The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is one of the oldest unbroken traditions in Britain and most definitely the oldest in the Midlands. A reference was made to the dance in 1236 and again in 1532 before near constant mention from 1660 onwards, while the antlers the dancers carry have been radiocarbon dated to the late Anglo Saxon period.
The procession and dance are performed once a year on Wake Monday, usually the first Monday in September, and I was there today for this years ceremony. The antlers and musical instruments are solemnly blessed at St Nicholas Church at 8.00 AM then the ten men perform their first dance outside. It's a simple set of movements and for very good reason – the antlers are heavy! The group then head out to perform the ritualistic dance at various prominent farms and inns before returning to the village centre of Abbots Bromley. Here they dance at every pub – and the sole restaurant – and are rewarded with drinks and food each time before concluding at the final pub in the village.
The dancers' work is concluded by returning the antlers to the church where they are blessed again before being safely stored for the next year. Festivities in the village go on well into the night with the village green being the focal point, sandwiched between two pubs as it is. With four inns all serving good food as well as their ales and a wonderful lively but friendly atmosphere this is a highly recommended day and night! The Goat's Head Inn even boasts a room that the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin apparently stayed in, fresh from stealing the horse that he renamed Black Bess.
So what is the Horn Dance all about? Nobody is really sure but the most popular theory is that this is an echo of an ancient hunting ritual, carried out to either appease the god of the hunt or as an act of sympathetic magic to increase hunting fortune. One of the ten men plays the role of an archer so there could be something to this. The other three unhorned dancers are a man dressed as a woman referred to as Maid Marian for some reason, a musician and a fool, or jester. Fans of the Wicker Man will see some familiar imagery here! The theory I lean towards myself is that it could have once been a ceremony originally performed in mimicry of the Wild Hunt, perhaps to appease the old Anglo Saxon allfather Woden.
The antlers themselves are an enigma. Dated to the 1000s and confirmed as belonging to reindeer, when such beasts were extinct in England. Did a king or thegn keep a herd for some reason and this yielded the antlers? Or were they perhaps a gift from abroad? In any case the antlers are very heavy, I actually had the honour of trying a set on for size today and I can see why they keep the moves simple! Clad in the traditional tweed outfit and caps it was very challenging for this year's dancers on such a warm day so some of the items were discarded for the final set of pubs – but only when instructed to do so by the fool.
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is a brilliant reason to book a monday off next year if you haven't experienced this ceremony before – perhaps designating a driver too! A mysterious and very old tradition that Mercia and indeed Britain itself should be very proud of.
Horn dance on a pub car park
The horn dancers make their way through Abbots Bromley
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance
The dancers were allowed to take their jackets off - by the fool
The dancers head to their refreshments
Hard work in the heat
Some of the antlers parked up by one of the inns
The Goat’s Head Inn
One of the many dances performed this day