In the village of Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire, September 9th this year is Wakes Monday, which will be celebrated as it has been for as long as anyone can remember: the Fowell family will once again borrow a dozen large antlers from the local parish church and use them to perform a unique and improbable dance. The dance will continue for about twelve hours, before the antlers are at last returned to the church. During this time, the dancers will pass throughout the parish, including by all of the local pubs, along a route about ten miles in length.
The dance is performed by twelve people. Six dancers carry pairs of fairly colossal antlers. One is dressed as Maid Marian, another as a fool, and another rides a hobby-horse. Their numbers are rounded out by two children, one with a bow and arrow and the other with a triangle, and an accordion player. While the precise details of the dance have evolved over the centuries, this custom dates back to at least the 17th century - and there is evidence which suggests, unexpectedly, that it may originate prior to the Norman Conquest.
The antlers, which are so central to the dance, are those of reindeer, and radiocarbon dating suggests they were last attached to a deer in 1065 CE, plus or minus 80 years. As there were no longer any living reindeer in England at that time, they must have been imported from Scandinavia, for no particularly obvious reason. But we have no record of the dance until 1532, when there is mention of a hobby-horse being used as part of a dance in Abbots Bromley, and the antlers are not mentioned until Robert Plot describes the dance in his Natural History of Staffordshire (1686), leaving historians utterly clueless as to when the custom actually begins in anything like a recognizable form.
The traditional story of the origin, according to the parish, is that the dance began in 1226 as part of a county fair in Staffordshire; this is entirely consonant with all of the evidence and so cannot be dismissed, though there is no written record of that age which confirms it as a certainty. The fair in question was held in August; tradition holds that the date shifted with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, keeping it at approximately the same time of the year. Again, this is entirely reasonable, especially in light of other English holidays being commemorated in ways shaped by the calendar shift, such as how many Anglicans refer to Epiphany as "Old Christmas" to this day. It is, however, challenged by the fact that in 1686 the dance was performed at Christmas and Epiphany; it's possible, of course, that at one time it was performed both then and in the autumn. I hold with those who believe the dance is very old indeed, and that the hobby horse dance in 1532 also involved antlers which the author did not opt to mention. (It's quite possible that the hobby horse was at that time a more recent and thus more noteworthy part of the custom, and in any case Plot's description mentions the antlers but refers to the dance as being called the hobby-horse dance.) 1226 seems as likely a date as any.
In any case, the Forester of Bentylee, a hereditary position dating back to 1004, was likely the leader of the dancers whenever it is that the custom began; the Bentley family, descended from the Foresters of yore, carried on the tradition until 1914, when Bentley descendants named Fowell took over. The traditional role as village dancers remains in their family to the present day.
Nobody can remember any particular changes having been made to the dance at any point during its history, but as is often the way with folklore, it has demonstrably evolved in the past century and presumably before. The dancers now form a double column where they used to dance in a single line (at least as recorded by Cecil Sharp when he collected this dance and published a notation in The Sword Dances of Northern England Together with the Horn Dance of Abbots Bromley). We also know that the dancers were traditionally all male, though nowadays a girl may carry the triangle or the bow and arrow. Finally, the antlers themselves have been repainted with a new color scheme at some point; currently, three pairs are painted white with brown tips and the other three are brown with golden tips, but the brown antlers were clearly blue in the past, and some of the blue shows through the present-day paint job. This is confirmed by Sharp, who mentions three pairs being all white and three pairs being a dark blue. Each pair of antlers is set in a carved wooden replica of a deer's head, mounted on an 18" handle; this all matches the slightly vaguer description in Plot, except that the non-white antlers were red in Plot's day. The weight of the antlers is borne partly in the hands (by holding the handle) and partly by resting the antlers themselves on the dancers' shoulders.
Plot also describes the dance as being simpler, with only a hobby-horse leading the six antler-bearing dancers; while they were accompanied even then by a musician, the fool, Maid Marian, and the two children were not part of the dance at that time. (The bow was present, but it was carried by the rider of the hobby-horse rather than by a child as in modern times.) Plot also mentions that it was at one time customary for the dancers to beg for monetary contributions as they performed; with any funds raised, "they not only repaired their Church but kept their poore too." (Dancing for tips, to be given to charity, is also common among other English folk dancers in the present day.) Plot, somewhat surprisingly, describes this as a dance they had in Abbots Bromley "within memory," implying that he believes it to have died out.
There is no longer a traditional tune associated with the dance, but there was at one time; it may have been lost in the mid to late 19th century, but there are some candidates for what it may have been. When Sharp visited Abbots Bromley, he heard two melodies, one of them a variant of something which has also been postulated as being the old horn dance melody, and the other "Yankee Doodle." The fiddler (back then a fiddle was used rather than an accordion) told him that any country-dance air would do for the performance, but this does not appear to have been so for more than a few decades at that time; this page has a useful discussion of the history of horn dance music.
Both Plot and Sharp agree on the core of how the dance is performed: the dancers step in a jaunty manner while performing heys and other country dance figures. Plot gives no particular elaboration on the precise steps chosen, but Sharp does; the particulars have evidently evolved a modest amount in the century since then, but are basically in line with Sharp's notation. And there are small details mentioned in Plot which conform exactly to the description Sharp gives of what he saw, as Sharp himself is quite eager to point out. Overall, we have no reason to deny that the dance has gotten more complicated in the past century, but it is likely that, if taken back in time to 1226 and shown the version performed in that era, it would be instantly recognizable for its relation to the modern version - and the dancers may well have even been carrying the same antlers they use today.