The Ceremony of the Cutty Wren
It was Boxing Day night and it was inkily dark. We drove around yet another bend in the narrow wiggly Suffolk lanes on the way to the pub, and suddenly found ourselves almost on top of a crowd of people in the middle of the road. Flaming torches were held aloft and, as the last two men in the procession turned around to stare at us, the fire illuminated their faces. Both faces were unnaturally pitch black.
‘Agh!’ cried Tim, who was sitting in the front seat. Not normally given to being a wuss, he could be forgiven for the outburst; it was an unexpected sight, and not a little intimidating. But the unsmiling coal black faces turned away from us and continued on their path.
We parked up and joined the small but increasing throng walking alongside them as they headed to the village centre. Apart from a slow drum beat, there was silence. What sort of procession was this? It all felt rather pagan and gothic, as if on driving around that last bend, we’d somehow slipped back in time.
At the Bell Inn, the procession stopped in the courtyard where an audience of perhaps 150 people were obviously expecting them. Eight of the black-faced figures stood together at one side. They were dressed in long black cloaks and with bushy headdresses of holly and ivy, and they brought out a range of instruments from recorders, washboards and melodeons to a tea-chest bass and a rommelpot drum. The band. The rest of the peculiar party mostly wore Victorian agricultural garb with shirts, waistcoats, neckerchiefs, hats, and mid-length black coats. All, that is, but one, who sported a full length teal-coloured, high-necked dress and bonnet – a slightly surreal look when matched with the black face and blackened beard. This, I learned, was the Molly Man, and these were the Old Glory Molly Dancers.
None of our party had ever heard of Molly Dancers, but it turns out that this is an ancient folk tradition that would have been common throughout East Anglia in particular, but probably also in many other areas of England and Wales. Think Morris Dancers but with stomping instead of skipping, and a sinister edge instead of smiles and flowers. The original dancers would have been out of work ploughmen looking to cadge money from onlookers, by menace if required, which is why the disguise of black faces and cross-dressing was important to them. You couldn’t really threaten to plough up the landlord’s garden and expect work come spring!
It seems we had stumbled upon one of the few places left in the UK where, on St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day), the Ceremony of the Cutty Wren is honoured. Cutty means little, but the diminutive wren is known as the ‘king of birds’ since, as legend has it, in a contest it flew the highest by being clever enough to ride on an eagle’s back so however high the eagle went the wren flew a little higher. A wren was hunted on St Stephen’s Day, then paraded on a garlanded pole as the centrepiece of this ceremony. Wrens can sleep soundly in their nests today though as a wooden replica is used now.
As we looked on, a dancing area was forged and protected by some of the black-faced torchbearers who stood silent and sentinel-like, facing away from the dancers and straight out at the audience. Even if you found yourself toe to toe with one of these surly guardians, there was no point trying to make them smile or speak. Only one man in the group spoke – this was the umbrella man, who announced the songs and dances.
The dances were heavy-stepped, often slow, but then a pair would roughly swing each other around, or the dancers would form a circle around the garlanded wren. It probably went on for about 40 minutes, though it’s hard to be sure when you have this strange feeling that time is not really playing by the rules. At the end, the whole audience was invited the hold hands. There was initial reticence but by the end almost everyone present was dancing in ever-decreasing circles around the wren-bearer. A final raucous song about the ‘king’ and it was over. Clapping and happy faces broke the spell, and if you ended up standing next to one of the dancers you probably got a cheek rubbed with black to remember your evening by, and to prove that it wasn’t all a very strange dream.
NOTES: The Old Glory Molly Dancers have a website – www.old-glory.org.uk – where you’ll find more information about the group, Britain’s Molly Dancing tradition, and dates and places where you can experience this curious and ancient form of folk dancing for yourself. Go on, it’s definitely worth it.