland plant with purple-red flowers that bloom from June to September and, excepting the roots, the whole plant is of good use. ‘Sell your coat and buy betony’ is an old Wiltshire saying. It was said to have still surpassed modern drugs during WWII being especially helpful for the burns of RAF pilots.
I don’t know about you, but I usually try to avoid brambles, especially when picking blackberries, but they were very good at easing scalds. Just dip nine leaves in water and apply to the wound whilst repeating a chant three times to each leaf:
‘Three ladies came from the east,
One brought fire, and two brought frost,
Out with the fire, and in with the frost,
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy ghost,
The bramble was considered to be a sacred plant, in the same vein as the rowan and oak. Brambles could also be used as a cure for whooping-cough if they were forming an arch with the tip of the arch sending down a new root. Initially the treatment was just to crawl under the arch, but it was later modified, usually by repeating the process nine times on nine consecutive days.
Fleabane does what it says on the tin! It was burnt to drive out fleas and other insects from the straw used on floors in rooms.
If you have ever spent time looking at the history of your town or village, or even used a map to go for a country walk you may have come across intriguing or unusual field names. But had you ever thought about what these names might tell you about the history of the field and its use over the centuries?
Field names can provide a link between the modern population and its predecessors; a bridge between history and place.
Field names are often made up of two separate words, for example, North Field, a different structure to most place names. To find out the meaning of a name, it is often necessary to try and find its earliest use. Field names can sometimes be traced back to Saxon times!
Names can draw their influence from the agricultural background of the site, its size and location, the lie of the land, its soil, crops, livestock, wild animals and plants, buildings, land ownership amongst many other things.
Sometimes the modern name can be unfamiliar; Catsbrain (which is found several times in Wiltshire – at Broad Chalke, Idmiston, Chisledon and Somerford for example) refers to the kind of soil on the site (rough clay mixed with stones). The reason for the name is obscure, older forms being Catesbragan (13th century), Cattesbrain (16th century), and Catesbruyne furlong (17th century).
Sometimes there are no early forms of the name, particularly if it’s more of a nickname; Fill Tubs, Butter Leaze, Helps Well. Often these kinds of nicknames are uncomplimentary: Bad Mead, Beggar Hay, Breakheart, Hunger Hill, Little Profit… presumably referring to poor agricultural value. Remote fields are often known by names of far-flung places such as Botany Bay, Jericho, and New Zealand. They can also be ironic - very small fields named Hundred Acres (for example at All Cannings, Urchfont and Whiteparish), and others like The City, or Little London (at Oaksey) etc.