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Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Original Nine-days Wonder

Will Kemp and Thomas Slye
Will Kemp was the original 'Nine Days Wonder'. In 1599 he danced from London to Norwich, in a route that took him to Sudbury, Melford, Cavendish and Clare. He was an actor who played in the Lord Chamberlin's Players at the Globe Theatre, acting in plays by Will Shakespeare and Ben Johnson. He was probably Europe's most famous comic actor at the time, and an expert morris dancer. Probably, several of Shakespeare's clown roles were written specifically for Kemp, but in 1599, the two quarrelled. Shakespeare's plays were losing their comic edge and Kemp insisted to Shakespeare that no production of Hamlet would be be complete without a dog on wheels!

Kemp performed his original dance for a bet and so was accompanied by a referee, George Sprat, as well as his servant, William Bee. His wager was that he could dance the distance in nine days, though he spread his dancing over nearly four weeks.He then immortalised the event with a charming pamphlet that described the feat.

He set off from Whitechapel on the first Sunday in Lent, accompanied by a small entourage that included Thomas Sly on the pipe and tabor. He danced his way through Essex, being showered with sixpences in Whitechapel, seeing a bearfight in Stratford, resting in Romford, and being crowded in Chelmsford. Between Chelmsford and Brantree his companion fell into a muddy pothole up to his waist. After Braintree, he headed for Sudbury. To take up his story...

The fift dayes iourney being Wednesday of the second weeke.
TAKING aduantage of my 3. miles that I had daunst ye day before, this wednesday morning I tript it to Sudbury, whether came to see a very kinde Gentleman Master Foskew, that had before trauailed a foote from London to Barwick: who, giuing me good counsaile to obserue temperate dyet for my health, and other aduise to bee carefull of my company, besides his liberall entertainement, departed leauing me much indebted to his loue.
In this towne of Sudbury, there came a lusty tall fellow, a butcher by his profession, that would in a Morrice keepe mee company to Bury: I being glad of his friendly offer, gaue him thankes, and forward wwe did set: but ere wee had measur'd halfe a mile of our way, he gaue me ouer in the plain field, protesting, that if he might get a 100. pound, he would not hold out with me; for indeed my pace in dauncing is not ordinary.
As he and I were parting, a lusty Country lasse being among the people, cal'd him faint hearted lout: saying, if I had begun to daunce, I would haue held out one myle though it had cost my life. At which wordes many laughed. Nay saith she, if the Dauncer will lend me a leash of his belles, Ile venter to treade one mile with him my selfe. I lookt vpon her, saw mirth in her eyes, heard boldnes in her words, and beheld her ready to tucke vp her russet petticoate, I fitted her with bels: which she merrily taking, garnisht her thicke short legs, and with a smooth brow bad the Tabrer begin. The Drum strucke, forward marcht I with my merry Maydemarian: who shooke her fat sides: and footed it merrily to Melfoord, being a long myle. There parting with her, I gaue her (besides her skinfull of drinke) an English crowne to buy more drinke, for good wench she was in a pittious heate: my kindnes she requited with dropping some dozen of short courtsies, and bidding God blesse the Dauncer, I bad her adieu: and to giue her her due, she had a good eare, daunst truely, and wee parted friendly. But ere I part with her, a good fellow my frriend, hauin writ an odde Rime of her, I will make bolde to set it downe.

A Country Lasse browne as a berry,
Blith of blee in heart as merry,
Cheekes well fed and sides well larded,
Euery bone with fat flesh guarded,
Meeting merry Kemp by chaunce,
Was Marrian in his Morrice daunce.
Her stump legs with bels were garnisht,
Her browne browes with sweating varnish[t];
Her browne hips when she was lag,
To win her ground, wnet swig a swag,
Which to see all that came after,
VVere repleate with mirthfull laughter.
Yet she thumped it on her way,
VVith a sportly hey de gay,
At a mile her daunce she ended,
Kindly paide and well commended.

At Melford, diuers Gentlemen met mee, who brought me to one master Colts, a very kinde and worshipfull Gentleman, where I had vnexpected entertainement till the Satterday. From whose house hauing hope somewhat to amend my way to Bury, I determined to goe by Clare, but I found it to be both farther and fouler.

The sixt dayes iourney, being Satterday of the second weeke.
FROM Wednesday night till Satterday hauing bin very troublesome, but much more welcome to master Colts: in the morning I tooke my leaue, and was accompanied with many Gentlemen a myle of my way. Which myle master Colts his foole would needs daunce with me, and had his desire, where leauing me, two fooles parted faire in a foule way: I keeping on my course to Clare, where I a while rested, and then cheerefully set forward to Bury.
Passing from Clare towards Bury, I was inuited to the house of a very bountiful widdow, whose husband during his life was a Yeoman of that Countrie, dying rich no doubt, as might well appeare, by the riches and plentie, that abounded in euerie corner of the house. She is called the widdow Eueret.
At her house were met aboue thirty Gentlemen. Such, and so plentifull variety of good fare, I haue very sildome seene in any Commoners house. Her behauiur being very modest and freendly, argued her bringing vp not to be rude. She was a woman of good presence: and if a foole may iudge, of no smal discretion.

Eventually, on a Saturday, he triumphantly entered Norwich, where he was welcomed by admiring crowds and the mayor, Master Roger Wiler, surrounded by other civic dignitaries. He was granted the freedom of the city, and a 40s annuity for the rest of his life.


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