Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Horse Accused of Witchcraft.

A modern day dancing horse.

During my delvings into things historical (researching my next book, ‘Eulogy’s Secret’) this true story caught my attention and I decided to share it with you. It is the tale of a 16th century horse trainer, William Banks, and his dancing horse, Marocco – an act so good that they were accused of witchcraft!

Living in Elizabethan England, William Banks is the earliest recorded horse trainer. It seems likely that Banks started life as a retainer of the Earl of Essex, working in his stables, and Banks is first mentioned in 1591 as visiting Shrewsbury fair with a white performing horse.

 It seems the success of this mare, (who could count money, bow and curtsy, and pick out different colours) whetted Banks appetite for animal training as he then sold everything he owned, bought a small bay horse, Marocco, (named after a type of saddle) and moved to London. Marocco was small, lithe, muscular and intelligent. Legend has it that Banks shod Marocco in silver, but his daring paid off as the horse was an immediate success.
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I painted to commerate victory over the Spanish Armada.

Banks taught Marocco to dance on two or four legs, return a glove to a specific member of the crowd, bow to the Queen of England but refuse to bow to the King of Spain (England’s deadliest enemy), count the value of a coin with his hoof, and even play dead so effectively that members of the audience burst into tears.
Part of Marocco’s appeal was that he was that he was a cheeky; he could urinate on request and play tricks such as:-

“Discern a maid from a maulkin.”

Banks would order his horse to bring him a chaste virgin from the audience, and then a harlot from the streets. By the mid 1590’s Banks was a wealthy man and pamphlets circulated country wide celebrating Marocco.

“Ballad shewing the strange qualities of a young nag called Morocco.”

But if it’s possible, Banks’ act was too good. Whilst on tour, visiting Oxford and Shrewsbury audiences began to mutter about witchcraft: that Banks was a sorcerer and Marocco his familiar. So Banks returned to safer ground in London.

But in his absence London had changed. Banks no longer had the only performing animal act and Marocco was being out done by the novelty of camels and elephants. Ever the showman Banks hit on a great idea for a publicity stunt. He led Marocco up the 1,000 step spiral staircase to the original (pre-fire of London) St Pauls Cathedral, to dance on the roof. Amazed, crowds stood in the street below staring up to see the horse “on top of Powles.”

The original (pre-fire of London) St Pauls Cathedral.

Seeking new and bigger audiences Banks took Marocco to France. It seemed the horse knew different colours and was able to give a key, to a member of the crowd wearing a purple, red, blue or green dress. But this was too much for the French and both Banks and Marocco were arrested on charge of sorcery, on threat of being burnt alive. The resourceful Banks eventually proved their innocence by asking Marocco to kiss a crucifix. After this, their accusers declared that the horse was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and freed the both.

After this experience Banks return to England and it is not known if Marocco was retired, or died in harness. Mentions of the pair stop around 1606 and Banks never trained another horse, but used the money accrued during his showman days to open a tavern.


(My midweek post reveals how Marocco did his tricks.)


  1. Amazing ingenuity on that man's part! I guess people were desperate to find the source of life's problems and witchcraft was as good as any.

  2. Yes, amazing ingenuity! Great story! This is what I love about studying history. Thanks for sharing.

  3. What a REALLY neat story. You even had me looking up more on both William Banks and Marocco.

  4. Yes, that's what attracts to me to history...truth is stranger than fiction sometimes...and this is one of the amazing, but true, lives that could almost be straight out of a novel.

  5. The virgin/harlot act wouldn't go down too well today! Interesting, thanks.

  6. Maggi, can you imagine the uproar it must have caused at the time! Banks must have been quite a character.
    (PS on Wednesday I will be revealing how Banks trained Marocco to do some of his tricks!)
    G x


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