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St Albans Morris Men

Betley piper image 

The Betley Windows

The Characters in the Betley Window and its copies.

Below are shown the individual characters of the original Betley Window. Since there is no contemporary account of this work, no-one knows precisely and for certain what each is supposed to represent. Even the connection with morris dancing is an interpretation by later antiquarians, as pointed out by Mike Heaney in "Observations on early images of 'morris dancers'" (in The Morris Dancer, Vol. 3 No. 11 January 2004): but he also comments that contemporary references do show show close associations between 16th Century morris dances and three of the panels which do not represent dancers - namely the May Pole, the Hobby Horse and the Friar. Some other commentators have described these three as "peculiarly English".

The earliest source of information about the Window is George Tollet's set of comments which he included in notes to Henry IV Part 1 in 1778. The titles he used for the characters, and paraphrases of his descriptions of them, are included below. (Snippets from Tollet's descriptions are italicized.)

Godfrey Brown observes that, though many scholars have written about the Window since Tollet, his identifications and descriptions have not been effectively challenged. However, there have certainly been differences of opinion. In a "Note on the Betley Morris Dance Window" (1923) local historian Charles Bridgeman listed what he considered the characters were "generally supposed to represent" at that time. These are also shown below.

An additional interesting insight into the figures was given by Francis Douce, sometime Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum, in " Illustrations of Shakespeare" (1807). In a dissertation on the English morris dance, he pointed out that there was a great similarity - albeit in mirror-image - between nine of the twelve Betley Window figures and those in a 1490 engraving by a German, Israhel van Meckenem the Younger. Experts on van Meckenem believe it to be his own original work. Similar figures (but not mirror-image) also appear in a woodcut in the Strasburg Almanac (1496), reproduced in the Gutenberg Yearbook for 1980. (Mike Heaney comments that the van Meckenem engraving was much copied, sometimes with the figures reversed left-right.)

Comparison of the different versions of the characters

For those who would like to view and compare the different versions of the characters, there is a link beside each one which allows that. The sequence of versions of the characters in each case is: "Original Betley Window", "van Meckenem engraving", "Strasburg Almanac woodcut", "Betley Court copy", "Kingston-upon-Thames copy" and "Alison Bailey copy". Not all characters feature in the van Meckenem engraving or the Strasburg Almanac.

When viewing the figures side by side, differences in their colours will be apparent. However, whilst the copies do differ in that respect, these pictures are not a good guide to this because of differences in photographer, in lighting conditions and in photographic techniques used when preparing the material for this website.

With regard to the titles of the figures, bear in mind that they are historians' interpretations, not part of the original Window. In the case of the titles on the Kingston-upon-Thames figures, they can presumably be attributed to Finny. Alison Bailey's titles faithfully reproduce those on the photograph she was working from - but no-one has been able to explain what that was a photograph of. Until recently (2002), it had been assumed that it was of the Kingston-upon-Thames Window, because as far as we can tell the discrepancies between the titles had gone unnoticed until then.

The characters


Bridgeman: "The Court Fool or Jester"

Tollett: "The Counterfeit Fool"

Tollett: "This figure is the counterfeit fool that was kept in the royal palace and in all great houses to make sport for the family. He appears with all the badges of his office: the bauble in his hand and a coxcomb head with ass's ears on his head. The top of the hood rises in the form of a cock's neck and head with a ball in the latter."

Whilst not clear in the photograph, the first and second fingers of the left hand are extended, with the third and fourth folded across the palm. Finny saw this as a burlesque of a Bishop's blessing.

(Compare copies)


Bridgeman: "A Moorish Morris dancer"

Tollett: "Nobleman"

Tollett: this figure with his "silver coronet, purple cap with a red feather and a golden knop ... personates a nobleman: for I incline to think that various ranks of life were meant to be represented upon my window."

This quarry (and the next) in the original window show obvious marks of a clumsy repair - which Godfrey Brown noted in 1981. However, those marks are not detectable on the photo I myself took in 1998, so it would seem that a very skilful repair was done between 1981 and 1998.

(Compare copies)


Bridgeman: "A Spanish Morris Dancer"

Tollett: "The Fleming or Spaniard"

Tollet says that this individual "has been taken to be" a Fleming or Spaniard, but offers no alternative label of his own. "I am at a loss to name the pennant-like slips waving from the shoulders but I will venture to call them side-sleeves or long sleeves, slit into two or three parts."

He says that Steevens wondered whether streamers used in the morris originated from such sleeves.

(Compare copies)


Bridgeman: "The Franklin"

Tollett: "Franklin or Gentleman of Fortune"

Tollett: This figure "by the superior neatness of his dress, may be a franklin or a gentleman of fortune."

A franklin was someone who owned land but was not a member of the nobility.

(Compare copies)


Bridgeman: "The May-Pole"

Tollett: "The May-pole"

Tollett: "The May-pole is painted yellow and black in spiral lines. Upon our pole are displayed St. George's red cross, or the banner of England, and a white pennon or streamer emblazoned with a red cross, terminating like the blade of a sword, but the delineation thereof is much faded."

Tollet identified the latter with the flag of St. James of Compostella, the patron saint of Spain.

Finny comments that the wording on the scroll corresponds to the words of the King of the May in Beaumont and Fletcher's play "London to Thee I do present the Mery Month of May". (Sic - This is a line from their play "The Knight of the Burning Pestle" and is spoken by Rafe, the grocer's apprentice.)

Bridgeman says that "A Mery May" would have been the usual spelling during the period 1400-1550.

(Compare copies)


Bridgeman: "Tom the Piper"

Tollett: "Tom the Piper"

Tollett: "His tabour, tabour stick and pipe attest his profession; the feather in his cap, his sword, and silver-tinctured shield may denote him to be a squire minstrel, or a minstrel of the superior order".

Tollet quotes Steevens as giving these lines from Michael Drayton's third Eclogue (pastoral poem):

"Myself above Tom Piper to advance
Who so bestirs him in the Morris dance
For penny wages."

It has been pointed out that the ostrich feather in the cap (and, for that matter, in that of the Spaniard/Moor) is the emblem of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He founded a Guild of Musicians (or Court of Minstrels) on his estate at Tutbury in Staffordshire, and there is speculation that this was associated with the Morris. In the past, he has been credited with bringing morris dancing to England from Spain in 14th Century. However, this has been denied as recently as 28th May 2002 by Alun Howkins, professor of social history at Sussex University, speaking on BBC Radio 4's "Making History" programme. Whilst the word "morris" may have come to us from that source, there is no evidence of the dance coming from the Moors.

(Compare copies)


Bridgeman: "The Churl or Villane"

Tollett: "Clown, Peasant or Yeoman"

Tollet ascribed this title to the figure on the basis of "his brown visage, notted hair and robust limbs".

(Compare copies)


Bridgeman: "The Hobby-Horse"

Tollett: "The Hobby Horse"

Tollett: "Our hobby is a spirited horse of pasteboard, on which the master dances and displays tricks of legerdemain; such as the threading of the needle, the mimicking of the whigh-hie, and the daggers in the nose, etc., as Ben Jonson acquaints us and thereby explains the swords in the man's cheeks. What is stuck in the horse's mouth I apprehend to be a ladle, ornamented with a ribbon. Its use was to receive the spectators' pecuniary donations.

The crimson foot-cloth, frilled with gold, the golden bit, the purple bridle with a golden tassel, and studied with gold; the man's purple mantle with a golden border, which is latticed with purple, his golden crown, purple cap with a red feather, and with a golden knop, induce me to think him to be the King of the May."

(Compare copies)


Bridgeman: "The Nobleman, or else Maid Marian's Lover, or The Juggler"

Tollett: "Parish clerk or Juggler"

Tollet said this character had been taken to be Marian's Gentleman-usher. George Steevens suggested it might be her paramour, especially if the cross-shaped flower on his head, taken with the flower in her hand, "denote their espousals or contract ... as it was a custom for betrothed persons to wear some mark for a token of their mutual engagement".

Tollet himself says: "Many particulars of this figure resemble Absolon, the parish clerk in Chaucer's Miller's Tale, such as his curled and golden hair, his kirtle or watchet, his red hose, and Paul's windows corvin on his shoes, that is, his shoes pinked and cut into holes, like the windows of St. Paul's ancient church. My window plainly exhibits on his thigh a yellow scrip or pouch, in which he might, as treasurer of a company, put the collected pence, which he might receive, though the cordelier must, by the rules of his order, carry no money about him. If this figure should not be allowed to be a parish clerk, I incline to call him Hocus-Pocus, or some juggler-attendant upon the master of the hobby-horse".

(Compare copies)


Bridgeman: "The Rustic Fool, Clown or Tumbler"

Tollett: "The Bavian Fool"

Tollet refers to the word "bavon" in Randle Cotgrave's respected "A dictionarie of the French and English tongues" (1611) - meaning "a bib for a slavering child". Noting that "this figure has such a bib, and a childish simplicity of his countenance", he describes this character as the Bavian fool. He claims Steevens' support for this, and adds "Mr. Steevens refers to a passage in Beaumont and Fletcher's play of 'The Two Noble Kinsmen', by which it appears that the Bavian in the morris dance was described as a tumbler, and mimicked the barking of a dog".

(Actually,The Two Noble Kinsmen was written by Fletcher and Shakespeare, but published in the Second Folio of works by John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont in 1679. Introduction. Full text. See Act III Scene v.)

(Compare copies)


Bridgeman: "Maid Marian as Queen of the May"

Tollett: "Maid Marian, as Queen of May"

Tollett: "The celebrated Maid Marian, as Queen of the May, has a golden crown on her head, and in her left hand a flower, as emblem of summer. ... Her vesture was once fashionable in the highest degree. It was anciently the custom for maiden ladies to wear their hair dishevelled at their coronations, their nuptials, and perhaps on all splendid solemnities."

He comments that the dress of Marian's head is sufficiently explained by one real-life equivalent - that of Henry VII's eldest daughter, Margaret, when she married James, King of Scotland.

(Compare copies)


Bridgeman: "Friar Tuck, representing the Clergy"

Tollett: "Friar, perhaps Friar Tuck"

Tollett: "In the full clerical tonsure, with a chaplet of white and red beads in his right hand; expressive of his professed humility, his eyes are cast upon the ground. His corded girdle, and his russet habit, denote him to be of the Franciscan order, or one of the grey friars. At his girdle hangs a wallet for the reception of provisions, the only revenue of the mendicant orders of religions, who were named Walleteers or Budget bearers.

It was customary in former times for the priest and people, in procession, to go to some adjoining wood on May-day morning, and return in a sort of triumph with a May-pole, boughs, garlands, and such like tokens of the spring; and as the grey friars were held in very great esteem, perhaps on this occasion their attendance was frequently requested." The 'Friar Tuck' possibility was suggested by Steevens.

John Forrest points out that "the friar's posture is identical with that of the dancer above him on the window, apparently indicating that he is dancing also". And also "Given the nature of the primary data, it seems virtually beyond question that the friar first made an appearance in the Robin Hood plays associated with church ales, and then became attached to the morris dance for a limited period."

(Compare copies)

The Lancaster Carving

Some of the characters in the Windows bear a resemblance to figures carved on an oak panel which was originally to be found in Lancaster Castle. It is now on display in the Local History Gallery of the City Museum, Market Square, Lancaster.

Lancaster Panel

This panel was the subject of an article by Anne G. Gilchrist in Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (1:2 1932). Click here to view in a new window.

Ronald Hutton's "The Stations of the Sun" (hardback edition, 1996) comments on the panel as follows: "The date is probably late sixteenth century, and so this may be the first surviving English illustration of the dance. It is a simple, village, team, with four dancers, Fool, musician, and a Maid Marian to collect money." However, Hutton also says that The Betley Window "... may be the earliest illustration of an English morris dance."

In "Observations on early images of 'morris dancers'", Mike Heaney closely examines the similarities between the figures in the Lancaster panel and those in the van Meckenem engraving and in the Betley Window. Only the first (female) Lancaster figure has no similar-looking figure in the other two. He points out that the fourth and seventh Lancaster figures correspond to the Betley characters labelled by Tollett as "The Franklin or Gentleman of Fortune" and "The Counterfeit Fool" respectively, but there are no corresponding figures in van Meckenem. Given that the Lancaster panel retains the figure-orientation of van Meckenem whereas the Betley Window does not, Heaney hypothesises that the Panel and the Window derive from an unknown source intermediate between them and van Meckenem.

(If you'd like to see an even older picture showing men with bells on their legs, not to mention a pipe and tabor player, click here, and click again on the picture to enlarge it.)

Arrow Guided Tour: So what conclusions can we draw from all this?

Index of pages on this "Betley Windows" site:


Original Betley window   Kingston-upon-Thames copy   Betley Court copy   Alison Bailey copy   Ruth Dodworth copy   Susan McKenney copy

Characters in the Windows     Conclusions?   Two 19th Century Views of Morris   Foreign connections

References and Acknowledgements

John Price 2006. Comments to St Albans Morris Men's webslave

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