Antlers and Maid Marian – the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

By Jono Oates

On Monday 6 September 2021, one of the most curious, and traditional, folk dances returns to Staffordshire – the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.

Each year (other than in 2020*), on the first Monday after the first Sunday after the fourth of September a rather bizarrely dressed group of people, some carrying ancient deer antlers, parade around the village, and surrounding area, of Abbots Bromley. This is the historic Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, reputed to the oldest folk dance in Britain and commemorated this year in a set of Royal Mail postage stamps.

It isn’t exactly clear when the dance was first performed but it’s said that it was first performed at the Barthelmy Fair, held to celebrate St Bartholomew’s Day in 1226. It’s believed that the original dances were held during the time of the winter solstice and possibly held on Christmas Day or New Year’s Day but the current ceremony has been held on Wakes Monday for several hundred years. During the First World War the Horn Dance was suspended, as many local traditional dances and customs were, but other than that, it is believed that the dance has been carried out, in its current format, for over 400 years.

The group consists of 12 people, six of whom carry the heavy antlers, and the others are made up of Maid Marian (in true Panto style, played by a man), a boy carrying a bow and arrow, a jester or fool, a hobby-horse, a boy carrying a triangle and a musician playing an accordion. The 12 dancers have traditionally been played by men and boys but in more recent times the roles of the triangle player and bowman have also been played by girls. For many years the dancers were mainly made up of members of two Abbots Bromley families, Adey and Bentley, and the dancers today come from the local area although some lucky visitors are sometimes given the opportunity to take part!

The antlers, three pairs painted back and three white, are reindeer horns and one of them was carbon-dated in the 1970s, while it was being repaired, and was found to date back to the 11th century. Reindeers are thought to have died out in Britain by the 11th century so the antlers may well have been imported from Scandinavia.

The ceremony starts at 8am at St Nicholas Church in the village where the antlers are kept and the dancers then perform on the village green, before travelling around the local area including a visit at midday to Blithfield Hall, the Grade I ancestral home of the Bagot family where the dancers perform in the Hall’s gardens while visitors watch from the vantage point of a ‘ha-ha’. After calling in at several local pubs during the afternoon the troupe return to the village green at 8pm and the antlers are returned to the safety of the church a short while later.

While the dancers are processing round the local area the Wakes Monday festival takes places in the village with exhibitions in the church and craft stalls dotted around the village. Visitors can either stay in the village or follow the performers on their travels.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is quaint, historic, traditional and quintessentially British and is definitely one of the highlights of the September calendar in Staffordshire.

*The Horn Dance returns in 2021 after it was cancelled last year, due to the Coronavirus situation.

Sources: The British Newspaper Archive; www.abbotsbromleynostalgia.co.uk

For more information on event timings and locations please visit the Horn Dance website:

www.abbotsbromley.com/information/news/#N45830

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