St KatharinesView of the northeast tower of St. Katharine’s, c. 1800. Anonymous.

Tell Me More: St. Catherine

By Graham Christian

One of the more simple yet charming dances found in the 11th edition of the Playford family’s successful series of large dance collections is “St. Catherine,” which was sensitively interpreted for modern dancers by Philippe Callens in Antwerp Antics (2004).

St. Catherine of Alexandria, of course, was a learned virgin supposedly martyred for her faith in the early 4th century. Although her story is now believed to be largely or wholly legend, she was by a long distance one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. She was one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers; she was one of the unearthly beings who appeared to the adolescent Joan of Arc to speed her on her way to glory and her own martyrdom.

St. Catherine remained a popular theme for painters well into the Early Modern period; there was something of a fashion among well-placed women for having one’s portrait painted with St. Catherine’s attributes, thereby attaching the saint’s wisdom, piety, and virtue to oneself. Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1669) and her daughter-in-law Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) sat for such fanciful portraits, as well as the celebrated actress Laetitia Cross (1681-1737).

Sancta CatherinaLaetitia Cross as Sancta Catharina. Mezzotint by John Smith after a painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller. 1697.Mistress Cross’s considerable charms notwithstanding, St. Catherine’s, or, more usually, St. Katharine’s by the Tower, also designated a district of London to the east of Tower Hill. A royal church and hospital, it had been established by King Stephen’s wife, Matilda, in 1147, and was one of the extra-parochial “liberties” of London (St. Martin’s Lane, familiar from another dance of this period, was another), which lay outside the usual administrative reach of the city authorities.

In the case of St. Katharine’s, this meant that despite the holy intentions of the institution at its heart, the area became a magnet for foreigners, vagrants, and the poor; easy access from the Thames brought unlicensed merchants and sailors, and, to serve them, bawds and prostitutes. There was also a brewhouse there, the Bere or Beré House, which was the first public brewhouse to which citizens of London could bring their own malt, and, for a fee paid to the government, brew their own ales.

By the later 16th century, according to antiquarian and chronicler John Stow, St. Katharine’s was crammed with the poor, more than in some English cities; it was a den of thievery and vice, and featured street names such as Pillory Lane, Cat’s Hole, and Dark Entry. St. Katharine’s lurid enchantments persisted until 1825, when more than a thousand old houses, as well as the church and hospital, were demolished to make way for St. Katharine’s Docks, which were eventually amalgamated with the London Docks.

The tune is the work of composer John Barrett (c. 1676-1719), who was a student of John Blow, and, like Henry Purcell and John Eccles, wrote extensively for the theatre. The tune was also known as “The Catherine,” “St. Catherine’s Rigadoon,” or “My Lord Cutts’ Delight,” and it was used in at least four ballad operas from 1729 onwards.

The dance is a fair sample of Henry Playford’s continued efforts to modernize his father’s labors as a dance publisher: “I have in this Eleventh Edition (with the Assistance of a knowing Friend in this Art) made it much more compleat, by adding many new Tunes and Dances, never before Printed.” It shared the volume with such still-popular dances as “Mount Hills” and “Cockle-Shells.” “St. Catherine” was reprinted to the end of The Dancing Master’s run in 1728; the Walsh firm appropriated it in 1718, and continued to reprint it until 1754. That indefatigable versifier Thomas D’Urfey (1653-1723) seized upon the merry tune for the fifth volume of Wit and Mirth and added a set of lyrics that hint at the dangerous joys of country dance, “When the bonny Men and Maids tript it on the Grass.”

“We resolv’d to be free, with a Fiddle and a She,
E’ery Shepherd and his Lass.

In the middle of the Sport,
When the Fiddle went brisk and the Glass went round,
And the Pretty gay Nymphs for Court,
With their Merry Feet beat the Ground;

Little Cupid arm’d unseen,
With a Bow and Dart stole in,
With a conquering Air and Mien,

And empty’d his Bow thro’ the Nymphs and the Swains...

Till at last by consent of Eyes,
E’ery Swain with his pretty Nymph flies,

E’ery Buxom She retires with her He,
To act Love’s solid Joys.”

One cannot but wonder if this was the expected conclusion of an ordinary evening’s dance in the untamed Liberty of “Old Kat.”

Special note: This column is a tribute to the memory of Philippe Callens, who died prematurely while it was in preparation. “St. Catherine” is one of approximately fifty interpretations of historical dances Philippe created; like all of English country dance’s best leaders, he understood and emphasized our rich historical heritage and its connection to contemporary social dance. Our dance in the present is nourished by our past, as it has been nourished by the shining example of teachers and dancers like Philippe. May his memory be a blessing.

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