*The picture is unframed*
On the first Sunday after 4th September six men, known as Deermen, each carry a genuine reindeer antler, mounted on a wooden head, with a handle protruding below. They are accompanied by a fool, a musician, and a maid (played by a man). They stage mock battles throughout the village of Abbots Bromley, in Staffordshire and Blithfield Hall. Ambling along to key houses and farms, they enjoy the sunshine and casual chatter, before sauntering along to approachtheir next dancing place in single file. Once there, they form up into two lines, advance a retire a few times, tilting the horns as they do, like rutting stags. The horns are carried at chest height but do not clash together, and the actions of the dance have no particular steps, but more of a steady rhythmical plod. The final dance is in the middle of the street in the village in the evening, around 8 O’clock (though no one is keeping to a rigid timetable. The whole custom is remarkably unhurried and, for what may be the oldest custom in the United Kingdom after marriage, unspectacular!
Today’s costumes go back to the design of a local Vicar’s wife. Mrs Lowe, in 1880, influenced and adapted from a painted window of Morris dancers from the early sixteenth century, called the Bentley window, which is now at Leigh Manor, Minsterley in Shropshire. The horns are kept in the Village church and have been carbon dated to around 1065, with one set of horns being Scandinavian in origin.
There are historical accounts of the Dance by Sir Simon Degge that records it often taking place before the Civil War, around 1620 and his book ‘The Natural History of Staffordshire’ (1686) Robert Plot mentions a ‘hobby horse dance’ accompanied by six men carrying ‘raindeers heads’, which was performed at Christmas, New Year and Twelfth Night.
The Origins of the dance are still open to speculation, from an ancient fertility ritual to an ancient custom to ensure successful hunting, perhaps asserting some common right or privilege to the chase. Much of Staffordshire was Royal Hunting Ground back into the 9th and possibly the 7th centuries.
The only forest laws in England prior to the Conquest, of which we have any cognizance, are those of Canute, and the penalties for their infraction, so far from being increased in severity by the Conqueror, were to some extent mitigated by him.
In the Doomsday Book, written in 1086, Abbots Bromley had three households and was owned by the Abbey of St. Mary’s & St. Modwen, the smallest and poorest Benedictine Abbey in England. There were, however, frequent Royal visits to the abbey of St Mary’s and St Modwen, including those by William I, Henry II and Edward I. Abbot Geoffrey Malaterra (1085-94), was given an undated grant by William I (1066-87) to the Abbey. He was a historian who was fully in favour of the Norsemen.
There were great famines in Britain after the Norman Conquest, following outbreaks of disease. Bishops or Abbots Rights over Hunting and Forestry are recorded in the Domesday Book and tenants were often granted rights with attached duties, including help with their Lord’s hunting, including the maintenance of fences, erecting hedges, lending hunting spears and labour during a Chase. Bishops of Canterbury, Durham, Lichfield, Winchester, Worcester for Centuries tenants provided men, dogs, ropes, construction, straw. Each Burgess at Bishop’s Castle on the Bishop of Hereford’s Ancient Parish and Manor of Lydbury had to provide a man for the Bishop’s annual deer stall in which deer were driven into nets or ‘stalls’ where they could be killed (also known as ‘stabling’). There were considerable Episcopal Hunting Rights which established and allocated duties and services, and it is quite likely that the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance stems from the Hunting Services required by eight men in service of the Abbot, or possibly the Lord of the Manor.