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 The end of an extraordinary adventure

On the 8th March, a noisy and excited throng of spectators gathered together to witness the final stage of a remarkable event, one which had long been anticipated and which had captured the imagination a city. The onlookers came from all walks of life and surrounded by music, singing and dancing they waited impatiently for the entrance of a man who was one of the most famous clowns of the Elizabethan theatre.

Elizabethan revellers. Source unknown.

Suddenly a figure was seen jumping and skipping its way through the heaving crowds from the direction of St Stephen’s Gate towards Thomas Gilbert. Gilbert had been selected to make the initial welcome on behalf of Norwich and to read his poem in honour of this man and the occasion. Once the initial greeting was over, the man continued on his way, dancing through the marketplace towards the Mayor’s House followed by his excited audience and a fanfare of music. His progress was hampered by the sheer number of well-wishers who unthinkingly blocked his way resulting in him accidentally stepping on a girl’s petticoat causing it to fall down leaving her red faced. Unable to continue on his original course he suddenly and to everyone’s amazement jumped the wall of St John Maddermarket Church reaching in a few short leaps the Mayor of Norwich’s house, the official welcome committee and the end of his dancing marathon.

The man behind the clown

The man who had undertaken this extraordinary endeavour was Will Kempe, a comedic actor who was not only beloved by his public but was also held in high esteem by his peers. Kempe was acclaimed as the worthy successor to Richard Tarleton, the greatest clown of the era and instrumental in turning the theatre into a form of mass entertainment. A dedication in Thomas Nashe’s An Almond for a Parrot (1590) praises Kempe calling him “that most comical and conceited cavalier, Monsieur du Kempe, jest-monger and vicegerent general to the ghost of Dick Tarleton[1].

Will Kemp. Woodcut c1600. via Wikimedia.

Kempe’s origins are obscure. Guesses for his date of birth range widely from the 1540s to the 1560s. Some researchers have speculated that he had strong links to Norwich, others that he was related to the Kempes of Olantigh in Kent[2]. It is possible that before turning to the stage he worked as a servant for the Earl of Leicester, since in May 1585 he is mentioned as part of the Earl’s own acting troupe, travelling with them to the Netherlands and Denmark[3]. He played with a number of other troupes including the Lord Strange’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He was even requested to perform for Frederick II of Denmark at Elsinore[4].

Kempe had also for a time been the ‘clown’ of choice for the popular playwright William Shakespeare, performing in a number of his plays at the Rose theatre. Kempe’s name appears as one of 26 actors listed as performers in the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays and it is believed that Shakespeare created the characters Dogberry in Much ado about nothing and Peter in Romeo and Juliet specifically for Kempe.

An unusual wager

The Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare. National Portrait Gallery.

Attempting bizarre journeys to gain public attention was nothing new in the 16th century. The eccentric self-styled ‘water-poet’, John Taylor was famous for his crazy stunts. On one occasion he tried to sail in a brown paper boat from London to Kent with dried fish stuck to his makeshift oars[7]. Unsurprisingly he failed. Kempe’s wager was simple, there was no time limit and he was allowed to rest and recover for any number of days but he had to dance the entire way to Norwich. George Spratt was engaged as an overseer to ensure that Kempe did not cheat. Kempe himself laid down a sum of money before he left on condition that he would receive 3x the amount when he completed the challenge[8]. It turned out to be one of the cleverest and most successful acts of self-promotion to ever be attempted and for one month, his name was on the tip of everyone’s tongue and his star which was beginning to fade, shone brightly.

The road from London to Norwich

Kempe’s started his dance in London, leaving from the Lord Mayor’s house on the 11th February 1600 in Whitechapel surrounded by onlookers who gave him “bowed sixpences and groats and hearty prayers”. A woodcut on the front of Kempe’s published account of his journey show him wearing an elaborate costume possibly similar to that worn by clowns and fools. As well as Spratt, Kempe was attended by Thomas Slye, a taberer and William Bee, a servant.

Jester by William Merrit Chase. Pennsylvania Acadamy of Fine Art.

From Whitechapel, Kempe danced his way to Mile End and from there to Stratford and then on to Ilford. From Ilford his route to Norwich passed through Romford, Burntwood, Chelmsford, Braintree, Sudbury, Melford, Bury, Thetford, Rockland and Hingham. His journey was punctuated with many stops, some intended, others unexpected. Sometimes it was due to weather conditions such as heavy snow in Bury, at other times due to physical exhaustion and on occasion simply because he was enjoying the attention he was receiving. He jigged through all types of landscapes including woods, bogs and heaths. Some places were more difficult to cross than others such as an area near Braintree where he fell into a pothole and strained his hip whilst other areas such as the route from Bury to Heath were so easy that he “counted the ten miles no better than a leape[9].

On the 8th March, after a delay of three days, to allow time for an appropriate celebration to be arranged, Kempe entered Norwich where he was received by the Mayor of that city. Kempe had achieved his goal, he had danced from London to Norwich, a distance of over 100 miles and had done so in nine days (even it did take nearly a month in reality to complete). He deservedly received a number of accolades and prizes including five pounds in Elizabethan Angels, a pension for life of 40 shillings and the Freedom of the Merchant Adventurers[10]. In return Kempe donated to the city his dancing shoes (which must have been pretty worn by that time) which were fastened to the walls of the Guildhall.

Whipping up a dancing frenzy

As he danced his jig (a dance made up of skips and leaps) crowds appeared to cheer him on. Some people offered him hospitality whilst a few other enthusiastic souls decided to join Kempe in his dance with differing degrees of success.

Kempe talks in his pamphlet about the many people he met along the way, these included a 14 year old girl who danced for an hour in his room in one of the pubs in which he was staying; his host in Rockland whose nervous and rather odd welcome speech left Kempe slightly bemused “thou art even as welcome as the Queen’s best greyhound”; two youths who tried to dance with him but misjudged a broad stretch of water and fell into a muddy pothole; a butcher who despite being described as a “lusty tall fellow” gave up after only ½ mile; and the fool of Master Colt’s who accompanied him for one mile before they “parted faire in a foule way[11].

Peasant Wedding by Pieter Breugel II.

Kempe’s most successful dancing companion was a “comely lass” who took up the challenge after calling the butcher “faint hearted”. Kempe fitted her out in bells and she danced alongside him for the one mile to his next stop where she was rewarded with a skinful of drink and an English Crown. Kemp was so impressed with her that he invented a rhyme in her honour, which begins

A  Country Lasse browne as a berry,
Blith of blee in heart as merry,
Cheekes well fed and sides well larded
Every bone with fat flesh guarded,
Meeting merry Kemp by chaunce,
Was Marrian in his Morrice daunce…

The Great Wooden Spoon of Ilford

In Ilford he stopped at a local tavern and was entreated to take some refreshment there. Ilford was famous for its unique measure of ale which was known as a ‘Great Spoon’. A spoon is the equivalent nowadays of two pints and so a great spoon would have been much larger. The exact amount is unknown, although there is some speculation that the ale was poured into a large wooden utensil possibly in the shape of a spoon from which customers could quench their thirst. For as long as I can remember there has always been a pub called ‘The Great Spoon of Ilford’. Now owned by Wetherspoons, the pub keeps the memory of Kempe’s visit alive, displaying a board, hung outside showing him dressed in all his dancing finery on route to Norwich. According to Kempe’s own account he refused all offers of alcohol on his journey as he states “it stands not with the congruity of my health[13].

An unusual dancing achievement

At the time Kempe’s success was celebrated and much commented on. Kempe dedicated his own account to Anne Fritton, maid of honour to the Queen, entitled “Kemps Nine Daies Wonder Performed in a Daunce from London to Norwich…written by himself to satisfie his friends” and to also correct any false information that was being spread. Kempe introduces himself as “Cavaliero Kemp, head-master of Morrice-dauncers, high Head-borough of heighs, and onely tricker of your Trill lilles, and best belshangles”.  Other critics were less enthusiastic. Not everyone was a fan of Kempe’s antics. In Ben Johnson’s poem “On the Famous Voyage” he scorns those that engage in these types of betting activities and mentions Kempe and his “famous Morrise, unto Norwich[14].

Kemp’s Men of Norwich, Morris dancing troupe. Source Facebook.

Kempe’s dance still ignites the imagination of many today and on its 400 year anniversary,  Morris dancers from all over the UK joined together to re-enact Kempe’s dance including members of Kemp’s Men who keep alive the Morris dancing tradition[15]. More recently in April 2015, Rick Jones to celebrate Shakespeare’s anniversary also recreated Kempe’s journey. Jones started from Southwark Cathedral and danced through many of the same places that Kempe had done, dressed in a similar costume and carrying a lute[16]. He completed the journey in exactly nine days. In Norwich a new walkway connecting Bethel Street to Theatre Street was named Will Kemp Way and a statue erected to Kempe can be found in Chapelfield Gardens in Norwich, carved by Suffolk sculptor, Mark Goldsworthy[17].

Kempe’s final swan song

Kemp’s memorial. Image by Keith Evans via Wikimedia.

Kempe’s extraordinary dancing feat turned out to be his swan song and little was heard from him afterwards.  In 1601, an entry in an account book belonging to Philip Henslowe, the manager of the Rose theatre, records that he had made Kempe a loan of 20 shillings[18]. At about the same time Kempe was reported to have joined the Worcester’s Men. No one really knows why Kempe fell into such financial straits and why he fell out of favour. Kempe died in poverty and obscurity possibly during a plague outbreak in 1603[19]. This date would tie in with an entry in St Saviour in Southwark Parish which simply mentions the death of “Kempe, a man”[20]. Whether this is the jigging, eccentric, flamboyant, larger than life William Kempe, dancer extraordinaire, is unclear but it does seem that the man that once lit up the Elizabethan theatre, left his final stage with barely a flicker.

Thomas Gilbert’s Welcome Poem honouring Will Kemp

W   With hart, and hand, among the rest
E    Especially you welcome are
L    Long looked for as a welcome guest,
C   Come now at last you be from farre.
O   Of most with the city, sure,
M   Many good wishes you have had;
E    Each one did pray you might indure,
W   With courage good the match you made
I     Intend they did with gladsome hearts
L     Like your well wishers, you to meete:
K    Know you also, they’l doe their parts,
E    Esther in field or house to Greece
M    More you than any with you came
P     Procur’d thereto with rump and fame [21]


Will Kempe, http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/willkempe
Will Kempe, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Kempe
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
William Kemp, www.bardstage.org/william-kemp-actor.html
The water poets, pageants and the Thames, http://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2012/06/the-water-poet-pageants-and-the-thames.html
Kemp William, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Kemp,_William_(fl.1600)_(DNB00)
Will Kemp’s Jig, http://www.amaranthpublishing.com/Kemp.htm
Will Kemp, www.literarynorfolk.co.uk/Norwich/will_kemp.html
On the famous voyage by Ben Johnson, https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/famous-voyage
Richard Tarlton, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Tarlton
Shakespeare’s jester William Kempe’s historical 1600 journey from London to Norwich has been recreated, Eastern Daily Press, http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/shakespeare-s-jester-william-kempe-s-historical-1600-journey-from-london-to-norwich-has-been-recreated-1-4062384
Kemp’s Men of Norwich, http://kempsmen.org.uk/wp/
A last Elizabethan journal by G.B. Harrison
Will Kemp, http://www.heritagecity.org/research-centre/whos-who/will-kemp.htm
William Kempe, https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Kempe


[1] Will Kempe, http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/willkempe
[2] Will Kempe, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Kempe
[3] Will Kempe, http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/willkempe
[4] ibid
[5] Hamlet by William Shakepeare
[6] William Kemp, www.bardstage.org/william-kemp-actor.html
[7] The water poets, pageants and the Thames, http://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2012/06/the-water-poet-pageants-and-the-thames.html
[8] William Kemp, https://www.en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/kemp_william
[9] Will Kemp’s Jig, http://www.amaranthpublishing.com/Kemp.htm
[10] Kemp William, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Kemp,_William_(fl.1600)_(DNB00)
[11] Will Kemp’s Jig, http://www.amaranthpublishing.com/Kemp.htm
[12] ibid
[13] Will Kemp’s Jig, http://www.amaranthpublishing.com/Kemp.htm
[14] On the famous voyage by Ben Johnson, https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/famous-voyage
[15] Kemp’s Men of Norwich, http://kempsmen.org.uk/wp/
[16] Shakespeare’s jester William Kempe’s historical 1600 journey from London to Norwich has been recreated, Eastern Daily Press, http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/shakespeare-s-jester-william-kempe-s-historical-1600-journey-from-london-to-norwich-has-been-recreated-1-4062384
[17] Kemp’s Men of Norwich, http://kempsmen.org.uk/wp/
[18] Will Kempe, http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/willkempe
[19] Will Kempe, www.Shakespeare-online.com/biography/WillKempe
[20] William Kempe, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Kempe
[21] Will Kemp, www.literarynorfolk.co.uk/Norwich/will_kemp.html