The Bishopthorpe Sword Dancers

The good folk of Bishopthorpe certainly knew how to enjoy themselves during the winter holiday season.  In January 1844, the plough boys of this village revived the ancient tradition of Sword Dancing which was usually performed over the Christmas or New Year period.  The ‘swords’ used were not real weapons but lathes of wood or metal about three feet long.  The dancers held one end of a sword in each hand and were thus linked in a circle.  The only time they let go of their swords was at the end of the dance when they interlaced them to form a ‘knot’ or ‘rose’, which was then held aloft in triumph by one dancer.  The dancers often dressed up as indicated below.

The flavour of the occasion can be found in an illuminating article which was published in The York Herald of 13 January 1844:

“The plough boys of this village have recently devoted two days to recreation, and in the character of Sword Dancers have visited this city and the surrounding villages, where they have met the most friendly reception, and were universally admired by all lovers of the very ancient and rustic amusement, the sword dance. They were accompanied by a brass band of musicians from the city, and were generally allowed to be the best company of plough boys that have performed before the public during the present season.”

“Twelve years have elapsed since a company of this description was raised in Bishopthorpe, which has caused the performance of the sword dance to be somewhat a treat to the inhabitants of the village. In consideration of the extensive patronage the party have met with, they gave a handsome treat to their friends, who kindly lent every assistance in preparing dresses for the occasion. The treat was given at Mr. Crosby’s, the Brown Cow Inn, [now The Ebor] where upwards of 60 sat down to tea, the arrangements for which reflected much credit on the worthy host and hostess, and gave great satisfaction to the party assembled. After tea a ball took place, which was kept up with great spirit until a late hour in the morning, each sex appearing anxious to test the strength of ‘the light fantastic toe’. Mr. Horner of Bishopthorpe kindly came forward and offered his services, gratuitously on the violin, which were thankfully accepted, punch and wine were plentifully distributed.”

Many toasts were given to the great and good and so, not surprisingly, the company “afterwards separated highly delighted with the innocent recreation of the night’s entertainment.”

It is rare to find to find such a delightful contemporary description of a local custom.  Are there any volunteers willing to follow in the footsteps of the Bishopthorpe plough boys? Just a thought!

Linda Haywood

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