Mr MacDonagh, in his notes to Sir Benjamin Stone's Pictures of National Life and History, says that when Henry III. granted the "Charta de Foresta" there was great rejoicing in some parts of England, and that the modern horn dance is the repetition of an old custom instituted to celebrate that event." Previous monarchs had afforested such vast areas that the greater part of the country had become forest, and this circumstance, coupled with the very severe penalties imposed for offences connected with the chase, had bred much discontent among the people. The charter restored to them large tracts of land as well as mitigated the barbarous punishments, mutilation and death being forbidden; consequently it was hailed with joy and celebrated with a dramatic form of dance which was performed in the characters of stags and huntsmen."
The characters of the dance are curiousIy dressed in spotted breeches, and carry reindeer horns mounted on a pole. A musician plays an accordion (which seems an infinite pity) but all the other implements are kept by the vicar in the church tower. The early history of the horns is unknown. There is a "fool," and Robin Hood and a sportsman make up the list. The dance itself is of the nature of a hunt down the main street. The "deer" rush away and the hunters "shoot" them. The idea is apparently to assert the rights of the chase.
The use of horns in this case is quite logical and natural, but there is some obscurity in their use at the Charlton Horn Fair described by Grose. "It consists of a riotous mob, who, after a printed summons dispersed through the adjacent towns, meet at Cuckold's Point, near Deptford, and march from thence in procession through that town and Greenwich to Charlton, with horns of different kinds on their heads; and at the fair there are sold ram's horns, and every sort of toy made of horn; even the gingerbread figures have horns." It appears from Fuller's Whole Life (1703) that it was the fashion in his time to go to Horn Fair dressed in women's clothes. "I remember being there upon Horn Fair Day, I was dressed in my landlady's best gown and other women's attire, and to Horn Fair we went, and as we were coming back by water, all the cloaths were spoiled by dirty water, &c., that was flung on us in an inundation, for which I was obliged to present her with two guineas to make atonement for the damage sustained, &c."
The horns on a stick figure in another custom mentioned by Grose in his Classical Dictionary of the Mother Tongue:--
"HIGHGATE. Sworn at Highgate.--A ridiculous custom formerly prevailed at the public houses in Highgate, to administer a ludicrous oath to all travellers of the middling rank who stopped there. The party was sworn on a pair of horns, fastened on a stick; the substance of the oath was, never to kiss the maid when he could kiss the mistress, never to drink small beer when he could get strong; with many other injunctions of the like kind, to all which was added the saving clause, 'Unless you like it best.' The person administering the oath was always to be called Father by the juror, and he in return was to style him Son, under the penalty of a bottle."
The ancient use of horns has not yet been solved to the satisfaction of antiquarians, but at any rate the Abbot's Bromley ceremony is able to account for itself in a manner that older and extinct customs cannot equal.