Heritage: The Shakespearean actor who Morris danced from London to Norwich

Will Kempe and Thomas Slye

An illustration of Will Kempe and Thomas Slye from his 1600 pamphlet “Kemp's Nine Daies Wonder”. - Credit: From the collection of Andy Grant

In the first instalment of a series about tales from the Romford Road, historian Andy Grant gets his dancing shoes on to go through the unusual challenge taken on by a celebrated comedic actor.

William Kempe (Will Kemp) was a famous 16th century actor, renowned for his comic roles as one of the company of players, known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, in William Shakespeare’s dramas.

Upon the death of Dicke Tarlton in 1588, Mr Kempe had been chosen to replace him, playing such roles as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Costard in Love's Labour's Lost, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice and Peter in Romeo and Juliet.

It would appear that during the course of 1599, Mr Kempe had relinquished his role with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men following a disagreement with other members of the troupe.

On February 10, 1600, A Last Elizabethan Journal Volume 3 records that "Will Kemp the clown hath wagered that he will dance from London to Norwich", setting out from the Lord Mayor's at 7am that morning accompanied by Thomas Slye, his taborer and George Sprat, an overseer.


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Mr Slye led the procession, beating a rhythm on a tabor (small drum) with one hand whilst playing a fife with the other. Mr Kempe was attired in a low cap with a feather in it, a slashed doublet with long streamers on the shoulders, slashed trunked breeches and with his calves and ankles swathed by bands supporting tiers of jingle-bells.

A horde of well-wishers gave him "bowed sixpences" for luck and bade him on his way.

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He passed through the thronged streets of Stratford and Ilford performing his Morris dance, stopping at each place to rest and take refreshment before setting out again. At moonshine, he departed Ilford and by the end of the first day of his London to Norwich Morris dance had reached within a quarter of a mile of Romford.

Here on the highway, he suddenly encountered two “jades” (overused and vicious horses), rearing-up and biting each other.

Mr Kempe somehow found he was amid them, with their flailing hooves over his head. Fortunately, he escaped from their reaches, shocked, but otherwise unscathed. Already very weary, he was most grateful when a kindly rider from London offered to convey him on horseback to his accommodation in Romford.

Although it is recorded that he stayed for two nights at a Romford inn, an oft-told local tale relates that this was at the Golden Lion hotel.

However, there is absolutely no documented evidence for this and it could equally have been any other local inn.

Whilst resting his “welllabour’d limbs” in Romford and “beholding to the townsmen for their love”, he mused upon the well-wishers from London that arrived hourly in the town in great numbers to visit him, with offers of kindness that he chose to decline.

Resuming his journey on February 14, Mr Kempe and Mr Slye were up earlier than the lark, it being a market day in Brentwood.

He was obliged to return to the point outside Romford where he had been picked up to resume his Morris dance.

Passing again through Romford through hordes of well-wishers lining his route, it was unfortunate that he strained his hip as he left the town.

Although enduring great pain, it did not prevent him from continuing onwards to Brentwood, where he was again greeted by well-wishing crowds.

As with any great gathering of people, cut-purses and other opportunist petty criminals intermingled with the crowds. Mr Kempe recorded that two well-known London cut-purses had been apprehended at Brentwood as he made his way through the crowds to a local inn.

After resting, that evening he continued to Ingatestone, where he stayed the night. The next day he set out for Chelmsford, where he stayed two nights before proceeding to Braintree and thence onwards.

A great snowfall prevented his journey beyond Bury St Edmunds for nearly a week, but resuming his journey on March 3, he eventually arrived to great accolades in Norwich on the March 9.

  • More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford History Facebook group. 

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