John Wallis’ Description

John Wallis' description of the sword dance was published in 1769, but is believed to refer back to the time of his childhood, to around 1720, and forms the earliest recorded date for the performance of linked sword dancing in England. As in other early records, the dance is local to the Tyne Valley near Hexham, around 10 miles from modern Tyneside.

The Saltatio armata of the Roman militia on their festival Armilustrium, celebrated 19th October, is still practised by the country people in this neighbourhood (along the wall) on the annual festivity of Christmas, the Yule-tide of the Druids. Young men march from village to village, and from house to house with music before them, dressed in antic attire, and before the Vestibulum or entrance of every house, entertain the family with the Motus Incompositus, the antic dance or Chorus armatus, with swords or spears in their hands erect and shining. This they call the sword-dance. For their pains they are presented with a small gratuity in money, more or less, according to each housholder’s [sic] ability. Their gratitude is expressed by firing a Gun. One of the company is distinguished from the rest by a more antic dress ; a fox’s-skin generally serving him for a covering and ornament for his head, the tail hanging down his back. This droll figure is their chief or leader. He does not mingle in the dance. . . . . Some other festival entertainments of the Romans were observable among the same people some years ago. Their youth ushered in the New Year by taking their rounds in the neighbouring villages from house to house ; one of the most sprightly and ingenious among them being their bard, who recited some verses, composed in honour of the season, with a chorus in which all the rest joined in by giving their congratulations. . . . . Our British youth being rewarded by their New Year’s compliment of poetry to their neighbours, retired to the Mollia Prata, the soft meadows, spent the festal hours in wrestling, leaping, and other exercises.

John Wallis, The Natural History and Antiquities of Northumberland, London, 1769, p. 28