Characters Associated with the Morris

Foreman: The queen of the May figure often goes by the name of "Maid Marian". The character name derives from the presenting of the May garland or crown, a "Morion". If you were "Made Morion" you were crowned with the Morion , which in the original Spanish means a head dress or crown. You can see a Maid Marian or May Queen figure in the picture of the Betley window.

The name "morion" is more commonly applied to one of those funny Spanish helmets, which are always worn in depictions of Spaniards taking part in the Spanish Armada.

Saint George (Saints Day 23rd April) rarely appears nowadays in Whitsun revels but his dragon appears in a few places at this time of year. There are plenty of earlier references to St. George appearing in pageants for instance in 14 he appears on the battlements with a king and queen above. This scenario is very reminiscent of the Moros y Cristianos pageant in Northern Spain and Valencia.

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Dragons - There's a cracking little dragon in the corner of this Victorian picture. Do you see him?

Chipping Campden used to have a fairly fierce and large Green Dragon (also name of a house, now a fancy furnishings shop, formerly an inn in the High Street which used to be a greengrocer's shop run by my Auntie Olive). I'm not going to digress about my Auntie Olive because you'd never hear the last of it. I've no idea when this dragon last appeared in Chipping Campden but as it seemed it was made of paper mache it probably disintegrated in a shower of rain at some point in it's history. Even if it was canvas it would have rotted away by now. The fierce appearance of the dragon was tempered by an incongruous, red hatted jester perched on the dragon's shoulder. I suppose the jester was there to reassure small children that the dragon wouldn't really eat them up for supper. I think the dragon was propelled on a Land Rover or similar vehicle. No idea how it was steered.

Famous dragons or strange dragonish hobby horses occur in Padstow, Cornwall (May 1st) Combe Martin in North Devon and Minehead in Somerset and I've heard that there is a splendid one in Norwich called "SNAP". Presumably this Snap-dragon (geddit?) is a cold Snap who breathes frost rather than fire. Never seen it or even been near Norwich, so this reference is all hearsay.

Saint George himself is most commonly seen at Christmas-tide as he is the central character in a very widespread "Mummer's" play.

If you are in Totnes or Hope Cove around Boxing Day or on New Year's Day be sure to see him when the Dartington Morris Men perform their genuine, original local (Dartington) version of the play.

Pretty well all the versions of the play, which can be found all over England cling stubbornly to the early traditions of St. George, which have him killed thrice by his persecutors and thrice brought back to life again. The difference/variation is that in England it is always George who does the killing and it is his opponents who are thrice resurrected, usually with the help of a doctor, who can cure;

"The itch, the stitch, the gout,
The pains within and the pains without"

St. George's three opponents are commonly:

  1. The Turkish Knight (George was martyred in Cappadocia, I think),
  2. Bold Slasher (sic)
    and if you are very lucky, you might get to see number -
  3. a real crocodilian dragon, with flashing red eyes made from the rear stop lights from a Morris Minor, real cigar smoke emanating from his nostrils, green scales made out of washing up liquid cartons on his body and a pair of authentic webbed feet made from swim fins retrieved from the beach having been lost by Boogie Boarders. This dragon smells pretty authentic, since his costume is a good few years old and it has been kept in a damp attic for ages and it is too elaborate to be capable of being dry-cleaned or even wiped with a damp sponge.

The earliest reference to mummers in this country also dates to the reign of Richard II, in a charter dated ante 1390 referring to legal actions outside the city of London it refers to the King's "mommers and musicians"

The Hobby Horse - Another ubiquitous character associated with this kind of caper (sic) is the Hobby Horse ("Obby 'Oss", "Obbyuss", "Obyus", "Byus" - depending on how thick the accent/ amount of alcohol consumed - who traditionally has "daggers in his cheeks" as can be seen in the Betley window.

This business of the "daggers in the cheek" would seem to be another attempt to translate an Iberian term into English usage (compare "Maid Marian"). I would guess that it's a misunderstanding of some such term as "(Caballo) de Guerre Chico" or "Little War Horse" . The Hobby Horses are termed as such in several cultures.

The Basque hobby horse carries a couple of daggers in some dances, so it might not be a misunderstood term but a direct imitation.

The Dartington Morris horse is called "Champernowne".

He's quite sleek and well fed a) as well-wishers often feed him carrots which he is particularly partial to and b) as consort to the current Mayor (pun intended) of Totnes, he is required to attend quite a few civic banquets.

There are really 2 types of hobby horse. One only appears as part of a specific calendar custom (a RITUAL horse) and the other can be seen pretty well any special occasion (a HOBBY horse).

It is quite easy to distinguish a ritual horse from a hobby horse because the former always die or die down and come back to life again. Ritual horses have central roles and are respected and feared. They are spirited and spiritual and frightening and DANGEROUS - even if it's only because the guy in the outfit can't see properly where he's going. Hobby horses just prance around in an inanely fatuous manner, get in the way all the time and are generally superfluous to dramatic requirements, unless its to interminably delay the action.

Ritual horses are essential to the rite even though they may apparently play a marginal role. The ritual horse costume disguises the wearer or rather the wearer takes on the identity of the ritual horse. Their origin goes way back to before history and the belief that the souls of the dead assume animal form. (Metempsychosis)

A good example of that would be "Tommy" the horse in the Symondsbury (Dorset, near Bridport) mummers' play. "Tommy" has a ridiculously inept costume and is assigned the minor role of pointing out which children in the company are guilty of stealing the sugar but, by Jimminy, he's absolutely terrifying!!!!!

By the way, the Symondsbury play features a fantastically alluring St. Patrick, played by a very, very attractive young lady. The play's not much cop but she's a star !!!! Go and see her whenever you're down that part of Dorset in the Christmas season.

Old Thomas Hardy included a female performer in a Mummer's play in his well-known book, "The Return of the Native". I don't recommend that one, apart from the opening chapters, describing "Egdon Heath", which are absolutely brill. Generally, Hardy should have stuck to describing topography and local characters which he has a fantastic flair for. When he gets on to narrative it all starts to creak and groan. That said, he's still one of the best novelists that's ever been.

An exception to the hobby being peripheral is the Basque hobby. He has to be a very good dancer to land on a wine glass like he is here. He also has to be athletic whereas English ones are usually occupied by arthritics.

Next: Types of Morris dance form and their origins