What is Cotswold Morris?
"The perfect expression in rhythm and movement of the English character"
Cecil J Sharp
The six-man dances referred to as the Cotswold Morris were originally associated with Spring or Whitsuntide. They were called "Cotswold" by the early collectors such as Cecil Sharp because they were discovered mostly in the South-Midlands/Cotswold region.
"The Morris dance is the bodily manifestation of vigour and rude health"
Since 1945 the Bedford Men have been particularly interested in the dances from Brackley (Northamptonshire) and its nearby hamlet of Hinton-in-the Hedges, principally because of research work done by Fred Hamer, one of our past Squires (Leader).
Bedford generally "dance on" to the Wheatley (Oxford) processional dance adapted to the local Bromham May-carol tune at the beginning of a show, and "dance off" to the Bampton-in-the-Bush tune "Bonny Green Garters".
Another dance from Bampton is associated with one of the side's oldest traditions. Arthur Walmesly, a Squire of the side in the 1950's, so enjoyed dancing The Quaker, that he insisted on it being the last dance of every performance. Even today when The Quaker finishes, the side immediately start removing their bells and baldricks to signal that the end has come.
"There is nothing sinuous in it, nothing dreamy"
The music is an integral part of the Cotswold Morris. Each tune is associated with, and gives its name to, a particular dance and the rhythms tell the dancers what steps to use. The same tune often occurs in different villages in different forms. This could well have been caused either by the type of instrument in use or simply vagaries of the musician's memory.
Traditionally the music was supplied by a single musician playing a pipe and tabor, that is, a three-holed pipe and a small drum. The early Bedford musicians played the mouth-organ but subsequently fiddles, concertinas, melodeons and accordions have been introduced.
"The bells are there that they may ring their music"
Each Cotswold Morris side had its own unique dress, a custom which has been continued by today's revival sides. The old costumes were mainly white, with coloured sashes, ribbons, baldricks and rosettes. The Bedford costume consists of blue breeches, white shirts and socks, a blue "Puritan" hat (paying mock homage to Bedford's favourite son, John Bunyan). The costume is finished with orange rosettes and bell-pads decorated with orange and blue ribbons. And black shoes.
"The varieties of these were innumerable"
It was once said that a Cotswold Morris side was made of "Six fools and one dancer" The inference here was that the Fool was actually the best dancer. Indeed in some cases he was the Squire or leader of the side. He is also the master of ceremonies and a link between the audience and the dancers.
The fool is the most important character surviving in the Cotswold Morris. He prepares the dancing site by "sweeping it" with a heifer's tail that symbolises purity. He also berates the dancers and audience with a sow's bladder that represents fertility. These magical activities supplement the dancers' white handkerchiefs and bells which are supposed to frighten away evil spirits. The Bedford fool traditionally wore a Warwickshire shepherd's smock made by a lady in Wootton.
Another character in the Cotswold Morris was the Man/woman or Maid Marian. Bedford now only use a Man/woman "Bessie or Betsy" as "the Lady" in the Plough Play.
"The Hobby Horse man was dressed like a jockey... he and the fool carried on innumerable capers"
While Hobby Horses are often associated with the Cotswold Morris, the Hobby Horse tradition was found right across England, from the wooden horse of Kent to the larger and more grotesque Horses of Padstow and Minehead. The Bedford men possess a Hobby Horse called "Noddy" who now only comes out on special occasions.
We also have "Beaky" a giant Bedford Eagle, whose shape is more like that of a "Hooden Horse" and has an insatiable appetite for coin. Beaky now manages our Twitter feed.
Have your cake - and eat it
"The credulous even treasured a piece of it the year round"
The Bedford Men follow an old Bampton tradition of offering round a cake pierced with a sword. Buying a small piece of this cake is supposed to bring good luck. Placing a piece under the pillow will bring dreams of a lover.....