History: William Shakespeare’s friend enjoys a dancing tour in the town

PUBLISHED: 12:00 19 September 2019 | UPDATED: 12:05 19 September 2019

Will Kemp dancing the Morris

Will Kemp dancing the Morris


This week, Enjoy Brentwood More’s history columnist, author and vice-president of the Brentwood Writer’s Circle, Sylvia Kent shares the story of William Shakespeare’s talented friend.

Brentwood - known as 'Burntwood' during medieval times, has been the backdrop for national historical events, some tragic - others quite jolly.

The year 1600 was one such spectacular occasion for our townsfolk.

The famous London comedy actor, Will Kemp, a friend of William Shakespeare, decided, during Lent, to "dance the Morrice in nine daies" as a publicity stunt from London to Norwich - a distance of 120 miles.

At the time, poor old Will was publicised on the London stage as a "man of infinite jest".

He was at the time financially in trouble, as theatres usually closed during the time of Lent.

Will decided to raise some groats by going "on tour".

People loved the idea of the dancing tour and put bets on his proposed venture.

A large crowd followed his party from London - 20 miles.

Will was accompanied by Tom Slye who played the tabor and William Bee his servant. Along for the ride was Will's friend George Sprat. Will recorded in his diary that they set off at 7am from the London Mayor's office in the City during the first Monday in Lent and travelled to Romford where they rested for two days before arriving in Brentwood on Thursday, February 14 - which fortunately was market-day.

Crowds had gathered at the market (this was then at the top of Crown Street and Hart Street).

Thomas Slye began playing his pipe and tabor and Will danced his famous Morrice steps until he was exhausted.

Brentwood people loved the spectacle and Will had to fight his way to the White Hart Inn where he stayed overnight (now known as the Sugar Hut Night Club).

Will wrote: "In this town two cut-purses were taken, that with other two of their companions followed me from London.

"But these two dy-doppers gave out, when they were apprehended, that they had laid wagers and betted about my journey.

2Whereupon the Officers bringing them to my Inn, I justly denied their acquaintance saying that I remembered one of them to be a noted cut-purse such as one as we tie to a post on our stage, for all people to wonder at when at a play they are taking pilfering."

In 2000 - 400 years later - at Brentwood (now the Brentwood Centre), Will Kemp came alive again in the personification of our lovely friend, the late Tony Motley, acting the part of the Shakespearean actor and Mike Oxenham played Thomas Slye.

With members of his famous local Mayflower Morris Men, they danced again, performing a brilliant re-enactment of this famous historical London-Norwich journey.

The local Mayflower Morris Men are still very active in our neighbouring town of Billericay and welcome new members and interest in their excellent group which has been active since 1973.

Visit mayflowermorris.com.

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