Jacqueline's interest in the traditions of her adopted county, Kent, stems from nearly 40 years as a Morris and Ceilidh dancer in the county
Extract from Keble’s Margate and Ramsgate Gazette, November 16th 1907, p.2, col.5.
"… as far back as 1855 the custom of carrying round a horse’s head, made of wood and with moveable jaws, existed in Margate. The bearer was accompanied by various musicians, who passed round the hat, …"
Extract from Keble’s Margate and Ramsgate Gazette, December 7th 1907, p.2. col.4.
"… the custom of ‘Hoodening’, or taking round the ‘Hooden Horse’, on Christmas Eve was an annual one in the villages in Thanet half a century ago, and in Birchington, at least, the custom had not died out in 1906 …"
Hoodening and the Hooden Horse explained
Hoodening is a tradition peculiar to East Kent, and to the Isle of Thanet in particular.
In the 19th-century ‘Hoodeners’ would call at every house in the village or parish on or around Christmas Eve. They were young men, usually stable hands or farmworkers. One carried the head of a dead horse on a pole and draped himself in a cloak from head to toe. By pulling on a string attached to the horses jaw he made the jaws open and close, producing a loud snapping noise. A second man played the Waggoner and led the horse. A third man was the Rider, and he tried comically and unsuccessfully to mount the horse. A fourth man, dressed as a woman, was called the Mollie. He carried a broom and ceremoniously swept the road and the drives and hallways of big country houses. Other members of the group played musical instruments or jingled bells and sang the Hoodeners’ Carol:
Three jolly Hoodening boys
Lately come from town,
Apples or for money
We search the country round.
What you choose to give us,
Happy we shall be.
God bless every poor man
Who’s got an apple tree.
Half a bushel-bag full,
God bless every poor man
Who’s got an apple tree.
The tradition probably goes back far beyond the 19th-century. It is similar to Yuletide traditions found in some continental regions; for example, the German ‘Schimmelreiter’ recorded in Pomerania, Silesia and Prussia, and the Scandinavian ‘Jule-Buk’.
In Saxon times, animal heads were paraded round the streets in worship of the God Odin, whose festival falls at the same time as the Christian festival of Christmas. It is probable, therefore, that the word ‘hooden’ derives from the word ‘Odin’ and that is shares its origins with the ‘Hood’ or ‘Robin Hood’ legends of Britain’s midland counties.
Saxons landed in Kent in 449 led by two brothers, Hengist and Horsa, who were direct descendants of Odin and, therefore, extremely strong and powerful. Horsa, however, died in battle at Aylesford (a few miles from Maidstone, the current County Town of Kent) along with the British King, Vortigen, in 453.
Horsa’s brother, Hengist, survived the battle to become the first Saxon King of Kent – an area covering what is now Kent, Middlesex, Surrey and Essex. He took as his banner the prancing white horse which had been the figurehead of his landing-craft in 449, and it is possible that the Hooden Horse was originally a caricature of this, created by the defeated Britons in defiance of their new Saxon masters.
Nevertheless, Hengist’s emblem endured and was named ‘Invicta’ (meaning ‘unconquered’) in 1067 by men of Kent negotiating peace with Norman invaders. It is still used as the emblem and motto of the county to this day.
The image below shows a monument to this event, sited in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul, Swanscombe, Kent. The inscription reads:
"Near this spot in the year 1067 by ancient tradition the Men of Kent and Kentish Men carrying boughs on their shoulders and swords in their hands met the invader William, Duke of Normandy. They offered peace if he would grant them ancient rights and liberties, otherwise war, and that most deadly. Their request was granted and from that day the motto of Kent has been Invicta, meaning unconquered."
What happened next?
There is evidence that the tradition was accepted by the early Christian church because in the 7th-century Archbishop Theodore (died 690) ordained penances from
“any who on the Kalends of January clothe themselves with the skins of cattle and carry heads of animals”.
It is possible that the tradition died out in the 8th-century and was revived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but that seems unlikely. It probably continued but was considered unworthy of record because it involved only illiterate peasants.
Early 19th-century references to the tradition include this extract from the European Magazine, volume 51, p 558, May 1807:
"… also, at Ramsgate, in Kent I found they begin the festivities of Christmas by a curious procession: a party of young people procure the head of a dead horse, which is affixed by pole about four feet in length; a string is affixed to the lower jaw; a horse-cloth is also attached to the whole, under which one of the party gets, and by frequently pulling on the string, keeps up a loud snapping noise, and is accompanied by the rest of the party, grotesquely habited, with handbells; they thus proceed from house to house, ringing their bells, and singing carols and songs; they are commonly gratified with beer and cake, or perhaps money. This is called, provincially, a Hodening, and figure above described a Hoden or Woden horse. Is the above a relic of a festival to commemorate our Saxon ancestors landing in Thanet, as the term Woden seems to imply? … It is I find, general in Thanet on Christmas Eve, and, as far as I can learn, nowhere else …"
In 1839, it is reported, a lady in Broadstairs opened her door to some Hoodeners and, on seeing the dead horse’s head on its pole, promptly died of a heart attack. Thus the practice of Hoodening was banned in that town whilst in other towns and villages wooden heads replaced the real ones. The jaws of these wooden heads were hinged so they could still be opened and closed by pulling on a string, and the teeth were made of metal tacks to maximise the noise they made.
In his 1909 book The Hooden Horse, an East Kent Christmas Tradition, Percy Maylam of Canterbury recalls seeing the Hoodeners at his Uncle’s house in Monckton, Isle of Thanet each Christmas Eve from 1888-1892 and at Walmer in 1906. He also reproduces many literary reports of the custom spanning the entire 19th-century, but suggests, regretfully, that the custom was dying out by 1909.
Having declined in popularity during the war years, the tradition of Hoodening was revived in the 1950s by some Kent Morris sides, notably East Kent Morris (from the east of the county) and Hartley Morris (from the north of the county), and the Hooden Horse is nowadays as closely associated with Morris dancing as with any other British tradition. A modern innovation is the sewing of bags inside the horse’s throat to catch the coins which the public are encouraged to feed between the open jaws.
Woodchurch Morris, reformed in 1990 after a gap of over fifty years, call their Hooden Horse Hengist, in honour of the Saxon King whose emblem probably inspired the tradition. They take him Hoodening around the village of Woodchurch, near Ashford, every year on Boxing Day (26th December) and, like most Morris Hooden Horses, he accompanies them on many of their summer outings too. He has a white head and a light-brown hessian cloak.
East Kent Morris reflect the horses’ Norman associations by calling their Hooden Horse Invicta. Like Hengist (the horse, not the King!), he has a white head and light-brown hessian cloak, and he has a mane made of real horse-hair. He too can often be seen entertaining the public alongside the dancers at summer events.
Headcorn Morris, formed in the 1970s in the village of Headcorn, near Maidstone, call their Hooden Horse, which is black with a red mane, Jason, after a dog belonging to their first Squire! He has a tendency to lose his leather left ear, but it always turns up again – in the most unexpected places, and often after it’s been missing for several weeks.
Maylam, Percy, The Hooden Horse, an East Kent Christmas Tradition, published by Cross and Jackman, 1909
Dixon, G.M., Folktales and Legends of Kent, published by Minimax Books, 1984
Mirams, Michael David, Ethelbert’s Kingdom, published by North Kent Books, 1980
© 2018 Jacqueline Stamp
Jacqueline Stamp (author) from UK on September 02, 2018:
Thanks Glenis. I'll try and write about some of the dances in future posts.
Glen Rix from UK on August 19, 2018:
What an extraordinary custom. I’m not surprised that a woman dropped dead at being confronted on her doorstep with the sight of a horse’s head on a pole. I might have been similarly affected. Good to know that the head is nowadays constructed from wood.
Morris dancing seems to have increased in popularity in recent years. I am still mystified by the meaning behind the old dances.