The Horns of the Dancers ~ Abbots Bromley ~ from the archives…

Given a lousy headache and dodgy vision from the over-inflated flesh, I was glad to come across this old post. With the fallout from COVID keeping churches closed to visitors, and preventing many of our most ancient and mysterious traditions from taking place over the past year, it felt good to revisit, if only virtually, a thousand-year-old place of worship that houses the relics of a tradition that may go back even further, all the way into prehistory…

sculpture, abbots bromleyNot even I would gate-crash a funeral and this one, with a good fifteen vintage Porsches outside looked like it would have security of the type provided by very large men in dark glasses. I satisfied myself with a shot of the lych-gate and one exterior carving and rapidly moved on. It was bad timing, but the name of the village had attracted me, seeming to ring bells somewhere in memory. However, it was very obviously a ‘modern’ church, being no more than about a hundred and fifty years old, and rather grand. Not really our style.

random llama, abbots bromleyOn the other hand, the signpost at the end of the village pointed to Abbots Bromley… and that really had to be worth a visit. Especially as the first thing I saw in the village was a random llama… I have a thing about llamas these days, ever since the encounter in the Yorkshire Dales that had featured in Heart of Albion.masons mark abbots bromleyThe road north had been attended by an odd mix of brilliant sunshine and showers all the way up so far, but as soon as I parked the car the heaven’s opened. Sheltering under a big old yew tree I managed to snap the lych-gate before making a dash for the church stopping only to note the Ordnance Survey mark on the tower, one of the many that recorded elevation above sea level before  GPS made them redundant.

Chalice, stained glass, Abbots BromleyThe present church dates back to the thirteenth century, and it is thought a Saxon church stood there centuries earlier. As with all such places, the ensuing years have added their own signature to the structure. It is a peaceful place with some lovely stained glass and was, for a while, a welcome refuge from the torrents of rain.

St Nicholas' church, Abbots BromleyA modern silver-metalled sculpture dominates the nave, mounted high on the west wall, celebrating a thousand years of worship on the site. Two figures representing the human and the Divine walk hand in hand, ‘in non-metallic candour’ says the inscription. It should look out of place on the ancient stone, but somehow it fits beautifully.

black and white horns and the hobby horse

However, there is something else in the church that would have made it worth the visit even without the rest, for here are kept the horns of the famous Abbots Bromley Horndance. Hung on the walls of the north transept they seem both completely in keeping and very, very odd.

The original mediaeval Hobby Horse photographed by Simon Garbutt in the 70s, just before a new and more ‘realistic’ horse was carved.

The Horndance takes place in September every year and has done so for at least half a thousand years. The dancers themselves place the date of its beginnings at 1226, but, given the nature of the dance and the resemblance to the horned dancers portrayed in prehistoric cave paintings, it is possible that it is much, much older. Its history is lost in the mists of time… it may have begun as an act of sympathetic magic, perhaps, to ensure the health and survival of the herds of reindeer with which our ancestors themselves survived.

The Horndancers around 1900. Image by Sir Benjamin Stone

There is a record in the sixteenth century of the Hobby Horse, a central figure to the modern dance, that has inevitably changed over the centuries. Today the dancers and musicians include a Fool, Maid Marian and other characters along with the six horned dancers. The horns themselves, black and white, have been carbon-dated back to the eleventh century, a time when reindeer no longer survived in Britain and that, in itself, is a mystery. Were they imported to replace an even older set? Where did they come from…. Why? And when? But it certainly means that the horns are even older than the date given by the dancers…

postcard horn danceAll we know is that on Wakes Monday*, the village will see once again an ancient ritual drama danced in its streets. But on one rainy Thursday, I was lucky… I had the church… and the horns with their strange carved heads… all to myself and came eye to eye with the ancient, living history of my land.

The king stag* Covid permitting, of course… Wakes Monday is the first Monday following the first Sunday (Wakes Sunday) after September 4th…

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com.
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27 Responses to The Horns of the Dancers ~ Abbots Bromley ~ from the archives…

  1. restlessjo says:

    Fascinating history! I love the twin metal figures, hand in hand too. Hope the headache improves, Sue 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Not sure about the horns, but that sculpture is amazing… hope the headache goes soon, Sue…

    Like

  3. buffalopound says:

    What a lot I have learned from reading your posts, Sue! Thank you for your enlightenment. Hopefully the dancers will be able to carry on come September.

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      There is so much to discover in the old places and traditions, Lynn, it would need several lifetimes to even make a dent in it all… and new traditions are growing or old ones evolving all the tiem. I love that 😀

      Like

  4. The sculpture is beautiful. Hope you feel better soon Sue.

    Like

  5. Darlene says:

    This is so cool! I think I may have seen something about these horn dancers on TV. I love these old traditions and customs.

    Like

  6. I live quite near Abbots Bromley and have visited a few times but keep missing the horn dance. Maybe it will happen one day.

    Like

  7. noelleg44 says:

    The horns date to the 13th century! Now that is some history. May the dance continue into the future – with what a superb link to the past. The sculpture is striking and seems perfectly suited to the place! Hope your wobbly eyes get better!

    Like

  8. willowdot21 says:

    Really interesting Sue, I love those photos 💜

    Like

  9. Widdershins says:

    What a rich history it is. 🙂

    Like

  10. Eliza Waters says:

    There is a local group here that performs the Horndance with antlers that have been dated to 800 years ago (not sure where they got them), but Morris dancers do them at winter Solstice celebrations. You know Americans, they kind of wing these things! 😉

    Like

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